October, 2021
Bryn Keck, Kimberly Cacciato, Shelly Rasnitsyn, & Solange A. Lopes Murphy, College of New Jersey, Ewing, New Jersey, USA

Bryn Keck

Kimberly Cacciato

    Shelly Rasnitsyn

     Solange Lopes                 Murphy


In the past decades, U.S. schools have seen a significant increase in students receiving English as a second language services. These students include those with formal education in their first language, those with disrupted or little-to-no formal schooling, and those born in the U.S. and simultaneously learning multiple languages. Circumstances such as home context, level of literacy in the native language, and readiness for academic work (Lopes-Murphy, 2020) affect the learning experience of each multilingual learner (ML) differently. MLs are a heterogeneous group, with each learner having unique linguistic, academic, cultural, emotional, and intellectual needs resulting from the diverse experiences they bring to their classrooms. To support learning for all students, classroom instruction and assessment methods must then consider those experiences as well as students’ funds of knowledge, stressors, and areas of need before assuming their struggles may be caused by a disability.

When developing proficiency in a new language, it is common for MLs to have difficulty following directions, comprehending written or oral language, and communicating—tasks which are necessary for academic success. However, when those struggles extend beyond what is expected or when assessment scores are not satisfactory, a discussion on disability may begin. Before considering a disability, it is worth recognizing that acquiring a new language is a complex task that requires several years before fluency can be achieved. Therefore, instructional and assessment strategies sensitive to the language development process are imperative when determining if difficulties stem from socio-cultural or linguistic factors versus an internal condition. Learning a language and having a disability are different but not mutually exclusive. Thus, it is important to prevent misidentification of MLs as having a disability and to ensure that individual needs are met if they are correctly identified as needing special considerations.

Increasing Access Through Universal Design for Learning (UDL)

Universal Design for Learning (UDL) is a framework to increase accessibility and ensure equitability for all in instructional settings. Accessible classroom environments account for the internal and external variables that affect students and reduce barriers for academic success. Particularly for MLs, “UDL provides a set of guidelines that can help teachers design flexible instruction that addresses learner variability while providing essential support for language and literacy development” (Rao & Torres, 2016, p. 461). Language acquisition can be integrated into the curriculum, which increases opportunities for MLs to develop the new language while learning content knowledge. Most importantly, “UDL provides a roadmap for educators to think through the process of identifying barriers to learning and working to remove them” (Rice Doran, 2015, p. 4).

The framework is guided by three principles: multiple means of engagement, multiple means of representation, and multiple means of action and expression. Multiple means of engagement help students to consider the “why” of learning through student choice and autonomy, fostering collaboration and communication, and developing self-assessment and reflection (CAST, 2021). Multiple means of representation focus on the “what” of learning through alternative modes of auditory, visual, and kinesthetic stimuli, and by activating or supplying background knowledge (CAST, 2021). Multiple means of action and expression, or the “how” of learning, may consider assistive technologies, multiple media for communication, and appropriate goal-setting aligned to different English proficiency levels (CAST, 2021) to offer students choices in demonstrating mastery of knowledge and learning. Using the three principles of UDL helps to craft lessons that give students ample opportunities to learn and be assessed in multiple and equitable manners.


As part of our graduate course project in spring 2021, the researchers conducted field interviews and observations to explore teaching and assessment practices for identifying, evaluating, and supporting MLs with or without disabilities. Twenty-four observations and interviews were conducted in K-12 ESL, general, Special, and Deaf education (with American Sign Language as the classroom language) classrooms in virtual, in-person, and hybrid settings with teachers who have experience working with MLs and/or MLs with disabilities. Eight teams, composed of three students each, collected data and compared, contrasted, and synthesized findings for class presentations.

Four Consistent Practices for Supporting or Evaluating MLs

While the teachers interviewed and observed implemented many different strategies in their instruction and assessment of MLs, with or without disabilities, four practices that fit into the framework of UDL were widely used.


Translanguaging (García, 2009) is a practice that encourages students to use their accumulated linguistic resources to access the language around them and problem-solve language challenges. Translanguaging can provide students with choice in how to approach academic language. One teacher was observed using translanguaging in the classroom by explicitly presenting connections between new vocabulary words by encouraging the student to think out loud in his native language then helping him to recreate those thoughts in the target language. Students benefit from the linguistic opportunities provided by translanguaging, and teachers support the “recruiting interest” element of UDL by simultaneously promoting autonomy and minimizing barriers to learning.

Peer Collaboration

When providing opportunities for MLs to work with peers, teachers have “more freedom to circulate and support students who need extra help” (Rice Doran, 2015, p. 9), and MLs can receive assistance from peers while the teacher is working with others. In our observations, the researchers saw ML students paired with strong English speakers who provided explanations or clarification of written text allowing the ML to focus on the content instead of on the nuances of language, thus increasing content accessibility and engagement.

Multimodal Learning

Multimodal learning opportunities provide options for language support through the use of visual, audio, hands-on, and kinesthetic activities. During observations, the researchers saw teachers use anchor charts, lesson slides, and graphic organizers as visual tools to highlight big ideas, guide information selection, and support the processing and organizing of new information, including vocabulary in students’ multiple languages. Also, vocabulary posters presented words paired with pictures and included versions in different languages, allowing access to the vocabulary through the L1, L2, or the picture. Bilingual dictionaries were also available to students. For audio input, teachers provided access to audiobooks, used captions for videos, and paired visual and audio input to provide students with multiple ways to access the content and to increase engagement.

Teachers also incorporated physical movement into reading lessons. For example, one teacher was observed using language mats, having students stand on the mat labeled with their L1 and read in their L1; then the students would move to the L2 labeled mat and read in their L2. During interviews, teachers emphasized the importance of multisensory learning to meet the various needs of MLs and increase accessibility, engagement, and retention of words, concepts, or directions.

Culturally Responsive Classroom

Since all students have their own cultural identity influenced by their geographical location, race, ethnicity, (Dis) ability, religion, gender, and other factors, which contribute to their language, norms, values, and so on, teachers highlighted the importance of culturally sensitive practices to promote relevance, authenticity, and a safe learning environment. Culturally responsive strategies observed included “native language buddies” or “culture buddies” and opportunities to authentically infuse each student’s culture into classroom activities and instruction. For example, students' unique funds of knowledge were valued during classroom discussions of new vocabulary words. Definitions and usage were examined together, building on students’ prior knowledge and experiences. Students were more engaged, and learning became more accessible when students were empowered to construct meaning through sharing of their individual thoughts and experiences.

Observed Practices Not in Line with UDL

While the researchers observed practices recommended by research, the researchers also observed practices that did not adhere to the UDL principles compromising access and equity. Below are some examples of practices the researchers observed or recorded that were not in line with UDL.

Teacher as a Presenter versus Teacher as a Facilitator

A significant number of the lessons observed followed the teacher-centered model of instruction with the teacher presenting information, and the students passively receiving it. In these cases, differentiation was done in the form of different independent work or additional teacher-led small group instruction time. These practices miss out on key opportunities for student collaboration.

Collaboration Amongst Professionals

Although the teachers interviewed recognized the value of professional collaboration, in general terms, for student learning, their responses suggested the lack of collaborative initiatives in their professional contexts. Collaboration is especially crucial to correctly assess and identify MLs for disabilities; thus, intentionally including a language specialist during all levels of discussion is critical.

Culture and Access

While some teachers used culturally responsive teaching to support student learning, during our data collection, the researchers saw examples of teachers not considering how culture affects a student’s access to information.

In one observation, an ML student was confused by the writing prompt given because it referenced a cultural dining experience that he had never heard of or experienced. The lesson was not accessible to the student due to a lack of background information. In another observation, a Deaf student’s interpreter was missing for part of the day; thus, that student could not access the lesson or gain meaning from that time. Although the teacher bears no responsibility for the interpreting services, the school should have sought an alternative plan of action to support the learner’s access to the content.

Both these situations posed barriers to equity of opportunity in the classroom and threats to authentic assessment data. It is a great responsibility for teachers to choose materials representative of all students' cultures and build background knowledge and understanding as needed to provide equitable access during instruction and assessment.


While these observations provide only a glimpse into the practices used in some classrooms and the extent to which those practices connect with the UDL principles, they do raise important questions about equitable opportunities and access in classrooms with MLs, particularly as they are evaluated for disabilities. In order to prevent inappropriate identification and to ensure appropriate services for MLs and dually-identified MLs with disabilities, the use of UDL decreases the barriers that MLs face and increases accessibility, and engagement, thereby, creating greater equity for all learners.


García, O. (2009). Education, multilingualism and translanguaging in the 21st century. In T. Skutnabb-Kangas, R. Phillipson, A. K. Mohanty & M. Panda (Eds.), Social Justice through Multilingual Education (pp.140–158). Multilingual Matters. https://doi.org/10.21832/9781847691910-011

Lopes-Murphy, S. A. (2020). Contention between English as a second language and special education services for emergent bilinguals with disabilities. Latin American Journal of Content and Language Integrated Learning, 13(1), 43–56. https://doi.org/10.5294/laclil.2020.13.1.3

Rao, K., & Torres, C. (2016). Supporting academic and affective learning processes for English language learners with Universal Design for Learning. TESOL Quarterly, 51(2), 460–472. https://doi.org/10.1002/tesq.342

Rice Doran, P. (2015). Language accessibility in the classroom: How UDL can promote success for linguistically diverse learners. Exceptionality Education International, 25(3), 1–10. https://doi.org/10.5206/eei.v25i3.7728

The UDL Guidelines. UDL. (2021, April 9). https://udlguidelines.cast.org/.

Bryn Keck is an Early Childhood Educator with more than 10 years of experience across multiple grade levels in inclusive settings, currently teaching Integrated ELL Preschool. She holds an M. Ed in Teaching English as a Second Language from The College of New Jersey and a B.S in Early Childhood Education from Ohio University.

Kimberly Cacciato graduated from The College of New Jersey with a degree in Mathematics Education & Deaf and Hard of Hearing Elementary Education. She is Hearing Support Teacher at Montgomery County Intermediate Unit in New Jersey.

Shelly Rasnitsyn graduated from The College of New Jersey with a BS in iSTEM and a MAT in Special Education. She is currently working as a middle school math teacher in Somerset, New Jersey. As a former ELL, Ms.Rasnitsyn is very passionate about helping students both with and without disabilities.

Solange Lopes Murphy is a teacher educator in the areas of literacy, second language acquisition, and special education at The College of New Jersey. Her areas of research focus on culturally sustaining practices, the intersections of bilingualism and special education, instructional practices for multilingual learners, and Universal Design for Learning.