Skip to main content Skip to main content

Teaching Foreign Languages K-12: Workshop

Valuing Diversity in Learners

Students come to the language classroom with a range of literacy and language skills, as well as varying cultural backgrounds and experiences. This session looks at how teachers can help students individually progress, as well as use students' unique skills to contribute to the growth of the class as a whole.

When learners come into the classroom, they don’t divest themselves of their cultural experiences or their linguistic background. They bring all of that with them to the classroom. So it’s incumbent upon the teacher to accommodate that wide array of learners.

– Marjorie Hall Haley, Ph.D., Associate Professor, George Mason University

Learning Goals

How do you accommodate the needs of diverse learners in a foreign language classroom? In this session, you’ll review relevant research, observe video discussions and classroom examples, and do activities on working with learners who are at different levels and who have different learning abilities and approaches. At the end of this session, you will better understand how to:

  • identify the various aspects of diversity that affect foreign language learning; and
  • explore strategies for improving the learning of all students in your classroom.


Unit Glossary

differentiated instruction
Differentiated instruction occurs when teachers adapt tasks to meet the diverse needs — the different ability levels, proficiencies, learning styles, heritage backgrounds, ages, or grades — of students in a classroom. Differentiated instruction is often a necessity in the foreign language classroom, as mixed levels are not uncommon.

heritage speaker
A heritage speaker, also called a heritage language learner, is a student who is exposed to a language other than English at home. Heritage speakers can be categorized based on the prominence and development of the heritage language in their daily life. Some students may have full oral fluency and literacy in the heritage language; others may have full oral fluency, but their written literacy was not developed because they were schooled in English. Another group of students — typically third- or fourth-generation — can speak to a limited degree but cannot express themselves on a wide range of topics. Students from any of these categories may also have gaps in knowledge about their cultural heritage. Teachers who have heritage speakers of the target language in their class should assess each student’s proficiency level in order to understand what their strengths are and what gaps in language skill may exist that need to be addressed. For more information about heritage speakers, go to the Characteristics of Home Background Students (PDF, 79 K) chart.

Individualized Education Program (IEP)
An Individualized Education Program entitles students with qualifying disabilities to receive specially designed instruction, accommodations, and services, at no cost to parents. An IEP is created for a student by classroom teachers, subject teachers, other professionals, and parents, and all of the student’s teachers, including foreign language teachers, are required to comply with it. (For more information on the IEP, go to Session 6 Resources to access a link to the U.S. Department of Education Guide to the Individualized Education Program.)

learning style
Learning style refers to the general ways in which students approach the learning of another language. These preferences — for example, auditory, deductive/inductive, or random/sequential organization — should be understood by teacher and student so as to facilitate learning. In some cases, teachers may need to help students expand their range of styles and approaches. For example, helping a student overcome a low tolerance for ambiguity will make him or her more comfortable when interpreting an unfamiliar text.

multiple intelligences
Multiple intelligences, an approach developed by psychologist and educator Howard Gardner, looks at intelligence not as a single concept, but as varied areas of human ability that shape behavior and learning. He originally identified seven intelligences — visual/spatial, verbal, logical/mathematical, musical/rhythmic, bodily/kinesthetic, interpersonal, and intrapersonal — although recent developments in the field have suggested there could be even more. There is no consensus currently about the role of multiple intelligences theory in the field of foreign language instruction. More information can be found in Gardner, Howard. Frames of Mind: The Theory of Multiple Intelligences. New York: Basic Books, 1993.

Materials Needed

A sample Individualized Education Program (IEP) or other district-specific form for students with special needs (optional). For more information, see Put It Into Practice.


Check out these additional resources to explore the topic further.

American Council on the Teaching of Foreign Languages. Standards for Foreign Language Learning in the 21st Century. National Standards in Foreign Language Education Collaborative Project. Yonkers, NY: American Council on the Teaching of Foreign Languages, 1999. (To purchase the Standards document, go to or call 1-800-627-0629.)

Barr-Harrison, Pat, and Cathy P. Daugherty. “Multiple Realities of the Classroom.” In Agents of Change in a Changing Age, edited by Robert M. Terry, 79-105. Northeast Conference Reports. Lincolnwood, IL: National Textbook Co., 2000. (This text is available in the Before You Watch section.)

Haley, Marjorie Hall. “Culturally and Linguistically Diverse Exceptional Students: Refocusing the Lens.” ESL Magazine (November/December 2000): 14-16.

Haley, Marjorie Hall. “Understanding Learner-Centered Instruction From the Perspective of Multiple Intelligences.” Foreign Language Annals 34, no. 4 (July/August 2001): 355-367. (This text is available in the Before You Watch section.)

Haley, Marjorie Hall, and Patricia Rentz. “Applying SLA Research and Theory to Practice: What Can a Teacher Do?” TESL-EJ 5, no. 4 (March 2002): A-2.

Haley, Marjorie Hall, and Sabrina Wesley-Nero. “Dialogic Construction and Reflective Practice: A Teacher Educator’s Action Research Study of Teacher as Learner.” Texas Papers in Foreign Language Education 7, no. 1 (Fall 2002): 131-150.

Ladson-Billings, G. “But That’s Just Good Teaching! The Case for Culturally Relevant Pedagogy.” Theory Into Practice 34, no. 3 (1995): 159-165.

Schwarz, Robin L. “Learning Disabilities and Foreign Language Learning: A Painful Collision.”Learning Disabilities Online.

Taggart, Germaine L., and Alfred P. Wilson. Promoting Reflective Thinking in Teachers. Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin Press, 1998.

U.S. Department of Education. A Guide to the Individualized Education Program.

Valdés, Guadalupe. “The Teaching of Minority Languages as Academic Subjects: Pedagogical and Theoretical Challenges.” The Modern Language Journal 79, no. 3 (1995): 299-328.

Library Video Charts

The following lessons from Teaching Foreign Languages K-12: A Library of Classroom Practices are listed in the order in which they appear in the “Valuing Diversity in Learners” video:

Lesson Title Instructor Language Grade Level
Exploring New Directions Haiyan Fu Chinese 9-12
Food Facts and Stories John Pedini Spanish 8
Family and Home Debra Terry French 5
Interpreting Literature Barbara Pope Bennett Spanish 11
A Cajun Folktale and Zydeco Paris Granville French 8
Communicating About Sports Jie Gao Chinese 6
Russian Cities, Russian Stories Jane Shuffelton Russian 9-12
Happy New Year! Leslie Birkland Japanese 9-11
Routes to Culture Pablo Muirhead Spanish 9-10
Daily Routines Margaret Dyer Japanese 5
Chicken Pox Jai Scott French K


If you are taking this workshop for credit or professional development, submit the following assignments for session 1: Meaningful Interpretation.

  1. Examine the Research
    Read the articles, then submit your written responses to the Reading Questions.
  2. Examine the Topic
    Complete the interactive activity, then write a brief summary of what you learned from the activity.
  3. Put It Into Practice
    Complete the activity, then submit your interpretive task.
  4. Action Research Project
    Submit your completed action research project on any one of the eight session topics.
  5. Reflect on Your Learning
    Review your notes, then write a summary of what you have learned and how you plan to apply it in your classroom.