What does equity really mean for multilingual learners?

Read excerpts from a new article by WIDA International Program Director Jon Nordmeyer, WIDA Founder and Director Tim Boals and WIDA researchers Rita MacDonald and Ruslana Westerlund. The full article is published in ASCD Educational Leadership.

The landscape of schools today is increasingly multilingual. To achieve equity in culturally and linguistically diverse schools, we need not just new strategies but new roles — for both teachers and students. We need to recognize what meaningful engagement with rigorous content learning actually involves, and we need to understand that effective language interactions are at the heart of that engagement. Creating the conditions necessary for such interactions goes well beyond what we have traditionally considered “good teaching.” English proficiency cannot be seen as a prerequisite to meaningful participation in the curriculum because this limits engagement. Instead, language must be viewed as something that is developed in the process of learning.

Engaging multilingual learners means leveraging their energy and curiosity, their diverse experiences, and their creativity as communicators. Multilingual learners are no longer the few students in the back of the room, whose ideas we’ll tap into later when they’re able to share them with us in English. Their participation in class discussions and critical thinking processes is an increasingly important element of our shared future. We will need students with the cultural, linguistic and intellectual flexibility to be able to cross borders and bridge communities, to help solve the global crises we face — whether climate change, ethnic conflicts, or perhaps the next global pandemic.

Across all grade levels and subject areas, we can help to engage multilingual students in meaningful academic conversations and authentic intellectual work. When we recognize the unique assets of each learner, we can build bridges to rigorous and challenging grade-level content. We can scaffold learning by identifying the language that is already embedded in the curriculum. Once we can “see the language in the learning,” we can create opportunities that allow students to use all the tools in their toolbox, including home languages, to engage meaningfully with content and each other.

The familiarity of teacher-fronted instruction is giving way to new participatory structures. Contemporary content standards emphasize students’ reasoning and their ability to make and support evidence-based claims and to articulate their logic, all of which are best supported by having students work in small groups to reason collaboratively about meaningful issues and questions. Small group work, appropriately supported, provides important opportunities for the negotiation of meaning that supports language development. Students are being invited up onto the stage; they are more engaged and in control of their own learning.

Providing equitable opportunities to learn requires us to develop not only new skills such as scaffolding up, but also new (asset-based) beliefs about multilingualism like the value of translanguaging as a learning strategy. By over-emphasizing not only English proficiency but “correctness” in English, we might inadvertently signal to multilingual students that their work isn’t as good as their peers’. Mixed messages can confuse or frustrate highly capable multilingual students who may be struggling. So, while some students begin seeing themselves as capable of taking on academically successful or career-oriented identities, multilingual learners wrongly surmise that they can’t cut it, when the truth is they simply need supported, engaged opportunities to learn.

We clearly see the dilemma: multilingual learners cannot benefit from an unsupported curriculum, but if “language support” means a remedial curriculum or simplified, inauthentic language, we have set up students for long-term failure even as they fall behind grade-level expectations. To protect multilingual learners from struggling with academic work, we might reduce task complexity or segregate students, inadvertently preventing some of them from meaningfully engaging with complex language or content. On the other hand, just putting a dense text or complex task in front of students without appropriate support is not effective either. Ambitious content standards deserve ambitious teaching. Equitably serving multilingual students who are learning both language and content requires intentional scaffolding.

Equity means scaffolding up, rather than watering down, to create a rich instructional environment that challenges all students to inquire, negotiate meaning and articulate complex disciplinary concepts. It means creating the conditions for multilingual students to become protagonists of their own learning. It is time to stop seeing English proficiency as a prerequisite to success and fully embrace multilingual learners for the journey of learning the “real” content in the “real” school in ways that engage and support all learners. Only then will we be able provide a full range of equitable and meaningful opportunities to all.

The full article is found in the journal’s “Equity in Action” issue which costs $9.95 to purchase on the Educational Leadership website.