New resources for families help multilingual learners with disabilities thrive in virtual classrooms

By Karen Rivedal, WCER Communications

As teachers, students, and families wind down from months of in-home teaching and learning, they are beginning to reflect on what worked and what didn’t and plan for the inevitable: more virtual class time.

But a team of researchers at WIDA, based at the University of Wisconsin–Madison and a leader in the assessment of multilingual learners, believes an important gap remains ─ few resources are widely available to help multilingual students with disabilities adjust to remote learning.

Children using iPadsThat matters because as computer screens and web chats attempt to replace school-based supports, such as intensive one-on-one instruction and career programming, it’s these students and their families who could suffer most, WIDA researchers say.

So WIDA has developed three new resources to cushion the shift to distance learning and help ensure multilingual students still receive all the language and other services they’re due under federal law.

The tools include tips and resources designed to:

  • Help parents and caregivers create social stories, a visual aid to calm student anxieties with a short but engaging description of a new situation, process, or event using personalized photos, pictures, and text.
  • Explain everything parents or caregivers need to know about augmentative and alternative communications, a term referring to adaptive devices for students who struggle to communicate verbally, from low-tech approaches such as a picture board to high-tech devices such as a computer tablet.
  • Explain what special education services to expect from schools as mandated by students’ Individualized Education Programs, or IEPs, while students are at home.

WIDA predicts the new tools will receive a warm and welcome reception from families and educators.

“Parents and teachers have a lot that they’re dealing with right now,” says Laurene Christensen, a WIDA project director and principal investigator who focuses on the needs of multilingual learners with cognitive disabilities. “The shift to distance learning came on unexpectedly for most of us, and there are some real concerns that students with disabilities are being left behind in the move to distance learning.”

Housed within the Wisconsin Center for Education Research in the university’s School of Education, WIDA works to advance academic language development and academic achievement for culturally and linguistically diverse children and youth through high-quality standards, assessments, research, and professional learning for educators. WIDA’s resources are used by 42 domestic states, territories, and federal agencies, and approximately 500 international schools throughout the world.

In the 2018-19 academic year, WIDA tested the English language proficiency of more than 2.1 million English Language Learners (ELLs) – equal to about 42 percent of the nation’s 5 million ELLs overall – plus another 26,654 ELLs with the most severe cognitive learning disabilities using Alternate ACCESS for ELLs.

Multilingual learners with the most significant cognitive disabilities make up a student population uniquely vulnerable to losing ground socially, vocationally, and academically in the shift to online learning, experts say.


“Many services for students with cognitive disabilities depend on that in-person connection,” says Christensen, whose work at WIDA revolves around research, resource-sharing, and curriculum development. “In the distance-learning models that we’re all using now, it’s a lot more challenging for multilingual learners with disabilities. It’s a lot harder for those students to receive some of the services at home in the same way.”

For example, a child getting speech services most likely met individually with a teacher at school to learn and practice before the pandemic closed schools. Now, the student might be getting those services using an iPad or a video conference call, “and that can be a big adjustment for everyone,” Christensen says.

The idea behind the three new resources developed by WIDA is to give educators who work with multilingual learners with disabilities new ways to use tools they already have in a home or virtual setting. Student caregivers and families can use the resources to learn more about what’s possible and what’s required, depending on how a student’s IEP has been structured.

WIDA knows that educators and families are doing all they can in this challenging time.

“The distance-learning requirement came on pretty fast and schools were prepared for that to varying degrees,” Christensen says. “WIDA is here to support educators and families, to help them maintain their students’ language development while we’re adapting to this ever-changing situation.”

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