Supporting Multilingual Children as Growing Readers in More Than One Language

By guest blogger Valentina Gonzalez

My childhood home was not filled with bookshelves lined with books. I didn’t have a stack of books to read in my bedroom. Nor do I remember sitting on mama’s or tata’s (Serbian for dad) lap as we turned the pages of a book. 

But what I do remember is cuddling up next to my tata before bedtime and listening anxiously as he told stories he remembered or even ones he made up. As an immigrant family from the former Yugoslavia, we brought little with us when we came to America. Books were heavy and did not make the journey. Storytelling, however, was a cherished time in our home. My favorite story was Hansel and Gretel. 

My first formal introduction to English was as a kindergartener. I loved school. I soaked it up like a sponge and admired my teacher as if she were a queen. My favorite part of the day was when she read aloud to us. I loved watching as she melodically formed the words and gracefully turned pages. 

One magical day as she read, I realized that the story she was reading to us in English was the bedtime story my dad told me at home in Serbian. It was Hansel and Gretel! The two people I adored more than anyone else knew the story I loved most and in two languages! I was in disbelief. Until that day, it always seemed to me that my homelife and language were completely separate from my school life and language and never the two shall meet. But that day they met! And it was magical. 

I have mixed emotions about this memory. It makes me sad because it was one of the only times that I felt as if a little part of my homelife and culture were allowed into the classroom. For years after that experience I struggled to connect with books. I rarely found myself in literature or read about my lived experiences. As an educator, this reminds me that children should not have to shed their identity, their language, literacy, and who they are at home when they come to school. On the other hand, the memory makes me happy because it reminds me that we can create great places in our classrooms that open students’ hearts and minds and builds joy for reading. We can help children feel seen, heard, and valued. We can embrace cultures and identities. We have the power to make an enormous impact on readers in our classrooms every day. 

By the year 2025 it’s estimated that 1 in 4 students in the United States will be classified as English learners (ELs). That number is remarkable. ELs, or multilinguals (a more asset-based term) are the fastest growing population of students in our nation. And they bring many valuable attributes, lived experiences, and qualities that can be leveraged in our classrooms. 

One of the greatest strengths we each have is our identities as unique humans (see Reading to Make a Difference CHAPTER 1 Discovering Our Own Identities). So how can we support multilingual children in our classrooms as readers?

As a teacher, I worked in a campus that served multilinguals that spoke over 20 different languages. Of course I could not speak all of them. But there were things I could do even though I did not serve in a bilingual program. The following are three practical suggestions for supporting multilingual readers in any classroom. 

  1. Partner with parents, families, and caregivers. Parents are often a child’s first teacher and know their children best. They can provide us with valuable information about students’ lives, passions, strengths, etc. We can use this information to connect them with books they will love. Partnering will also help us to create a team for literacy and reading growth. On the other hand, we also have a lot to offer to parents, families, and caregivers. Through a partnership, we can:  
    • share with them reading strategies, 
    • provide books and resources, and 
    • help through literacy related challenges. 
  1. Ensure that the books offered on shelves represent the students in the classroom. Rudine Sims Bishop calls this mirrors (1990). Recent studies on published children’s literature have shown that a great proportion of books offer main characters who are white and books featuring people of color are not only limited but often misrepresented or stereotyped. When I first learned about these studies, I didn’t think my own library shelves were out of proportion, but I was shocked when I took an audit. That audit prompted me to take action. Each time my district offered funds that I could use for books, I applied that money towards books that my students could connect with. It was important to me that the books were not solely for the ESL classroom. The goal was for the books to be in every classroom, accessible as read alouds and for students to enjoy on their own as independent reading. This is just a sampling of the books we purchased: 
Little Dreamers by Vashti Harrison

All Are Welcome by Alexandra Penfold and Suzanne Kaufman

Carmela Full of Wishes by Matt De La Peña

Last Stop on Market Street by Matt De La Peña

The Invisible Boy by Trudy Ludwig

Each Kindness by Jacqueline Woodson

Eyes that Kiss in the Corners by Joanna Ho

Shaking Things Up by Susan Hood

The Day You Begin by Jacqueline Woodson

This is How We Do It by Matt Lamothe

Milo Imagines the World by Matt De La Peña

Hair Love by Matthew A. Cherry

Just Ask by Sonia SotoMayor

  1. Team up with the campus library media specialist. Work together to build more inclusive multilingual book offerings to the campus library. The librarian I worked with used Follett Titlewave. We pulled up the top languages spoken on our campus and we began ordering the most popular books in multiple languages. Students that can read in multiple languages have unique linguistic capital. We can embrace and support biliterate children and their linguistic identities through providing books in the languages they read. They are future global leaders! 

When literacy (in all languages) is seen from an asset perspective, nurtured, and valued, all stakeholders benefit. I learned along the way to allow myself the autonomy to be flexible in teaching and learning and to let students lead. Centering instructional practices and all that I do around them changed how we learned, how much we learned, and how much joy we all had in learning. 

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Valentina Gonzalez, coauthor of Reading & Writing with English Learners: A Framework for K-5, is a former teacher who has served 20+ years in education in her own classroom, as a district facilitator for English learners, a professional development specialist for ELs and as an educational consultant. Her work’s primary focuses have been on literacy, culture, and language. Valentina delivers professional development and coaches teachers on sheltered instruction strategies. She works with teachers of ELs to support language and literacy instruction.