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Four Types of English Language Learners (and How to Teach Them)

Updated: Apr 28






Have you ever wondered at the diversity of the multilingual learners (MLs) in your

classroom? While they are all classified as English learners, they have unique learner profiles, strengths, and opportunities for growth. Of course, all students are one-of-a-kind, but having a general understanding of the types of multilingual learners in elementary schools can be helpful for designing effective instruction. Did you know there are actually four distinct types of multilingual learners?


According to Fisher, Frey, & Rothenberg, the four types of English learners are 1.) newcomers who are literate in their first language, 2.) newcomers who are not yet literate in any language, 3.) students who have been in US schools for several years and are developing English proficiency as expected, and 4.) long-term English learners with conversational English who have not developed academic language and literacy in any language.


General advice about how to teach multilingual students often groups these students together without taking these differences into account. But knowing the four types of MLs can help us differentiate instruction to meet their specific needs and build on their strengths.



Who are multilingual learners in US schools?


There are about five million English language learners enrolled in schools in the United States. This works out to be about 10% of students nation-wide, but in some schools MLs make up the entire student population.

There is incredible diversity among multilingual students. Over 400 languages are represented in US schools! More than 75% of MLs speak Spanish as their first language, with Arabic, Chinese, and Vietnamese being the next most common languages spoken. Each state has a unique mix of languages in their schools depending upon the make-up of their communities.


When looking at the data, it's important to notice that language learners are classified as having specific learning disabilities and speech and language impairments at much higher rates than monolingual English speaking students. This suggests that some MLs are wrongly identified as having special needs. In actuality, these students have received instruction that has not helped them develop English proficiency within the expected timeframe.



How does instruction change depending on the type of language learner?


When a ML is not making the growth we expect, it can be challenging to tease out whether it is because of language development or a sign of an additional learning need.


Response to Intervention (RtI) asks educators to compare students to "true peers" to get a sense of the typical progress we can expect. This makes sense; it would not be reasonable to expect that a typical newcomer would perform at the same level as a student who has always spoken English. We would have cause for concern, however, if that newcomer was not developing English at the same rate as the other newcomer students who started at the same time. These beginner English speakers represent the newcomer’s true peers, giving us a helpful frame of reference for growth.



What are the four types of multilingual learners?


Below, we describe four types of MLs. Understanding the typical learner profile for each type can help educators design effective instruction. We can also think of these categories as four groups of true peers. This is especially helpful for educators who have small populations of ML students in their schools; if you can identify which category your student falls into, you can compare their growth with the growth expected of other MLs with similar backgrounds and educational experiences.



TYPE 1: Newcomers who are literate in their first language

The first group of multilingual learners are those who are newcomers to US schools. They may have very limited skills in English, but they are already able to read and write in their first language. This is an enormous advantage to have!


Research has found that knowledge, concepts, and skills transfer between languages. This is one reason (among many!) that we strongly recommend families continue to use their first language when interacting with their children. It’s also one of the biggest strengths of bilingual and dual language programs. As teachers, we can seize on a huge opportunity for learning when we build on a student’s first language!


To explain transfer, researchers often use an iceberg metaphor. Imagine two icebergs floating on the surface of the sea. They appear to be disconnected from each other. But when you look below the surface, you see that it is actually a single iceberg connected underwater.


The two icebergs above the water represent two languages. The connecting ice underneath the surface represents the concepts, skills, and knowledge that transfer between the two languages.


Background knowledge is available to us in any language, regardless of the language we used when learning it. Concepts transfer between languages; it is simply a matter of attaching new vocabulary to that concept.


This same idea holds true for transfer of literacy skills. A student who knows how to read in one language will learn to read fairly quickly in a new language. The student already understands that there is a relationship between print and speech. Their brains are already wired for reading and writing. They can give their attention to taking on new vocabulary and language structures and applying them to the literacy system that already exists for them.


Students who can read and write in their first language are likely to pick up literacy in English quickly and easily. In our experience, they rarely need additional services like reading support, even when English language proficiency is low at the outset. Instead, they need time to learn, high-quality instruction, and English language scaffolds so they can access grade-level curriculum.


Tips for supporting newcomers who ARE literate in their first language:

  • work to lower the affective filter so all students feel a sense of safety, value, and belonging

  • have high expectations and maintain academic rigor

  • provide language scaffolds so multilingual learners can access grade-level curriculum

  • affirm the knowledge, skills, and concepts the student brings from their first language and model ways to apply those strengths in English language settings

  • monitor progress to ensure growth is in line with true peers

  • encourage continued reading and writing in the student’s first language

  • allow time for language to develop

  • offer multiple ways for MLs to express their thoughts and understandings

  • establish regular and ongoing communication between educators working with the student to share information, observations, plans, and progress toward goals

  • partner with families of MLs to ensure schools are supporting students as fully as possible


TYPE 2: Newcomers who are not yet literate in any language

Newcomers to US schools who do not know how to read and write in their first language have a very different learner profile. They often require support that is more intensive and offered earlier than other types of MLs. Students in this group should receive timely, high-quality intervention for both English language development and emergent literacy. There is no time to waste!


There is good reason for this urgency. MLs in this group are learning how to read and write in a language they are still developing. They are working on acquiring new vocabulary and language structures while also learning abstract concepts about how speech relates to print in this unfamiliar language. And they are doing all this while acclimating to a new school, culture, and relationships!


For students whose first language is English, learning to read and write is still a huge task. But these students have the benefit of a robust English oral language foundation to help them make sense of print. Their ears are sensitive to the individual sounds of English, and they can tell if what they have read makes sense. Since they are already fluent in English, monolingual students can give their attention to learning concepts about print, how letter-sound relationships work, and making meaning from text. They don’t have the added challenge of doing all of this in an unfamiliar language.


At the elementary level, it is common to have newcomers who are not yet literate in their first language. Even at the K-2 grades, it is important not to delay literacy support until newcomers develop a certain level of oral language. Research has shown that multilingual learners at the earliest stages of English language proficiency make the largest gains in literacy when they receive early intervention.

It’s clear that newcomers who are learning to read for the first time deserve all the support we can offer!


Tips for supporting newcomers who are NOT yet literate in any language:

  • consider offering a short-term newcomer program where students can learn the routines of school, acquire survival English, become familiar with letters and letter sounds, and make friends in a smaller, sheltered environment

  • provide access to grade-level curriculum as quickly as possible using scaffolds to support language development

  • identify and monitor MLs to ensure they receive timely intervention from a language and/or literacy specialist

  • intervene with additional supports as soon as concerns are noted

  • provide high-quality language and literacy instruction across all RtI tiers

  • immerse MLs in a print-rich classroom and provide multiple opportunities to hear, discuss, write about, and enjoy texts

  • incorporate a variety of text types into your instruction, including rhymes, songs, poems, fiction, and informational texts

  • encourage families to continue reading to their children in whichever language they are most comfortable–students will transfer their understanding of the literacy concepts modeled in their first language to English

  • model concepts about print, including where to start reading, how to track print left-to-right across the page, the difference between a letter and a word, and the difference between “first” and “last”

  • read texts to and with your MLs more than once–repetition builds fluency, vocabulary, comprehension, and confidence

  • establish regular and ongoing communication between educators working with the student to share information, observations, plans, and progress toward goals

  • partner with families of MLs to ensure schools are supporting students as fully as possible


TYPE 3: Multilingual learners who have been in US schools for several years and are developing English as expected

These multilingual learners have been enrolled in US schools long enough that they are no longer considered newcomers, but they are not yet considered long-term English language learners. Each year, they gain at least one level of proficiency on annual English language testing. They are making the progress we would expect of students who are learning new content while acquiring a second language.


For MLs who fall into this category, scaffolded instruction helps them access the grade-level curriculum. When we use scaffolds (i.e., visuals, sentence stems, manipulatives, modeling, modified materials, vocabulary banks, first-language support, etc.), we make the language barrier easier for students to overcome.


The Sheltered Instruction Observation Protocol (SIOP) is an evidence-based framework for designing scaffolded instruction for MLs. It involves setting content objectives and language objectives for each lesson. The language objectives help students use English to communicate about the content they are learning. When we teach in this way, MLs gain grade-level knowledge and understandings while also developing their language skills. Our instructional time becomes doubly valuable!


Tips for supporting multilingual learners who are making typical progress:

  • create grade-level content objectives and language objectives for each lesson

  • provide language scaffolds to ensure students can understand and participate in the lesson

  • monitor progress and compare with true peers to ensure MLs continue to make expected growth

  • engage in a cycle of student observation followed by teacher reflection–ensure instruction is sufficiently rigorous and supportive depending on the ML’s current level of language proficiency

  • encourage students and families to continue using their first language to support their emerging multilingualism

  • establish regular and ongoing communication between educators working with the student to share information, observations, plans, and progress toward goals

  • partner with families of MLs to ensure schools are supporting students as fully as possible


TYPE 4: Long-term English language learners with conversational English who have not yet developed academic language and literacy in any language

Developing proficiency in a new language takes time. But when multilingual learners have not tested out of the English language development program within six years, they are considered long-term English learners. Within that time frame, we would expect that a student who has been provided with consistent high-quality language instruction would have developed proficiency in English.


Long-term MLs are the largest subgroup of MLs in secondary schools in the US. This means that those of us who teach at the elementary level have to do more to help our students gain English skills within the expected time frame.


This group of students often have strong conversational English. They may sound fully proficient when talking casually with their friends or teachers. However, they usually have not acquired the academic language and literacy skills that are needed to perform well in school. This can show up in poor reading comprehension, ineffective writing, and limited vocabulary.


Research has shown that multilingual learners who are able to test out of their English language development program have very strong academic outcomes. In fact, former English language learners outperform students who have only ever spoken English. The multilingual brain is truly amazing!


Because our students have such potential, it is critical that we provide the highest-quality instruction early in their education. We want to do everything we can to ensure they develop English proficiency at a reasonable rate and do not become long-term MLs.


Long-term MLs may be Students with Limited or Interrupted Formal Education (SLIFE). This means they have not had the opportunity to learn in a consistent school setting. SLIFE students may have had their educations interrupted for any number of reasons, and some of those reasons may be traumatic. As teachers, we need to be sensitive to the ways a student’s history may affect their attitudes toward learning, comfort level in the classroom, and ability to engage with a curriculum that may feel unrelated to their life outside of school.


SLIFE students may also have significant gaps in the background knowledge that we often assume of students in US schools. However, it’s important to recognize that ALL students possess prior life experiences and assets that they bring to the classroom. It is critical to acknowledge and tap into this background knowledge as the foundation of new learning. What’s more, when we value students’ prior understandings, we demonstrate that we honor who they are and what they have learned outside of a traditional school setting. Be diligent about assessing prior understandings and building knowledge as needed.


Long-term MLs may also have additional learning needs. It can be challenging to determine whether a multilingual student is not performing as expected because they are still learning to speak English, or because they have an undiagnosed learning difficulty. It is important to carefully consider a student’s educational history, compare them with true peers, and examine assessment and progress monitoring data before moving forward with further evaluation.


Tips for supporting long-term English language learners:

  • ensure students feel supported, valued, and safe in school

  • offer intervention in language and literacy to accelerate growth

  • provide a language- and literacy-rich classroom with multiple opportunities to engage with content in speaking, listening, reading, and writing

  • engage students in collaboration and discussion with peers

  • leverage existing strong social language skills to build more sophisticated academic language

  • draw explicit connections between what is learned in the classroom and what is relevant to students’ own lives

  • affirm and encourage students in continuing to develop their first language

  • be diligent about assessing and building background knowledge

  • be consistent in introducing and reinforcing new vocabulary

  • provide sentence frames to encourage academic language use

  • build background knowledge using content-based teaching and text sets

  • highlight connections within and across the curriculum to build schema

  • establish regular and ongoing communication between educators working with the student to share information, observations, plans, and progress toward goals

  • partner with families of MLs to ensure schools are supporting students as fully as possible


Conclusion

We recognize and celebrate the diversity that our multilingual students bring. Understanding the four different types of MLs can guide us in our instructional planning and design. By familiarizing ourselves with the kinds of learners we have, we can better advocate and craft instruction that meets their needs. After all, knowing our students is a critical first step in creating learning opportunities that build on their strengths and pinpoint opportunities for growth!


We also hope that sharing these types of language learners will give you a sense of your students’ true peers, even if you have a small population of MLs in your school. Understanding the four types of language learners will allow you to compare a student’s growth against what is typical for other MLs with similar educational backgrounds to determine whether adequate progress is being made. If you have reason for concern, don’t wait! Intervening early gives MLs the support they need to reach their true potential.



References

Fisher, D., Frey, N., & Rothenberg, C. (2010). Implementing RtI with English learners. Solution Tree. [Amazon]








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