How to Provide Multilingual Support in the Classroom

Why provide multilingual support in school?

Research shows that it is beneficial to provide opportunities for learners to use all their languages to both access the curriculum and to develop their proficiency in English as an Additional Language (EAL). This is because learners’ expertise in their first language/s, for instance, grammatical knowledge, can be used to develop expertise in English also.

In contrast to more traditional approaches that look at one language at a time, Cenoz & Gorter (2011) ‘propose a holistic approach that takes into account all of the languages in the learner's repertoire’. They warn against ‘the monolingual bias’ and explore helpful multilingual practices such as codeswitching and translanguaging, which can be extremely useful in the classroom.

Whilst the benefits of using the first language/s may seem more obvious for learners who are New to English, they also apply to more advanced EAL learners, who may be able to use their first or other languages they know to discuss new concepts and hypotheses in subjects such as science and history; this will enable learners to articulate their thinking at a higher level.

What are the advantages of being multilingual?

There are many advantages of being bilingual or multilingual – and therefore many reasons why schools should attempt to support and develop the full linguistic repertoire of their learners:

  • Knowing more than one language is a great skill and asset, to be valued and viewed positively; there are many research findings about the benefits of being bilingual linked to creativity (Marian & Shook, 2012), the delay of brain ageing (Bialystok et al, 2004) amongst others
  • Maintaining and developing skills in the learner’s first language will aid the acquisition of English
  • The first language and other languages that they know provides a means for learners New to English to develop new concepts
  • Bilingualism has a positive effect on educational attainment when both languages are developed to an academic level

If learners arrive with a solid foundation in their first language and/or other languages, they can transfer the skills learned in one language to help them develop stronger language and literacy abilities in English. Research shows that there is a variation in the attainment of children from particular language groups, with three groups (i.e. Tamil, Chinese and Hindi) having Key Stage 2 attainment above the national expected standard. However, six language groups (i.e. Pashto, Panjabi, Turkish, Portuguese, Czech and Slovak) have attainment below the national expected standard; this suggests that schools need to have full information about learners’ language profiles in order to target EAL support most effectively. Further information can be found in the report ‘Educational Outcomes of Children with English as an Additional Language’ Jo Hutchinson, Education Policy Institute and the Learners with Limited First Language Literacy page.

In his analysis of the National Pupil Database, Strand (2015) found that within the White Other ethnic group, English, Russian, Spanish, French and Italian speakers attained equally well at school overall, with Spanish, Russian and Italian speakers doing better than monolingual English speakers. However, a number of other language groups (e.g. Lithuanian, Polish, Albanian and Romanian) did less well or significantly less well.

In addition, Strand (2015) found that within the Black African ethnic group, there were noticeable differences in attainment depending on language groups, e.g. Igbo and Yoruba speakers achieve as well as English speakers at Key Stage 2 whilst Somali, Lingala and Portuguese speakers achieve less well than Black African English speakers at Key Stage 4.

  • The first language plays a central role in the learner’s sense of identity
  • Bilingual learners may be able to learn a third language more easily. Research from Abu-Rabia & Sanitsky (2011) found that ‘fluency and skills in one language assist in the language acquisition of a second language, and possessing skills in two languages can boost the learning process of a third language’ because languages reinforce and strengthen one another in terms of phonology, morphology and syntax.

Which pupils will benefit from multilingual support?

Pupils using EAL form a diverse group; more information please visit the Diversity of EAL Learners page. Exploring learners’ language backgrounds is essential and ideas to help with this can be found in the New Arrivals and EAL Assessment pages. In order to value linguistic diversity and build on the learners’ prior language skills, teachers should find out as much as they can about learners’ other languages. The more the school engages with parents and learners in a dialogue about home languages, the more accurate their picture of the learner will be and therefore the better the bilingual support which can be provided for the pupil. The use of interpreters is recommended to ensure that the quality of discussions with parents and pupils is optimal.

What opportunities are there for using the first language for learning?

  • Discussion in the first language or another language the learner knows with a peer who shares that language (e.g. during a science investigation)
  • Researching a topic in first language
  • Using a bilingual dictionary (e.g. to translate a list of key topic words or for the pupil to use independently)
  • Making their own bilingual glossary
  • Sharing dual-language books with peers and parents
  • Writing in their first language (e.g. with L1 peers or independently so the content/concepts can be explored without addressing the English language demands until later)
  • Listening to stories in the first language (e.g. using the World Stories website or asking multilingual parents to do so)

Why use Bilingual Teaching Assistants?

Bilingual teaching assistants can support learners using their first language or other languages they know. This helps develop a school learning culture which values multilingualism; if teachers and other staff members are also multilingual, these skills can be drawn upon too. Bilingual Teaching Assistants and other multilingual staff have an important role in modelling multilingualism which can encourage learners to draw on their cultural, religious and linguistic knowledge. This helps learners using EAL to access the curriculum and feel more included, leading to higher self-esteem and better academic outcomes.

How can Bilingual Teaching Assistants support pupils’ learning?

Bilingual assistants working under the supervision of the class or subject teacher may be able to use the learner’s first language to:

  • Assess prior knowledge from previous education
  • Assess first language proficiency
  • Pre-teach concepts in the first language
  • Translate key words and discuss the meanings with learners
  • Interpret and explain instructions
  • Use the first language to explore concepts and develop higher order skills
  • Support learners in making connections between the first language and English
  • Translate or interpret examination papers (for example maths SATs)
  • Assist with teaching home language GCSEs
  • Raise teachers’ expectations about EAL learners’ performance by championing the learner’s multilingual skills and cognitive ability in the first/second languages
  • Develop positive home-school communications about learning.

How can Bilingual Teaching Assistants support pupils pastorally?

Bilingual teaching assistants can also assist in pastoral support. They may:

  • Support the induction of newly arrived EAL learners
  • Facilitate contact with parents (for example at parents’ meetings)
  • Support schools in developing and extending links with local communities
  • Liaise with other outside agencies

What are the benefits of bilingual support?

For bilingual teaching assistants to be most effective, planning time with the class/subject teacher is crucial. This enables them to:

  • Establish and agree the pupil’s language and learning needs
  • Provide information to ensure that the learner’s well-being needs can be met
  • Receive information about the learning objectives in advance of the lessons
  • Support the teacher in finding learning activities that will develop learners’ first language skills
  • Contribute ideas for assessment for learning
  • Prepare strategies and resources for targeted learners
  • Accommodate different learning preferences
  • Identify, adapt and develop a range of culturally appropriate resources
  • Provide feedback to teachers on learner progress
  • Facilitate a positive home-school relationship

Upcoming courses and webinars

How to Adapt Teaching for Learners Who Use EAL (Online Course)

17 September 2024
£45 – £67.50
Online course

Leading a Whole-School Strategy for EAL (Online Course)

15 January 2025
Online course

Embedding EAL Assessment (Online Course)

23 April 2025
Online course

Teaching Assistants: Working With Learners Using EAL (Online Course)

10 June 2025
£45 – £67.50
Online course