Critical concepts in distance learning for multilingual learners
| May 11, 2020
The current state of affairs has caused a shifting tide from face-to-face instruction to online learning and out-of-the-classroom learning through online platforms; apps; paper packets being sent home; letters and communications; and other creative means to keep students learning.
Educators have done a phenomenal job all over the world in transitioning to remote learning and are working diligently to meet the needs of each student in their classes. But for emergent bilingual and multilingual students, many issues have arisen in terms of meeting their instructional needs.
The intent here is not to share specific resources, as myriad resources are available from a variety of sources. Rather, there are a few critical concepts in instructing these students that hold true for both face-to-face as well as distance learning, be it online or through paper packets, that we should always strive to consider and embed into our instruction.
Consider the Linguistic Demand of Assignments, Websites, and Materials
Perhaps the first and most critical consideration is to consider the language proficiency levels of your students, and the linguistic demand embedded in the materials, tasks, activities, etc. As you are considering and planning your instruction, which materials are available to you, and how you will deliver instruction, begin with not only the content that students need to learn, but also the language that student will need to be familiar with, including the words and phrases they will need to master to understand the content, and later demonstrate their learning.
Consider sharing language objectives with the students so that they are clear on the language skills you are planning on teaching and expecting them to learn. More information on linguistic demand is available through this article: “Determining the linguistic demand of tasks.”
Build Background Knowledge
The current “learn-at-home” scenario may provide us with an opportunity to deepen our students’ background knowledge on a variety of topics. The importance of background knowledge and prior knowledge cannot be underscored, as how much a person already knows about a topic will greatly impact how much they learn.
In other words, the more people know about a topic, the more they will learn about that topic when resented with new information. There are many ways to help build background knowledge in students, even virtually. Having students read an article or book about a topic written at their independent reading level is an excellent way to both provide reading practice as well as build knowledge.
For texts that are written beyond students’ independent reading level, reading a text aloud is another powerful strategy. There are many resources for read-alouds available online, including videos of authors reading books. Teachers can also record themselves reading a book and send the video to their students as a way to make a more personal connection. Video clips are another engaging tool that can be utilized to provide students with new concepts, facts, and ideas.
Comprehensible Input: Videos, Pictures, Infographics
Anytime we are providing instruction to emergent bilinguals and multilingual students, we need to ensure our instruction is comprehensible. This related to the earlier topic of linguistic demand and considering the proficiency level of our students.
There are a variety of strategies that are available to make instruction more comprehensible. One of the most common is to include visual cues such as pictures or gestures to make the instruction more understandable. Videos can also be used for this purpose. Infographics can be an engaging tool as well to provide content while lowering the linguistic demand.
An infographic can also include visuals to help enhance the comprehensibility of the information being provided. More information on this topic is available in the article entitled “Comprehension: Do your English learners understand your instruction?”
Guided Practice and Feedback
Along with comprehensible input, students need guided practice. This follows the gradual release of responsibility model of “I do – We do – You do,” wherein the teacher models the concepts and skills to be learned, the students practice with teacher guidance, then practice with peers, and finally practice independently.
Herein lies a great challenge with distance learning; if we are not utilizing an electronic platform due to resource, connectivity, or other issues, it can be very difficult to provide guided practice to students as we are not with them. In addition, feedback throughout the learning process is essential, yet if we are not observing students directly during the learning process, we cannot provide them with the feedback they need in order to learn more effectively and more efficiently.
Practice can and should still be provided to students as part of the learning process, even if we are not able to interact with students. When we provide practice opportunities that are not live, we should keep the practice short, so that students do not continue to make errors as they practice new concepts. We should strive to also provide feedback to students as quickly as possible, so that students can practice the concepts and skills correctly.
Please read these articles for more info:
- “The importance of guided practice in the classroom”
- “Providing feedback to English learners: why, when, and how”
Emergent bilinguals and multilingual students need opportunities to practice language with their peers as they practice content. Students need to be provided opportunities to utilize the language you are teaching. While this can be done through independent practice, opportunities for authentic practice with other students is preferred.
If you are utilizing an online platform in which students can talk to each other, provide live opportunities for students to talk to each other about the content you are teaching. Writing opportunities can also be provided in live or asynchronous learning. If online learning is not an option, consider calling students to have them talk with you, or if possible, arrange for them to call each other to have conversations in the target language.
If students have access to technology such as a cell phone, they can also record videos of themselves to send to the teacher or their classmates. There are multiple apps and platforms that are designed for this purpose, and students can certainly share short videos through email or text as well.
The following two articles discuss the concept of interaction in more depth:
- “From interaction to discourse: increase EL academic language proficiency”
- “Tightening up ‘turn and talk’ to foster more purposeful linguistic practice”
In terms of assessment, a key concept to consider is what exactly we are assessing. Are we assessing students’ mastery of content? Use of vocabulary and language structures taught? Both? Or something else? Assessment in remote and distant learning situations can also be a challenge as we are not always able to directly observe students as we are assessing them.
We do not necessarily know if they are accessing other resources, for example, if we send home an assessment. There are multiple online platforms that can be used, as well as having students video themselves, as discussed earlier, that can be utilized for assessment purposes. Of course, any assignment that students turn in can also be used for assessment purposes, by utilizing a rubric or through careful analysis of the language and content skills they are practicing.
In any assessment, focus on the essential language and content that you taught. Return to your objectives to the lesson, and hone in on the critical concepts and skills that were included in the lesson. The following article discusses assessment in greater detail: “Assessment for English learners: content, language, or both?”
While we are in a challenging time in education, with remote or distance learning being the norm for many at this time, it is important to remember that good, solid instruction for emergent bilinguals and multilingual students remains critical no matter the platform or learning format.
We are all hopeful that face-to-face instruction will resume soon. Many people have concerns about student privacy with online learning, as students’ data and locations may be tracked through online platforms, potentially putting students at risk. Teachers are working hard to meet the needs of their students, through a variety of means. I, for one, appreciate everything each of you is doing to support students during this difficult time. Thank you, educators!
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