Voices from the Field: Promote student choice & voice to support and differentiate learning

In the January Voices from the Field article, Lindsay Kuhl (MYP ELL teacher, Canadian International School, Singapore), Jane Russell Valezy (MS EAL teacher, American International School of Budapest) and Esther Bettney (WIDA International Project Assistant) discuss promoting student choice and student voice to support and differentiate learning.

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 with the new way of learning. Our main concern at that time was our multilingual students who were falling behind with work across all of their classes. The clear message that came through in one-on-one conferences with students: they weren’t doing the work because it was just too hard, too much, 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.

Why?

Many teachers use the phrase “We’re all language teachers,” but what does that look like and how does that play out in an international classroom with a variety of levels of language learners? Meeting the diverse needs of the students is critical for student success. Scaffolding support appropriate to the correct language level, for each of the different language domains of listening, speaking, reading, and writing, all in a virtual context, adds a whole new dimension of challenge for all teachers.

Navigating this new system along with our students, we found we really were ‘all in this together’ - so why not co-create the new systems and strategies to find what is most effective with those who have the clearest perspective on the learning experience - the learners themselves! In order to differentiate to meet students’ needs in this new virtual world, students’ own voices are key to helping us as teachers understand their needs during online learning, and gathering regular feedback from students on what helps and what hinders is key to ensuring that all students are able to engage in learning - including our multilingual students.

It is often hard though for multilingual students’ voices to be heard among the others. Due to nervousness or embarrassment about their speaking skills, or perhaps for cultural reasons, they don’t always want to speak up 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 their voices are heard by everyone - by eliciting them, by promoting them, and by amplifying them.

How?

Giving students voice and choice in their learning is a powerful way to engage and support learners and meet their individual needs.

Voice

By creating opportunities for students to voice their opinions, needs, and concerns, we can learn what supports multilingual learners’ experiences in the virtual learning environment. One of the ways we found helpful was with a daily check-in with students. A designated “help-session” or “office hours” allowed students to share how they were feeling and ensure each student’s voice was being heard. At AISB, a key way we amplified student voices was 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 using a conversation protocol. (See an example of the conversation protocol, including an example of a visual on group norms which can be provided to teachers and students). 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 are continuing back on campus.

Intentional ways to hear students’ voices about their virtual learning experiences:

  • Create a forum or channel for student voice/feedback (ie. posing questions to small groups of students, regular student surveys)
  • Ensure a system for teachers to share with students what they are planning to do, such as through shared Google docs, and ask students for specific feedback which teachers can incorporate into their next lessons
  • Regular check-ins with multilingual students to create a space to share and to understand their needs and facilitate reflection on their learning
  • Offer office hours or daily help-sessions for students to choose the level of support needed
  • Class ‘chat groups’ where students can quickly ask clarifying questions and teachers or students can answer in the moment

We encourage teachers to elicit their own students’ voices - and then promote and amplify them within their own school contexts, so that all teachers can benefit from hearing them.

Choice

Offering students choice promotes differentiated learning experiences and includes students in the process of finding the “just right” fit for their learning. Differentiation for multilingual students should focus on options 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 achieved a standard.

Providing differentiated instruction through scaffolded choices for students allows for student agency in the learning process. In a virtual setting, self-selected differentiation provides a unique opportunity for multilinguals to grow. One of the unexpected benefits of virtual learning was that it opened up opportunities 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 differentiated learning options, and exit ticket surveys provided an excellent way to check in on them as well as push them to continually reflect on their progress.

Ways to promote student choice:

  • For reading tasks of websites or digital resources, teachers can provide different scaffolds through annotated texts, audio recordings, or videos. Students can choose the “just right” fit for reading and engaging with the text.
  • Support different levels of reading proficiency with leveled choices to match the subject content and inquiry lines
  • When providing instruction, 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 - before, during or after a task
  • Based on student reflections and personal language goals, offer multiple learning options or projects that they can choose from to pursue their language learning goals
  • Encourage students to research or collaborate in their first language and share findings in English

Multimodal & Multimedia Technologies: Flip the Classroom

Flipping the classroom and using the online class time as work time for all students allows for differentiation and student choice. For example, students can watch instructional videos at their own pace and then engage in meaningful language activities during virtual class time, such as writing or talking in small breakout groups. Teachers can respond to the written or spoken language and provide feedback or correct misconceptions if necessary before the next lesson is introduced.

Benefits of this approach:

  • Provides more immediate feedback to multilingual learners.
  • Prevents students from working on frustrating tasks on their own, as they can work on the challenging tasks during virtual class time.
  • Offers students the chance to rewatch videos, change the speed, turn on subtitles, change subtitles to different languages, etc.
  • A more individualized approach to language learning, including options that were difficult in classrooms due to space/noise constraints.
  • Freedom for students to decide how to use their time.

Resources

Read more Voices from the Field: