Skip to content
ascd logo

March 1, 2021
Vol. 78
No. 6

What Does Equity Really Mean for Multilingual Learners?

premium resources logo

Premium Resource

Instructional Strategies
What Does Equity Really Mean for Multilingual Learners? thumbnail
The landscape of schools today is increasingly multilingual. To achieve equity in culturally and linguistically diverse schools, we need not just new strategies but new roles—for both teachers and students. We need to recognize what meaningful engagement with rigorous content learning actually involves, and we need to understand that effective language interactions are at the heart of that engagement. Creating the
conditions necessary for such interactions goes well beyond what we have traditionally considered "good teaching." English proficiency cannot be seen as a prerequisite to meaningful participation in the curriculum because this limits engagement. Instead, language must be viewed as something that is developed in the process of learning when students are supported and have access to the richest curriculum our schools have to offer (NASEM, 2017).
Engaging multilingual learners means leveraging their energy and curiosity, their diverse experiences, and their creativity as communicators. Multilingual learners can no longer be the few students in the back of the room, whose ideas we'll tap into later when they're able to share them with us in English. Their participation in class discussions and critical thinking processes is an increasingly important element of our shared future. We will need students with the cultural, linguistic, and intellectual flexibility to be able to cross borders, bridge communities, and help solve the global crises we face— whether climate change, ethnic conflicts, or perhaps the next pandemic.
How, then, can we create opportunities for students to use all the tools in their toolbox, including home languages, to engage meaningfully with content and each other? First, we have to remove the barriers we impose, even unintentionally, on learning.

"The English Will Come"

Too often, students from diverse cultural and linguistic backgrounds are asked to put their learning on hold to focus on English language development. Yet families should not have to choose between learning and language. Consider the following anecdote, based on a real exchange between a parent and principal:
A father walks into the principal's office to enroll his daughter in school. The family has recently arrived from Santiago, Chile. "Don't worry," the principal says, "we'll have your daughter speaking English in no time. I have good teachers, classroom aides, and even some parent volunteers who will work with her on learning English."
"So, what do the other students learn at this school?" asks the father.
"Oh, well, our math program is great. Our music teacher is the best around. And we have a new push to introduce STEM labs earlier and more effectively than before.
"The father pauses for a moment.
"Those are the programs I'd like for my daughter," he says. "The English will come soon enough if you help her with all of that."
This father's convictions couldn't be more on the mark: He believed that the most important thing for his daughter was the opportunity to learn through access to a rich curriculum. This was the school he wanted his daughter to attend; not one that lowers the bar for her to focus primarily on English acquisition. Indeed, research confirms that English learners develop English most effectively while also mastering the knowledge, skills, and literacies needed for college and career readiness.
We can no longer accept that fragmentation, tracking, and segregation of multilingual learners in separate pull-out programs is in their best interests. While we ostensibly "give them time to learn the English," multilingual students are losing out on opportunities for learning and enrichment. Recent national trend data illustrate that multilingual learners are not gaining access to experiences like gifted and talented programs or AP classes in nearly the same percentages as their peers (U.S. Department of Education, 2014).
We know that integration of language and content learning, along with effective collaboration and in-class support, provides opportunities for all students to engage with challenging, grade-level curricula. There is growing evidence that English language development specialists in schools cannot work in isolation; to provide the most comprehensive support for multilingual learners, all teachers need to collaborate to serve all learners (Boals, Hakuta, & Blair, 2015).
Fortunately, new approaches to curriculum and instruction build on the assets of both teachers and students. Today's classrooms leverage instructional technology to provide students with greater access to multimodal and multilingual resources. Professional collaboration with English language development specialists builds capacity for teachers to attend to language in all subject areas. And equity-focused curricula promote the use of language in deliberate ways to serve multilingual students. New standards and new teaching tools mean more students have authentic opportunities to learn.

Scaffolding Up Learning

Equality is not the same as equity, however, and access to curriculum without appropriate support is not enough. Consider another true story shared with one of the authors:
A high school counselor placed a newcomer student from Russia in Biology 1, thinking it would be easy since this student had advanced biology in his native language. The counselor went to see the teacher at semester's end when he saw an "F" as the final grade.
"How could this student fail your class? He knows biology."
"He doesn't know enough English to pass my test," the science teacher replied.
Because this teacher was either unwilling or unaware of the need to change the way instruction or assessment was delivered, the student failed the English, not the science. Not surprisingly, 70 percent of teachers nationally report they have not received adequate preparation to meet the needs of multilingual students (NASEM, 2017).
The dilemma is clear to see: Multilingual learners cannot benefit from an unsupported curriculum, and yet if "language support" means a remedial curriculum or simplified, inauthentic language, we have set up students for long-term failure even as they fall behind grade-level expectations. To protect multilingual learners from struggling with academic work, we might reduce task complexity or segregate students, inadvertently preventing some of them from engaging with complex language or content. As linguists Lily Wong Fillmore and Charles J. Fillmore pointed out:
One of the biggest roadblocks to learning is that [English learners (ELs)] never get a chance to work with complex texts. Why would that be a problem? Simply put, the easy texts schools give to ELs—given […] as a safeguard against failure—actually prevent them from discovering how language works in academic discourse. Simplified texts offer no clue as to what academic language sounds like or how it works. (Fillmore & Fillmore, n.d.)
On the other hand, just putting a dense text or complex task in front of students without appropriate support is not effective either. Ambitious content standards deserve ambitious teaching. Equitably serving multilingual students who are learning both language and content requires intentional scaffolding. "Both macro- and micro-scaffolding practices are integral to scaffolding up—rather than differentiating down—in order to engage multilingual learners within challenging curriculum" (Daniels & Westerlund, 2018).
Macro-scaffolding practices require deliberate instructional planning before a lesson or unit, such as sequencing activities to bridge from familiar concepts to new ideas, and by doing so, decreasing the gap between known and new learning. For example, when asking 4th graders to write a theme-interpretation essay, it is important to sequence activities to move students toward the complexity of thematic interpretation. This may entail identifying themes from familiar picture books and comparing them to books on similar themes.
By contrast, micro-scaffolding, also called interactional scaffolding, happens during a lesson in the interactions between a teacher and students. In that same unit, a teacher might model the language of talking about how authors develop a theme. In the process, she might recast students' responses to help them articulate ideas more accurately. Similarly, when the teacher guides the students in deconstructing a mentor text, the conversations around text can be a powerful scaffolding for students' future writing.

Multilingualism as a Strength

Providing equitable opportunities to learn requires us to develop not only new skills such as scaffolding up, but also new, asset-based beliefs about multilingualism. This includes the value of translanguaging, where students use multiple languages to integrate and express their learning. By over-emphasizing not only English proficiency but "correctness" in English, we might inadvertently signal to multilingual students that their work isn't as good as their peers. Such mixed messages can confuse or frustrate highly capable multilingual students who may be struggling. In consequence, while their classroom peers begin seeing themselves as capable of taking on academically successful or career-oriented identities, multilingual learners wrongly surmise that they can't cut it, when the truth is they simply need supported, engaged opportunities to learn.
Building on the cultural and linguistic assets that multilingual learners bring to the classroom, even as they gain supported access to content, is key. Well implemented dual-language programs have the advantage of being able to fully connect to students' native languages as they begin acquiring English. Not all schools have that luxury, but all schools can practice assets-based approaches that are culturally and linguistically relevant and sustaining. Students can leverage translanguaging practices to co-construct their conceptual understanding, teachers can select texts that reflect the cultural diversity of the school community, and schools can ensure that multilingualism is valued in its communication with parents. English as the medium of instruction does not require English as the only language of learning.
We should aim for effective participation that builds on this asset of a rich linguistic repertoire, rather than focusing on speaking in complete sentences in English. Inviting students to write notes in any language and offering the chance to discuss with a home-language partner prior to a whole-class discussion in English can improve both confidence and comprehension. Likewise, encouraging students to sketch out ideas in multilingual and multimodal representations before writing helps all learners make deeper connections and organize key ideas. Mastery will come eventually with repeated scaffolding and meaningful opportunities for participation with feedback contingent on both content and language growth (Boals, Hakuta, & Blair, 2015; Pimentel 2018).

Doing Better: Changing Teacher and Student Roles

To accommodate contemporary academic standards, which emphasize students' ability to make and support evidence-based claims and to articulate their logic, teacher-fronted instruction is giving way to more participatory structures. Small group work, appropriately supported, provides important opportunities for the negotiation of meaning that aids language development. When students are invited up onto the stage, they are more engaged and in control of their own learning.
To leverage these new roles and participatory structures better, educators can consider questions such as:
  • Have I provided students multiple ways to express, clarify, support, build on, and challenge ideas?
  • Have I taken the time to expand students' language resources to add to what they already know? Can they adjust their language to be able to communicate in a variety of contexts and not only use technical language because it's in the book?
  • When will everyday language suffice, and when do students need discipline-specific language?
  • How can we provide opportunities for students to learn how to adjust language as the context calls for it?
By encouraging students to use their full repertoire of language, including everyday language, we provide opportunities for authentic engagement with content while simultaneously offering deeply contextualized and relevant opportunities for language development.
At the same time, we create openings to probe and strengthen students' reasoning. Through guided inquiry, we can help students learn patterns of disciplinary reasoning. For example: What qualifies as a valid argument in science? And how is that different in mathematics or social studies? Fortunately, learning activities that elicit, surface, and deepen critical thinking and collaborative reasoning also support English language development.
Indeed, in a report commissioned by the National Academy, experts in STEM education and English language development recommended that language development be understood as a product of meaningful engagement in instruction, not a prerequisite. They found that multilingual learners "develop science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) knowledge and language proficiency when they are engaged in meaningful interaction in the classroom and participate in the kinds of activities in which STEM experts and professionals regularly engage" (NASEM, 2018, p. 55). These experts agreed that language development and conceptual understanding are "inextricable" and "occur simultaneously."
Simple, everyday language can be sufficient for rigorous, inquiry-based learning and can provide a solid foundation for language development when students are given the opportunity to interact with academic content in authentic ways. For example, a student might share "it gets hotter when you mix them" which is useful in a scientific inquiry as lab partners co-construct meaning; we can recast the terminology by agreeing that "the reaction increases the temperature" to introduce specific language without invalidating the student's observation. By providing multiple opportunities for students to negotiate meaning in disciplinary conversation together, we can engage multilingual learners in the interactions that, over time and with appropriate modeling, enable them to become increasingly effective in expressing and exploring ideas.
In this way, equity equates to scaffolding up content rather than watering it down. The goal is to create a rich instructional environment that challenges all students to inquire, negotiate meaning, and articulate complex disciplinary concepts. This means creating the conditions for multilingual students to become protagonists of their own learning.
It is time to stop seeing English proficiency as a prerequisite to success and fully embrace multilingual learners for the journey of learning the "real" content in school in ways that engage and support all learners. Only then will we be able provide a full range of equitable and meaningful opportunities to all.

Boals, T., Hakuta, K, & Blair, A. (2015). Literacy development in academic contexts for adolescent English language learners: Policy considerations and future research. In D. Molle, E. Sato, T. Boals, & C. Hedgspeth (Eds.) Multilingual learners and academic literacies: Sociocultural contexts of literacy development in adolescents. New York: Routledge.

Daniels, J., & Westerlund, R. (2018, June). WIDA focus on: Scaffolding learning for multilingual students in math. Wisconsin Center for Education Research.

Fillmore, L. W., & Fillmore, C. J. (n.d.). "What does text complexity mean for English learners and language minority students?" Stanford University, Understanding Language.

NASEM (National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine). (2017). Promoting the educational success of children and youth learning English: Promising futures. Washington, D.C.: The National Academies Press. NASEM (National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine). (2018). English learners in STEM subjects: Transforming classrooms, schools, and lives. Washington D.C.: The National Academies Press.

Pimentel, S. (2018). Policy brief: English learners and content-rich curricula. Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins School of Education, Institute for Education Policy.

U.S. Department of Education, Office for Civil Rights, Civil Rights Data Collection (CRDC). (2014, March). Data snapshot: College and career readiness (Issue Brief No. 3). Washington, D.C.: Author.

Jon Nordmeyer is the international program director of WIDA, a research center at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

Learn More

ASCD is a community dedicated to educators' professional growth and well-being.

Let us help you put your vision into action.
Related Articles
View all
Navigating Shifts in College Admissions Is an Equity Matter
Tiffany Jones
1 month ago

Related Articles

From our issue
Product cover image 121040b.jpg
Equity in Action
Go To Publication