Supporting multilingual students’ learning in a time of school closures
Monday, March 30, 2020
There is an old adage in education: “all students can learn.” While I agree wholeheartedly with the statement, I believe a more accurate statement would be “all students will learn.”
Every human learns. We learn language, learn how to navigate the world around us, how to build relationships, how to feed ourselves, and myriad other skills. Of course, it is also appropriate to ask if students will learn the skills we are teaching in schools. When it comes to school closures or extended student absences, what will students continue to learn?
For the past 24 or so years of my career in education, I have heard many teachers lament that students, especially students with family in other countries, leave during the winter months for an extended period to visit family. Teachers often lament the lack of learning that happens during extended absences. During this time of school closures, similar concerns have arisen, as teachers are rightly concerned that students may not continue the learning that is needed for students to progress to the next grade level.
However, students often are learning a great deal, though it may not follow the current standards, curriculum, and topics the student was learning at school. While many teachers are providing online learning supports for students, concerns arise for our multilingual students in terms of access to apps, websites, and resources that may be in a language that is not accessible to the students or their families.
The added challenge of internet access for every student can exacerbate inequities that already exist in the community. How then, do we tap into the learning that is happening on a day to day basis? How can we maximizing learning for multilingual learners, when the learning they are experiencing may not be in the target language?
During the current time of school closures, that may be temporary or may be extended, as well as when students experience an extended absence for any reason, it is important that begin with a shift in mindset. Rather than lament the lack of learning the prescribed grade-level curriculum, we can focus on the learning opportunities that the student will have at home, in their community, and with their families. There are many excellent learning opportunities to be had with family members and community members that students can interact with.
None of these activities require an internet connection and can be done from anywhere in the world. Consider each of these activities, how you can encourage students to engage in them, and how students can demonstrate their learning. Consider also the language learning that can take place, depending on the language utilized during the activity.
To build on the experiences when students return to school, targeted instruction could be done to develop vocabulary and language structures to discuss or write about the experiences in the target language. Language is developed more deeply through conversation. Even if students are speaking in their native language, the skills they are building through conversation and writing and document their learning will later transfer to the target language.
Talk with or interview a family member, elder, or community member:
1. How has the place you’re in (town, street, house, etc.) changed over the years? Go on a walk and discuss the area. Draw a picture of the place before and after. Write a compare and contrast paragraph about the similarities and differences.
2. Create a family tree with the oldest person you have access to. Ask about relatives and ancestors, and write their names, and any other details such as where they lived, what they did for work, or what they liked to do.
3. Ask a parent or someone older about their childhood experiences. Ask what they did for fun. Write a description or make a sketch of them doing the activity.
4. Listen to a traditional story or song from your culture. These could be stories your parents learned as children or folk songs or music from their home culture. Write down the story and illustrate it. Alternatives for students with devices could be to record a retell of the story, save a version of the song, or record someone telling the story on audio or video.
5. Learn a new recipe: try cooking with a family member or community member. Measure or estimate the amount of each ingredient as instructed by the person helping you cook. Pay attention to the order of how ingredients are combined, and document how the food was served and how it tasted. Write the recipe as you learned it, adding sketches and directions.
6. Learn to build something, repair something, or learn a new skill. Activities with families can include helping to make a repair, build something, or learning gardening skills. Document the steps you took through sketches and writing.
7. Go on a walk with someone, and create a map of your neighborhood or community, or place you are visiting. Include places of importance and of historical or cultural interest. Label your map. As a bonus, write directions of how to get from one place to another
Any assignment in which students document the time they have spent with others, including family members, can provide evidence of learning while they were away from school. Students can document their learning in writing in any language, as the information can then be transferred to the target language as students return to the school environment.
While the learning may not exactly match the standards for the grade level, students may begin to see their experiences outside of the formal school environment as relevant and interesting learning experiences that add meaning to their lives and to what they are learning in school.
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