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Nurturing a multilingual environment at school

This article demonstrates how research findings on supporting multilingualism at school can be put into practice in the classroom.
School library with teacher and student
© University of Reading

Research has shown1 the importance to language development of creating a nurturing environment for multilingual learners at school, but how can these findings be put into practice in the classroom?

What research says What that looks like in practice
1. A welcoming environment in which learners feel that their home identities, languages, and histories are valued is essential. The welcoming multilingual classroom. Be sure to find out as much as you can about your learners’ home languages and their educational and other experiences. Find opportunities to celebrate the diversity of the classroom through displays. Make careful choices of fiction and non-fiction texts that represent learners’ many experiences. Plan a curriculum that reflects learners’ identities.
2. Multilingual learners with strong heritage language skills are better able to make progress learning a new language than those with a weaker grasp of their heritage language(s). This is because the heritage language acts as a blueprint for how languages work. Moreover, home languages are integral to learners’ identities. Use of heritage languages. Celebrate multilingualism as an asset in your learners, rather than focusing on what learners cannot do in English. Find opportunities to pair same-language learners together when introducing new concepts. Draw on the skills of multilingual classroom assistants to speak in heritage languages. Ensure that your resources reflect the languages of your learners.
3. Learners need practitioner input that is just beyond their current level of proficiency in English. In this way their new language learning builds on what they do know and towards what they need to know. Teacher input. When planning lesson content, think ahead to the sort of language the lesson demands. Think of what your learners can do in English as your starting point for moving them onto new language learning.
4. The language of the classroom or setting is both conversational and academic. Conversational and academic English. Learners need to be able to converse informally and formally in the classroom. They also need to learn the language of subject content, so they are learning both their new language and curriculum content at the same time. This can be very challenging, particularly for new-to-English learners. Think: Is there new vocabulary to introduce? Might it help if there is some introduction to these new words before the lesson? How will learners need to respond to me or to each other? Do these responses require prior knowledge of phrases and language structures?
5. Classroom and setting interaction should be talk-rich and socially engaged to foster both conversational and academic English. Classroom interaction. Check the extent to which your planning demands that learners read or write in their new language before they have had time to converse in it. Thinking aloud and having opportunities for conversation that explores both the language and content of a topic will support the literacy outcomes of all learners. (Resources to support a more conversational approach can be found in Step 3.8.)
6. Learners need activities which have a clear context for them: both linguistically and in terms of subject matter. Contextually grounded activities. Check the extent to which your planning at both lesson and medium term involves activities which you know reflect learners’ lived experiences. Consider how much exploration of prior knowledge and recapping of new knowledge you include in your planning. Might trips or classroom visitors further engage learners’ in the meaningful activities to enrich their understanding of content? Consider where content might be changed to better reflect learners’ home lives and languages.
7. Giving learners explicit instruction in how the English language works will aid acquisition of the new language. How language works. There is evidence that multilingual learners benefit from explicit introduction to spelling, vocabulary and grammar. Take care to ensure that activities related to these are socially interactive and related to current classroom/setting activities.

In addition to all the above practitioners need to remember that multilingual learners in schools in England are from a hugely diverse range of backgrounds and family experiences. This diversity means that our responses to multilingual learners need to be nuanced well beyond their need to learn English.

Any practitioner reading this list will likely comment that these practices are what we might want for all our learners. They would be right; great practice for multilingual learner supports the progress of all learners.

Every teacher is a language teacher

The nature of the school and even the early years curriculum can sometimes mask the need for language-focused practice. We understandably get caught up on content. Whether you have one or many multilingual learners in your setting, your learners will benefit from your focus on language(s). Language is the bedrock of any practitioner-learner interaction at any age and stage of education, so it makes sense that it is grounded in securing a nurturing multilingual environment.

How does this apply to SLT practice? Emma responds:

For speech and language therapists, many of the principles outlined above can be applied to our own practices. Ensuring the multilingual children, young people and families we work with feel that their home identities, languages, and histories are valued is critical, as is detailed information gathering on these aspects to help inform our assessment and management. Whilst teaching English is not part of the role of SLTs, talk-rich classrooms providing spoken language opportunities and pre-teaching vocabulary are effective strategies to support language and communication for children with speech, language and communication needs.


Have you found ways to promote heritage languages in your classroom, setting, or SLT practice? Please share them with other learners in the Comments area below.

References and further reading

  1. Lucas, T., Villegas, A. M. & Freedson-Gonzalez, M (2008) “Linguistically Responsive Teacher Education: Preparing Classroom Teachers to Teach English Language Learners”, Journal of Teacher Education, 59 (4), 361 – 373

Ideas for supporting learners in primary and secondary schools:

  • Driver, C. & Pim, C. (2018), 100 Ideas for Secondary Teachers: Supporting EAL Learners. London: Bloomsbury
  • Pim, C. (2018) 100 Ideas for Primary Teachers: Supporting EAL Learners. London: Bloomsbury
© University of Reading
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