What can the Visible Learning database (www.visibiblelearningmetax.com) tell us about improving learning outcomes for students who are learning more than one language? With our colleagues John Hattie and Oscar Corrigan, we reviewed the evidence to answer this very question. There are a wide range of influences that have the potential to impact multilingual learners from assessment to grouping to settings.
Overall, the impact of bilingual programs (as they are known in the research database) have an average effect size of .36, which is slightly below the average of all influences on learning. Having said that, it’s important to note that efforts to ensure that students develop linguistic skills in more than one language is an accelerator in and of itself. Of course, there is variation in the settings in which multilingual learners are educated. In some cases, multilingual learners are in dual language learning environments in which instruction is provided in more than one language. In other cases, they are in settings that focus on the development of a single language. Regardless of the setting, we noted that there were some conditions that increase the likelihood that multilingual learners will learn more and better.
#1: Climate for Learning.
The climate that is created in the classroom and school has a significant impact on students’ learning. The classroom environment either cultivates or inhibits the social, emotional, psychological, and motivational dimensions of learning that are essential for all students to thrive. Students want to feel that they belong, that they are welcomed and valued members of the classroom, and that their experiences are important. As Carter and Biggs (2021) note, “We all hope that students will feel truly ‘at home’ in their classrooms. We want them to feel valued and accepted by their peers and teachers. We strive to create connections among students that lead to reciprocal relationships.” That’s a good place to start when it comes to creating the climate for learning that multilingual learners need. As part of this climate, educators can create an environment that includes an ethical imperative—to teach and support others when we learn something. In part, the climate is established by the way teachers group students. In a study of 3748 kindergarten multilingual learners, mathematics achievement was predicted by two factors—the teachers’ perceptions of students’ math ability and the grouping patterns, with ability grouping or only whole class instruction resulting in poor outcomes for students (Garrett & Hong, 2016).
#2: Challenge as Learning.
Students want learning to be a challenge and they want support to achieve those challenges. They are not interested in boring tasks and busy work. In a survey of 452,329 students, 83 percent of the respondents said that they push themselves to do better academically, and 42 percent said they liked challenging assignments (Quaglia Institute, 2022). Unfortunately, most of the assignments given to students are well below grade level. As noted by TNTP (2018), based on their review of more than twenty thousand assignments, students spent, on average, 133 out of every 180 hours—73 percent of their time—on below-grade-level tasks. This report also noted that in four out of every ten classrooms with a majority of students of color, students never received a single grade-level assignment. In maintaining a challenging learning environment, educators telegraph a message to students that they believe their students will learn at high levels and that there are supports in place to ensure that learning is accomplished. Remember, multilingual learners are doing double the work—that is, learning language and content at the same time (Short & Fitzsimmons, 2007). But the expectations for their learning should not be compromised. Rather, multilingual students should be supported with appropriate scaffolds to accomplish the learning goals. We recognize that it takes time to learn in another language and that challenges are often increased when the learning occurs in another language. However, following an approach that sets high expectations for student learning and then aligns the instruction with those expectations is the best way forward.
#3: Clarity of Learning.
Students want to know what they are learning and how they know that they have learned something.
Research on teacher clarity has existed for decades. It was described by Rosenshine and Furst (1971) as a critical factor in students’ learning. When they identified eleven general categories of teacher behavior, they noted that teacher clarity topped the list in terms of impact on students’ learning. The components of teacher clarity they identified included these:
- The clarity of the presentation is apparent to the students.
- The points the teacher makes are clear and easy to understand.
- The teacher explains concepts clearly and answers questions intelligently.
- The lesson is organized.
We developed three student-facing questions that serve as a beacon for teacher clarity practices (Fisher, Frey, & Hattie, 2016):
- What am I learning today?
- Why am I learning it?
- How will I know that I learned it?
The first question focuses on the learning intention, the second on the relevance, and the third on the ways in which students know what it means to learn something. When students can answer these questions, the likelihood of their learning increases.
As we noted, multilingual learners are doing double work, that is learning language and content simultaneously. As a result, their learning intentions and success criteria must have an explicit focus on language, not just content. For example, in a lesson focused on inequalities in mathematics, teachers may include the following success criteria: I can use less than, equal to, or greater than to compare groups or numbers. In this way, the vocabulary of the lesson is made clear to students. Similarly, in a lesson focused on the digestive system, teachers may include the following success criteria: I can explain to my partner the process digestion, from the first bite through the body. In this case, the language functions to summarize and explain the focus, and students are asked to engage in peer conversations to accomplish the learning goal.
#4: Cohesion in Learning.
There was a time when “learning” was a seen as a black box; educators and researchers were not sure how it operated.
As a profession, we recognized that there were inputs that likely assisted with learning and outputs that allowed us to check to see if learning occurred, but the process of learning itself was unclear.
Fast forward several decades, and we know a lot about learning for multilingual learners. Language is crucial for cognition, and multilingual learners are doubly challenged in terms of how they allocate cognitive resources when learning. As one example, students reading in a second language may find retrieving information from an earlier part of the text more difficult; therefore, they may have lower comprehension (Morishima, 2013). In this case, it isn’t a matter of not being able to understand the story, but rather they have reached cognitive overload because they must dedicate increased attention to what they are reading in the moment. Cognitive overload has direct implications for instruction. Breaking the reading into smaller chunks, with opportunities to discuss incrementally, can aid in text comprehension.
There are specific instructional moves that successful teachers make to increase the likelihood that multilingual students learn. A dominant theory in this area is the gradual release of responsibility, which suggests that educators intentionally and purposefully design learning experiences and then move along this trajectory: (1) assuming all the responsibility for learning; (2) sharing responsibility for learning; (3) ensuring that students have increasing levels of cognitive responsibility for their learning (Fisher & Frey, 2021). Multilingual learners benefit from a robust instructional framework that aligns with what the educational sciences tell us about learning. That means we must weave language and linguistic supports into our content instruction.
One example of this is the focus on contrastive grammar during guided instruction, which teaches multilingual learners to notice the grammar of their L1 or home language and then to compare this grammar to that of standard English. The emphasis of this approach is descriptive, rather than prescriptive. Contrastive grammar analysis moves students away from correctness and toward codeswitching. A contrastive grammar analysis approach situates the merit of the language used in home and community.
#5: Checks into Learning.
Assessment is an important aspect of monitoring students’ learning and progress. When educators have good assessment information, they can make wise decisions about where to go next with students. There are several tools that teachers can use to collect data, but without careful analysis, the data are not likely to impact students’ learning. When classroom assessments are used to design learning experiences rather than to solely to document learning, students benefit.
Assessment for multilingual learners requires attention to the whole child. This multidimensional approach is necessary for a true picture to emerge. It requires balancing large-scale assessments with individualized, informal ones that illuminate strengths and do not simply catalog deficits (Gottlieb, 2021). In other words, teachers should regularly collect evidence from multilingual learners to monitor their progress in both language and content learning. There are a number of tools that teachers can use from writing samples to oral language inventories. The point is that the data are collected, interpreted, and then used to guide instruction.
In reality, these conditions are much more integrated and interdependent than this post allows us to share. We believe each of these is important in its own right and that they influence one another. We also know that together they foster language, literacy, and content learning. If educators are to meet the needs of their multilingual learners, then specific attention to each of these factors is necessary.
Carter, E. W., & Biggs, E. E. (2021). Creating Communities of Belonging for Students with Significant Cognitive Disabilities. University of Minnesota, TIES Center.
Garrett, R., & Hong, G. (2016). Impacts of grouping and time on the math learning of language minority kindergartners. Educational Evaluation and Policy Analysis, 38, 222 – 244.
Fisher, D., & Frey, N. (2021). Better learning through structured teaching: a framework for the gradual release of responsibility (3rd ed.). Alexandria, VA: ASCD.
Fisher, D., Frey, N., & Hattie, J. (2016). Visible learning for literacy, grades K-12: Implementing the practices that work best to accelerate student learning. Corwin.
Gottlieb, M. (2021). Classroom assessment in multiple languages: A handbook for teachers. Corwin.
Morishima, Y. (2013). Allocation of limited cognitive resources during text comprehension in a second language. Discourse Processes, 50(8), 577–597.
Quaglia Institute. (2022). Student voice: A decade of data. Retrieved from https://quagliainstitute.org/uploads/legacy/Student_Voice_Grades_6–12_Decade_of_Data_Report.pdf
Rosenshine, B., & Furst, N. (1971). Research on teacher performance criteria. In B.O. Smith (Ed.), Research in Teacher Education (pp. 37–72). Prentice Hall.
TNTP. (2018). The opportunity myth: What students can show us about how school is letting them down—and how to fix it. Author.