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Transforming Policies, Practices, and Structures for Multilingual Learners’ Success

With the school year well underway, many of us want to modify the language education programming we are providing multilingual learners [MLs]. One reason we want to do this is to ensure that we are following state and federal guidelines to identify MLs and determine or strengthen the programming that’s most likely to work.

Here are 4 ideas for following state and federal regulations and supporting students to flourish.

Work Quickly and Efficiently to Identify MLs

Federal law requires (p. 10) that (1) we identify newly enrolled multilingual learners, (2) place them into a language education program and (3) let their parents/guardians know of these findings within the child’s first 30 days in school.

To do this well,

  • Allocate staff and time for identifying multilingual learners.
  • Complete this process within the first five days students enroll:
    • to determine the programming that’s needed and
    • provide it as soon as possible.
  • Keep a record of the time it takes to conduct this task. Use these calculations from year-to-year to estimate the time needed to do it.

Partner with Families of MLs

Federal law (p. 37) also requires that we communicate with parents/guardians in a language they understand and provide them with information about their child’s language education and school programming.

To do this well:

  • Identify the language parents/guardians wish to communicate and, as importantly, their preferences for communication.
    • Note: Some parents/guardians may prefer using What’s App for audio, video, and texting, especially with its 2.5 billion users globally.
  • Tap into multilingual staff and local community resources as well as digital services to ensure robust two-way communication.
  • Continuously communicate with parents/guardians. Use various forms of communication such as translated newsletters, local radio broadcasts in the home languages of families, and short form videos such as TikTok (with its 1 billion users globally) to show and celebrate what students are doing in school and support parents/guardians’ engagement.

Identify Students Many Linguistic and Cultural Assets

One of multilingual learners’ many strengths is their home language.

Rather than view such learners as having something missing (e.g., they don’t speak English) and operate from this deficit-based stance, consider the language and additional assets that they possess.

In addition to furnishing parents/guardians with a home language survey and administering identification screeners (such as the IDEA Proficiency Test; Language Assessment Scales; and WIDA Screener), ask questions such as:

  • What makes your child special?
  • What are things you enjoy doing as a family?
  • What activities does your child enjoy doing after school? (Are there any clubs, sports, or other activities that your child participated would like to participate?).

Ask students questions to learn about who they are as individuals.

  • What activities (sports, hobbies, games) do you like to play or do for fun?
  • What activities do you like to do with your family?
  • Tell me about a teacher you really liked and why.

Draw from parents/guardians’ and students’ responses to create meaningful curricular and extra-curricular programming.

Build Programming Together!

Additionally, Federal laws (pp. 2-10) require that we do not segregate or isolate MLs. This is one of the most common reasons schools have been found to be non-compliant.  Rather than create programming on our own, the U.S. Department of Education (2020) suggests that we create work groups of members from various backgrounds and different constituencies.  Important reasons to do this are to create programming that welcomes and embraces students and families and is inclusive and celebrated as a whole school effort.

Figure 1: Sample Work Group

Work groups can also help in amplifying the strengths of our students, their families, and ourselves.

To do this well:

  • Connect a district’s mission to its language education program mission.
  • Tap into students’ linguistic and cultural assets.

An example is a district whose mission is to support student engagement in community service.  Its workgroup brainstormed ways its language education program would be a model of its district’s vision.  As a result, MLs provide translation services at a local senior citizen center.

Figure 2: Connecting Language Education Programming to School/District’s Mission and Vision

Another example of a language education program mirroring its district’s mission is the Manthala George Global Studies elementary School in Brockton, MA. A key mission of the district is to empower students.  Students participating in its dual language programming in Spanish and English, French and English, and Portuguese and English learn how to speak publicly. While in middle and high school, graduates of the dual language program speak at meetings with future families to share the positives of participating the school’s dual language program.

An additional example is Prince George’s County Public Schools in Maryland.  The district’s mission is to provide a “transformative educational experience anchored by excellence in equity… to build empowered communities and a more inclusive and just world.”  According to Dr. Jennifer Love, director of language access, the district has worked collaboratively to “move from language access as an add-on to fully embracing multilingual communication… to reflect the district’s mission of providing accessible systemic communication with families.”  Further, Jennifer states that there is now “inherent accessibility of all systemic communication, from e-blasts and outreach videos to social media, and the system website, that remains focused on the linguistic needs of the community and overcoming language obstacles to engagement.”

A third example includes a district work group with a small but growing number of MLs. They are creatively tapping into MLs’ linguistic superpowers by supporting them to share how subject matter, such as math equations, are expressed in their home languages. They are doing this to demonstrate various models of the same concept.

These examples show us what is possible when we see multilingual learners from a strengths-based lens and collaboratively and collectively transform our policies, practices, structures as a system- and school-wide effort.

Written by

Debbie Zacarian, Ed.D. is a renowned expert in policies and practices for multilingual learners. She has written and supported numerous state education agencies and school districts in creating effective policies for the nation’s growing and rapidly changing population of multilingual learners. This article is drawn from her book Transforming Schools for Multilingual Learners: A comprehensive guide for educators.

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