The Challenge of Multi-level Learners in the Language Classroom

LeeAnn Stone Headshot - Rosetta StoneI attended ACTFL this year with a mission: to hear from K12 teachers from across the country about the challenges they face in their teaching endeavors, the successes they have experienced in addressing these challenges, and what they would like to see in terms of technology resources and support to help them advance their goals further. I listened to individuals and small groups of teachers as they made their way through the exhibit hall, and in chats as we waited for a session to begin. I also met with larger groups of instructors in focus sessions specifically organized around this topic. This “listening mission” revealed a number of common challenges that teachers across levels and languages face. In this post I will report on the most commonly-referenced one: the challenge of managing learning in classes where students have significant differences in their existing language skills (or even in the languages they are learning within one classroom).

Readers of this forum who teach Spanish courses at the introductory level will undoubtedly be familiar with this challenge. The rich preponderance of heritage Spanish speakers throughout the U.S. requires differentiated teaching to address the needs of those learners who already have a range of foundational skills (listening, family and daily life vocabulary, pronunciation, etc.). More often than not, there are no alternate heritage-specific course options for these learners. Spanish teachers described the troubles they have “keeping the native speakers engaged, challenged, and accountable”, helping those learners who “feel they don’t need to learn anything” to understand that they “do need to be able to read and write as well”, and locating online materials to help them to this that “don’t disappear”.

The challenge of meeting the needs of the heritage learner is one we have grappled with in K12 as well as higher ed for several decades. What was new to me though, was the degree to which teachers across languages face a variation of this challenge. For example, in less commonly taught languages such as Arabic, German (yes, unfortunately that is becoming an LCTL in terms of enrollment numbers) and Latin, for example, the numbers of learners is small to begin with and drops precipitously beyond the first introductory course. Even French is in this position in some schools. Lisa, a teacher from Riverside, CA, for example, explained that she is not allowed to run small classes, so she can’t offer upper levels of French on a stand-alone course basis. A German teacher in Tulsa described some of the ways she uses technology to juggle the differentiated needs of the five levels of German she may have in a single classroom.

Andrea, a German teacher from Virginia explained that another factor impacting this growth in multi-level courses is the lack of qualified teachers for given languages. In the absence of such, schools accommodate by feeding all the students of all levels they can into the classroom of the only teacher they have available. Going one step further (arguably too far?), a French teacher from New Hampshire described how her school is down to 3 foreign language teachers and so her school put her on a fast-track of several weeks of intensive training to prepare her to be able to teach Spanish, even though she did not speak Spanish at all to begin with.

One way that many of these instructors have dealt with the challenge of meeting the differentiated needs of their learners was by leveraging a wide range of online resources. In this respect, there was no common approach or sites, but among those mentioned include:

Of course, Rosetta Stone is a more comprehensive curricular option from the other three, and there are many thousands of other useful online sites as well. The challenge with those, as expressed by many of the teachers I listened to, is their “ephermeralness”. That is, these teachers have experienced spending a significant amount of time developing and integrating materials from online sites that subsequently “go black”. This is a very common experience, but fortunately less so with resources from any of the NFLRCs. The other challenge these instructors expressed over use of these online materials is the time and effort of developing and managing a whole range of activities across different platforms and then making those accessible to their students in some kind of cohesive fashion.

My question to colleagues in this forum: what are your experiences with multi-level learners and what strategies have you employed to successfully address the differentiated needs of students in your classes?

About the blogger:

Dr. LeeAnn Stone is a language technology educator, past president of the International Association for Language Learning and Technology (IALLT) and the head of Custom Curriculum for Rosetta Stone.

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