Differentiating Student Interaction in a Dual Language Program for Academic Growth and Language Development in a Distance Learn

Districts, teachers, students, and families alike discovered this past spring that distance learning, even in the context of a global pandemic, can be very challenging. Many teachers worked tirelessly to encourage all their students to participate, but achieving the goal of 100% participation was difficult as the students either did not find distance learning engaging, their parents were not able to support their participation because the were essential workers, or they did not have access to the technology and/or the internet to participate.

With the advent of the new academic year and the uncertainty of the feasibility of face-to-face instruction given the current safety guidelines and the increase in COVID-19 cases around the US, many states and districts are beginning the school year with distance learning. They are also instituting greater accountability for student participation, with some states linking district funding to student participation in their distance learning classrooms.

As we have learned, engaging students in a distance learning setting is daunting enough. But in dual language (DL) programs, student engagement and interaction are critical not only for the students’ academic learning but also for their language learning, with research showing that interaction between students has a positive effect on learning (Hattie, J., 2012; Marzano, R., Pickering, D., & Pollock, J., 2001) and is vital when acquiring a second language (Gass, S., 2017; Gass, S., & Varonis, E., 1994). In the Guiding Principles for Dual Language Education, 3rd Edition, flexible grouping and being able to benefit from their peer language models is highlighted in Strand 3, Instruction, on pages 52-53, and in Principle 3, Key Point C, on page 68.

Small group interaction or partner-to-partner settings are strategic ways to provide not only student interaction but also the differentiation necessary to assist students in being able to meet the learning and language objectives for each lesson. However, establishing and successfully implementing small group or partner-to-partner interaction have long been goals for many teachers, even during face-to-face instruction. Their efforts toward attaining these goals will carry forward into their distance learning classrooms, as well.

Several of the video conferencing apps or platforms allow for breakout groups which can be administered by the teacher, including sending students to their breakout groups and bringing them back to the main group, either automatically via a timer or manually by the teacher. In addition, the teacher can “drop in” to the breakout group and interact with the students. These breakout group features can facilitate small group instruction and interaction as well as partner-to-partner interaction, depending on how the teacher sets up the groups in the app or platform.

In the table below, several different types of student groupings that support both academic learning and language development are described. The heterogeneous groupings are based on Vygotsky’s Zone of Proximal Development (ZoPD; Chaiklin, S., 2003) to provide all students in the DL classroom the opportunity to work with a more capable peer academically and/or linguistically. All the groupings in the table can be implemented in many of the apps and platforms used for distance learning. Not only will these groupings offer students the opportunities to interact with each other, they will also allow teachers the opportunity to maximize the benefits of their instruction for the greatest number of students. Increased student interaction will also support the socioemotional needs of students as they return to school this fall. And with the experience gained last spring teaching in a distance learning environment, teachers are encouraged to consider strategically implementing these types of groupings to support student engagement and differentiate learning opportunities in their distance learning DL classrooms this fall.




Chaiklin, S. (2003). The zone of proximal development in Vygotsky’s analysis of learning and instruction. Vygotsky’s educational theory in cultural context, 1(2), 39-64.

Gass, S. (2017). Input, interaction, and the second language learner. Routledge.

Gass, S., & Varonis, E. (1994). Input, interaction, and second language production. Studies in second language acquisition, 16(3), 283-302.

Hattie, J. (2012). Visible learning for teachers: Maximizing impact on learning. Routledge.

Howard, E. R., Lindholm-Leary, K. J., Rogers, D., Olague, N., Medina, J., Kennedy, D., Sugarman, J., & Christian, D. (2018). Guiding Principles for Dual Language Education (3rd ed.). Washington, DC: Center for Applied Linguistics.

Marzano, R., Pickering, D., & Pollock, J. (2001). Classroom instruction that works: Research-based strategies for increasing student achievement. ASCD.

Kris Nicholls, Ph.D.
CEO, Nicholls Educational Consulting

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