When I think about the success stories of my middle school emergent bilingual learners, I can’t help but smile. What about you? Sure, there were challenges – my challenges in providing instruction, theirs in learning. But the joy of overcoming those challenges is worth all the clouds in the sky.


Last post I wrote, “As educators, we must be prepared to create an inclusive learning environment that responds to learners from diverse cultural backgrounds in a manner that respects, affirms, and validates not only who those learners are but all that they bring to the classroom.”


So, I thought I’d share two success stories that showcase how socio-emotional support can inspire progress via an inclusive classroom culture.


Samnang (a pseudonym) was Cambodian. He spoke Khmer but could not read or write it. He had a smile that would light up the room and melt your heart. And although he had been in our school since kindergarten, he seemed stuck at WIDA’s emerging level of proficiency. He had great BICS but very little CALP. Layer onto that a reading level of grade 2 at the beginning of the year.


It took a comprehensive approach to bring Samnang – and many of his classmates – to grade level that year. Two strategies immediately come to mind when I think of him:


One, I established a classroom culture that was psychologically safe for everyone to learn. That was critical because I did have my learners read aloud individually, as well as read chorally. It gave me additional opportunities to assess their reading fluency skills and provide support.


Now, a lot of frontloading took place for their reads to happen successfully, but the culture meant that when someone struggled or made a mistake, no one laughed. No one.


Learners provided one another space to engage in the second strategy I think of when I think of Samnang: decoding an unknown word in connected text.


And while I cannot remember the word he stumbled on while reading something about ancient India from our social sciences text, I do remember what he did. He held his hand in a stop signal and said, “Wait!” so I didn’t offer him a correction. He sounded out the word, first sound by sound, then by syllables. He read the word and looked at me for affirmation, which I gave. And with this gigantic smile, he said, “I’ll read the sentence again.”


Samnang finished the year on grade level. He developed CALP. And while we didn’t assess our EBLs formally at the end of the year, I would place him at bridging.


Haniya (a pseudonym), a Pakistani girl who joined my classroom well into the first semester, forever inspires me. Haniya was a newcomer, had no formal education, and spoke Urdu; her father was an Imam. Unlike any other child at our school, Haniya wore a hijab. And her father made it clear that she could not so much as sit next to, in front of, or behind a boy.


Challenge accepted!


Haniya had neither BICS, nor CALP. Her reading level was pre-primer. And being in an American, co-ed, multilingual, multicultural classroom was a huge culture shock! In a district that served more than 35,000 learners in a multicultural city in California, I could not find a single person who spoke Urdu.


I was on my own.


Just me and my strategies, along with a reading endorsement and a couple of language development credentials that said I should be able to handle this.


To say that Haniya was a sponge would be a gross mischaracterization. I leaned into every SDAIE strategy I knew. I blended my reading intervention with language development strategies. We had no pull-out or push-in language development supports, so I used individual and small group instruction to provide her with explicit instruction in the English language.


Fortunately, Haniya – like Samnang - was able to benefit from that safe classroom culture. Several of my Latina learners had gone through the newcomer experience themselves and took her into their circle.


I also had a robust classroom library with books labeled with their Lexiles, from 150L to 1520L. She started at the beginning.


And she read. And read. And read.


She read to me. She read at home.


Her silent period was extraordinarily abbreviated. She engaged in her small group instruction. She started speaking in whole class settings.


It was not easy to provide the level of instruction she needed to thrive, but it was wonderfully rewarding. Haniya left 6th grade reading not on grade level, but close. Her BICS were strong, her CALP appropriate for her reading level, and her language skills at the WIDA level of expanding.


When I look at the WIDA Can Do Descriptors for grades 6 – 8 or any other state’s English proficiency maps and think about how far those two went, and all our EBLs can go in one year with solid instruction, I can’t help but smile.


Affirm. Validate. Respect. What’s your success story for this year?




Dr. Almitra L. Berry is an educational consultant, author, and podcaster. She is the emergent bilingual consultant for Connections: English Language Arts. Dr. Berry extensively covers emergent bilingual learners in her book Effecting Change for Culturally and Linguistically Diverse Learners and several  Educational Equity Emancipation podcast episodes.