Are You Making this COMMON Mistake with your Bilingual & Multilingual Learners?

Are You Making this COMMON Mistake with your Bilingual & Multilingual Learners?

One of the most common mistakes that I see being made with BMLs is that they are put into lower-ability groups or given ‘easy’ work because they struggle to access learning content.

While it might seem logical to give BMLs easier work that they can better understand, this is actually the wrong approach. Let me explain a little more…

Research suggests that BMLs (like all students) require an ‘enriched’ learning environment which stimulates their cognitive development and, at the same time, enables the development of their language acquisition (Thomas & Collier, 1997). This equates to challenging or rigorous learning opportunities where BMLs are able to scaffold their language-learning. Many BMLs are high academic achievers in their home country, but when they come to their new English school, things are very different because they can’t access the language of learning. As a result, many students are given more simplistic work or put into lower-ability groupings. I once worked with a BML who was an outstanding mathematics student and he was put into the lowest-ability group in his Year 6 class. Every day he was angry and resentful. This greatly affected his self-esteem and attitude towards school and learning. He became disengaged and his marks started to reflect this. Since this boy wasn’t challenged academically, his inclusion in the group became a self-fulfilling prophecy because he eventually began to under-perform and was soon identified as an under-achiever by his peers and teachers.

The reality is that many teachers are simply not given adequate training to understand BMLs or support their unique needs. In light of this, I want to share some insights and practical strategies that you can use immediately to help your BMLs get access to the right level of learning while providing an enriching and stimulating environment.

First, it’s important to understand that most BMLs who come to you in this position will have knowledge of their home language and literacy. This means that you can tap into this wonderful resource in order to naturally support their learning in English. Don’t be afraid to empower your BMLs to use their home languages for learning tasks. Let them do research online, allow them to talk to same-language peers and even write their ideas in their own languages. BMLs must not STOP their learning from continuing at a similar rate and pace as they’re previously accustomed to. Then, to build up their English acquisition, you can have them write key points or even words and phrases in English to summarise what they’ve learned. Alternatively, you can have their work translated by a peer, a staff or even a parent who speaks their language if you need to. There is no harm in supporting this strategy and it doesn’t mean students’ English will be jeopardised as a result.

If we look at the image above, we can see students are more reliant on their mother-tongue/home language when they first begin English. They have the full use and potential of their language but then may have very little English proficiency at this stage. Then, as they continue to be immersed in English from year-to-year, they start to use their English language for learning and thinking; thereby having to rely much less on their mother-tongue. In fact, if BMLs actually stop their mother-tongue language over the longer term, English will take over as their dominant language. This is why it’s important to encourage parents of BMLs to continue to maintain their home languages by speaking it at home and even going to external classes to maintain literacy.

Now you now the first (and often easiest) strategy for supporting BMLs to learn content—encouraging them to use their mother-tongue/home languages. Be sure to share this strategy with their parent(s) so they know why their child is spending time learning in their home language and not English. Naturally, this can be confusing to some parents! You can easily assure them that this will not take away from their learning of English, particularly because they are fully immersed in English and English interactions all day.

Strategy number two might be obvious to you: Differentiate the learning. I know this is a buzzword that gets over-used but it’s often not done correctly–so that learners are actually able to access content at their level. The very first thing you need to know in order to differentiate properly is the literacy levels of all your students. Then you’ll know what kinds of texts you can use with different students and this helps you to make decisions about various learning tasks. I know it’s not standard practise to share literacy levels with all teachers who work with students but it really should be. It’s often kept in the English teacher’s files somewhere, but consider this information GOLD for each and every teacher who works with students—from the art teacher to the Science teacher. We suggest having a shared online platform to post student literacy levels for full and immediate teacher access.

The key to successful differentiating is to be sure you’ve targeted learning at the right place for students—this is typically at their ‘instructional level’. The instructional level is the ‘just right’ level where there’s a little challenge but not too much. It gives students some room for growth. If the learning is too difficult, that’s at the ‘frustration level’ and it means students won’t benefit from learning, they’ll need a great deal of support (aka ‘spoon-feeding’) from the adult because it’s just too hard for them to work on their own. At the other end of the spectrum is ‘independent level’ and this refers to learning that’s at the mastery level. It’s easy for students to do on their own and doesn’t offer much in way of challenge. When you’re designing learning tasks, activities or projects, make sure you’re aiming for students’ instructional levels in terms of concept learning but don’t be afraid to allow BMLs to access learning by using texts that are at the ‘easy/independent’ level. This will help them quickly and easily access background information and gather facts.

The next challenge for teachers is how to differentiate tasks in a work-smart manner so you don’t kill yourself? Well, that’s easy-enough. Just think about the learning as a funnel. You create all the learning tasks and activities to meet the core learning objectives or goals. For your native English speakers, they can most likely benefit from, and complete, all of these learning tasks largely on their own. On the other hand, for your BMLs, they need some adjusting or ‘tweaking’ to the learning. Now think about moving the concepts down into the funnel—the funnel hole gets narrower so you must only focus on the most critical core components of the learning so they fit into the funnel. Differentiating for BMLs can easily mean narrowing your focus for the unit/lesson. For example, if the central concept of the learning in English is “to understand plot elements through short stories” and your BMLs can’t access the grade/year-level short stories, then just narrow the focus of the lesson to “understanding plot” with one story or one short story that’s pitched right to their level. You have to make sure that you’re not taking any of the core learning away so maintaining focus on ‘plot’ and ‘story’ is essential. In this case, you can have BMLs read a book at their level so they can access the understanding of plot elements on their own. They could even read a book in their home language and analyse plot. Don’t make things too difficult for yourself so you end up designing laborious individual lessons for each student. Stick with the main lesson goals and objectives and then filter it through the proverbial funnel to make it accessible to your BMLs. Take into consideration that BMLs may require much longer to complete tasks if they’re at the frustration level. That’s why everything needs to be on-level and this will eliminate your need to spoon-feed students. You want to see them working as independently as anyone else when they set out to work and you also want them to feel challenged and engaged. This will help them view themselves as competent and able.

One of the worries that teachers often have about differentiating learning for BMLs is that ‘sooner or later they need to do the real work.’ They’re right about that actually. Depending on the BML’s current stage of English acquisition, they will certainly be able to do the ‘real’ work–but often later rather than sooner in many cases. This is because it takes a BML around 2 years to master conversational English but 5-7 years to master academic English. So, in time, with good language exposure and continued understanding and support from teachers who are dedicated and caring, BMLs can and will be more likely to succeed in both their academic English and their academic learning.

Still have questions about your BMLs or differentiating? Feel free to drop me an email ( or comment down below and I’d love to help you!

Create a Dynamic ESL Programme Using Research and Best Practises – A Guide for Educators

Create a Dynamic ESL Programme Using Research and Best Practises – A Guide for Educators

Today there is growing interest in the best use of the school ESL teacher, especially when ESL students (or bilingual and multilingual learners – BMLs) now make up a large proportion of the student body in many English-speaking schools. Teachers and administrators are increasingly focused on creating real impact and this is driving development plans in many schools. Yet how can schools be sure that their model of service is going to equate to better results for students? How can they be sure they implement the best model?

The good news is that we can turn to research to provide information about the approaches that will bring about good impact. I want to share this knowledge-base with you so that you can evaluate whether the approaches you currently use are likely to create impact or, if you’re currently developing a new ESL programme, you can use this information to design your model.


First of all, let’s look at what the research says about language acquisition. Professor Jim Cummins has coined the terms ‘BICS’ and ‘CALP’ to describe the stages of language proficiency that BMLs go through as they acquire English. ‘BICS’ refers to ‘Basic Interpersonal Communication Skills’ and is essentially the social or conversational language that BMLs acquire initially. This first stage can happen relatively quickly, anywhere between 6 months to 2 years. During this time, learners are picking up a large vocabulary of (mainly) high-frequency words/phrases that are easy to acquire from their immediate environment. At this stage, BMLs may appear as though they have already ‘learned English’ because they can seem ‘fluent’ and might even use the accent of those around them. However, they are by no means close to acquiring the academic language skills that are required for studies. CALP, or Cognitive Academic Language Proficiency is the second stage that BMLs go through as they advance in their English acquisition. At this stage, they are growing their academic language and are learning to apply this through more advanced discussions, reading and writing. This stage can take between 5-7 (or even up to 10) years to acquire, especially because of the vocabulary load needed for communicating at this level. Students working at this stage must be able to use mature or advanced language in order to communicate a range of higher-order concepts and thoughts. This phase is characterised by the acquisition and use of mid and low-frequency vocabulary words (see below image for examples). At the BICS level, high-frequency words can represent around 2,000 or 3,000 words but at the CALP level, the number of words students need to learn are over 6,000. Considering that all learners acquire roughly 1,000 words per year, this represents many years of vocabulary learning! Have a look at the graphic below to see a conceptualisation of this: 

You can imagine what this means for your BMLs, many of whom come to you brand new to English or in the early stages of acquisition. It can seem like a journey of a thousand miles for students, their parents and teachers alike. Language acquisition is a long-term process as you’ve already seen but you can help students view their progress as incremental; like rungs on a ladder. With growth, they move closer to the top, one rung at-a-time. In order to support BMLs to make good progress at every stage, it’s important to invest in the approaches that are recognised to bring about real impact. These approaches will empower students to not only access rigorous learning but to maintain one of their greatest assets-their home languages


Below is a description of high-impact elements to include within your model. These incorporate the understandings of English acquisition and make use of approaches that enable access to the curriculum. Keep in mind that it’s ideal to differentiate learning to enable BMLs to participate at their ‘instructional levels’ rather than need to ‘help’ students digest lessons and information that is well-beyond their level of accessibility. Encouraging BMLs to work as independently as possible with the learning is key.

BMLs should not be ‘exited’ from supports after a set timeframe but should instead be listed on a shared register that recognises them as a bilingual or multilingual person who may require additional support at any stage (even at advanced stages of proficiency) since bi/multilingualism can be a lifelong journey. For example, BMLs can often struggle with ‘metaphoric competence’ in upper secondary school and they may benefit from specific instruction to support this complex concept. Not ‘exiting’ students leaves the door open for them; enabling them to access supports even if they might not have required them previously.

Teachers must make literacy a top priority. There should be a daily focus on individual/guided reading for all students, and this should include use of reading materials that match BMLs’ current abilities (e.g. levelled readers for younger learners and graded readers for older students). There should also be opportunity for daily writing practise. This can be accomplished using a response journal (free-writing or subject-specific responses) to allow students to express their ideas at their current levels; but they should also be encouraged to read through their work and self-edit according to their own targets. Conferencing with students goes a long way in supporting and scaffolding their literacy development at every age.

Vocabulary development is a key pillar of learning and comprehension. The old method of giving students vocabulary lists and testing them at the end of the week is not ideal. Rather, introducing students to target words through explicit teaching is the first step. These should especially include: mid-, low-frequency words and high-frequency academic words. Next, modelling and embedding these words within natural learning contexts will increase recognition and develop comprehension. Assessing whether students are actively practising and using the target words in reading, writing and speaking is critical to the vocabulary teaching cycle. Keep in mind students need multiple exposures of words in order to commit them to memory and use them independently. This can mean 12 or more repetitions, so think about how you can build target words into your academic programme. 

Use of the mother-tongue/home languages of students should be supported since they not only contribute to the natural ways that students think about and learn information but they’re also an important part of students’ identities. Use of ‘translanguaging’ within the classroom not only helps students’ better understand information but it is also a good way of helping them maintain their home languages. When students have strong home languages, this helps them develop new languages, like English, more easily. Even including home language classes within the school day is  an excellent strategy to ensure students continue to develop their home language and literacy. 

Understanding all of these important facets, how can you now design your programme? Where can you focus your time and effort in order to include these into BMLs’ academic programmes? 


From the image below, you can see that bilingual education models yield the greatest achievement results but in English-speaking schools, an ‘enriched’ approach is best. Incorporating the elements we’ve outlined above will help create your enriched approach and will better enable student access to rigorous academic experiences. 

Looking at 3 of the specific models that are frequently used in schools, we can assess how they measure-up in terms of their capacity for enrichment:

PULLOUT MODELS    (3rd Place)

As you can see from the graphic, the research shows that traditional pullout ESL programmes did not do very well in supporting student achievement over time. One of the reasons for this is that many ESL classes do not emphasise or focus on enriched experiences. They frequently aim to ‘remediate’ or ‘teach English,’ often doing so without a clear plan that leads to measurable outcomes. Merely scheduling ESL teachers to ‘help’ students acquire English or ‘catch up’ with content work is not preferable. In most situations, work can be differentiated to make it more accessible for BMLs to complete independently or with minimal support from class teachers. While it is possible that short-term, focused support can be given to BMLs in a pullout successfully; it’s preferable to support language and content through the regular academic programme. Pullout models should not be the ‘go to model’.  In many schools though, they simply represent what’s always been done or they’re utilised because there is a lack of support for providing differentiated learning for BMLs.  These are often reasons why pullouts continue to be used without a clear purpose, goals or evaluation of their success. 

If you are an ESL teacher using a pullout model, think about the reasons why this is the best option. Is it the go-to model in your school because: it fits the timetable, has always been done before or is there a lack of time/resources to create strong literacy and/or differentiated experiences for BMLs? Is there an opportunity to develop a more enriching model? 

PUSH-IN MODEL  (2nd Place) 

Many schools apply ‘push-in models’ for BMLs and these can be very impactful. They can make better use of teacher time and resources, especially if ESL teachers are supporting classroom teachers to provide an enriched and rigorous academic programme for BMLs. This can include focus on implementing literacy programmes or project-learning, for example. In this case, the ESL teacher may help to implement differentiated experiences through the learning process or product or may provide additional background information for learning. Co-teaching can take different formats and can allow for a great degree of flexibility, depending on the specific needs of the students, teachers and the academic programme. Impact can be measured by authentic evaluation of student performance and independence with tasks.

If you are an ESL teaching making use of a push-in model, how can you support teachers and BMLs with the most-impactful parts of the academic programme? Are you seeing results with your approach? If not, what might you do differently?


The ideal model for ESL teachers is a consultant model. Let me tell you why. First, it requires a highly-skilled ESL teacher who possesses a strong understanding of the theories and best practises for BMLs. This model makes use of the ‘ESL teacher’ as a specialist who is able to work with multiple approaches, key people and in flexible ways to help BMLs reach their potential. It takes into account the reality that one-size-does-not-fit-all and the understanding that different school contexts might require various initiatives/approaches at different times. In this model, the ESL teacher ensures the right information is gathered about the student body so that BMLs can be correctly identified. They also work with/through teachers to support BMLs’ ongoing monitoring and development-not necessarily with every student but in ways that benefit all students. These teachers must have the freedom to set their own schedules so they’re able to organise key meetings and attend classes as determined by their identified priorities.

In this model, teachers ensure all BMLs are registered as being bilingual or multilingual and they collate information about this in a shared folder or information system. They highlight students’ home languages in addition to reading and writing levels so that all teachers working with BMLs are aware of the information/resources they can use to support them with learning. Ensuring BMLs are correctly identified (and don’t fall through the cracks) is an important element. These ESL teachers are also aware of the ‘hot spots’ (e.g. the ‘fourth grade slump’ or ‘metaphoric competence’) when BMLs may have particular challenges and they know how to implement specific initiatives to ameliorate these. In this model, there is no such thing as a student ‘entering’ or ‘exiting’ support because it’s recognised that BMLs may require support at different stages along their bilingual/multilingual journey and ‘support’ can take on many different forms. In a way, the consultant model takes a ‘birds-eye view’ of all the BMLs in their school (or in their charge) and aims to make impact on a bigger scale, based on what the specific needs of the students and the school are. At all times, they have a focus on enrichment. They may provide services in these different ways: 

Working directly with classroom/subject teachers to plan and differentiate for BMLs. This can mean unpacking language and finding entry points into content so that learners are able to access concepts in a way that’s challenging, yet motivating. Two heads are better-than-one and in this model, planning can be a key focus so that multiple needs are met through the academic programme itself.

Understanding and analysing data should be given a high priority. This allows the ESL teacher to monitor the information collected by teachers about learners. This means monitoring the ongoing reading levels of BMLs to ensure they’re progressing and stepping in when needed for additional assessment, recommendations or training. ESL teachers can implement short and long-term initiatives, even working closely with the school administration to target whole-school objectives like literacy, for example. They frequently work in collaboration with key departments and literacy specialists. They use student data to inform the development of specific programmes like a university preparation class for secondary students or even a parent programme to enhance home language literacy, for example. In this case, the ESL teacher should be proficient with assessment data and their work should be focused on achieving the ‘bigger picture’ through targeted initiatives.

They may develop or support home language classes for BMLs. Knowing the value of home language maintenance and literacy for BMLs, ESL teachers may collect information about existing home language classes in their community (sometimes called ‘heritage language’ classes)  and ensure the information is passed onto families. They may also deliver parent information sessions about the value of home languages or work with parent groups to develop home language classes for students. 

If you are an ESL teacher using a consultant model, how can you make the biggest impact for your students and teachers? How best can you provide enriched programming to BMLs while keeping an eye on the bigger picture? 



Through our work with schools and teachers, we often receive the following questions below: 

Where should we direct our resources, especially if we only have one ESL teacher for our whole school? 

If you can utilise a consultant model, that would work best and allow you a greater degree of flexibility in terms of the kinds of services you can offer throughout the year (based on the needs of your students and school). Identifying your learners accurately and finding out about their home languages will allow you to tap into the natural resources they already possess. If your ESL teacher can gather information about BMLs’ reading levels and help implement daily literacy programmes, that would be a great use of time and resources. The impact of this can also be easily monitored in terms of student progress. They might also dedicate their time to planning with department heads or teachers and can often make more impact for a greater number of students in this way.

Which is the best ESL curriculum to teach our students English?

Within the school environment as opposed to a foreign language setting, I would highly-recommend your existing academic programme as the basis for teaching English. Embedded with rich academic discussion and supported by a daily literacy programme (with levelled books, vocabulary focus and writing opportunities), this will provide your learners with the ‘enriched’ learning environment they need to grow their language AND cognitive skills. Keep authentic and enriching experiences at the heart of your work with BMLs. 

We’ve just received new students and many of them don’t speak English at all. Their teachers want me to take them out to run a special English class for them. What do you suggest?

I can understand the challenge that this presents to teachers, especially if they have a large intake of new students they want to help. Don’t forget that many of them may not know about the best approaches, or may not be familiar with how to help beginning students cope with their new learning environment.  In this case, support for both teachers and students is needed. I would start by pairing students up with ‘buddies’ who speak their language if possible so that they can feel supported during this often-difficult transition time. If there’s no student who speaks their language, you can still set them up with a buddy who will help them and take them under their wing. Help teachers understand that BMLs don’t need a structured lesson to ‘learn’ English-the best teacher is all around them. Being in the natural environment will allow them many concrete opportunities to hear and try out new words and phrases. Help them understand that some of the students may not speak right away and this might continue for up to 6 months. During this time, don’t pressure students to speak. They will need hands-on tasks, visual learning experiences and opportunities to demonstrate what they can do. Teachers may benefit from support sessions to help them plan and differentiate for their new BMLs. If you and the teacher feel that some students need more emotional support or monitoring, come up with ways that you can do this. For example, do you have a school counsellor or staff who speaks the student’s language? Are there liaison workers to ease transitions for BMLs? Maybe you can fit in some additional visits to work with small groups of new BMLs in their classrooms at the early stages. There are many things you can do but try to get to the bottom of what the teacher and student really need. Is it really ‘English help’ or could it be support to assist the teacher to plan, differentiate or learn new strategies? Could it be more emotional supports for BMLs to transition into their new school and English environment? It’s always worth taking a close look at, and sometimes even simple things go a long way to help both teachers and students cope.

Do you have any other questions or ideas about designing your ESL model? Or would you like to share your personal approach with us? Feel free to get in touch. 

Are you an educator interested in learning more about enriching approaches for BMLs? Our highly-recommended, 8-week online course, ‘Bilingual and Multilingual Learners from the Inside-Out’ will teach you the theories, the best practises and give you over 50 new strategies to use with your BMLs. Learn more about it here. 



Collier, V. & Thomas, W. (1989). How quickly can immigrants become proficient in school English? Journal of Educational Issues of Minority Students, 5, 26-38.

Cummins, J. (1979). Cognitive/academic language proficiency, linguistic interdependence, the optimum age question and some other matters. Working papers on Bilingualism, No. 19, 121-129.

Cummins, J. (1981a). The role of primary language in promoting educational success for language minority students. In California State Department of Education (Ed.), Schooling and Language Minority Students: A Theoretical Framework. Los Angeles: Evaluation, Dissemination and Assessment Center California State University.

Nation, I.S.P. & Meara, P. (2010). Vocabulary. In N. Schmitt (ed.). An Introduction to Applied Linguistics. Edward Arnold. Second edition. pp. 34-52.

Nation, I. (2001). Learning vocabulary in another language. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Schofield, A. & McGeary, F. (2016). Bilingual and multilingual learners from the inside-out: Elevating expertise in classrooms and beyond. Charleston: CreateSpace.

Thomas, W. P., Collier, V.P. & Center for Research on Education, Diversity & Excellence (2002). A national study of school effectiveness for language minority students’ long-term academic achievement. Washington, DC: Center for Research on Education, Diversity & Excellence.