Teaching the Whole Class: Technology for Differentiated Instruction
Thomas Jesús Garza
Associate Professor of Slavic and Eurasian Studies and Director, Texas Language Center
University of Texas at Austin
The 2020s have proven (so far!) to be a watershed period in education and a national reckoning on identity and social justice. In the midst of the COVID pandemic and global lockdown, the events of Spring 2020 that led to the Black Lives Matters movement resonated around the world as we all began to reexamine the institutional structures / barriers to equitable access and inclusivity in our societies. In our field of world languages and cultures instruction, the focus on the learner in a student-centered classroom has become more important than ever before as we join the effort to ensure that our classrooms are welcoming and inclusive ecologies for diverse and individual learners and that individual differences of all kinds – from varied proficiency levels to diverse identities – are accommodated.
As a First Gen Mexican American university professor of Russian language and cultures, I have witnessed first hand the transformation of the world language classroom in both pedagogical and demographic terms. The classrooms from my university days in the 1970s and those that I have taught at the University of Texas at Austin since 1990, until relatively recently, have reflected demographically the commonly-held elitist view of liberal arts education: they serve primarily White, economically-privileged students in hegemonic patriarchal educational settings. The shifting demographics of the United States as a whole, combined with some efforts to diversify our institutions, is reflected in our current cohorts of students: digital-age learners from diverse backgrounds with identities as individual as their names. On the surface, such diversity may seem to make instruction of, say, Intermediate Hebrew, particularly difficult, as finding ways to attend to student-centered instruction with such heterogeneous cohorts appears nearly impossible. However, with careful selection of materials, application of appropriate technologies, and the choice of level-appropriate tasks, a single instructor can create a welcoming, inclusive learning environment and standards-based, proficiency-oriented approach that are at the core of Differentiated Instruction in world languages and cultures. In this blog post I will outline some general strategies to promote Differentiated Instruction in your courses, but those of you who are interested in digging deeper should consider joining me this Spring in a free, 3-week online course that will help you leverage technology in both the synchronous and asynchronous modality to facilitate proficiency development for class sections with heterogeneous learners.
At its core, Differentiated Instruction (DI) is closely connected to Student-Centered Instruction, as in both cases individual learner characteristics, e.g, educational background, proficiency level, personal identity, etc., are carefully considered in the delivery of instruction and the design of tasks assigned. Chamot (2012), for example, considers learning strategies in the application of DI for language instruction. Blaz (2016) offers a more comprehensive view of DI for world languages, including assessment, and describes it as a “rigorous, relevant, and proactive” (3) way to address learner differences. Our approach is to expand the pedagogical reach of DI to embrace its potential to help us teach the whole class, to address both learner differences as they apply to our respective world languages, as well as to individual differences in learner identity to help us create more inclusive and equitable classrooms for social justice.
Design Backwards, Teach Forward!
DI in world language courses is informed by existing professional standards and guidelines. In order to address the various proficiency levels and intersectional qualities of our learners, knowledge of the ACTFL Proficiency Guidelines (2012) and the World-Readiness Standards for Learning Languages (2015) is crucial. These documents provide the descriptive categories and sample scenarios for constructing individuated, level-appropriate tasks based on the materials being used in the larger classroom setting. By creating learner-centered tasks, the same “text” can be used by the entire class, while addressing variance in students’ proficiency levels and/or strengths in one language modality over another. In a similar way, by applying the full scope of the “Five Cs” of the World-Readiness Standards, integration of local heritage communities, pair work with heritage and non-heritage learners, etc. can be used to create a more inclusive and welcoming environment in the classroom.
Flip the Classroom and Empower Learners
Of the many practical lessons learned from the imposition of virtual learning during COVID, the potential of hybrid, or “flipped,” models of instruction are certainly among the most useful. Face-to-face classroom time is most effectively used in creative, engaging interaction between nd among learners and instructors; thus, by relegating individual reading and listening tasks, vocabulary development, grammatical explanations and practice, and other important, but non-interactive,content to online “at home” activities, more class time is available for interpersonal and interactive engagement with the material. In this way, the flipped model of instructions helps to create the conditions for autonomous student centered learning.
Materials for Differentiated Instruction
Proficiency-oriented instruction relies on the selection and application of authentic materials – texts “written by members of a language and culture group for members of the same language and culture group” (Galloway, 1998, p. 133, as cited in Glisan). Of course, not every “authentic” text is appropriate for language and culture instruction; using rubrics for selecting and then exploiting appropriate authentic texts in and out of the classroom is key to DI, for attaining proficiency goals and benchmarks, and for addressing issues of equity and inclusion in the world language classroom. Once selected, these materials can then be used effectively in a diverse and multi-proficiency level class by creating level-appropriate tasks using the ACTFL Guidelines and World-Readiness Standards. These tasks may be presentational or performative and assessment can vary depending on the nature of the content of the final product. Together, the use of carefully selected authentic materials, student-centered task-based instruction, and performance/product based assessment can create an ecology of teaching and learning that is inclusive, equitable, and attentive to every learner in the class.
ACTFL. (2012). ACTFL Proficiency Guidelines 2012.
Blaz, D. (2016). Differentiated Instruction: A Guide for World Language Teachers. New York, London: Routledge.
Chamot, A. (2012). Chapter 6. Differentiated instruction for language and learning strategies: Classroom applications. In W. Chan, K. Chin, S. Bhatt & I. Walker (Ed.), Perspectives on Individual Characteristics and Foreign Language Education (pp. 115-130). Berlin, Boston: De Gruyter Mouton.
Galloway, V. (1998). Constructing cultural realities: ‘Facts’ and frameworks of association. In J. Harper, M. Lively, & M. Williams (Eds.), The Coming of Age of the Profession (pp. 129-140). Boston: Heinle & Heinle.The National Standards Collaborative Board. (2015). World-Readiness Standards for Learning Languages. 4th ed.