How Can Educators Promote School Success for Immigrant-Background Multilingual Learners?

We recently published Rethinking the Education of Multilingual Learners by Jim Cummins. In this post the author looks at how best to promote educational success among immigrant-background students.

Population mobility is at an all-time high in human history. The movement of people across national boundaries has resulted in significant increases in linguistic, cultural, ‘racial’, and religious diversity among school populations in countries around the world. Many of these students, whether born in the host country (second generation) or outside the host country (first generation) are experiencing academic difficulties according to multiple large-scale studies carried out over the past 20+ years by the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD). Unfortunately, despite an abundance of research data on the nature and scope of underachievement, there is still no consensus among policymakers, educators, and researchers about which instructional practices will be effective in reversing the academic difficulties experienced by immigrant-background students.

In my recent book Rethinking the Education of Multilingual Learners, I proposed a framework that identified a series of evidence-based instructional strategies that educators, individually and collectively, could pursue to promote educational success among immigrant-background students. A first step in rethinking these issues was to ask the obvious question: ‘Which groups or categories of students are underachieving in our schools’? If we exclude students with special educational needs, international research identifies three groups that experience educational disadvantage: (a) students whose home language (L1) is different from the language of school instruction, (b) students from low socioeconomic status (SES) backgrounds and (c) students from communities that have been margin­alised or excluded from educational and social opportunities because of discrimination in the wider society. Not surprisingly, students who fall into all three categories experience the most persistent educational disadvantage.

The relevance of this for educational policies and instructional practices is that teachers, individually and collectively, must go beyond simply linguistic support and respond also to the constriction of students’ opportunities to learn brought about by economic exclusion and societal discrimination. Unfortunately, however, no consensus has emerged among researchers or educators about how schools can ‘push back’ against the societal conditions that give rise to ‘opportunity gaps’ associated with poverty and racism.

With respect to socioeconomic disadvantage, the OECD research suggests that schools could push back about one-third of the negative effects of low-SES if they could maximize students’ access to print and engagement with reading from an early age. For more than 20 years, the OECD Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) has documented strong relationships between reading engagement and reading achievement, but unfortunately, these findings have been largely ignored by policymakers, and even by the OECD itself.

Schools can also counteract the effects of racism and other forms of discrimination by implementing identity-affirming instruction focused on decolonizing curriculum and connecting instruction to students’ lives and the funds of knowledge of their communities. The essence of this instruction is that it challenges coercive relations of power operating in schools and society.

Additionally, language support should include not just scaffolding of L2 instruction but also engaging students’ multilingual resources and reinforcing their awareness of how academic language (ideally both L1 and L2) works across the curriculum.

These whole-school instructional directions are not just ‘theoretical’ – they are derived from inspirational instructional initiatives implemented in countries around the world. These initiatives reflect teachers’ role as knowledge generators working collaboratively with university-based researchers both to promote identities of competence and confidence among multilingual students and to enable them to use language powerfully to support their learning, and ultimately make a difference in their worlds.

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