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Julia Remsik Larsen

Sarah Schulman

LLSS 480

December 19, 2017

Graduate Project: Differentiating instruction for online language classes

We talked at some length this semester about incorporating differentiated instruction for

diverse student populations, including students with special needs (not limited to disabilities or

learning challenges), students from various socioeconomic backgrounds, and students with

varying levels of experience with the target language. The situations we discussed were always

considering a face-to-face classroom, but at the university level, there is a big push toward

adapting instruction to an online format. This presents an entirely new set of challenges for any

class, but for language classrooms in particular because of the general lack of synchronous

(requiring students to be engaged in activities online at the same time), verbal, and aural

interactions that are present in a traditional classroom. I was also fortunate enough to learn about

teaching multimodal composition this semester, and some of the strategies could be adapted to

help provide differentiated instruction as well as varied assessments for online language classes.

Learning a language effectively requires using all four of the main communication

practices: reading, writing, listening, and speaking. In an online setting, the reading and writing

practices are easily incorporated through readings (including, to some extent, videos), discussion

boards, written assignments, quizzes, and other “traditional” assessments. Listening activities are

more difficult, but manageable through the incorporation of video and audio clips focused on

content—which also allow for exposure to a greater variety of speakers and pronunciation

styles—and incorporated into quizzes for assessment of listening comprehension. All of these
activities can be completed asynchronously (without requiring students to be online at the same

time) and without requiring additional software, and students can mostly take as much time as

they need to complete the activities.

The primary challenge to online language instruction is in practicing and evaluating

speaking activities. In a traditional classroom, speaking activities occur synchronously, typically

in response to an instructor’s prompt or as an interaction between two or more students (and of

course this allows students to simultaneously practice listening). Occasional synchronous

sessions are an option in online classes with the use of web conferencing software. This allows

for a more traditional set of interactions between the instructor and groups of students, with more

or less instantaneous feedback on pronunciation and formulation of spoken utterances. However,

asynchronous opportunities can be provided through the use of easily accessible software—

either through the school’s learning management system (LMS) such as Blackboard, Moodle, or

Canvas or through free downloadable software—especially if these opportunities are tied to

multimodal assignments or discussion activities.

The difficulties with requiring the use of additional software are that it may not be

possible for students to download and use the software if they rely on public computers such as

at a community library; additionally, many students may not be comfortable with new

technologies, so there will be a bit of a learning curve. One way to help students overcome this

particular obstacle is to ask students to complete a media lab—an ungraded assignment (or a

low-stakes assignment) that allows them to practice with the new technology without the

pressure of also being assessed on the content. An easy way to incorporate this might be to ask

students to download some free piece of software and use it to record an introduction during the

first week of classes, then post it to a discussion board. They can then watch each other’s
introductions, which has the added benefit of building a sense of community, and they can

respond either with a short written response or another short video response. After a low-stakes

assignment like this, incorporating the technology regularly through small group interactions and

other assignments can be a fairly unobtrusive—and potentially even fun—way of practicing

speaking the target language.

Multimodal assignments are creative opportunities for students to practice a few skills at

once. These projects could potentially even be collaborative, asking students to work together

to—for instance—create a script for a video project, then to record and put together the video, or

to work together to design an advertisement or some composition with both visual and textual

elements to address the topic of the unit. In small groups, students can also create a series of

either written or video “letters” to each other, discussing various topics, as though they were pen

pals. Ultimately, as long as students are using more than one skill for an assignment, it is

multimodal and will facilitate and encourage a deeper engagement with the learning, particularly

through differentiating instruction with a focus on multiple intelligences.

While these types of activities will help differentiate instruction in an online classroom,

they could work just as easily in a traditional face-to-face classroom. Considering these options

can help instructors and administrators consider approaches that will help to reach a more diverse

population of students, especially those who may not be able to take a traditional class because

of geographical distance or limited or varying ability. Applying these strategies in an online

setting for teaching languages can also serve students who have specific learning needs or

especially those who would benefit from having additional time to read, write, and listen.