Unlocking Language: Industry’s Role in Supporting Multilingual Learners Success
October 18, 2023
Our understanding of the science of literacy has evolved and industry solutions have an opportunity to innovate and make a difference for every learner.
When it comes to developing high-quality online products and services, it is critical to account for the language learning needs of learners. The difference between simply using technology as a visual aid or translation tool and harnessing it for holistic language and academic development is profound. It’s crucial to understand the unique needs of the growing multilingual learner population and how digital tools can support language acquisition and academic success.
The Multilingual Learning Landscape
Today, there are at least 350 different languages and dialects spoken in classrooms across the United States. By 2025, one in four students will be considered Multilingual Learners of English (MLE), bringing a wide range of language expertise, cultural backgrounds, and educational experiences into the classroom. Solutions hoping to meet the diverse needs of this student population must go beyond mere translation, vocabulary, and graphics by developing a comprehensive understanding of how languages are acquired and design their solutions to support all aspects of literacy.
Understanding Second Language Acquisition (SLA)
Second Language Acquisition (SLA) is a process that takes between five to seven years for learners to become fluent in English, with an additional three years possibly, if the learner has not yet mastered and gained literacy skills in their first language. Throughout this process, learners develop both Basic Interpersonal Communication Skills (BICS) and Cognitive Academic Language Proficiency (CALP).
BICS, sometimes referred to as conversational or “playground” English, is often what many think of when developing materials for someone learning a new language, as it is easier to observe through social interactions. But as multilingual learners progress, their English language learning needs become less obvious while their academic language demands (i.e. CALP) continue to grow, especially in regards to academic literacy skills. For example, multilingual learners might seem fully fluent in spoken English but face challenges in reading and writing. This can lead to confusion among educators and staff, as they assume proficiency based on spoken fluency, only to find these learners underperforming in written assessments.
Addressing the Needs of Multilingual Learners through Digital Tools
In addition to supporting academic language as a whole, your solutions should focus on several key aspects to better support the language development of multilingual learners:
- Move Beyond Vocabulary: While many solutions build in vocabulary support, language acquisition is more than vocabulary alone. Rather, it encompasses the complex sentence structures, transitional phrases, and organizational patterns needed for different purposes or audiences, such as writing a lab report, arguing a claim, or analyzing a poem. To more effectively facilitate academic language development, design and build supports that help learners understand how to accurately use language for various purposes.
- Integrate Content and Language Development: Opportunities for developing academic language should be woven into the instructional content. This may include highlighted supports, pop-ups, or tips for sentence structure, organizational features, and context setting. This allows learners to gain content knowledge while building their language skills.
- Model Explicit Language Instruction: Provide modeling and guided practice in content area-specific language to ensure learners not only grasp complex language concepts, but also understand how to use it within multiple contexts. Virtual language coaches or AI-powered language models can be used to demonstrate these skills and allow learners to engage in step-by-step guidance and practice. For example, by incorporating a sentence structure analyzer that assesses learners’ writing and providing immediate feedback on language complexity, they can learn to refine their academic language skills independently.
- Provide Opportunities Across Language Domains: Holistic language acquisition requires development in multiple domains: speaking, listening, reading, and writing. Provide opportunities like collaborative forums where learners can engage in written or verbal discussions or virtual or augmented reality that allow them to immerse themselves in language-rich simulation environments like virtual marketplaces or labs.
- Scaffold without Lowering Expectations: Multilingual learners should always be held to grade-level expectations, but may require additional scaffolds such as labeled graphics, animations, step-by-step directions, and chunking assessments into manageable tasks. Consider allowing educators to set individual student language proficiencies to ensure that each learner has scaffolds that are appropriate for their level while accessing grade-level content. Tools that can progressively remove scaffolds based on a learner's individual language strengths and area of growth would also benefit language acquisition over time.
- Utilize WIDA’s Can Do Descriptors: WIDA provides a comprehensive framework and set of tools to support the academic and linguistic needs of multilingual learners. WIDA’s Can Do Descriptors are an effective way to scaffold instruction in your solution and support multilingual learners at all levels of proficiency.
Educators and other instructional staff are adapting instruction to meet the diverse needs of the growing multilingual learner population. This requires moving your solution beyond mere translation and vocabulary support, and instead towards creating and supporting learning experiences that drive simultaneous linguistic and academic success. With experts in the science of language acquisition, we can help you enhance your offerings to encompass comprehensive language development, scaffolding, and support.