In this post, Rebecca Burgess, a Grade 3 teacher in Denver, Colorado, shares how she supports multilingual students in her classroom. Some of Rebecca’s students receive explicit Spanish-language support, while others receive scaffolds and supports she intentionally plans for with resources available in Wit & Wisdom materials.
I was excited to introduce our guest reader to my class of superheroes. All of my students have unique powers that help them contribute to the world. One group of students has an especially potent superpower: They speak multiple languages. Our guest reader walked into the classroom, introduced herself, and announced, “I will be reading this book in both English and Spanish.” Several bilingual students threw their hands up, some jumped out of their seats, and one proudly squealed, “I also speak Spanish!” I explained to our guest reader that we have many multilingual superheroes in our classroom. They beamed with pride. Tears glistened in my eyes while our guest read. Our MLLs didn’t always know how powerful they are, so my co-teacher and I had been intentionally building confidence in our multilingual learners all year. This moment was evidence of our success.
I just finished my fourth year teaching Grade 3 students with Wit & Wisdom in Denver, Colorado. At our school, 85 percent of our students are multilingual learners—they speak more than one language, and, often, their first (or even second) language is not English. Wit & Wisdom is ideal for all learners, and I have watched our multilingual learners thrive with this knowledge-building curriculum.
Our I-Ready data quantitatively show the impact Wit & Wisdom is having on our students.
- On the English assessment, 72 percent of our students showed at least one grade level of growth or ended the year on grade level in English.
- On the Spanish assessment, 73 percent of our assessed students ended the year on grade level or above.
How is this possible?
Building Knowledge in Two Languages
Knowledge travels well between languages. Even when multilingual learners struggle to express their ideas in English, they still come to us full of prior knowledge. Wit & Wisdom continues to build on what students know, but sometimes multilingual learners need additional language support to connect what they know in one language to the knowledge they’re building in their new language. This year, I had the opportunity to collaborate with a Spanish literacy teacher, and we were eager to explore how to help students build and access knowledge in both English and Spanish.
With the help of Ms. Gonzalez, my Spanish literacy colleague, our Spanish bilingual students have been able to access Wit & Wisdom tasks in both English and Spanish: They write their essays and hold Socratic Seminar discussions in both languages. We’re strategic about which parts of the lessons receive Spanish-language support, and Ms. Gonzalez invests time into internalizing the lessons and translating content into Spanish.
Here are a few examples of the heroic work our students have accomplished this year:
- All students engage in the Wonder lesson in English. The Wonder lesson is a low-stakes opportunity for students to list and share what they initially notice and wonder about a new piece of art or text. Wonder lessons are open-ended and invite a variety of responses, so it’s the perfect opportunity for students to gain more knowledge about a topic without fear of being wrong. Then our native Spanish speakers receive language support, including translation, in later lessons, when the work becomes more challenging. For example, in a Distill lesson, when students are working to determine the central message of a text, they need to put all they’ve learned so far about a text together in order to determine a larger meaning. Doing this work in their first language can remove language barriers that might get in the way of a heavier cognitive lift.
- Students in the bilingual program often publish their work in two languages. They plan their work in either Spanish or English. From there, we prioritize completing the work in English first. After their English essays are completed, they work on their Spanish essays. They peer edit with another Spanish speaker and confer with Ms. Gonzalez in Spanish. After both essays are published, we display and share their bilingual work with their families, who are so proud and impressed.
- During Socratic Seminars, Spanish speakers are often invited to engage in the discussion in a Spanish circle with Ms. Gonzalez. We assess students on the same rubric and share out accomplishments with the whole class.
I believe that the ability of Ms. Gonzalez to work so closely with our Spanish-speaking students, our intentional collaboration, and the way we celebrate knowledge building in two languages are all a big part of why our multilingual learners are proud of their superpower to communicate across languages and cultures. The opportunity to stretch their knowledge across two worlds has encouraged our students to embrace their linguistic tools, rather than shying away from them.
Empowering Every Multilingual Learner
We have many students in our school who speak languages other than English or Spanish, and those students are still making incredible growth too. Here are four ways to support students who speak multiple languages with Wit & Wisdom instruction:
- Trust the intentional scaffolds in the curriculum. If you are a K–5 teacher, the Multilingual Learner Resources elevate strong scaffolds already written into the curriculum that support multilingual learners. In addition, most lessons include visual supports and sentence frames, as well as scaffolded opportunities for students to think, discuss, and write about the content. Multilingual learners need to discuss and write with the rest of the class because this is where language growth takes place.
For additional guidance on what supports are available for multilingual learners, please read our "What's New in Wit & Wisdom" blog post.
- Teach the Deep Dives. The Deep Dives are opportunities for students to make important vocabulary connections and build an understanding of the nuances of the English language. For example, one powerful Deep Dive prompted students to consider the different shades of meaning between words and phrases such as hate, detest, dislike, ambivalent toward, like, prefer, love, enthusiastic (about), and am passionate (about). Students physically place the word or phrase on a continuum that ranges from “strongly dislike” to “strongly like.” While this work helps students choose words to communicate ideas about sharks, all of these words are transferable across content areas and social situations.
- Partner students strategically. The tasks in Wit & Wisdom lend themselves to different kinds of partnerships. Sometimes, it makes the most sense for multilingual learners to work closely with their English-proficient peers; for example, tasks that require students to practice sharing evidence from the text. In other situations, it can be helpful for multilingual students to work with a peer who speaks the same home language. For example, in some Organize lessons, I may intentionally pair students with a partner who can translate new or unfamiliar ideas from the text.
- Communicate with families. I partner with families, via translator, to ensure content knowledge continues to grow, no matter the language. My district offers a translation hotline to connect with families, which I use often for translating into Pashto and Amharic. The Family Tip Sheets and Multilingual Learner Glossaries are also excellent resources, and they’re available in 14 languages.
Every multilingual learner is a superhero working to hone their incredible language skills to communicate across both English and their home language(s). It’s our job as educators to see them as the superheroes they are and let them know it—while also providing the supports that will help them grow their literacy skills. With the right tools—a thoughtfully scaffolded curriculum, many opportunities to read, write, and discuss, and intentional language instruction through the Deep Dives—our multilingual learners will learn to use their superpowers to make their future even brighter.
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Rebecca Burgess is a Grade 3 English language arts teacher and grade-level chair at KIPP Northeast Elementary in Denver, CO, as well as a Wit & Wisdom professional learning facilitator for Great Minds. Rebecca began her education career 15 years ago, teaching various grade-levels at Achievement First and KIPP schools in New Haven, CT and Newark, NJ. She also worked as an Assistant Principal and Interim School Leader in Newark. In her spare time, Rebecca spends time outdoors with her husband and golden retriever, often with a delicious cup of coffee in hand.