When the world turned suddenly to online learning, teachers everywhere were scrambling to learn new technologies, new systems for delivering lessons, and new ways of creating learning experiences that were effective for all learners.
Early in the process, back in March 2020, we realized that we needed to hear from the students about how they were feeling about the new way of learning. Our main concern at that time was multilingual students who were falling behind with work across all of their classes.
Students shared honestly in one-on-one conferences: they weren’t doing the work because it was just too hard, too much, too confusing, and too overwhelming. It wasn’t accessible enough. The message came through loud and clear that we all needed to differentiate even more than usual.
Since then, teachers everywhere have repeatedly faced new and ongoing challenges as we have transitioned through various forms of learning from synchronous virtual learning, to asynchronous virtual learning, to hybrid learning in one format or another, to in-person socially distanced learning, and possibly back again as restrictions have tightened and relaxed throughout the year.
Throughout this process, we have tried to ensure that multilingual students' voices are heard and that we provide a variety of options so all students can succeed. This time of ongoing transitions means moving away from a one-size-fits-all approach towards a range of opportunities allowing for both choice and student agency.
Many teachers use the phrase “We’re all language teachers,” but what does that look like and how does it play out in a linguistically diverse international classroom and across a variety of distance, hybrid, and in-person but socially-distanced learning models? Meeting the needs of multilingual students is critical for student success. Providing scaffolding that builds on the strengths of students across domains of listening, speaking, reading, and writing - and in a variety of learning contexts - can present a challenge for teachers.
Navigating the new system along with our students, we realized we really were ‘all in this together.’ In order to create new systems and strategies that were most effective, we looked to those with the clearest perspective on the student experience: the learners themselves!
In order to differentiate to meet learning needs in this new virtual world, student voices are key to helping teachers understand the impact of online learning, and gathering regular feedback on what helps and what hinders is key to ensuring that all are able to engage in learning - including our multilingual students.
Unfortunately, it can be more challenging for teachers to glean multilingual students’ voices than those of their peers. Whether due to nervousness, embarrassment about speaking skills, or cultural preferences, multilingual learners may not want to tell a teacher when something is unclear.
As a result, teachers often do not hear the voices of language learners or those who may be struggling to understand a lesson. As language support teachers, we need to ensure these voices are heard by all teachers - by eliciting them, by promoting them, and by amplifying them.
Giving students voice and choice in their learning is a powerful way to engage and support learners and meet their individual needs. By creating opportunities for students to voice their opinions, needs, and concerns, we can learn what best supports multilingual learners’ experiences in the virtual learning environment. Offering students choice promotes differentiated learning experiences and includes students in the process of finding the “just right” fit for their learning.
As language support teachers, we are often in a unique position of working with multilingual learners in small groups, where they are more comfortable sharing their opinions, needs, and concerns with us. We can leverage this position to elicit, promote, and amplify student voice in intentional ways.
One of the ways we found particularly helpful for eliciting student voice was with regular and frequent check-ins with students. A designated “help-session” or “office hours” allowed students to share how they were feeling and ensured each student’s voice was heard.
At AISB, we amplified student voices by creating a ‘feedback forum.’ Teachers could sign up to participate voluntarily, and we arranged structured feedback conferences between the teacher and a small group of their students, ensuring varied perspectives were represented, including multilingual learners.
Teachers posed an essential question they wanted feedback on, and we facilitated feedback conversations. This was enormously popular with both teachers and students as a way to elicit feedback from students on our distance learning efforts and is an initiative that we have continued back on campus and through hybrid learning.
Other intentional ways to elicit, promote, and amplify students’ voices:
- Confer with students to co-create language and learning goals
- Regular student surveys
- Provide in-person or virtual office hours or help-sessions for students to access the level of support needed
- Host online ‘instant chat groups’ such as Google Hangout Chats, where multilingual students can quickly ask clarifying questions and teachers or other students can answer in the moment
- In hybrid classes, buddy students at home with in-class learners on video chats, so that at-home learners are less isolated and can comfortably ask questions to and through their buddy as needed during classes.
- During co-planning sessions with co-teachers, share the students’ needs and concerns elicited and work with teachers to co-plan and co-create supports in response to those needs
When teachers elicit multilingual students’ voices - and then promote and amplify them within their own school contexts - all teachers benefit from hearing them.
Differentiation for multilingual students should focus on choice-based opportunities for scaffolding the process or product with diverse language options, while keeping the learning objective the same. When teachers modify the task or the expected outcome too much, then student progress and learning outcomes can become compromised. Instead, scaffolding provides multiple pathways for students to show they have learned a concept or developed a skill. Students are in charge of their own learning. Providing differentiated instruction through scaffolded choices for students allows for student agency in the learning process.
Technology offers multilingual learners additional opportunities for self-selected differentiation to support their academic and linguistic growth. One of the unexpected benefits of virtual learning was that it provided possibilities for managing a diverse array of student learning activities, without the chaos that might come with having such individualized learning happening in one room. Students could self-select from a variety of asynchronous learning options, and exit ticket surveys provided an excellent way to monitor progress and encourage reflection.
Flipping the classroom and using class time as work time for all students is an excellent way to allow for differentiation and student choice. For example, students can watch instructional videos at their own pace and then engage in meaningful language activities during class time, such as writing or talking in small breakout groups. Teachers can respond to their written or spoken language and provide feedback in the moment, before the next lesson is introduced. Benefits of this approach include:
- Providing more immediate feedback to multilingual learners.
- Preventing students from working on frustrating tasks on their own, by instead working on the challenging tasks during class time.
- Offering students the chance to choose to self-differentiate by rewatching videos, changing the speed, turning on subtitles, changing subtitles to different languages, etc.
- Offering a more individualized approach to language learning and freedom for students to decide how to use their time.
Some other ways to offer student choice:
- For reading tasks, provide different scaffolds through annotated texts, audio recordings, or videos. Support different levels of reading proficiency with leveled choices to match the subject content and inquiry lines. Students can choose the “just right” fit for reading and engaging with the text.
- When providing instructions, use different language modes for students to access them (e.g., video instructions, written instructions, videos with subtitles, etc.)
- Ask students when they need your help the most - at the beginning, middle, or near the end of a task - and offer them opportunities to ‘sign up’ for support at the point when they need it
- Offer multiple learning options or projects. Create a ‘menu’ choice board of options for students to choose the language domain on which to focus for a particular content goal, based on their personal language goals. For example, a student whose goal is to improve their speaking skills could choose a speaking option as their product, while a student whose goal is to improve their writing skills could choose a writing option.
- Encourage students to use their home language as a tool for learning - e.g., research or collaborate in their first language and share findings in English
As teaching continues to evolve along with the COVID-19 situation, teachers all over the world need to continue to respond to the changing learning landscape while meeting the needs of all students. Through partnering with learners, we can help them to be agents of their own learning by encouraging them to make their voices heard and to make choices that benefit their academic growth. We truly are ALL learning together through this journey. Education is unlikely to ever look the same ‘old way’ again, and probably shouldn’t. Instead, as educators we should take what we have learned through the past year and build on it to further our learning and that of our students, as ‘new ways’ of education take shape in the future.
Lindsay Kuhl, Canadian International School
Jane Russell Valezy, American International School of Budapest
Esther Bettney, WIDA International Program