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  • Writer's pictureAMISA

Five Things We Can Do to Support Multilingual Students Online

In the midst of the current global pandemic, one of the greatest impacts has been the move to online teaching and learning. For many families around the world, children shifted seemingly overnight from attending a traditional, in-person school to engaging primarily through some type of electronic device. While online learning is not new, the sheer numbers of K-12 students across the world participating in it as their primary means of formal education is novel. 

While face-to-face meetings have not been possible, educators and scholars in the WIDA International School Consortium have been collaborating across virtual spaces to connect, co-create and re-imagine together. The WIDA global network of 500 schools across over 100 countries is committed to serving multilingual learners. Over the past six months, WIDA has engaged educators around the world through FlipGrid conversations, professional learning surveys and social media conversations. The WIDA Global 2020 Flipgrid videoshare had over 10,000 views and 185 hours of engagement. As a research center in the School of Education at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, we also wanted to know what existing research had to say about supporting multilingual learners online. And while there is not yet much specific research on this particular topic, we were able to draw on the 2019 WIDA Guiding Principles of Language Development to create a helpful resource highlighting what students and teachers can do to support multilingual students during this time.

We have also initiated a small Community of Practice (CoP) comprised of international educators from around the world, including two educators from AAASA member schools: Maja Flom (Colegio FDR) and Matt Hajdun (The Columbus School). Together, we inquired into the focus question: Given the “probletunities” in the new “coronaverse”, how can the WIDA global network support teachers in understanding and using their experience to serve multilingual learners in the coming school year?

Together with these global educators, we drafted an asset-based collection of high leverage practices for teaching multilingual learners online: Five Things We Can Do. These topics help educators identify actions they can take, based on the experience of our various global members.

  1. Build social-emotional support and maintain community: When considering how to support multilingual students in online learning, start with the basis for all teaching: relationships. Prioritize time for building relationships with individual students and small groups and facilitate opportunities for students to connect with each other. For example, start each day with a morning meeting, focused on social and emotional support. Consider how to reduce stress for students, such as scheduling offline breaks, and have plans in place so students can reach out when they need additional help.

  2. Engage all teachers to serve all students: In the midst of significant shifts in their school experiences, students need the support of all of their teachers in new ways. In particular, while multilingual students may have been seen in the past as primarily the responsibility of EAL teachers, in remote learning they require intentional and coordinated support from all. For some teachers, they may require additional in-house professional development to know how to support multilingual students in online classes. In other contexts, schools could benefit from a focused effort on leveraging particular high-impact practices across all subject areas, such as scaffolding speaking and writing tasks.

  3. Encourage translanguaging: Moving outside of the traditional classroom can be a time to consider new ways of learning. While students may not feel comfortable in speaking their home languages at school, now can be the time to encourage students to leverage all of their linguistic repertoires to support language and content learning. Encourage families to discuss schoolwork or read together in their home language. Provide opportunities for students to draw on their languages in virtual spaces through creating online classroom language norms. Recognize that this shift toward more open language expectations may be difficult for some to accept, including teachers, students and parents. Provide opportunities for all stakeholders to learn about translanguaging and its importance in supporting students’ linguistic identities.

  4. Maximize virtual collaboration: While the move to online teaching and learning includes many challenges, it also provides new opportunities to collaborate, as discussed in the recent WIDA Focus Bulletin. Collaboration between language and content teachers is even more important during remote learning, as it requires new levels of intentionality and coordination. Look for opportunities to engage with colleagues in the Collaboration cycle (Dove & Honigsfeld, 2018): Co-teach to increase opportunities for 1-1 or small group instruction Co-plan (synchronous & asynchronous) to integrate language and content learning Co-assess to ensure multiple perspectives on learning Co-reflect to recognize and build on success over time

  5. Promote student choice & voice: Remote learning has also provided new ways to engage with students. Consider how to ask for and incorporate student feedback into the challenges and advantages they identify with online learning. For example, provide discussion boards or forums for students to share their comments and concerns about online learning. Look for opportunities to advocate for the particular needs of multilingual students during this time. Leverage students’ expertise by providing various opportunities to show their learning across various multimodal & multimedia technologies – and encourage them to experiment with new ones!

2020 has been a year like no other in recent memory. While it has been a challenging time for families, teachers and students, we continue alongside our partners across the WIDA global network in our shared commitment to support multilingual students.

Thank you to all of the members of the WIDA Community of Practice and the WIDA International Programs staff that contributed their ideas to this article.

  1. Maja Flom, Colegio FDR

  2. Alexandra Gustad, American School of Bombay

  3. Matt Hajdun, The Columbus School

  4. Tan Huynh, KIS International School

  5. Lindsay Kuhl, Canadian International School

  6. Keisha LaBeach, NCIC Immersion

  7. Chelsea Wilson, Nansha College Preparatory Academy

  8. Jane Russel Velazy, American International School of Budapest

Learn more about the WIDA global network or join the conversation with other international educators about how to best support multilingual students through our Flipgrid community.


Esther Bettney is a Project Assistant with the WIDA International Consortium. She is also a PhD Candidate at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Her dissertation focuses on innovative approaches to multilingual education within K12 bilingual schools in Central and South America. Find Esther on Twitter @BettneyEsther


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