Supporting Multilingual Learners in the Classroom

Jessica GilliamDiversity Initiatives, Support, Teachers

Two WITS Program students

There are over 70,000 Chicago Public School students who are classified as English Learners (ELs), which categorizes students as those who come from non-English speaking homes and are actively learning English. In Chicago, most of these ELs come from a Spanish-speaking environment, and knowing this, WITS recently adapted programming to include online Spanish literacy resources.  However, it’s worthwhile to note that CPS students and their families speak over one hundred different languages. It’s important to ask—how can we better promote multilingual learners’ English comprehension while honoring and affirming their diverse backgrounds?

In our recent RLTA workshop, “Building Literacy Across Languages,” multilingual education teacher Jen Ceisel emphasized the importance of leveraging the student’s home language to build critical literacy skills and help develop a strong, positive sense of self-identity. In the workshop, Ceisel discussed best practices and strategies to help make students more comfortable reading and writing in English, while upholding and honoring their multilingualism. Here are some strategies teachers can bring into their culturally diverse classroom.

Total Physical Response (TPR)

Total Physical Response is a teaching method that pairs words and movement to increase comprehension, similar to how humans organically learn languages early in life. This strategy helps students sharpen their listening skills and build vocabulary in a fun, comfortable way.

Echo Reading

Echo Reading is a great strategy to build fluency while minimizing pressure on ELs.  Unlike “Round Robin” reading, where students are individually selected to read aloud to their peers, this method allows the teacher and/or mentor to model by reading aloud and pointing out short bits of text while students collectively “echo” what the teacher has read. This helps students learn intonation and inflection while simultaneously developing letter-to-print awareness without putting them on the spot.


Think-Pair-Share is a collaborative learning strategy that works well in any classroom, but particularly in an EL setting. In this activity, students have time to think about a response to a prompt or question, then pair up with another student to share their ideas. This provides multilingual learners time to process and practice their listening and conversation skills with a fellow peer.

Meaningful Texts

Developing literacy in a student’s respective home language is essential to creating building blocks for English-language comprehension. At WITS, we believe in the importance of providing texts that are windows, mirrors, and sliding glass doors. This means we prioritize books that allow students to explore the following: the realities of others, texts that reflect their personal experiences, and ones that also allow students to immerse themselves in different worlds. There are several websites, such as Unite for Literacy, World Reader, Worldstories, and  Colorín Colorado that provide a diverse array of texts in a variety of languages. Finding meaningful books that reflect a student’s experience, home language, and culture can help activate background knowledge that will allow them to build both the comprehension and confidence.

Teach Us Your Name

Teach Us Your Name is an activity based on the book with the same title that allows students to embrace the diversity of their names. Students teach their peers how to pronounce and tell the story of their names, which is a defining aspect of their who they are. This empowers students to be proud of their identity and helps them understand that there is no such thing as a “weird” name.

Why This Is Important

Multilingual students, like all students, carry their languages and lived experiences with them to the classroom. At WITS, we believe that inclusive, student-centered spaces where all backgrounds are honored as assets, is crucial to literacy development in all languages. Incorporating these practices in or outside of the classroom will give multilingual students the building blocks to develop strong critical literacy skills.

WITS Program students