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Literacy Essentials for K–3 Multilingual Learners of English

by Christy Osborne |


"Our EL [English learner] students are not entering our classrooms with blank oracy slates. Their slates are merely filled with different experiences. Adding English oracy to those slates requires time and scaffolds, particularly as our ELs are learning to speak and listen in a new language in addition to learning to read and write in it."

–Valentina Gonzalez, Building on the Foundations of Reading


Flipping through One Plastic Bag: Isatou Ceesay and the Recycling Women of Gambia (Paul, 2015), my student’s eyes filled with excitement and wonder. “My family speaks Wolof. My mom and aunties wear clothes like that. We make peanut stew, too!” Seeing her family’s identity, culture, and language represented in beautiful illustrations sparked joy and curiosity. The connection between her lived experiences and a positive portrayal of someone like her led to powerful motivation: An English learner who previously had struggled with decoding was developing an identity as a reader and writer. For the first time, she wanted to tell her story.

Our multilingual learners of English (MLEs) are not blank slates. However, K–3 MLEs do need explicit, research-based instruction in building foundational reading skills along with English language proficiency. An asset-based approach to early literacy is an essential starting point. This approach allows us to build on the linguistic, cultural, experiential, and social-emotional assets our MLEs already bring to our classrooms (WIDA, 2019).

When our school communities shift the focus to what MLEs can and will do, we come together to provide appropriate scaffolds and a sense of belonging. Our partnerships empower MLEs as readers, writers, and thinkers who are successful in any content area, any classroom, and any language. Often, mandated district and state assessments tell a deficit-based story. Shifting this mindset and fully articulating the story of what they are capable of is a powerful way to improve student outcomes.

A collaborative approach between content teachers and English language development (ELD) teachers is key to shared ownership of student success (WIDA, 2020, p. 19). Each educator has a specific role and expertise, and developing early literacy and language in diverse learners is a complex process. ELD teachers can purposefully integrate decoding and phonics, but we can’t replace effective literacy instruction in classrooms. It takes a willingness to look beyond the walls of the ELD classroom to create a system for success.

Essential Literacy Practices for Early Learners

To identify effective ways to grow literacy and language for K–3 MLEs, we can ask ourselves two questions:

    1. What are essential, research-based early literacy practices for all learners?
    2. What are the unique assets and needs of MLEs that must be considered to provide access to these essential early literacy practices?

This article anchors its literacy research in the Essential Instructional Practices in Early Literacy (Michigan Association of Intermediate School Administrators General Education Leadership Network Early Literacy Task Force [MAISA TF], 2023). These 10 practices are recommended for all students, including MLEs, and “within all practices, opportunities should be provided for translanguaging, that is, for children to draw on their full linguistic repertoire” (MAISA TF, 2023, p. 2).

Following is a selection of four essential practices, expanded with research on the specific, unique assets and needs of MLEs.

Supporting Literacy, Motivation, and Engagement

Essential Practice 1: “Deliberate, research-informed efforts to foster literacy motivation and engagement within and across lessons” (MAISA TF, 2023, p. 3).

“The teacher creates opportunities for children to see themselves as successful readers and writers by providing…scaffolding, and incorporating diverse texts and authors that allow children to see…people who are like them in various ways” (MAISA TF, 2023, p. 3).

WIDA’s Guiding Principle #1 states that “Multilingual learners’ languages and cultures are valuable resources to be leveraged for schooling and classroom life” (WIDA, 2023). MLEs’ assets are a source of motivation and engagement for both themselves and the classroom community.

    • ➣ Ask Yourself: How can I integrate my students’ backgrounds, experiences, cultures, and languages into my instruction, materials, and curriculum?
“The teacher…offers regular opportunities for children to collaborate with peers in reading, writing, speaking, and listening” (MAISA TF, 2023, p. 3). 

According to the WIDA ELD standards, “multimodality is…essential for how students make meaning. All students…interpret and express ideas with greater flexibility when using multimodal resources, including multiple languages” (WIDA, 2020, p. 19). One key thing to keep in mind is that the skills MLEs have in their home language will transfer as they read, write, and speak in English (Gonzalez, 2021). 

    • ➣ Ask Yourself: Which scaffolds will ensure that your MLEs are able to both interpret (read, listen, and view) and express (write, speak, and represent) language with their peers?

Building Phonological Awareness

Essential Practice 4: “Phonological awareness instruction is best provided primarily in connection to letters. It entails explicit instruction, demonstration, play with sounds in words, and engaged study of words” (MAISA TF, 2023, p. 4).

“The teacher will include activities such as “sorting pictures, objects, and written words by a sound or sounds (e.g., words with a short-“e” sound versus words with a long-“e” sound)” (MAISA TF, 2023, p. 4).

Scarborough’s reading rope (International Dyslexia Association, 2018) demonstrates two essential skills in foundational literacy for all students: language comprehension and word recognition. The two strands are both essential, and with explicit instruction and practice, they weave together to produce a skilled reader. However, word recognition (phonological awareness, decoding, and sight words) can present a challenge for MLEs. English contains multiple sounds that are not present in other languages, and MLEs may have difficulty distinguishing them (Gonzalez, 2021).

To scaffold phonological awareness, identify sounds that MLEs need to practice through classroom assessment or from research. Then, utilize strategies such as pairing sounds with picture cards/visuals, engaging in shared or interactive writing, and modeling sounds in mirrors to show where in the mouth they are made.

    • ➣ Ask Yourself:
      • Which sounds are my MLEs successful producing?
      • Which sounds do they need support with?
      • Are there sounds in their home language that are close to unknown sounds?

Scaffolding Vocabulary and Content Knowledge

Essential Practice 7: “Intentional and ambitious efforts to build vocabulary and [content] knowledge” (MAISA TF, 2023, p. 6).

“The teacher…provides many opportunities for children to review and use new vocabulary over time, including discussing ways that new vocabulary words relate to one another and to children’s existing knowledge…and encouraging children to use new words in meaningful contexts (e.g., discussion of texts, content-area learning, writing)” (MAISA TF, 2023, p. 6).

Returning to Scarborough’s reading rope model for reading fluency, the strand of language comprehension includes background knowledge, vocabulary, language structures, and verbal reasoning. All of these components are essential for MLEs as they grow their ability to comprehend and express language.

We need to be intentional with selecting vocabulary that both builds knowledge in content areas (Tier 3 vocabulary) and supports critical thinking across all disciplines (Tier 2 vocabulary). Research in content-based English language teaching also supports “teach[ing] a set of academic vocabulary words intensively” across several days, using several instructional strategies (Baker et al., 2014, p. 13).

    • ➣ Ask Yourself:
      • How can I connect my MLEs with vocabulary and concepts in their home language?
      • Which words are the most essential in this unit, and which scaffolds do MLEs need in order to understand, memorize, and apply these words throughout the unit?
“The teacher…models, and provides practice with discussion protocols and encourages a variety of ways for students to communicate with one another and the teacher (e.g., using gestures, multiple languages, and all of their linguistic resources)” (MAISA TF, 2023, p. 6).

Every teacher, in every content area, is an academic language teacher. Current research also recommends that teachers “integrate oral and written English language instruction into content area teaching” (Baker et al., 2014, p. 31). Students need to practice academic language daily with their peers, and to achieve this MLEs will need scaffolds such as sentence frames, discourse frames, and translanguaging (i.e., use of the home language).

    • ➣ Ask Yourself:
      • How can I provide opportunities for students to express content in both their home language and English?
      • Which word-, sentence-, and discourse-level scaffolds might I include?

Collaborating With Families

Essential Practice 10: “Collaboration with families, caregivers, and the community in promoting literacy” (MAISA TF, 2023, p. 8).

“Classroom teachers should serve as connectors between school and families by…incorporating songs, oral storytelling, and other texts from children’s homes and communities into classroom activities (e.g., from cultural institutions in the community, neighborhood businesses)” (MAISA TF, 2023, p. 8).

Our multilingual families enrich our school communities with varied and deep funds of knowledge that can promote literacy and learning for all students. Authentic partnerships build trust and provide resources that honor language and culture in our classrooms. When families and students feel seen, heard, and valued, the whole community benefits.

    • ➣ Ask Yourself: Can our school invite parents and caregivers to read to our classes in their home languages, and to share their stories and experiences?
The teacher should encourage families “to speak with children in their home/most comfortable language, whether or not that language is English” (MAISA TF 2023, p. 8).

Language is a rich tapestry of expression and connection. For MLEs, the “development of multiple languages enhances their knowledge and cultural bases, their intellectual capacities, and their flexibility in language use” (WIDA, 2019).

    • ➣ Ask Yourself:
      • What actions can our school community take to show families how much we value their home language?
      • How can we support families with creating a literacy-rich home, in any language?


In literacy and in all things, our MLEs are best served with a team approach. As ELD educators, we can model asset-based thinking and the willingness to learn and grow together. Strong partnerships between educators and families often require a mindset shift in our school communities, and we can begin by staying curious and asking ourselves questions that move us forward.

What learning do we, as ELD educators, need to engage in to better understand early literacy acquisition? How might we support our school communities in understanding language acquisition? What are ways we might bring our expertise together for better outcomes? The following resources provide a great starting point to engage in your own learning, and to share with educators and families who have the same goal: success for our students.




Baker, S., Lesaux, N., Jayanthi, M., Dimino, J., Proctor, C. P., Morris, J., Gersten, R., Haymond, K., Kieffer, M. J., Linan-Thompson, S., & Newman-Gonchar, R. (2014). Teaching academic content and literacy to English learners in elementary and middle school. National Center for Education Evaluation and Regional Assistance (NCEE), Institute of Education Sciences, U.S. Department of Education.

Gonzalez, V. (2021, January 14). Building on the foundations for reading. Seidlitz Education.

International Dyslexia Association. (2018, April). Scarborough’s reading rope: A groundbreaking infographic.

Michigan Association of Intermediate School Administrators General Education Leadership Network Early Literacy Task Force (MAISA TF). (2023). Essential instructional practices in early literacy: Grades K to 3.

Paul, M. (2015). One plastic bag: Isatou Ceesay and the recycling women of the Gambia. Millbrook Press.

WIDA. (2019). The WIDA can do philosophy. The Board of Regents of the University of Wisconsin System.

WIDA. (2020). WIDA English language development standards framework, 2020 edition (Kindergarten–Grade 12). The Board of Regents of the University of Wisconsin System.

WIDA. (2023). WIDA guiding principles of language development. The Board of Regents of the University of Wisconsin System.


About the author

Christy Osborne

Christy Osborne is an English language development (ELD) consultant at Oakland Schools Intermediate School District, serving 28 districts and 23 public school academies in Oakland County, Michigan. She holds a Master's in linguistics with a TESOL endorsement from Oakland University. Since 2006, she has served in various roles including educating English learners, providing professional learning, and supporting continuous improvement of ELD programs. A certified SIOP trainer, Christy is an advocate for educational excellence, equity and opportunity for all multilingual learners.

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