Supporting Emergent Multilingual Students

Soy un bilingüe emergente. Although I have been learning Spanish since I was in preschool, a total of sixteen years now, I still feel miles away from fluency. My conversational skills are limited and I feel the full force of frustration when I can’t articulate my thoughts well. Feelings of embarrassment and inadequacy accompany me when my limited grasp on the language inhibits my articulation. Emergent multilingual students across the country share these same thoughts and feelings (Ovando & Combs, 2018).

The term emergent multilingual (EM) refers to students who speak more than one language; the word “emergent” places an emphasis on the continual development and growth in student language learning, rather than dictating a certain level of proficiency (Ascenzi-Moreno, 2018). 

In order for English Language Arts (ELA) teachers to facilitate equitable growth and rigor for all students, they must encourage translanguaging and provide adequate student support (Alvarez, 2014; Johnson, 2019). Emergent multilingual students have every right to be rigorously challenged in the academic setting to grow and develop as learners and future citizens. 

The first thing to do is to break down what the subject of “English” could entail for students and teachers alike. ELA teachers have the opportunity to evolve their classrooms to be more conducive and supportive of emergent multilingual students in many ways. By focusing primarily on strengthening student comprehension and application of “language arts”, educators can minimize the fear emergent multilinguals associate with the title “English”. 

Translanguaging with Standard Academic English

Standard Academic English (SAE) is what is meant when most refer to the English language. SAE is the more formal English vernacular and is additionally the language of power, meaning that knowledge of SAE opens countless doors in terms of professions, academics, and respect (Francois & Zonana, 2009). As such, it is essential that ELA teachers empower their students of all linguistic backgrounds, through language instruction in order to support student futures.

Supporting Emergent Multilinguals

In order to best support emergent multilinguals, it is highly beneficial to encourage language brokering as well as translanguaging while additionally balancing rigorous material with sufficient support.

As EMs gradually evolve in their English languaging skills, it is important to offer them space to language broker with their peers. Language brokering is the act of communicating with peers in multiple languages; it is an exchange of both ideas and languages that exhibits bilingual competency (Alvarez, 2014). In order to best facilitate language brokering in the classroom, the stakes must begin very low before rising. Students should be free to have opportunities to use their home language in peer discussions, note-taking, and other low-pressure scenarios. Students will then be able to gradually translanguage their ideas into more formal arguments in SAE. By providing opportunities for emergent multilinguals to stretch their translanguaging abilities in informal, small group discussions, multilingual students can build confidence and competence in their English language skills while other students have the opportunity to hear new cultural perspectives. The culmination of language brokering and translanguaging practice comes with the final debates that allow EMs to exhibit the new skills they have learned and the ways in which their language skills have developed. 

Fostering an environment where translanguaging is celebrated requires educators to balance challenging material with scaffolded support for emergent multilinguals (Johnson, 2019).  One way to aid in emergent multilingual literacy comprehension is to front-load any given unit with necessary terminology and cultural context. Front-loading and glossing terms helps to provide equitable backgrounds for all students. Front loading worksheets provide equitable foundations for multilingual students that their peers will already have with English as their first language.

Additionally, front-loading before the start of a unit allows emergent multilinguals to have more time to practice and absorb the initial information before diving into further content and applications. While learning an additional language, emergent multilinguals deserve to be treated and challenged in a manner that is reflective of their holistic knowledge, not simply their knowledge of SAE. In order to support and evaluate multilingual students in this manner, educators must provide multiple avenues for EMs to display their learning. Teachers can observe student note taking as well as discussion to evaluate the progress of their learning. These informal assessments don’t require student mastery of SAE, but rather have students critically evaluating the text and its devices.

Though expression and articulation in SAE is developing in EBs, it is also important to recognize the proficiency they hold in their first (or even second) language. By allowing initial expressions and thoughts to be articulated in EMs’ language of choice, students are able to gradually translanguage their evaluations while retaining their additional languages and growing in their communicative skills.


Emergent multilingual students may have minor learning variations from their English native peers, however students everywhere hold different learning styles and preferences. All students deserve to be challenged and supported in the evolution of their language learning. Multilingual students offer new outlets of communication to the classroom, enriching the cultural and linguistic perspectives of the class. EMs are also an asset in teaching translanguaging to students of all linguistic backgrounds in order to distinguish different languages and dialects while conveying the importance and empowerment of SAE in written and verbal communication. At the end of the day, educators seek to empower their students to defy any barriers that stand in the way of their students and their dreams. Teaching a unit on graphic novels and oral debates allows for all students to collaboratively come together to build excitement surrounding reading in a manner that is applicable and accessible to all students.

Works Cited

Alvarez, S. (2014). Translanguaging Tareas: Emergent Bilingual Youth as Language Brokers for

Homework in Immigrant Families. Language Arts, 91, 326-339.

Ascenzi-Moreno, L. (2018). Translanguaging and Responsive Assessment Adaptations:

Emergent Bilingual Readers through the Lens of Possibility. Language Arts, 95, 355-369.

Francois, C. & Zonana, E. (2009). Catching up on Conventions: Grammar Lessons for Middle

School Writers. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann. 

García, O. (2009). Education, Multilingualism and Translanguaging in the 21st Century. In A.

Mohanty, M. Panda, R. Phillipson and T. Skutnabb-Kangas (Eds.), Multilingual Education for Social Justice: Globalising the Local. New Delhi: Orient Blackswan.

Johnson, E. M. (2019). Choosing and Using Interactional Scaffolds: How Teachers’

Moment-to-Moment Supports Can Generate and Sustain Emergent Bilinguals’ Engagement with Challenging English Texts. Research in the Teaching of English, 53, 245-269.

Maples, J., Cianca, M., & Maloy, M. (2016). Using Graphic Novels to Engage English Language

Learners. Vanguard, 45, 37-39.

Ovando, C. J. & Combs, M. C. (2018). Bilingual and ESL Classrooms: Teaching in Multicultural

Contexts. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield. 

One thought on “Supporting Emergent Multilingual Students

  1. Morgan, this post is so well researched! You have provided a lot of wonderful suggestions for how to best support EM students in the classroom. Also, the fact that you have worked to learn another language gives you great insight. The more empathy and understanding we can have for our students and the struggles they may encounter, the better teachers we can be.


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