Supporting Multilingual Learners with Literacy Scaffolds

Featuring Marisa Russo, Senior Multilingual Curriculum Specialist

McGraw Hill
Inspired Ideas
7 min readMay 22, 2024


Who are multilingual learners?

Multilingual learners, also referred to as English Learners, are the fastest-growing student population in the U.S. They are a diverse group of talented young people who navigate unique challenges in the classroom — approximately fifteen percent of English Learners are identified as having a learning disability. We know they benefit from much of the same multimodal, explicit, systematic instruction that all students need to learn to read and write.

Marisa Russo, a Senior Multilingual Curriculum Specialist with twenty-four years of experience teaching students and teachers, was an English Learner herself. Combining her empathy for multilingual students with extensive professional training and teaching experience, Marisa recommended the following strategies for supporting multilingual learners, detailed further in this webinar. Here’s a recap:

Structured Literacy for Multilingual Learners

Structured literacy is the answer to supporting multilingual learners. Let’s first consider official recommendations for multilingual learners from the National Clearinghouse for English Language Acquisition:

  • Scripted language programs are recommended as an intervention for below-grade-level comprehension
  • Programs must include an explicit focus on daily oral language and vocabulary development

Let’s also consider multilingual learners’ needs from the perspective of Scarborough’s Reading Rope: As educators, you may have observed that many multilingual learners can decode any word but cannot comprehend what they are decoding. This tells us that they have word recognition but do not have language comprehension. I Do, We Do, You Do instruction is highly effective in supporting the Word Recognition and Language Comprehension strands of the rope. Be sure to address all three of the following domains each day: listening and speaking, reading, and writing.

Lessons for multilingual learners (truly, for all learners!) should be explicit, systematic, multimodal, cumulative, sequential, connected, and purposeful. We know that when students struggle with spelling, it is not a sign of a lower IQ — they simply have not been given the tools to break the code.

Structured Literacy Lessons

Here’s an example of a structured literacy lesson from start to finish:

  1. Begin with a phonological awareness lesson.
  2. Introduce and practice high-frequency words.
  3. Do focused phonics and sound introductions.
  4. Do phoneme-grapheme activities (dictation). Speech to print (sound to symbol).
  5. Read a Decodable Reader (to practice the phonics skill and high-frequency words woven throughout the book). Think of this as a finale: We know these sounds, we know these spelling patterns, we know these high-frequency words, and now we can read this book. In connected text or Decodable Readers, students have immediate reading success because they have reviewed, practiced, and had ongoing opportunities to spell these words using word-building and dictation routines.

Phonetic Difficulties for Multilingual Learners

Here are some of the most common phonetic difficulties for multilingual learners:

  • English Digraphs
  • Omitting Ending Sounds in Speaking and Writing
  • Initial Consonant Blends
  • English Vowel Sounds/Spellings

Finally, here are some instructional strategies you can use today to address these difficulties:

Phonemic Awareness Activity: Blends

When doing phonemic awareness lessons, carefully emphasize the blend or digraph. If they can’t hear it, they can’t produce it. Puppets sometimes help to make this exercise engaging! Try moving the puppet from one hand to the other to indicate initial or final sounds.

Examples of blends include:

  • /ch/ase
  • /sh/ark
  • /wh/ite
  • tee/th/
  • bru/sh/

The same goes for ending sounds. Examples include:

  • mas/t/
  • lam/p/
  • man/d/
  • gif/t/

However, be careful not to bundle blends together. Emphasize the sound that students are often omitting.

Vowel-First Blending Routines

As adults, it’s easy to forget that vowels in English aren’t easy! For example, say these words aloud to yourself:

  • Able
  • After
  • All
  • Alive
  • Arm
  • Aisle

Across these words, “A” makes six different sounds. That’s overwhelming for a language learner (and even for native English speakers!)

The vowel-first blending instructional routine is a phenomenal pre-teaching tool that can help support students who face obstacles with English vowel patterns. When you pre-teach the vowel, be sure to talk about the fact that a vowel makes different sounds up front and explicitly. Verbalize the sound you’ll be talking about today and have students repeat the sound multiple times. Then, begin blending words together by adding consonants, first initial sounds, then ending sounds. As you’re working on blending, ask students to “hold the vowel,” meaning that the vowel sound is prolonged, pronounced, and smooth. This instructional routine helps students avoid choppy reading, helps with fluency, and helps with identifying syllables.

Long vowel-first blending routines follow a similar pattern:

Finally, students use these words in sentences, for daily oral language development opportunities, with support from the teacher. Teachers help students extend sentences by asking for more information. For example, if a student says, “My dog is soft,” the teacher could say, “How do you know?” A student responds, “Because he sat on my lap and I touched his fur.” The teacher could ask the student to add this information to his original sentence and include the dog’s name. The student will now say, “My dog, Max, sat on my lap yesterday and when I touched him, I noticed he had very soft fur.”

Sound-Spelling Cards

Do you know how many phonemes are in the English Language? Fourty-four! Many teachers post letter cards in their classroom — but there are only twenty-six letters in the alphabet. Sound-spelling cards are a strong alternative to help students learn the sounds and spellings of the English language.

To use sound-spelling cards, the teacher helps the students count how many sounds are in a word (not letters!) They identify the cards that correspond to each sound, noting helpful cues (spellings are color-coded to indicate when they follow a short vowel). For example, sound-spelling cards help students learn that “ck” and “dge” only show up in the English language after a short vowel. Marisa says: Every 5-year-old in America deserves to know that! These are phonetic facts, and these facts are very empowering for our multilingual learners.

SRA Open Court Reading Foundational Skills Kits and Word Analysis Kits contain sound-spelling cards. Open Court Reading has been building strong readers, writers, and thinkers for more than sixty years.

Phoneme to Grapheme Connection Sound Boxes

This activity is growing in popularity as more teachers take the LETRS training. In a phonemic awareness lesson, you might ask students, how many sounds are in “chat”? Students tell you they hear three sounds, so you have three sound boxes. Students identify the sounds while adding disks into boxes. Note that this is a phonemic awareness activity because we’re not using print. Or ask students how many sounds they hear in “track” and place them in the sound boxes (being sure not to call them “letter boxes!) In this example, they know from their sound-spelling cards to use “ck” at the end because the sound follows a short vowel.

Fluency and Success

Fluency is the bridge that links decoding to comprehension. Decodable books are essential because they provide students with opportunities to practice fluency after sounds and spellings are introduced. We blended words, we decoded words, we encoded words, and now we see all these words in a story. We are now equipped for immediate success in reading.

Vocabulary Strategies

Students can use context clues, cognates, apposition, and word parts or morphology to determine the meanings of words. Music can also be a great way to develop vocabulary, using songs to identify vocabulary words and multimodal strategies to make vocabulary learning engaging.

Oral Language Practice

“Reading and writing float on a sea of talk.” — James Britton

Multilingual learners need dedicated time to practice speaking because oral language sets the ceiling for reading comprehension. Be sure to create a safe classroom space where students feel comfortable engaging in oral language practice. SRA Language for Learning, an oral language development program, uses carefully organized sequences of daily exercises to ensure varied and thorough instructional delivery. Detailed and easy-to-follow teacher materials maximize instructional time spent with students, and resources such as picture cards, skills folders, and support for multilingual learners extend the program’s effectiveness to all students.

Correcting Multilingual Learners

Finally, consider how you can encourage language use when you correct your multilingual learners. For example, if your student asks you, “Did you went to the office today?” You may try answering with, “I did go to the office today! Yesterday I went to the office three times.” You model the correct language while restating the misplaced word in the appropriate way — but without ever discouraging them. Producing language is critical.

For more resources on supporting multilingual learners, see:

Marisa Russo, Senior Multilingual Curriculum Specialist for McGraw Hill, has been working as an SRA National Bilingual Literacy Specialist and EL Development Specialist for 24 years. She has worked all over the world and trained educators in all 50 states. Before becoming a literacy specialist, she worked in Los Angeles as an elementary school educator and literacy coach. Most of the students Marisa taught were limited English proficient and students at risk. Therefore, she received her master’s degree in curriculum and instruction and her TESOL certification to help support fragile learners. She has been a keynote speaker at CRA in CA and at the Region 7 EL Conference in TX. In addition, she has been a speaker at NCEA, NABE, ILA, ESEA (National Title 1 Conference), Asia IRA, and National Charter School conferences. Lastly, to support the Science of Reading, she developed Monday Mornings with Marisa (a YouTube PD series for K-3 educators).



McGraw Hill
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