Alison Yin for EdSource
A new report explores 'superdiversity,' classrooms where at least five different language groups are represented.

Teachers of English learners find it challenging to communicate in classrooms where students come from a variety of language and cultural backgrounds. Some children may speak Spanish at home, while others speak Vietnamese, Punjabi or Arabic.

However, learning can improve by incorporating students’ languages in classrooms, increasing teacher access to dictionaries and books in the home languages of their students and encouraging families to participate in class activities, such as parents recording themselves reading books in their home languages for inclusion in a classroom library, where students can listen to the recordings.

That is the conclusion of a new report by the Migration Policy Institute, a nonpartisan research and policy organization in Washington, D.C. It is the second in a series exploring “superdiversity,” defined as classrooms where more than five languages are spoken. The first report in the series explores superdiversity in Head Start programs and private and public preschools in Boston, Mass.

The most recent report, titled “Supporting Dual Language Learner Success in Superdiverse PreK-3 Classrooms: The Sobrato Early Academic Language Model,” focuses on how one California language program supports teachers and students in superdiverse classrooms. The Sobrato Early Academic Language Model, or SEAL program, is designed to help students who speak a language other than English at home develop a stronger vocabulary starting in preschool. The SEAL model was piloted in bilingual and dual language settings as well as English-only classroom settings. For the purpose of this study, researchers focused on two superdiverse school districts in California that are using the SEAL model: Oak Grove School District and San Lorenzo School District.

Researchers state that while California has a strong focus on bilingual and dual-language programs for English learners, the challenges for teachers in superdiverse classrooms is often left out of the conversation. “The binary view of two language model settings (bilingual, dual language or English instructed) reflected in policy, field guidance and professional development for teachers is inadequate,” the report states.

The report includes a survey of 173 teachers in the SEAL program and highlights common challenges teachers face in superdiverse classrooms. It also gives examples of strategies teachers have used through the SEAL model to help students learn. The Seal Model is a pre-K-to-3rd-grade approach that creates classroom environments where students have a variety of avenues to develop language skills. For example, teachers use songs and visual displays, such as flow charts and timelines. In younger grades, children are encouraged to “name their world,” meaning they describe what they see. They also use new vocabulary words as they dress up and imagine themselves in different roles at dramatic play stations. SEAL classrooms also have writing centers to encourage students to practice vocabulary and write in daily journals. Currently, more than 100 schools statewide teach English learners using this model.

The report found that one of the most common challenges teachers face is difficulty communicating with families. One practice teachers found helpful was to meet with families and explain the importance of using their home language to increase their child’s vocabulary. In one classroom, students were asked to work with their families to create a song about an ocean animal and its habitat in their home language to encourage parents to talk about class content at home.

In the SEAL program, teachers also used translation services so they could provide materials to parents that explained what was being taught in their classrooms. Teachers also invited parents and family members to read books and sing songs to students in their home language.

The report also found that while many teachers can find common ground in classrooms where two languages are spoken, with one of them being English, it is more difficult to do that in settings where multiple languages and cultures are represented.

For instance, in a typical bilingual classroom a teacher may switch between Spanish and English to clarify a concept or give an instruction to a specific group of students. However, in a superdiverse classroom, a teacher may only be able to give one or two examples from the multiple languages spoken and has to reserve more time for one-on-one student interactions, it states.

The report suggests providing teachers with resources, such as dictionaries and reference materials, specific to the languages spoken in their classrooms. Teachers should also have more access to books and visual aids that reflect different cultures and languages. This is important “so students see themselves reflected in the classroom and in the world of books,” the report states.

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