Culturally Responsive Teaching for Multilingual Learners in a Virtual or Hybrid Setting: Where Do We Go From Here?

Beginning in March 2020 and continuing to the present, educators across the nation have shown remarkable resilience, creativity, and compassion as they work to educate their students. The COVID-19 pandemic and the dramatic shift to virtual and hybrid learning have revealed and exacerbated educational inequities that are present for many students, but particularly for multilingual learners (MLs). It is urgent that we speak openly about these inequities and advocate for steps that we can take to better serve MLs moving forward.

In our new book Culturally Responsive Teaching for Multilingual Learners: Tools for Equity (Snyder & Staehr Fenner, 2021), we explore five guiding principles that offer a framework for culturally responsive teaching MLs. In this blog post, we have selected three of the guiding principles to focus on. We provide an explanation of each principle and then offer two practical considerations you can use to apply the principle to a virtual or hybrid learning setting.

Guiding Principle #1 

Culturally responsive teaching is assets-based.

Our first guiding principle is culturally responsive teaching is assets-based. Educators who have an assets-based perspective of MLs welcome the richness of experiences and perspectives that MLs bring to a classroom – whether it be in person, hybrid, or fully virtual, and they seek to create a community that values each member. This principle also highlights the need to speak out against deficit perspectives which blame students and families for educational challenges. Deficit perspectives that you may have heard during the past year might include such complaints as “that student is just not motivated to show up” or “her parents don’t think education is important and aren’t providing any support at home”.

In order to foster an assets-based perspective, it’s essential that we look for meaningful ways to build community with students and provide them an opportunity to connect with each other. Consider these strategies:

  • Host a weekly, virtual lunchtime chat where students can talk with one another. You can host themed lunches such as wear your favorite hoodie or play collaborative games such as categories, where students brainstorm as many items as they can in a given category (e.g., ocean animals beginning with the letter ‘s’).
  • Integrate storytelling into your teaching. Consider how you can provide opportunities for students to not only explore the impact that the pandemic has had on their lives but also how they relate to other events from the past year. For example, you might use Amanda Gorman’s poem The Hill We Climb as a tool for having students think about their own identities and experiences as they connect to larger social issues.

Guiding Principle #2

Culturally responsive teaching simultaneously supports and challenges students.

Our second guiding principle is culturally responsive teaching simultaneously supports and challenges students. This principle encompasses the need to provide MLs access to challenging grade-level content while at the same time supporting them in engaging with academic content and tasks. Scaffolded support for MLs during both in-person and virtual instruction includes modeling language and learning strategies, explicit instruction of academic language, pre-teaching essential background, providing home language support, and/or using strategic student grouping as a support. Consider these specific strategies for virtual and hybrid learning:

  • Embed opportunities for MLs to practice and develop language in the four domains of listening, speaking, reading, and writing. For example, integrate routines for consistent language practice such as orally sharing responses to do-now activities or using reader response journals. MLs of lower proficiency levels may need instructional scaffolds such as sentence stems, paragraph frames, graphic organizers and/or virtual word walls or glossaries.
  • Provide well-structured and well-modelled collaborative activities to explore content and foster language development. For example, use a collaborative writing exercise in which students work in pairs or groups of three to complete a writing task. Each student can use a different color font or marker. Breakout rooms are a great virtual tool for fostering collaborative engagement. You can use them for jigsaw readings of text, gap activities where students have to ask about and share different pieces of information, and activities to analyze and imitate mentor sentences or mentor texts. Assigning student roles, asking for a volunteer leader, and providing well-modeled expectations for group work is critical in fostering the effective use of breakout rooms.

Guiding Principle #3

Culturally responsive teaching unites students’ schools, families, and communities.

The final guiding principle that we’d like to discuss in this post is culturally responsive teaching unites students’ schools, families, and communities. This guiding principle speaks to the importance of collaboration in support of students’ social-emotional and academic well-being. Despite the challenging year, there have been some silver linings. One of these has been the strengthening of family and school connections. Some educators have described having even stronger relations with ML families than they have had in the past, and others have reported having more ML families participate in virtual teacher parent conferences than in-person conferences. As you plan for the coming months, consider how you can build on the relationships that you have developed with families.

  • Create opportunities for shared goal setting with ML families. Consider what families have observed about their children’s strengths and needs during the past year, and plan for next steps. Work with families to explore what they can do in the home to extend student learning. Offer ways that families might support their children that don’t require English proficiency or full understanding of the content being studied. For example, families might ask their child to share a summary of a story that they read in class (they could share in English or their home language) or have children describe a piece of work that they did to a family member. A child can be asked to explain what was challenging about the work and what strategies he or she used to respond to the challenge.
  • Collaborate with local organizations to provide support to families. With families facing such challenges as unemployment, medical issues, trauma, and student learning gaps, explore possibilities of forming partnerships with local organizations. For example, is there a local food pantry that might be willing to come to the school? Are there any community service organizations or student service groups that can provide tutoring for students who need academic support?

The path forward is not going to be an easy one for many ML families, students, and educators. By situating our work within an assets-based view of MLs and being intentional about culturally responsive teaching and support of students, we can begin to heal from the many challenges we have faced during the pandemic and help our students realize their full potential.

To learn more, visit our ML Resource Library page with free tools and strategies to foster a culturally responsive environment in your classroom.

Continue the conversation with us on Twitter: @SupportEduc

Note: This post first appeared on February 8, 2021. That piece is titled Culturally Responsive Teaching for Multilingual Learners in a Virtual or Hybrid Setting: Where Do We Go From Here?

About SupportEd

SupportEd, LLC is a woman-owned small business based in Fairfax, VA specializing in Multilingual Learners (MLs). Founded in 2011 by Dr. Diane Staehr Fenner, best-selling author and ML expert, SupportEd meticulously crafts customized solutions to fit each client’s strengths, needs, and provides teachers and administrators the practical tools necessary to champion MLs’ success within and beyond the classroom. All SupportEd team members have prior experience in the classroom which enables the SupportEd team to provide realistic, actionable solutions. Services include online and in-person immersive professional development workshops, easy-to-implement tools and resources, and an array of supporting services. Visit or call (202) 660-1444 to learn more.