What Do We Know about Multilingual Learners?

What Do We Know about Multilingual Learners?

We’ve come a long way from the days when policymakers and some educators considered students’ home languages to be an impediment to their acquisition of English. As a result of thousands of research studies carried out over the past 40 years, we now know that knowledge of two or more languages confers intellectual, linguistic, and personal benefits on multilingual learners. In numerous publications (2000, 2001, 2017), I have synthesized what we know about multilingual learners (MLLs) and how we can translate this research into powerful instructional strategies in the classroom.

MLLs may acquire relatively fluent conversational skills in English long before they have caught up academically in English. My original research showing that, on average, a period of 5–7 years was required for MLLs to catch up academically, has been replicated in many studies carried out in the United States and internationally. This research also highlighted the positive relationships that exist between a bilingual student’s two languages and the fact that students’ home languages (L1s) represent a positive force in their academic development. There are two broad instructional implications of the research:

  • Classroom teachers need to support MLLs’ acquisition of academic language and English literacy skills actively across the curriculum over the course of elementary school and beyond;

  • Teachers can enhance MLLs academic and literacy development by engaging students’ multilingual repertoires, and teaching for conceptual and linguistic transfer across languages.

Here’s how the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine (2017) summarized the relevant research underlying these two instructional principles:

  • It can take from 5 to 7 years for students to learn the English necessary for participation in a school’s curriculum…Thus, students may require help with English through the upper elementary and middle school grades, particularly in acquiring proficiency in the academic uses of English (p. 244).

  • Evidence suggests that many schools are not providing adequate instruction to English learners (ELs) in acquiring English proficiency, as well as access to academic subjects at their grade level, from the time they first enter school until they reach the secondary grades (p. 245).

  • The languages of bilinguals do not develop in isolation from one another. Evidence indicates that certain aspects of dual language learning, processing, and usage are significantly and positively correlated and that the development of strong L1 skills supports the development of English-L2 skills. …Educational programs that provide systematic support for the development of ELs’ L1 often facilitate and enhance their development of skills in English, especially literacy (p. 245).

Thus, instructional resources for multilingual learners must provide a systematic and evidence-based approach that supports all students’ access to English literacy K–12. Early access and continuing support are particularly important for MLLs because literacy engagement provides the fuel for accelerated academic development across the grades. Active engagement with comprehensible texts and writing for authentic purposes enables MLLs to catch up to grade expectations more rapidly than when less systematic instructional approaches are used. As reading researcher, John Guthrie, has pointed out: expertise spirals upward mainly with engaged participation (2004, p. 8).

Resources should also explicitly focus on investigating MLLs’ literacy skills in their home languages. Mobilizing students’ linguistic and cultural background knowledge is essential in promoting literacy engagement in both languages. Obviously, promotion of biliteracy is an explicit goal of bilingual education and dual-language programs, but we can engage students’ multilingual repertoires even when it is not possible to formally teach students’ home languages. Among the instructional strategies that have been successfully implemented are drawing students’ attention to cognate relationships across languages, encouraging students to write in their home languages as well as English, and communicating clearly to parents and students the enormous educational and personal value of being able to function in multiple languages. The richness and feasibility of these strategies are manifest in the many ‘translanguaging’ resources that have been published in recent years (e.g., Celic & Seltzer, 2011).

In short, approaches such as these are solidly rooted in both the empirical research and the instructional strategies that educators have generated in recent years for teaching effectively in culturally and linguistically diverse classrooms.

— Dr. Jim Cummins

University of Toronto Researcher and ARC Academic Advisory Board Member


Celic, C., & Seltzer, K. (2011). Translanguaging: A CUNY-NYSIEB guide for educators. New York, NY: CUNY-NYSIEB. Available at https://www.cuny-nysieb.org/translanguaging-resources/translanguaging-guides/Cummins, J. (2000). Language, power, and pedagogy: Bilingual children in the crossfire. Clevedon, England: Multilingual Matters.Cummins, J. (2001). Negotiating identities: Education for empowerment in a diverse society (2nd ed.). Los Angeles: California Association for Bilingual Education.Cummins, J. (2017). Teaching minoritized students: Are additive approaches legitimate? Harvard Education Review, 87(3), 404-425.Guthrie, J. T. (2004). Teaching for literacy engagement. Journal of Literacy Research, 36, 1–30.National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine. (2017). Promoting the Educational Success of Children and Youth Learning English: Promising Futures. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. DOI: 10.17226/24677.

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