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What do we mean when we say opportunity to learn and equity for multilingual learners?

In this opinion piece, Tim Boals, WIDA founder and director, gives his perspective on what it takes to make sure that multilingual students encounter opportunities to learn and experience equality in the classroom. Tim rounds out his message with a list of 12 elements that school programs should have to ensure that multilingual learners thrive.

I believe teachers like to see all their students thrive. This is why they teach. Nonetheless, myths about language learning, the role of culture or home languages or about the need for language or content remediation and what that involves persist, and often get in the way of creating and sustaining real opportunities for multilingual learners to learn.

Lately some politicians and commentators suggest that schools should push equal opportunity but not equity. Equity is bad, they say, because it implies that we want students to all be the same. I disagree. The notion of equity for multilingual learners can be traced to Lau vs. Nichols (1974) where the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that giving multilingual learners equal treatment in the same classroom was not, in fact, equal, because without proper support multilingual learners would not understand the same lesson as the English speakers or proficient English readers would. Equity, in this context, is akin to getting the correct eyeglasses. We all need a different prescription to have an equal opportunity to see clearly. If we follow that analogy in the case of multilingual learners, we must provide them equity in the classroom through support that acknowledges where they are on the continuum of learning English, as well as how their home languages, cultures and individual identities can be used as assets.

First, let me delve deeper into what I mean by opportunity to learn for multilingual students, which does include — but goes beyond — equal access to challenging curricula. Then I will list some of the most important, research-based components necessary to support achieving that. Neither my list nor my explanations are meant to be exhaustive, but I will end by listing some resources to pursue this journey further. Afterward, you might ask yourself the following questions:

  • To what extent is my school or my language support program engaged in these practices?
  • Are we getting the results we should? And most importantly, are multilingual learners thriving here?
  • Do they have genuine opportunities to learn and support for success? 

Opportunity to learn for multilingual learners is providing access to the richest curriculum each school has to offer and the necessary support to achieve success in learning; while acquiring English proficiency, not after it is acquired. English proficiency cannot be viewed as a prerequisite to learning challenging content. We should not delay meaningful access to rigorous content. Regardless of where they are in the English acquisition continuum, we must guarantee they have access to the very best offerings in our schools: gifted/talented programs, the enrichment opportunities, grade-level curriculum and advanced classes. At the same time, we should make sure that we are supporting those programs in ways that help our multilingual learners succeed in those environments. This is what we mean by opportunity, or opportunity to learn.

For a beginner to intermediate English learner, we need to modify or scaffold the English language and literacy demands of those programs. Even students at more advanced levels of English proficiency often need some targeted support. This is what we mean by equity. There are numerous ways to do that, but we know traditional high school lectures and assignments in unsupported English won’t get us there. In order to successfully ensure that your multilingual learners thrive, a program should:

  • Always encourage the educators to maintain a Can Do lens when thinking about these students. This can be accomplished by considering the cultural and linguistic assets students bring to class and building upon those assets.
  • Take into account how the Can Do lens helps value and support students’ home languages and cultures to the maximum extent possible. Home and community language and culture are a big part of students’ assets and identities, and we need to nurture and build upon them.
  • Build academic identities. This is much more than merely teaching content knowledge and skills. It is learning to communicate and think like people who work in those academic or vocational areas. This is one of the reasons apprenticeships are so powerful. They go beyond teaching facts to teaching ways of thinking, doing and being. Students need to imagine themselves wearing the lab coat to see themselves working in the laboratory. Valuing linguistic and cultural identities is a springboard to extend into school identities (e.g., seeing yourself as a scientist, historian, banker and so on).
  • Emphasize how Can Do also means to not over-emphasize grammatical correctness. Students do need targeted feedback on their progress when learning English, but this should be done strategically — since making mistakes is part of learning and we should help them understand that. Otherwise, while comparing themselves with others, they will feel they cannot successfully take on those academic identities or roles. 
  • Scaffold the classroom language during instruction and assessment. Scaffolding can be done in hundreds of ways, but the common idea is that we are providing a bridge to understanding the language with the scaffold for instruction, and a bridge to helping students demonstrate their learning for classroom assessment.
  • Get school leadership and all teachers on board by addressing the common myths around language acquisition and the role of home language and culture. It does take the whole village.
  • Engage learners in authentic projects and small group activities where they have a chance to experience, listen, talk, read and write about what they are learning. This is good for all students, but especially for multilingual learners.
  • Promote learning about how to hold and maintain academic conversations. This is a skill worth teaching and practicing. It is far more effective than traditional question and answer techniques found in many classrooms. 
  • Foster collaboration between language support teachers and content or classroom teachers.
  • Involve, engage and empower families to participate in and better understand their children’s educational path.
  • Accelerate content learning, rather than focusing on language remediation. Discourage retaining multilingual learners in grade. The research on retention overwhelmingly demonstrates that it causes more problems down the road. This is particularly important post-pandemic, as we return to the classrooms.
  • Encourage extra-curricular activities and participation in the arts, in and outside of school. A lot of language and other life skills are learned in music class, athletics or the debate team.

These 12 ideas represent some of the most important research-based practices essential to providing both opportunity and equity for multilingual learners. Opportunities should be equal in the sense that we must provide equal access to challenging curriculum in our schools. But equal access doesn’t go far enough. As the U.S. Supreme Court wisely ruled almost 50 years ago, for learning opportunities to be real they must be supported in ways that consider multilingual learners unique needs. This is what we mean when we talk about equity and opportunity going together.

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About the author

Tim Boals is the founder and director of WIDA. His background includes language education, educational policy and Spanish language and literature. Tim frequently presents at international, national and regional conferences on the challenges facing multilingual learners and how schools and educators can better meet their needs.

This article was originally posted on May 6, 2022 on WIDA.org.

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