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You are here: Home > Online Articles > Are We Putting Out the Same Fires? Serving Multilingual Learners During the Pandemic



Are We Putting Out the Same Fires? Serving Multilingual Learners During the Pandemic

The Language Matters Column

By Esther Bettney & Jon Nordmeyer


Are We Putting Out the Same Fires? Serving Multilingual Learners During the Pandemic

Photo by Jon Nordmeyer



Given the “probletunities” in the new “coronaverse,” how can a global network support teachers in understanding and using their experience to serve multilingual learners? In the past year WIDA has partnered with a variety of researchers and practitioners to better understand how to support multilingual students, their teachers, and their schools in the midst of the ongoing COVID pandemic.

While face-to-face collaborations have not been possible, we have found new ways to work together. In order to build on practical wisdom of experienced international teachers and identify promising practices for serving multilingual learners in virtual schools, WIDA formed a community of practice including educators from international schools worldwide.

A community of practice is a group of people “who share a concern or a passion for something they do and learn how to do it better as they interact regularly” (Wenger et al, 2002; p. 4). This type of group involves interplay between novices and experts and helps to create a shared professional identity.

Learning from a Global Community of Practice

Our community of practice was drawn from active social media contributors, bloggers, podcasters, co-presenters from conferences, and other influencers and activists within the WIDA global network. Individual educators identified focus topics and worked in small groups to write summaries based on their experience to share with the community, and eventually through published newsletter articles, with the entire global WIDA network. Together we collectively inquired into teaching multilingual learners in today’s hybrid and remote classrooms:

  • What does it look like when schools are getting it right?

  • What should schools be paying attention to now and what conversations should EAL teachers be having with colleagues & leaders?

  • Teachers spent the past 6 months putting out fires: Were they all the same fires?

Five Things We Can Do

Based on the collaboration of the community of practice, as well as research about best-practices for supporting remote learning, we drafted an asset-based collection of high leverage practices for teaching multilingual learners online: Five Things We Can Do. These topics can help educators identify actions they can take, based on the experience of global educators.

1. Build social-emotional support and maintain community: Providing students opportunities to work together and individually, with choices across language groups and within language groups, supports MLs’ identity formation and connection to other students. While relationships look different in online spaces, teachers must create a virtual environment which includes, nourishes, and protects all students. Matt Hajdun from The Columbus School, writes: “We can intentionally build the social-emotional supports and learning communities that our students need and deserve by making subtle shifts to the powerful actions we already took in face-to-face schools.”

2. Engage all teachers to serve all students: While multilingual students may be viewed as primarily the responsibility of EAL teachers, during online learning they require intentional and coordinated support from all staff. Schools can equip teachers to ensure multilingual learners are engaged through a variety of methods, including model lessons, instructional coaching, data dialogues and weekly tips for language learning in online and hybrid contexts. Other schools may benefit from a focused effort on leveraging high-impact instructional practices across all content areas.

3. Encourage translanguaging: Recent scholarship has advocated for students to engage in translingual practices and teachers to embrace translanguaging policies and pedagogies (García 2009; García & Kleifgen 2019). Virtual and hybrid learning environments provide an opportunity to encourage students to leverage their full linguistic repertoires to support their learning and to create a school environment that values diverse languages. According to the WIDA Translanguaging Focus Bulletin, learners can “use all of the languages and language varieties available to them to communicate and understand the world around them” (p. 2). Educators should encourage families to discuss schoolwork or read together in their home language and for students to draw on all of their languages through online classroom language norms. Schools must recognize this shift may be difficult for some teachers or families, so should provide opportunities for the entire school community to learn about translanguaging and its importance in supporting students’ linguistic identities as well as their academic success.

4. Maximize virtual collaboration: While the move to online teaching and learning includes many challenges, it also provides new opportunities to collaborate, as discussed in the recent WIDA Collaboration Focus Bulletin. Collaboration between language and content teachers is even more important during remote learning, as it requires new levels of intentionality and coordination. Look for opportunities to engage with colleagues in the following collaboration cycle (Dove & Honigsfeld 2018):

  1. Co-plan (synchronous & asynchronous) to integrate language and content learning

  2. Co-teach to increase opportunities for scaffolding learning in one-to-one or small group instruction

  3. Co-assess to gather multimedia assessment data and ensure multiple perspectives on learning

  4. Co-reflect to identify successful instructional practices and improve collaboration over time.

5. Promote student choice & voice: Remote learning has also provided new ways to engage with students. New media platforms inspire creativity and agency. Teachers should consider how to ask for and incorporate student feedback into the challenges and advantages they identify with online learning. Educators can utilize polls, discussion boards, or chat reflection for students to share their comments and concerns about online learning. Schools can identify opportunities to advocate for the particular needs of multilingual learners during this time. Teachers can amplify student voices by providing opportunities to show their learning across multilingual, multimodal, and multimedia technologies and encourage learners to experiment with new tools.

From Grieving to Growing

Last year we all experienced pain and many of us grieved the loss of loved ones. We also lost holidays, family rituals, and time spent with friends in classrooms or cafes. We cancelled conferences, religious services, and annual gatherings. But we did not lose community; we rediscovered ways to stay connected.

Accelerating educational innovation in response to a public health crisis, international educators reimagined instructional strategies for serving multilingual students, impacting families, colleagues, and school leaders. Over time, this global conversation has the potential to contribute to more equitable, inclusive, and coherent programs. As posited by Cleave (2020) in a pre-COVID research study about multilingual schools: “framing access to the language of the curriculum as a social justice issue alongside asset-based approaches to language and multilingualism also stood out as a particularly powerful approach being taken internationally to make change happen and to ensure multilingual learners have access to an equitable education system” (p. 33).

Within the WIDA global community of practice, educators have not only learned new ways of teaching but also shared inquiry and innovation with peers around the world, ultimately resulting in a framework of promising practices which have the potential to help transform teaching and learning, beyond the current response to the global pandemic.

Thank you to all the educators who contributed to our Community of Practice!

  • Alexandra Gustad, American School of Bombay

  • Lindsay Kuhl, Canadian International School

  • Matt Hajdun, The Columbus School

  • Maja Flom, Sean Fleming and Matthew McDonough, Colegio Roosevelt

  • Tan Huynh, KIS International School

  • Jane Russel Velazy, American International School of Budapest

  • Keisha LaBeach, NCIC Immersion

  • Chelsea Wilson, Nansha College Preparatory Academy

  • Alison Mollel, Luanda International School

  • Rob Martin, American International School of Lusaka

WIDA is a research center at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

Esther Bettney is a Project Assistant with the WIDA global network and a PhD candidate at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.  

Jon Nordmeyer is the WIDA International Program Director.


Cleave, E. (2020). Language, education and social justice: International strategies for systems change in multilingual schools. The Bell Foundation.

Dove, M. G., & Honigsfeld, A. (2018). Collaborative Assessment. Co-Teaching for English Learners: A Guide to Collaborative Planning, Instruction.

García, O. (2009). Bilingual education in the 21st century: A global perspective. West Sussex, U.K.: Wiley-Blackwell.

García, O. & Kleifgen, J. A. (2019). Translanguaging and literacies. Reading Research Quarterly, 55(4).

Wenger, E., McDermott, R. A., & Snyder, W. (2002). Cultivating communities of practice: A guide to managing knowledge. Harvard Business Press.

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