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  • Writer's pictureTara O'Brien

Action Research: Multimodality in Support of Early Childhood ELLs

Updated: Jun 12, 2021

English language learners (ELLs) encounter unique obstacles to their academic development due to their learner characteristics. Language learning does not progress equally across language domains or at an equal rate or length of time for different ELL speakers (Fitzpatrick, 2013). While conversational English develops quickly, learning to understand, converse, read, and write in academic English can take five to seven years (Fitzpatrick, 2013). This challenge to understand, communicate, integrate into a classroom community, and engage in learning can lead to frustration (Fitzpatrick, 2013). ELL students react in different ways to this challenge and potential source of frustration. While some ELL students may persevere when challenged, others may become averse to collaborative learning, or to school, or even exhibit anti-social behaviors. The learner characteristics of ELL`s and the specific challenges they encounter can often adversely affect their levels of motivation towards school. This potential drop in motivation requires specific instructional strategies to address.

Motivation type and level in school impacts academic achievement (Gordeevaa et al., 2018). Certain pedagogies positively affect the development of intrinsic motivation in students, including multimodal learning as part of Developmental Education (DE). DE is an educational pedagogy developed from L.S. Vygotsky`s and Davydov`s theories of developmental education (Gordeevaa et al., 2018). Modern day social constructivists define DE by its use of innovative methods, authentic contexts for learning, use of multiple modalities, and student-centered inquiry-based approach. Brunner (1960) describes DE as “discovery learning” and advocates for a problem-based method of learning while Zuckerman (2014) theorizes that the role of teachers is to facilitate student-led inquiry (Gordeevaa et al., 2018). A social constructivist approach facilitating multimodal learning in the early childhood can better support the unique needs of English language learners and ensure that they feel motivated to learn.

Quantitative and qualitative data was collected at one early childhood center via survey-questionnaire to answer two research questions.

Firstly, which multimodal educational approaches do early childhood educators use most to support English language learners?

Secondly, how effective are these multimodal approaches in motivating ELL early childhood students?

Data from these research questions sheds light on how teachers can better motivate students through social constructivist multimodal methods. This data was organized into four categories. The first category reveals how often teachers use social-constructivist pedagogy to support multimodal learning. The second data category identifies the most used multimodal practices for facilitating student choice regarding multimodal exploration and self-expression. The third Likert scale data category regarding multimodal learning involves the role of teacher choice. The last Likert scale category regarding multimodality relates to technology-enabled multimodal instruction.

Check out this video for more information about results from the action research!

Early childhood teacher respondents agree about the frequency of certain multimodal practices employed. Quantitative data reveals that most early childhood teachers “almost always” or “always” use social constructivist teaching pedagogy to support multimodal learning.

23% of respondents also used the key

words “choice” and “voice” as the most effective multimodal strategies for motivating ELL students, which further supports the view that teachers value student-centered learning. The quantitative data also made clear that the majority of early childhood teachers “almost always” or “always” use multimodal resources and strategies to convey teaching points during Writer`s Workshop and Realistic Mathematics Education. Agreement in the use and effectiveness of teacher choice in multimodal resources and strategies as supported by social constructivist pedagogy is apparent in the data.

The quantitative and qualitative data reveals differences in rate of use and perceptions of effectiveness of multimodal strategies in motivating ELL students in two key areas. Firstly, teachers employ student choice regarding multimodality at different rates during Writer`s Workshop and Realistic Mathematics Education. This could be due to several factors, including differences in approach to classroom management or an attempt to mediate overstimulation.

In the open-ended response, 34% of teachers use the key word “overstimulation.” In an early childhood setting, young learners are still developing basic self-regulation skills and overstimulation occurs easily and frequently compared to older students. Overstimulation negatively affects the learning environment and individual students. Perhaps teachers limit student access to multimodal resources or choice in seating to prevent overstimulation.

Early childhood teachers also disagree about technology-enabled multimodality.

50% of teachers only “sometimes” allow students to access technology during Writer`s Workshop and Realistic Mathematics Education. This data point may also relate to the qualitative key word used 34%, “overstimulation.” Young students can become easily distracted by screens and rather than collaborate, become immersed by it. This is further supported by the key word “video,” used 22% by respondents as a least motivating strategy. All teacher respondents use social constructivist pedagogy “almost always” or “always.” The tenant of this pedagogy is socialization and collaboration while learning. If early childhood teachers perceive technology as limiting socialization and collaboration, they are less likely to use such resources to support multimodal learning. Furthermore, if technology is viewed as “overstimulating” and potentially disruptive, teachers will likely limits their use.


The quantitative data suggests a need for bridging the gap between how technology-enabled multimodal practices are perceived by early childhood teachers and how it could be used to enhance multimodal learning for ELL students, and all students. By developing classroom expectations and routines for appropriate ipad use, teachers may be able to alleviate risks of overstimulation. For example, teachers could set time limits for ipad use and only install applications that support instruction. Furthermore, early childhood teachers may benefit from additional professional development training on how to integrate technology into instruction that adds value.

Technology integration does not simply replace,

but must enhance instruction

while providing students another mode

for self-expression or exploration.

Technology-enabled multimodal strategies can also address the unique needs of ELL students and motivate them to overcome challenges. As noted earlier, ELLs encounter unique obstacles to their academic development due to their inabilities to comprehend, communicate, collaborate, and access curriculum. Furthermore, these challenges can lead to frustration and negatively impact motivation (Fitzpatrick, 2013). Technology-enabled multimodal learning may help to overcome these obstacles and motivate ELLs. For example, ELL students can access reading apps with large and varied libraries to listen to stories and improve comprehension, take photos or videos as a mode for self-expression, or use the drawing app to record realistic mathematics models or develop illustrations during Writer`s Workshop. Appropriate technology-enabled multimodal learning is uniquely placed to enhance, support, and motivate ELL students.


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