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Literacy and New MLLs in U.S. Elementary Schools: Another Look

In my August blog post, I talked about the characteristics of multilingual learners (MLLs) who come from families and communities that are literacy oriented. I described a family whose daughter, Angela, made an excellent adjustment to U.S. elementary schools because of her literacy background in Costa Rico. In this blog, I discuss literacy in non-literacy-oriented families.

Characteristics of Students From Non-Literacy-Oriented Homes

Children from non-literacy-oriented homes often come from a culture that values collectivism. Collectivist societies more heavily emphasize the requirements of a group than individual needs. In such communities, the relationships between members play an integral role in the identity of individuals. MLLs from this type of culture work best when they can form a relationship to the group. They are “we” rather that “I” oriented. This doesn’t mean, however, that families from all collectivist cultures are non-literacy oriented.

Raul is a 10-year-old boy from Honduras. Although it was very difficult for them, his family wanted him to leave his home because the crime and gang violence in Honduras is very high. They were afraid Raul would be forced to join a gang. Raul was sent to the United States to live with an uncle and his family. Raul had only attended school intermittently in Honduras because the country was immersed in an economic, social, and political crisis. Although Raul’s reading and math scores were on a second-grade level when he entered school in the United States, he was placed in a fourth-grade classroom.  Raul entered school and was eager to make friends and learn.

Bailey and Pransky cite in their book, Memory at Work in the Classroom: Strategies to Help Underachieving Students, the importance of culture in determining the types of programs needed to educate children from non-literacy-oriented homes. According to Bailey & Pransky, when they write about students from non-literacy-oriented homes, they are referring to “those students who come from families, who are less focused on the type of learning that takes place in an academically oriented school.”

Important Assets

The families of these children may not have gone to school. Or, like Raul, they were not able to attend regularly. Some students from non-literacy-oriented backgrounds may have come from countries where formal schooling was not available to all children. Or, they may have come from areas where there were wars, violence, or natural disasters. These MLLs will be more likely to struggle in school in the United States. This does not mean that MLLs from non-literacy-oriented homes do not bring important assets to American schools, such as

  1. Oral language and storytelling abilities that are rich in content. This is not referring to academic language, but to the rich discourse that is needed to participate in the culture of their community. Raul told good stories in class once he learned English.
  2. Extensive vocabulary that they need to participate in community interactions. Raul told stories about his travels to the United States.
  3. Some foundational literacy in their first language. Raul went to school in Honduras intermittently for 4 years.
  4. Families that want the best for their children. This is one of the reasons Raul’s mother sent him to the United States.
  5. Background experiences that can help classmates to understand other areas of the world. After a year in the U.S. school, Raul was sharing stories about his travels and why he left his country.

Providing Appropriate Instruction to MLLs From Non-Literacy-Oriented Backgrounds

Most U.S. schools design ESL programs, buy materials, and plan instruction that is a match for entry-level MLLs like Angela, who is from a literacy-oriented background. These programs typically spend the first few months of school building social language and transitioning very quickly to academic language acquisition. This is not conducive to the education of entry-level MLLs who come from non-literacy-oriented backgrounds.

Many students from non-literacy-oriented families, such as Raul, may be behind in their U.S school because they cannot follow the ESL program. Raul needed extra support from his school that administrators did not know how to provide. Following are some ways that schools can provide support and address the needs of MLLs from non-literacy-oriented families:

  •  Address orientation and acculturation to the U.S. school system.
  • Attend to their social-emotional needs due to trauma (e.g., poverty, PTSD, war, violence, separation from family).
  • Arrange for literacy instruction in either native language or English.
  • Offer vocabulary instruction and content development in academic areas.
  • Provide instruction in a setting that matches their culture, where MLLs can collaborate.

If your school district is small and you only have a few students that need these services, they can be provided by current staff under the direction of teachers of MLLs, basic skills, or remedial reading. An aide in Raul’s  general education class helped provide many of the services he needed.

For MLLs from non-literacy-oriented backgrounds to be motivated and to have success in school, teachers have to be powerfully dedicated to understanding the backgrounds of such students.

About the author

Judie Haynes

Judie Haynes taught elementary ESL for 28 years and is the author and coauthor of eight books for teachers of ELs , the most recent being “Teaching to Strengths: Supporting Students Living with Trauma, Violence and Chronic Stress“ with Debbie Zacarian and Lourdes Alvarez-Ortiz. She was a columnist for the TESOL publication "Essential Teacher" and is also cofounder and comoderator of the Twitter Chat for teachers of English learners #ELLCHAT.

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