Supporting MLs in the Mainstream Classroom

Supporting MLs in the Mainstream Classroom

Multilingual Learners Mainstream

Multilingual Learners typically spend the majority of their day in a mainstream classroom. This is especially true for elementary age students. English Language Learns (ELLs) receive either pull out support from an ESOL teacher or co-teaching support. Some MLs do not receive any support other than from their classroom teacher. A quick way to think about supporting MLs in the mainstream classroom, is to create a welcoming classroom environment and provide language supports and scaffolds.

Who are Multilingual Learners?

MLs are students that are learning multiple languages. Some of them are also classified as ELLs depending on how much English they have learned (usually based on the score of a standardized assessment such as the WIDA ACCESS. Some MLs are ELLs and all ELLs are MLs. Here are strategies for supporting MLs in the mainstream classroom.

ELLs and MLs

Create a Welcoming Classroom Environment

Building a strong classroom community with a welcoming environment is a key strategy for supporting MLs in the mainstream classroom. The mainstream classroom is where students spend the majority of their time. When students feel that they are safe in their learning environment, it lowers their affective filter. This makes it easier for the student to learn new information.

Learn about students culture and interests

A quick way to start getting to know students at the beginning of the year is to give out student interest surveys. Students can write or draw about topics that they enjoy and are relevant to them. You can use this information to find books on these topics, including examples that relate to topics of student interest, and simply have conversations with students about what they are interested in. Being aware of a student’s home culture can help to minimize misunderstandings if classroom expectations are different from those in the student’s home. Culturally Responsive Teaching for Multilingual Learners: Tools for Equity has great information for educations about how to create a classroom that is welcoming for students from different cultural backgrounds.

Diverse Books

Include diverse books in your classroom library. Start by adding books that reflect the students that are in your classroom. When students can see themselves in the books that they read and listen to this helps to make reading more engaging and seem more relevant. Next move on to including books with characters from cultures and backgrounds from around the world. This helps students learn about those that are different than themselves. Books can be mirrors, windows, and sliding glass doors according to professor Rudine Sims Bishop.

Create Predictable Routines

Classroom routines and clear expectations are helpful for all students. For MLs they can reduce confusion about what the teacher is expecting. Model for students how to complete simple tasks such as where to put materials and how to ask to go to the restroom. Procedures and expectations are likely to be different at home and school so making them visual and predictable will help eliminate confusion.

You can use pictures or photographs to introduce classroom procedures and expectations at the beginning of the year and when review is necessary throughout the year.

classroom behavior sort

Include Scaffolds to Support Students

Scaffolds are supports that aid in student learning. One important component of scaffolds is to observe students and being to fade out scaffolds as they are no longer necessary. If you have a classroom where some students need more scaffolds than others try offering tiered levels of support.

Give all students the chance to respond

Begin a lesson with an open-ended question that allows all students the chance to respond. Nancy Motley recommends using the questions “What do you see? What do you notice?” along with a picture to start a lesson. This allows all students the chance to contribute regardless of their level of background knowledge about the topic.

Have students talk with a partner instead of or in addition to calling on students to share with a larger group. This increases the opportunities students have to talk and creates a less intimidating environment.

Have all students answer a question by drawing or writing down their answers on a whiteboard.

Use talking chips to keep track of how often students talk in a small group. Let students know that they can answer a question or share an example but that everyone should try and put in their talking chips. This helps students that take over a conversation think carefully about what they want to say and encourages more reluctant students to take part in a discussion.


Add in visuals. This simple strategy helps newcomers learn basic vocabulary (what a door, pencil, ext it). It is also helpful for students with higher language levels. Use pictures to show classroom routines. Include pictures for phonics and vocabulary lessons. Start a science lesson with an image of the topic students will be learning about.

Add a vocabulary folder or picture dictionaries organized by topic into your writing center. Include picture word walls for content or seasonal topics.

Vocabulary Folders

Sentence Frames

Sentence frames can be simple or complex. They help model correct grammar structure for students. You can provide multiple sentence frames and have students choose the one that they feel capable of answering.

I see _______. I can ______. I like ______.

The ______ is _______. First, I can ______. Then I can ______. I like _______ because ______.

Sentence frames are helpful for speaking or writing activities.

Oral Language

Create structured opportunities for students to practice speaking. Support with sentence frames and modeling. Use strategies that are low stress such as talking with a partner and small groups. If possible allow students to talk in their home language.

Integrate speaking opportunities into reading and writing lessons. When a group is working on reading comprehension or listening to a story pause and have students talk about when they read or heard. The book Talk Read Talk Write gives many examples of the benefits of talk in language arts and content classrooms and how to set up this structure.


Most strategies for supporting MLs are ones that benefit monolingual students are well. Translanguaging is unique to students that know another language to draw on. One key way of supporting MLs in the mainstream classroom is to encourage the use of translanguaging. “Translanguaging is when a multilingual person’s full linguistic repertoire is used and honored, instead of trying to keep narrowly focused on a single language” (Espana and Yadira Herrera 2020). If you work in a bilingual classroom than translanguaging might be a natural practice in your classroom. But this practice is still possible even if the classroom teacher only speaks one language.

Include bilingual books and books in students native language in your classroom library.

If possible, sometimes group students so that they can discuss topics in their home langauge.

Invite students to take notes and write in their home language. Students can still share what they have written by using strategies such as labeling a picture to help classmates understand what they have written.

En Comunidad: Lessons for Centering the Voices and Experiences of Bilingual Latinx Students and Rooted in Strength: Using Translanguaging to Grow Multilingual Readers and Writers have additional information and activities about using translanguaging in the classroom.

Background Knowledge

Create opportunities to build background knowledge as a class. Text sets are one way to accomplish this. Group texts together by theme. If students are reading a book about spiders in a guided reading or phonics lesson read aloud a nonfiction book about spiders. This will expose all students to new terms. Then when they are attempting to read a book on their own or in a small group you will know that they have all heard of this topic before. You can also use articles, videos or photographs to pair with books students are reading.


As you are teaching phonics avoid nonsense words. For students that know another language, it can be confusing to try and decode words that have no meaning attached. Spend time teaching words that will increase their vocabulary.

Include pictures in phonics lessons. This will help students to attach meaning with the new words that they are learning how to read.

For older students first, determine if they need phonics instruction. Many older ELLs are literate in their home language. Some might need instruction with sounds that do not appear in their home language but will quickly catch onto decoding in English. Other students will benefit from systematic phonics instruction. Nonfiction decodable books and high/low decodable books are helpful materials to use with older students.

Teacher Resources

Culturally Responsive Teaching for Multilingual Learners: Tools for Equity has teachers reflect on their own culture and how it is the same/different than their students. It also has suggestions about how to create a classroom environment that is culturally relevant and responsive for the students in the classroom.

Rooted in Strength: Using Translanguaging to Grow Multilingual Readers and Writers Give both ESOL and classroom teachers strategies and activities to support students translanguaging in the classroom.
Reading & Writing with English Learners: A Framework for K-5 gives teachers a framework for setting up reading and writing lessons that support ELLs.
Talk Read Talk Write gives simple strategies to integrate speaking opportunities into the content classroom. This helps students increase oral language opportunities and increases reading comprehension.

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