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Four students of various ethnicities gather in a classroom, a woman gesturing as she explains something and two seated male students and one standing male student look on.

Partner and group work can help multilingual learners of English to build both content and language knowledge.

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Students who are multilingual learners of English (MLE) play an important role in U.S. society but are often marginalized, misunderstood and underserved in the postsecondary system.

Using data from interviews, an English as a second language (ESL) course maps analysis, a literature review and a 50-state policy scan, WestEd and Student-Ready Strategies’ recent report, “Translating Opportunity: Improving Postsecondary Pathways for Multilingual Learners of English,” examines the opportunities and challenges for MLE students navigating the postsecondary system and offers recommendations for a variety of stakeholders. Drawing from the report’s findings, interviews with students and the authors’ own experiences as teaching faculty at community colleges, below are five concrete strategies to help the faculty improve instruction for MLE students.

Teaching faculty in postsecondary institutions have the privilege of teaching a diverse student population—including MLE students—yet are not always equipped with the information, strategies and tools to prepare for this challenge. Considering MLE students are assets to our classrooms—bringing unique experiences, perspectives and a strong desire to succeed—similar to other students, the goal should be to welcome MLE students, help them develop a sense of belonging and create a positive classroom environment.

While several MLE students have shared that they talk to their instructors about their needs, not all MLE students feel empowered by the postsecondary system to advocate for themselves.

Fortunately, when professors increase support for MLE students, that ultimately helps empower students and creates a positive classroom environment that builds upon students’ strengths while responding to the unique challenges of learning in a nonnative language.

All administrators and staff members, as well as faculty members, can provide better pathways for MLEs by:

  • Setting high expectations for all MLE students and finding effective ways to support their content development along with their language development.
  • Exploring the different information attainable from their students and utilizing that in their instruction to make them feel welcomed.
  • Collaborating with faculty in and outside of their department to learn about expectations, requirements and supports to increase alignment and overall support.

In addition to these key commitments, faculty and staff may adopt tangible strategies in their classrooms and campuses to further support MLE students, including the variety of strategies—aimed at those at community colleges but applicable more widely—suggested here.

  1. Work with ESL faculty on aligning courses and practices.

Professors teaching introductory courses can partner with ESL faculty to improve alignment between ESL courses and other college courses. Research shows that when ESL courses align their expectations, skills and approaches to other rigorous courses such as college English or college statistics, students better navigate through their educational journeys. This can be a two-way collaboration: ESL faculty can increase connections to programs of study, and program faculty can learn about improving support for MLE students.

What actions apply to this strategy?

  • Request copies of curriculum materials (i.e. class digital books, handouts, resources) that are used by ESL faculty and share your own to explore how to align content and strategies.
  • Ask ESL faculty to provide training for your department or division around effective strategies and resources.
  • Review syllabi from ESL to get ideas for language and policies that can make courses more welcoming and accessible to MLE students.
  1. Utilize classroom collaboration to build MLE students’ language and content knowledge.

Research findings show that MLE students benefit most from courses that emphasize language development alongside conceptual understanding of core ideas. This can be done through peer-to-peer collaborations of students using their own developmental language in English to grapple with concepts and, over time, continue to refine and use the language in more content-specific ways.

What actions apply to this strategy?

  • When introducing a key concept, create activities for students to share what they think by discussing the idea initially in pairs or small groups and then in whole-class discussions.
  • Provide sentence frames that can help students develop ideas and make connections to the key concepts.
    • Mathematics: A function is similar to a _______ in the real world because it has characteristics such as ________________.
    • Literature: These characters’ experiences are similar/different from my experience because ___________________. They are similar/different from my partner’s experience because______________.
    • Computer Science: If I make the following command of __________, then it will result in the following output of ______________ because ______. This will happen only if the following is met: 1)____________2)_______.
  • Have students use their developed sentences to discuss with partners, provide each other feedback, and refine their original statements to present to other groups and then the whole class.
  1. Get help from students.

Every professor has experts at their fingertips—their own MLE students. Students can help faculty understand their experience and offer feedback on what is and is not helpful.

What actions apply to this strategy?

  • Hold student focus groups to gauge best strategies and supports.
  • Develop MLE student surveys in collaboration with ESL faculty to gather critical information around developmental needs.
  1. Consider flexibility in time restrictions.

In interviews, MLE students noted that tests and assignments take longer for them than for native English speakers because they need to translate. Faculty may consider options that alleviate time restrictions on in-class exams and activities. This can also support students with dyslexia and anxiety disorders.

What actions apply to this strategy?

  • Offer take-home exams or an option to take a proctored exam with extended time. Schedule the latter well in advance so students can arrange their schedules.
  • Allow students access to exams and text-intensive activities in advance.
  • Offer a variety of assessments throughout the course to allow for multiple access points and demonstration of their understanding before final exams. This will help MLE students monitor their progress.
  1. Normalize help-seeking activities.

Research shows that successful students seek help when they need additional support for learning, yet many students believe that asking for help is a sign of failure. When faculty make asking for help a normal part of students’ learning journeys, it can prompt students to seek support when they need it.

What actions apply to this strategy?

  • List support resources for students in the syllabus and remind students at appropriate times. Ask ESL faculty if there are any additional services to support MLE students, such as a writing center or tutoring services specifically for MLE students.
  • Invite students to share experiences in using support services and share your own experiences from when you were a student.
  • Welcome guest speakers to your campus who can provide support to MLE students so these experts can reinforce supports and resources.
  • Incorporate student surveys into your courses and highlight key findings and quotes from previous semesters/quarters to share with your current students and promote more help-seeking and connections.

All faculty and staff have a role in supporting multilingual learners of English through their postsecondary pathways. From implementing new activities in the classroom to engaging with MLE students more intentionally, faculty and staff can make a big difference in students’ learning by using these strategies to create a positive classroom and campus environment.

Guillermo Lopez and Amy Getz are co-authors of a WestEd and Student-Ready Strategies report that sheds light on important opportunities for strengthening postsecondary pathways for multilingual learners. WestEd, a nonpartisan research, development and service agency, works with education and other communities to promote excellence, achieve equity and improve learning for children, youth and adults.

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