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October 14, 2021

Planning Lessons for Multilingual Learners

Teachers should scaffold assessment from the ground up.

Instructional Strategies

Teaching during the pandemic has been a Herculean feat. I have taught multilingual learners, or English language learners, in various hybrid and remote settings, but had managed before this year to dodge starting the school year online. Not so this fall: The third wave of the virus forced my school to teach remotely starting on day one. 

In those first crucial weeks, there were added challenges around developing relationships with students, introducing class systems, and providing space for students to get to know each other. But what I feared most about starting remotely was having students fall through the cracks without me noticing. During in-person learning, I could more easily determine if students were struggling academically or socially because they were literally right there in front of me.

I grounded myself by returning to a process I’ve been using to plan instruction for years. The framework includes:

1.    The Forest: Designing the assessment

2.    The Trees: Creating the individual lessons

3.    The Leaves: Scaffolding the tasks in each lesson

This may be a familiar process to many teachers, but it can be especially helpful for multilingual students in these unusual first months of school, regardless of whether they are learning at home or in-person. Multilingual students face new learning models, technology platforms, and social distance measures, but they also have many of the same needs they had before the pandemic. They still need scaffolded and differentiated lessons that establish comprehensible language input and provide structures for output. They still need to interact with texts, with ideas, and with others. Teachers must be even more focused on differentiated practices if we want multilingual students to have equitable access to learning in these times. 

We can do this by planning backwards, making the content comprehensible, and structuring how students talk and write about the content.

The Forest: Assessment

Where to start when planning instruction is always an overwhelming question. My process for middle and high school multilingual learners starts with the end in mind, as clarity at the assessment level defines clarity at the lesson level (Wiggins & McTighe, 2005). This means making sure students learn and understand the language we’re using. When we start with assessment first (checking for understanding around what we want students to be able to know and do by the end of the unit), it provides us a broader view, just like looking at a forest from above.  

In my first unit with my 6th graders, where multilingual learners learn alongside their English-proficient peers, I asked students to write a report that describes how humans are contributing to catastrophic flooding in the city of Bangkok, Thailand. They reviewed articles and videos about this problem before they wrote about causes, effects, and possible solutions. I designed this assessment with these building blocks in mind: 1) the content students will have to address, 2) the process they will go through, and 3) the product they must create by the end (Tomlinson, 2017).  

Since the output for the assessment was a report, each lesson required students to write a paragraph that built the report one section at a time. As I taught the unit, I intentionally paused to have students work on a section after a mini-lesson in the whole-class Google Meet. Students would break out into virtual rooms in small groups and ask each other questions as they wrote paragraphs based on the new vocabulary. For example, when we learned about solutions, students went into a Google Classroom template and wrote a paragraph to define the term and provide an example. Eventually, students put the paragraphs from the individual lessons together. This ensured that the learning was tightly tied to the assessment.

Because I planned the final report from the beginning and scaffolded each section, my multilingual students knew what to communicate and in what order and felt less overwhelmed when it was time to write.

The Trees: Individual Lessons

We can intentionally plan backwards from the assessment by looking at the individual lessons, which are like trees in a forest. At this level, we find essential elements of the lesson (Grant et. al, 2017), which are:

  • A single specific topic per lesson.

  • A guiding question students answer by the end of the lesson. 

  • A resource (e.g., text, video, shared experience) to support learning.

  • A clear content and language objective (Echevarría et al., 2017).

For example, the first lesson of this unit on Bangkok’s flooding was all about understanding systems. Our guiding question was What is a system? Students worked together to identify a human system and find corresponding pictures of components that keep systems, such as hospitals, malls, grocery stores, libraries, and airports, functioning.

All four elements—a single topic, guiding question, resource, and objective—establish clarity for multilingual learners by making the concept come to life with visual elements. This flooding lesson establishes comprehensible input, a theory that hypothesizes that multilingual learners learn language when they attach meaning to what is being said in a new language (Krashen, 1982). 

The Leaves: Individual Tasks 

Once I establish comprehensible input at the lesson level (trees), it’s time to think about the language students will use (Zwiers, 2014). I call this structured output, which means designing scaffolds that support students in communicating their ideas. 

When structuring language output, we must think in terms of the individual words, the sentence structure, and the organization (Gottlieb & Ernst-Slavit, 2014). In any lesson, students use specific words, write specific kinds of sentences, and sequence the sentences to effectively communicate their ideas. Scaffolding at the word level occurs when we teach students the key terms for a unit.

To scaffold sentence-level output, provide multilingual students with sentence starters and sentence frames to structure ideas. I offer frames like “BLANK is an example of a system because BLANK.” All students have these scaffolds built into their digital template for their final report and are free to use them. Oftentimes, learners have grasped a concept and are simply searching for the sentence structure to help them communicate it. 

At the discourse level, we scaffold the sequence of ideas so that multilingual learners are successful at communicating their thoughts. I provide an outline, so the paragraphs are already in order, and each paragraph has its own table with instructions and a space for students to write their ideas. When we think about structuring output at the word, sentence, and organization level, we increase the chances that learners can communicate with accuracy, clarity, and confidence. 

One Step at a Time

I have now guided my 6th graders virtually through the journey of this first unit. Some walked without needing much help, some needed momentary encouragement and redirecting, and some needed me to navigate the journey with them. For one student in particular, this process was helpful because he was used to taking multiple choice tests to show learning. This new format required that he do more than simply memorize information. Each day, we worked through tasks at his own pace, one step at a time.

As you navigate this school year, either online or standing in front of a classroom, set multilingual learners up for success by making sure learning is clear, intentional, and scaffolded.


Tomlinson, C. A. (2017). How to differentiate instruction in academically diverse classrooms. Alexandria, VA: ASCD. 

Echevarría, J., Vogt, M., & Short, D. (2017). Making content comprehensible for English learners: the SIOP model. London, U.K.: Pearson. 

Grant, S. G., Swan, K., & Lee, J. (2017). Inquiry-based practice in social studies education: understanding the inquiry design model. New York, NY: Routledge. 

Gottlieb, M. H., & Ernst-Slavit, G. (2014). Academic language in diverse classrooms: definitions and contexts. Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin. 

Krashen, S. D. (1982). Principles and practice in second language acquisition. Oxford, U.K.: Pergamon Press. 

Wiggins, G. P., & McTighe, J. (2005). Understanding by Design (2nd ed.). Alexandria, VA: ASCD 

Zwiers, J. (2014). Building academic language: meeting common core standards across disciplines, grades 5-12. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.  

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