Significant numbers of international schools are shifting away from traditional “English-only” approaches as they consider how to leverage the multilingual resources of their communities. In particular, many international schools are shifting toward dual language models, yet we still lack sufficient documentation showing how schools have made these significant changes.
In this article, Stephanie Drynan, former dual language and English as an additional language (EAL) coordinator at Qatar Foundation Schools (QFS), reflects back on the initial stage of QFS’ shift toward a dual language model. She provides insights into the philosophical and logistical challenges faced, key lessons learned, and potential next steps. While the reflection considers a particular context, her insights are broadly applicable to many international schools shifting their approach to language instruction. Qatar Foundation Schools
Qatar Foundation is a non-profit organization made up of more than 50 entities working in education, research, and community development (https://www.qf.org.qa/about). QFS is a growing family of 13 schools and approximately 7,000 students. While students are predominantly Qatari, the large, multilingual student body represents 40 nationalities. Although QFS use English as a medium of instruction (EMI) with content courses taught in English, each individual QFS might have anywhere between 65 percent and 99 percent of students who speak their national Arabic dialect at home and Modern Standard Arabic (MSA) alongside English at school.
As English is an additional language for many students, they often require English language support at school. Beginning in 2016, QFS placed an emphasis on EAL programs to assist with the identified needs of multilingual students and the professional development of their educators. Since then, individual schools have developed their EAL programming differently and independently. By 2020, nearly all schools used the WIDA Measure of Developing English Language (MODEL) for English language assessment. Coordinators supported teachers in engaging with data-informed practice using the WIDA Key Uses and the WIDA Can Do Descriptors. A growing understanding of EAL students and their needs led to strengthening QFS policies to guide inclusive practices and year-long professional development focused on language acquisition and cultural engagement. A deeper understanding of language development was concurrent with a renewed focus on supporting the Arabic language of students. Shift to Dual Language Program
In recent years, QFS determined all schools would transition to a dual language (DL) model. This implementation was informed by the Center for Applied Linguistics’ (CAL) Guiding Principles for Dual Language Education (2018), which defines DL as, “Any program that provides literacy and content instruction to all students through two languages and that promotes bilingualism and biliteracy, grade-level academic achievement, and sociocultural competence…for all students” (p. 3).
To begin, the curriculum unit surveyed all schools to understand their current position on the continuum from minimal alignment to exemplary practice as outlined by CAL. They then developed multi-year professional development to increase capacity in the schools around DL programming. While this work is ongoing, what can we glean already from the initial challenges faced and lessons learned? Challenges Faced
All schools face significant challenges when engaging in these types of organization-wide shifts. In the case of QFS, this change required common understanding through communication, significant logistical management, and faith in the initiative to keep moving forward.
First, it was critical to establish a common understanding of what was meant by DL and of the linguistic repertoire of the students. For example, DL programs are committed to graduates who are bilingual, bi-literate, and bicultural. Therefore, Modern Standard Arabic or French as an additional language class each week was unlikely to meet these proficiency goals for all students. Each school had multiple grade-level divisions with different understandings of, and willingness to engage with, a transition to DL. Developing a common language across eight schools was a significant challenge faced at the outset of the DL initiative.
Second, establishing consistent plans, policies, standards, and scopes and sequences was another challenge. Schools had different language plans (i.e., number of hours in a language, curriculum for the language, assessment schedule) written in a variety of formats making horizontal alignment difficult to determine. With the advent of DL, language policies that stated the schools were English-language schools needed to be amended. Other logistical challenges were significant as well. For example, timetabling and staffing a DL program required a great deal of strategic enterprise to address. Additionally, QFS faculty noted they struggled with finding pedagogical resources to support Arabic language acquisition, including language training resources for the Arabic teachers. Data-savvy faculty who understood the powerful educational value of the Measure of Academic Progress (MAP) and WIDA data pushed for a similarly useful Arabic language assessment instrument, yet the search continues for a right-fit Arabic language assessment.
Throughout the process, the curriculum unit team was buoyed by the accretion of faculty who were inspired by the initiative, willing to try new ideas and methodologies, and genuinely believed DL was in the best interests of their students. Inquiries and requests for advice and pedagogical resources were informal measures of the success of the initiative, and the success of communication. These buttressed the team’s faith in the initiative and the rewards of “showing up” and investing in the granular grind involved in leading change. Lessons Learned
In addition to significant challenges, there are many lessons learned thus far in the process, including the complexity of the process and the need for diverse voices. First, developing a thorough communication and engagement program for the leadership teams was critical. QFS’ dedicated team spent months with the executive director and school directors helping these leaders to better understand the characteristics and implications of linguistic diversity in their schools. There were important “ah ha” moments throughout the sessions. For example, in one meeting, a faculty member noted with significant surprise, “You mean, most of my students’ home languages are NOT the same as the Arabic they learn at school?” This foundational groundwork took months and was critical to the later roll-out of the DL initiative.
Second, we learned it is important to hear from as many community members as possible. Through various faculty meetings across schools, we increased collaborative understanding and practice. Faculty were able to share concerns and to feel they were not alone in their struggle to action with this new strategic objective. The DL team also visited each school multiple times over the year and observed DL classes. The DL team aimed to be responsive, apply appreciative inquiry, and customize their approach to each school individually.
Shepherding and championing DL across such a large school district was rewarding and provided great opportunities for learning about leading change through communication, passion, commitment, and the logistics needed. Finding additional avenues for hearing from all stakeholders will continue to be a priority.
As we reflect back on the challenges faced and lessons learned, we also look forward to the next steps. Although each QF school began at different points in their DL journies, each demonstrated forward movement. Continued capacity building is ongoing through extensive DL workshops and workshops with Arabic and English-speaking DL leaders in each school. DL leaders in turn provide workshops for their teachers, assistant teachers, and coordinators. The planned capacity building through thoughtfully designed professional development will support QF students in accessing and maximizing their full linguistic repertoire.
QFS expresses their gratitude for the partnership with WIDA at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, as well as the consistent support and solutions-based responses from the WIDA international programs team at every step of the journey.
Stephanie Drynan is currently leading change for equity for multilingual learners at a school in Singapore. She continues her focus on ensuring students access and use their full linguistic repertoires to tell their own stories.
Dr. Esther Bettney Heidt is an independent consultant and educational researcher who supports international schools in implementing equitable approaches to multilingual education.
Jon Nordmeyer is the WIDA international program director at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, supporting research and development for a global network of over 500 schools.