Conversations with Tim: A growing international consensus on educating multilingual learners

August 3, 2020

By Tim Boals and Jon Nordmeyer

I recently had the privilege of working with Emma Cleave, a British researcher who studies equity for multilingual learners in schools around the world. At WIDA, equity is a key part of our mission, and we were delighted to be able to participate in her research.

“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 that multilingual learners have access to an equitable education system.” -- Cleave (2020)

Cleeve’s report, “Language, education and social justice: International strategies for systems change in multilingual schools” was published this month. It was supported by the Bell Foundation, a British nonprofit dedicated to equity, inclusion, social justice and international understanding, with language education as a means to those ends.

Emma Cleave toured five school systems in three countries while gathering research for the report. During her time in the U.S. last year, we were pleased to welcome her to WIDA at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. We had several days to share our perspective and to learn from her. We enjoyed fruitful exchanges that included a presentation to WIDA staff and, of course, a few meals with lively discussions.

Since this report sought a global perspective, Emma was particularly interested in how WIDA standards and assessments transcend national boundaries. In order to learn more about the WIDA International School Consortium, a voluntary network of 500 independent schools in over 100 countries, Emma attended a four-day WIDA International Institute in Brussels, Belgium. At the WIDA Institute, she heard from educators across Europe and learned how they apply asset-based approaches to serve multilingual learners.

Emma learned about the advocacy and leadership that WIDA provides for international educators. Since the global WIDA member schools are independent, policies and programs are locally determined. WIDA helps international educators, leaders and policy-makers develop an asset-based mindset and utilize WIDA resources as a system to integrate language and content learning. Equitable programs in international schools serve multilingual learners through professional collaboration, family engagement and a clear school-wide vision that has been co-created by educators and the entire school community.

Emma’s report focuses on instructional strategies for systems change in schools serving multilingual learners. She includes practices and ideas that speak directly to teachers, administrators, professional developers and policy makers on the issue of building and sustaining truly equitable, inclusive and coherent programs for multilingual learners. A few highlights from the report confirm that successful schools:

  • Have broad support for multilingual learner success, not isolated programs
  • Value and support language and cultural diversity
  • Build on students’ backgrounds and see them as assets, establishing “Can Do” practices, rather than “remediating gaps”
  • Engage and give voice to the families of multilingual learners
  • Prioritize language learning throughout the entire curriculum and within all classrooms
  • Provide equitable and supported access to the most challenging curriculum for multilingual learners

Based on her global research with WIDA and other organizations, Emma outlines clear next steps for schools in England to engage learners, to shift mindsets, to collaborate with school leaders, to integrate assessment with instruction and ultimately to design a new national policy for multilingual classrooms.

It’s great to see a growing consensus globally around what multilingual learners need to succeed. Hats off to Emma Cleave for this major, research-based contribution!

About Conversations with Tim

Conversations with Tim, WIDA Founder and Director is a monthly WIDA news column. In each column, WIDA Founder and Director Tim Boals discusses the important innovation, research and collaboration taking place in the field of multilingual learner education. At times, Conversations with Tim may spotlight a colleague in the field and give voice to their work and perspective.


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