The Optimus blog

The blog that inspires leaders in the UK education sector

The Optimus blog

The blog that inspires leaders in the UK education sector

Elizabeth Holmes

Supporting multilingualism in the classroom – ideas that work

Multilingual children face unique challenges in the education system that can isolate them and hinder their progress. Elizabeth Holmes shares insights to help children succeed and reach their full potential.

Most classrooms have multilingual learners. English may be one of several languages a child learns and speaks at home, which has significant implications for their journey through school.

According to the National Literacy Trust (NLT), multilingualism is more common than monolingualism, and there are significant benefits to be derived. In a blog published in 2022, the NLT stated that 'Multilingualism stimulates brain development and helps children learn because they can think about their ideas in two (or more) languages.'  

Skill development

Eowyn Crisfield, a member of the Executive Committee of NALDIC, the National Subject Association for EAL, is keen to point out that when teachers are supporting multilingual learners in their classrooms, the most important point to make is that ‘The continued development of the child’s home language is key to success in learning English. Children should be speaking their language at home and not be discouraged from using it at school. Home language development should not be interrupted.’

This is such a crucial point. It's crucial for children to develop skills in their home language to progress well in their English development. They can distinguish between languages at an early age, and their home language is important for cultural and academic reasons.

It is not just at home where learners should be using their home language either. Crisfield explained, ‘Don’t be afraid to have learners using their home language in the classroom. Their learning must continue while they are learning English, and this is sometimes the best way of achieving that. It can make learning more effective. Use translation tools if necessary. They are not perfect, but they can help to keep learning moving.’ 

‘Anyone who has taught multilingual children will know that the education system can be constraining, which can isolate these children,’ according to Crisfield.

She said, ‘They may need additional scaffolding. This issue goes beyond the classroom. We cannot look at the limit of what they can do in English and assume that is what they can do in their language. We need to take what they can do in their language as a baseline for their knowledge and understanding, otherwise, we are limiting the life chances of children.’

Place children with peers who speak their language where possible

‘Some schools are doing exceptional work in very difficult circumstances,’ Crisfield explained. ‘Having multilingual learners in the classroom can benefit all learners. Children are often fascinated by the different languages spoken by their friends and peers.’ 

Multilingualism enhances learning 

‘Multilingual learners help to develop a curiosity about language in other learners. This community spirit can be incredibly positive in schools, especially if we harness it,’ Crisfield explained.

Acknowledging this can help us better support multilingual learners and align their progress and development with their skills and abilities.

Having multilingual learners in the classroom can greatly enhance the work that goes on there. They can enrich the learning environment for everyone in the room, teachers included. But having the confidence and skills to harness this potential is key. Unfortunately, this is not always the case. 

Think about what you can do, rather than what you must do

‘One of the problems we have in UK schools is the lack of expertise which is filtering up from cuts to EAL specialist pathways in initial teacher education,’ Crisfield explained. ‘There is also no content on multilingualism in the Initial Teacher Education framework and no requirement to report on the progress of children with English as an additional language (EAL).’

‘It can be hit-and-miss for the EAL child, depending on where they end up attending school. For example, we do have to make sure that we don’t assess multilingual learners in the same way as the rest of the class because all you will see is the result of developing English skills. We must be more sophisticated in our assessment processes to consider their knowledge, skills and understanding in their home language.’ 

Celebrate language

There are some simple steps that we can take to make sure that we are supporting multilingual learners more effectively. These ideas may help. 

  • Take the register in different languages – celebrate the diversity in your room and help children to encounter new language experiences in their daily school life. 
  • Devise work around the different languages found in the children’s community and school – enrich the current offer in your school through language variety. 
  • Place children with peers who speak their language where possible – this peer-on-peer resource should be utilized in class as much as possible. 
  • Use translation apps where needed – they are not perfect, but they are better than nothing and can help to move learning along. They help multilingual learners to build connections between prior learning in the home language and new learning in English. 
  • Leverage the presence of EAL learners for the benefit of all learners – children can learn from each other through the languages spoken in your classroom. 
  • Think about what you can do, rather than what you must do – what could be done in your setting to further support multilingual learners?  

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