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Literacy Instruction in Multilingual Classrooms Engaging English Language Learners in Elementary School

reviewed by Beth A. Wassell - March 22, 2013

coverTitle: Literacy Instruction in Multilingual Classrooms Engaging English Language Learners in Elementary School
Author(s): Lori Helman
Publisher: Teachers College Press, New York
ISBN: 080775336X, Pages: 144, Year: 2012
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Lori Helman’s Literacy Instruction in Multilingual Classrooms begins with a concern that will resonate with many 21st Century teachers: “I have 15 different languages represented by the students in my classroom. I can’t possibly differentiate instruction based on students’ language backgrounds” (p. 1). Throughout the book she confronts this concern as she describes a model for effective literacy instruction in linguistically diverse classrooms. Her goal is to provide a hands-on reference guide for organizing language-enriched literacy instruction that builds on the diverse linguistic, cultural and community-based resources K-5 students bring to school. She unquestionably achieves this objective in a text that will serve as a key resource for both pre-service and in-service teachers.

In Chapter One, Helman introduces a context that she uses throughout the book to personalize the theoretical considerations and methodological approaches she recommends: “Carrie’s” third grade classroom. Practitioners will easily connect with Carrie’s challenges and uncertainties. Helman also describes some deficit assumptions commonly held by educators in a non-judgmental way; this may help practitioners think critically about their own expectations about students’ languages, families, and communities.

Chapter Two, on creating a multilingual classroom community, will be a resource for teachers at any level, but will be especially helpful to new teachers trying to organize their classrooms in a way that promotes a respectful, learning-rich environment. Throughout the chapter, Helman raises thought-provoking questions to help teachers critically assess the extent to which their classroom spaces encourage or discourage positive interaction. She extends the element of space by identifying specific routines, procedures, and practices that encourage comfort and relationships among community members. Each idea described builds on the languages and experiences of students’ families and communities.

In Chapter Three, Helman presents a primer on key terms and concepts related to second language acquisition and oral language development. She offers this discussion of language as a foundation for thinking about “language-enriched instruction,” which she advocates for throughout the book. Helman’s use of clearly written text, charts, figures, and images makes the topics in this chapter understandable regardless of prior knowledge in this area.

Although organized as separate chapters, Chapters Four (reading) and Five (writing) emphasize an integrated approach. Helman also gives examples and ideas in connection with students’ reading development and proficiency levels to help teachers analyze student progress and provide differentiated instruction. Using specific students in Carrie’s class as examples, she illustrates the stages in action through anecdotes and actual student writing samples. Ideas, step-by-step guidance, and tips based on obvious classroom experience are woven throughout these chapters. She extends this approach in Chapter Six, where she describes the purposes of different types of informal assessments.  Helman emphasizes what such assessments can reveal about student learning and how they can be useful to teachers. Practitioners will love the “assessment menus,” which provide a comprehensive overview of a variety of differentiated, informal assessments with columns indicating “what to look for in students” when using the assessment, as well as “what do to when students need additional support in this area.” (p. 71).

Chapter Seven suggests a set of teaching habits to integrate language instruction into literacy lessons, incorporating some concrete “dos” and “don’ts” related to vocabulary instruction. Interestingly, many of the “don'ts” directly address practices commonly seen in K-5 and beyond (e.g., requiring students to look up definitions in the dictionary). Helman demonstrates why these practices are not beneficial to students in the context of fostering academic vocabulary growth. The text concludes by emphasizing a teaching model that incorporates four areas that consolidate a range of best practices for serving English Language Learner (ELL) students. Helman then again reminds teachers of their roles orchestrating a language-rich, learning-focused classroom with a few additional pieces of advice, for example, not monopolizing “air time” in the classroom (p. 102). She ends the book by reiterating the key interdependent themes of the book: community, literacy and engagement.

The strengths of this text lie in its framework, accessibility, and practicality. Throughout, Helman emphasizes a language of possibility (Nieto, 2009) around literacy instruction for ELL students, for instance, by encouraging readers to “let writing help you understand your students and engage them in literacy” (p. 61). This language of possibility extends to students’ family and community, with Helman reiterating throughout the text how teachers can draw on them as resources. Teachers will find the writing style and format accessible, with charts, figures, text boxes, and bulleted lists included throughout to emphasize key points and to summarize an array of ideas. In addition, Helman contextualizes her points in specific practices of ELL students. In terms of practicality, the text is filled with creative activities, assessments, and other ideas that will engage K-5 students. One of the most exciting aspects of the book is Helman’s inclusion of specific tips for partnering with the families of ELL students, who often are marginalized in traditional school settings. Overall, the book feels like a conversation with a mentor teacher you admire; it conveys a supportive tone that will make teachers feel confident about engaging their students in literacy activities.

Although there are a number of rich images throughout the text, there were a few areas where a sample of student work, a picture, or a descriptive example may have enhanced the text. In addition, some readers may be curious about the integration of the Common Core State Standards (CCSS); although there is a reference to CCSS in the resources section at the end, Helman does not explicitly address the impact of the newly adopted standards on literacy instruction for ELL students.

Overall, Literacy Instruction in Multilingual Classrooms can be an important resource in many in-service teachers’ libraries and a go-to primer for teacher educators aiming to help pre-service teachers provide effective literacy instruction for ELL students. Even teachers without any ELL students in their classrooms should benefit from the techniques, activities, and assessments described in the book. Most important, the text has the potential to provoke teachers to think critically about the needs of their students, their literacy instruction, and the ways they can create a supportive, language-enriched literacy classroom built on the notions of understanding, engagement, family, and community.


Nieto, S. (2009). The light in their eyes: Creating multicultural learning communities (10th ed.). New York, NY:  Teachers College Press.

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record, Date Published: March 22, 2013
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 17064, Date Accessed: 12/6/2021 3:43:59 PM

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About the Author
  • Beth Wassell
    Rowan University
    E-mail Author
    BETH A. WASSELL is an Associate Professor in the Department of Teacher Education at Rowan University, where she coordinates the ESL and World Languages teaching certification programs. After teaching high school Spanish for several years, she received her doctorate in Teaching, Learning and Curriculum from the University of Pennsylvania. Her current research focuses on the experiences of female ELL students in urban middle school STEM classrooms. Her publications include articles in Teaching and Teacher Education, Education and Urban Society, Cultural Studies of Science Education, Journal of Technology and Teacher Education and a forthcoming article in TESOL Journal.
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