Effective Instruction and Support For Emergent Bilingual Students

Future-Ready Emergent Bilingual Education: 3 Factors to Improve Teacher and Student Support edWebinar recording link

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The last two school years have been a challenging time for many students who were learning English while speaking a different language at home. First, they needed to access and use remote learning technologies, and then they needed to continue developing their language and literacy skills despite the pandemic-related disruptions and other difficulties they and their families faced.

Now that most of these students are back in the classroom on a regular basis, there’s both an opportunity and a need to provide them with improved instruction and support that will enable them to make greater progress. During the edWebinar, “Future-Ready Emergent Bilingual Education: 3 Factors to Improve Teacher and Student Support,” Kristie Shelley, Senior Director of Emergent Bilingual Curriculum at Lexia Learning, and Cynthia Peng, Manager of Educational Content for Lexia English Language Development, discussed ways to achieve that goal.

Peng used the term “emergent bilinguals” to describe these students, who she defined as “developing skills in a native, heritage, or home language while learning a new language.” This asset-based definition emphasizes the importance of what the students are learning about their families’ languages and cultures, in addition to what they are learning about the English language and American society. Peng also pointed out that one in 10 American students are emergent bilinguals.

Applying the Learning Sciences

In regard to instruction, Shelley emphasized the importance of considering the full range of learning sciences that apply to emergent bilinguals. This includes the science of reading but also research about topics such as linguistics and psychology that can contribute to the students’ acquisition of language and literacy.

The process Shelley recommends includes separate instruction for language and literacy as well as using an integrated approach at other times. And just as the science of reading supports explicit and systematic teaching of foundational literacy skills, she believes a similar approach should be used to teach foundational language skills, with an emphasis on spoken language at first. Conversations with other students can then be used to support and extend this learning process, which facilitates the development of English reading and writing skills.

A key part of the process can be the use of “language frames,” such as, “The ___ is on the ____.” This shows the grammatical structure and syntax of a complete sentence and can be used with familiar objects as well as with academic vocabulary. Purposeful repetition and opportunities for students to recreate their own sentences enable emergent bilinguals to further improve their receptive and expressive language.

This approach also helps students develop “metalinguistic function” as they go through the process of thinking about what they want to say, composing sentences, and then testing their sentences on someone else. The feedback they receive, which may be vocal, facial, or written, lets the speakers how well their sentences work, and then the speakers can integrate that awareness into their knowledge base, and either try again or continue using what worked well.

Integrating Technology

Peng shared data showing that the use of educational technology with emergent bilinguals was widespread even before the pandemic, but not all of it was designed to meet the unique needs of these types of students. In addition to supporting the learning of language and literacy in separate and integrated ways, programs designed for emergent bilinguals can provide diverse cultural and linguistic perspectives that support and engage the students, as well as facilitate communication with their family members.

These types of programs can be especially appealing to emergent bilinguals because they provide a safe, nonjudgmental environment in which students can experiment with and develop their language skills and cultural understandings. The right programs also can provide a combination of auditory and visual support features that are especially helpful for language learners, and these programs can support individual learning paths and introduce related practice activities based on real-time progress monitoring.

For optimal impact, programs for emergent bilinguals can become part of an “adaptive blended learning” approach, in which teacher-led, face-to-face instruction can be followed by independent, student-driven learning using technology. The ongoing data collection and progress monitoring provided by the program can then further guide a new round of targeted teaching and student activities, creating a synergistic, cyclical process that supports continued progress.

Engaging Family Members

To provide further support for emergent bilinguals and extend their learning, educators need to engage family members in the learning process and extend it through activities at home. Key aspects of building this type of support include making school-to-home communication accessible through translations, giving parents or other caregivers a voice in the decision-making process, and providing the resources needed to support learning in the home.

On a more personal level, it’s helpful for educators to ask questions rather than assume, and to have an asset-based mindset that views language and cultural differences not as deficits, but as opportunities to build greater understanding and proficiency in more than one language.


Learn more about this edWeb broadcast, “Future-Ready Emergent Bilingual Education: 3 Factors to Improve Teacher and Student Support,” sponsored by Lexia Learning.

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Blog post by Robert Low, based on this edWebinar.

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