Getting Started with Translanguaging in the Multilingual Classroom

Michaela Scott

Imagine that today is your first day of school. You make your way to your classroom and smile when you see your name on one of the tables. This should be an exciting day, but when your teacher hears you whisper eagerly in Spanish to a friend about the beautiful posters on the window, her response is startling: We speak English at school. The adults here, despite being entrusted with the critical work of nurturing children, cause harm to multilingual students every day. This was the type of school that multilingual learner Jesus Vargas attended. He spoke about his experiences with his teachers when he shared this powerful reflection: “We are treated like garbage. I kept getting suspended when I spoke Spanish with my homeboys, the teachers thought I was disrespecting them. They kept telling me to speak in English because I was in America” (Auerbach, 1993, p. 9). Multilingual learners like Jesus are a remarkable population of students because of their unique cultural and linguistic identities. They are also one of the fastest growing populations of students in the United States. By 2025, 1 out of 4 children in classrooms across the nation will be a multilingual learner (National Education Association, 2020). For teachers in the United States, it is not a question of if you will work with a multilingual learner, but when. With these students, teachers must be aware of different strategies that help support their academic success and affirm their identity as confident, emergent bilinguals. Allowing multilingual learners to leverage each of their languages and access their full linguistic repertoire during learning can yield positive results in student achievement and sense of identity (Hillcrest, 2021).

Rationale for Translanguaging

The United States educational system has experienced different shifts in the way it instructs its multilingual students. Bybee et al. (2014) likened it to a pendulum swinging between valuing linguistic diversity and a “dominant and nationalistic English-only ideology” (p. 149). The system has reacted not only to research, but also to shifts in the national political climate around issues pertaining to learners, especially regarding immigration. This has been a charged discussion throughout history and remains a highly polarized issue today (Bybee et al., 2014). Vignettes from classrooms in the 1990s demonstrated this “dominant and nationalistic English-only ideology.” Auerbach (1993) described schools, like the one Jesus Vargas attended, where teachers created complicated classroom systems and games that prevented multilingual students from using their home languages. They justified this practice by claiming that student- and teacher-use of home language instruction could stop students from making progress in English acquisition. Notably at the turn of the century, three states passed laws that severely restricted home language use in instructing English learners. Research found that students in California who were taught this way suffered because of it (Bybee et al., 2014). However, the past decade has seen new studies showing that developing the home language is beneficial for multilingual learners. Goldenberg (2008) summarized the five meta-analyses conducted on the issue of home language development and notes how unusual it is for these five meta-analyses to have been conducted by five independent researchers and still have reached the same conclusion; that skilled use of the home language in instruction of multilingual learners is a beneficial practice.

Public attitudes were beginning to change on this front, and President Barack Obama even highlighted multilingualism as an asset rather than a deficit in a speech given in 2008. He conveyed a more positive outlook regarding home language use and language policy in education (Hornberger, 2012). This was a notable moment in which a system of power elevated multilingual identities and challenged the idea that students’ time spent in American schools should be molding them into a monolingual English speaker. Culturally, the pendulum was beginning to swing away from the idea that “English-only” instruction was a valuable educational practice.

Translanguaging as a Purposeful Educational Practice

Translanguaging was the label given by Cen Williams to the idea of “the planned and systematic use of two languages for teaching and learning,” in the context of Welsh bilingual programs in the 1980s (Conteh, 2018). This is not just switching between two languages in different contexts, but more how individuals use all their language resources to achieve their purposes when engaging with academic content. It is using all your languages to make sense of and navigate your life (Garcia, 2013). It is important to clarify that using home language for instruction is not the same as engaging in translanguaging practices; however, these practices can be a component of home language instruction.

Translanguaging also fulfills a distinct purpose regarding the achievement of multilingual learners. This purpose is to add value to and encourage students to use their multilingual repertoires, to promote multilingual literacies through an additive approach, reinforcing language in different cross-curricular content, and to maximize the time that students are actively engaged with literacy and reading (Juvonen, & Källkvist, 2021). 

Translanguaging may be a tool used by students naturally in the context of seeking clarification from peers of English-language content or taking notes in the home language. Teachers can also create opportunities for intentional translanguaging interactions in the classroom through specific instructional strategies that rely on students’ use of both languages. A 2013 study found that students who participated in classrooms that used translanguaging strategies were more engaged in the lesson and participated more. Teachers also reported that when they provided students with translanguaging activities and incorporated home language use in their instruction, students had more access to the content being taught (Menken & Sánchez, 2019, as cited in Hillcrest, 2021).

The returns of engaging in translanguaging pedagogy with children are evident. Multilingual learners benefit from translanguaging practices on academic, social, and cognitive fronts. A promising benefit of translanguaging practices is the impact they have on students’ English acquisition. Bilingual students’ English proficiency improved when teachers intentionally provided activities that encouraged translanguaging. Researchers found that by using translanguaging activities, students developed language skills in English by connecting knowledge about language and vocabulary in their home language to those of the target language (Conteh, 2018). Putting language practices alongside each other makes it possible for students to develop metalinguistic awareness and explicitly take note of language features (Celic et al., 2013). There are additional benefits outside of English acquisition that challenge English-centered systems upheld in our schools. Translanguaging practices not only affirm individual student identities, but can also impact the greater home-language speaking community. When students are taught to use translanguaging theories, they can see their culture, language, and background as a valuable piece of an academic setting (Garcia, 2017).

Incorporating Translanguaging into your Practice

How can teachers implement translanguaging practices effectively into their work with multilingual learners? Certain themes have appeared throughout the body of research on translanguaging that can serve as guiding principles for teachers. These are outlined here:

  1. Knowledge of your students
  2. Strategic Grouping
  3. Classroom Environment Considerations
  4. Specific Instructional Routines, Strategies and Activities for Literacy and Language Development

Knowledge of Students

To create the conditions necessary for implementing translanguaging practices, teachers need to know their students, and specifically, they should know their learners’ language identities. Teachers must seek answers to questions such as: “What is this learner’s home language? How proficient are they in this language? How literate are they in this language?” The answers to these questions may dictate the types of translanguaging strategies used in class. For example, if a student has not developed literacy in the home language, then taking notes about content is not an accessible translanguaging practice for them. However, students with oral proficiency in the home language could benefit from translanguaging in oral response and in questioning. If practitioners are not familiar with the degree of students’ literacy and proficiency levels in the home language, they will not be able to develop and implement appropriate translanguaging activities to support both English and home language development.

Strategic Grouping

Intentional grouping of students is a common practice in education and one that serves many different purposes. Teachers who work with multilinguals will likely group students to optimize language acquisition. When working in a bilingual setting, teachers should group multilingual learners by language background to create opportunities for the use of the home language for content and literacy instruction (Commins & De Jong, 2015).

Translanguaging strategies will likely be challenging to implement in mixed groupings, that is, groups of students with different home languages. If a group consists of four students with four different home languages, English is their only common language, and therefore no student will be using his or her full linguistic repertoire to engage with academic content. It is important to remember that grouping in and of itself does not automatically mean that productive translanguaging will occur. It is a tool that will support teachers as they use translanguaging as a strategy and establish a shared understanding of translanguaging practices with students.

Classroom Environment Considerations

A strong classroom environment can be supported through tools such as the development of a language use policy. This policy may establish routines to use the home language in a way that is respectful, productive, and inclusive. Another tool to support the classroom environment is to allow for student choice of language use when completing certain tasks. There are also steps we can take to create a classroom and school environment that celebrates students’ home languages and cultures while raising all students’ awareness of the different languages in their communities (Celic et al., 2013). Turning your classroom into a more multilingual learning environment can impact the culture of the room. This can be done by determining where oral and written English is present in your classroom and considering where it would make sense to add multilingual aspects. These could be in areas like greetings, songs, transitions, rules and routines, charts, and classroom labels (Celic et al., 2013).

Practitioners are also encouraged to look at how the whole school environment can become more multilingual. For example, teachers and administrators can begin a collaborative school-wide initiative that focuses on making sure students see their languages represented throughout the school. We can accomplish this by creating signs in students’ home languages, adding a multilingual segment to morning announcements, and using greetings in languages other than English between staff members (Celic et al., 2013). It is a powerful thing for students to see principals, teachers, and staff communicating in a way that reflects their own linguistic profile, and elevating home languages removes some of the social power that English carries in American schools.

Specific Instructional Routines, Strategies and Activities

Once teachers have considered the ideas above, they can implement translanguaging through certain instructional routines, strategies, and learning activities. We can place translanguaging strategies into three separate groups: Strategies relating to the classroom environment, strategies to promote acquisition of content and literacy, and strategies to promote language development (Celic et al., 2013). Once a supportive classroom environment is established, teachers can begin to use specific strategies to promote content learning and literacy development.

Language Development Strategies

Teachers should provide students with different opportunities to develop oral language proficiency, not only in English but also in home languages. One way to do this is by providing a model for translanguaging practices. This can be modeled even by monolingual teachers by using the home language words and phrases that they learn from their students (Rowe, 2018). Celic et al. suggest that teachers introduce multilingual word walls into the classroom by displaying highly visible word cards, definitions, and example sentences in English and in students’ home languages. The word wall should be a dynamic, interactive part of the classroom rather than just a visual support. Teachers may introduce new words during meaningful learning activities and incorporate new vocabulary into the word wall as students contribute to it (2013).

Another language development strategy is to use cognate charts with students. Celic et al.’s routine involves using cognate charts to support students as they begin to develop the metalinguistic skill of language analysis. The routine begins with finding relevant cognates to add to the cognate charts. Teachers can do this by asking bilingual students about how certain words are said in the home languages, and if they are cognates, adding them to the charts. Then, teachers should organize the cognate charts in a way that supports content-area goals. Teachers need to explicitly show students how to interact with cognates by questioning whether words that they hear or read sound like words from their home languages. Students can practice finding cognates with content vocabulary, identify root words between the languages, and identifying false cognates (2013).   

Literacy Strategies

Literacy acquisition activities may include specific reading routines and writing routines that actively involve students’ home languages. Pachecho and Miller discuss many ideas that are easy to begin using in the classroom. These include learning activities like the one they observed in Ms. Gardner’s third grade class, which involved students using home language newspapers and newspapers in English to recognize and discuss nonfiction text features. Here, Ms. Gardner used students’ home languages to build understanding of the concept of and purpose for text features (2015).

Another strategy is developing an independent reading library where students have access to text in both or all their languages can be a powerful tool for literacy development when paired with systematic reading instruction (Celic et al., 2013). This multilingual library can be made even more accessible when teachers use technology to include online texts in the home language with an audio component (Rowe, 2018).

Interactive writing can be another beneficial literacy activity. Celic et al. outline a routine in their 2013 guide that includes four steps to using translanguaging to support struggling writers: 1) group formation for the writing tasks; 2) sharing ideas aloud in English and/or the home language to brainstorm ideas for text; 3) write the text word by word; and 4) refer to and make connections between English and home language phonics patterns. In writing routines like this, multilingual learners are encouraged to draft and compose in both, or all, their languages. When working with students who do not have much writing experience in their home languages, teachers can have them phonetically write texts using letters of the English alphabet to form words in the home language (Rowe, 2018). A culminating activity for this writing process could be creating bilingual books with photos from home. One example of this was in Ms. Camden’s preschool classroom in which children used iPads to write or draw words and pictures for their books. Children created digital books with photos and drawings and used voice recordings made with the app's sound recording feature as well as written text. Pachecho and Miller note that one of the features that makes this activity so beneficial is that there was a possibility of using multiple sound recordings, often in the child’s home language and English, on the same page. After students completed the books, they could browse through the books their classmates created (2015).

Conclusion

In a translanguaging classroom, a child would never hear the words “We speak English at school” used to stifle their home language usage. Imagine what Jesus Vargas, the multilingual student whose teachers treated him so poorly for using Spanish with his peers, could have accomplished in a school filled with educators who used translanguaging practices daily. Jesus’ experiences in American schools could have been drastically different. Not only would his identity as a multilingual individual have been wholly supported, but he could have also been given opportunities to see each of his languages as valuable in academic pursuits.

For teachers today, understanding that translanguaging practices are beneficial to multilingual learners can be considered a first step to making positive changes to their classroom. Not only do translanguaging practices benefit students cognitively, academically, and socially, but also, they build a strong sense of identity in students like Jesus. Teachers should remember that translanguaging is so much more than a single activity. It is a dynamic practice that requires creativity and careful preparation where students learn and can make use of their full linguistic repertoire to engage with content, participate in social interactions, and begin to make meaning of the world around them.

 

References

Auerbach, E. R. (1993). Reexamining English only in the ESL classroom. TESOL Quarterly, 27(1), 9–32. https://doi.org/10.2307/3586949

Bybee, E., Henderson, K., & Hinojosa, R. (2014). An overview of U.S. bilingual education: Historical roots, legal battles and recent trends. Texas Education Review 2 ,(2), 138-146

Celic, C., Seltzer, K., García, O., & Ascenzi-Moreno, L. (2013). Translanguaging: A CUNY-NYSIEB guide for educators (2nd ed.). The Graduate Center at The City University of New York.

Commins, N. L., & De Jong, E. (2015). How should ells be grouped for instruction? Colorín Colorado.

Conteh, J. (2018). Translanguaging. ELT Journal, 72(4), 445–447. https://doi.org/10.1093/elt/ccy034

García, O. (2013). Theorizing translanguaging for educators. In Celic, C. Celic, Seltzer, K, & Ascenzi-Moreno, L. (Eds.), Translanguaging: A CUNY-NYSIEB guide for educators (2nd ed.) (p. 1-6). The Graduate Center at The City University of New York.

García, Ofelia. Ofelia García – Translanguaging [Video]. Youtube.     https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5l1CcrRrck0.

Goldenberg, C. (2008). Teaching English language learners: what the research does — and does not — say. American Educator

Hillcrest, D. (2021). Academic Benefit of Translanguaging. MinneTESOL Journal, 37(2).

National Education Association. (2020). English language learners. NEA.

Päivi Juvonen, & Marie Källkvist. (2021). Pedagogical Translanguaging : Theoretical, Methodological and Empirical Perspectives. Multilingual Matters.

Pacheco, M. B., & Miller, M. E. (2015). Making meaning through translanguaging in the literacy classroom. The Reading Teacher, 69(5), 533–537. https://doi.org/10.1002/trtr.1390

Rowe, L. W. (2018). Say it in your language: Supporting translanguaging in multilingual classes. The Reading Teacher, 72(1), 31–38. https://doi.org/10.1002/trtr.1673

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