Winter Gifts (Part 2)

Around this time of year many people give and receive gifts, sometimes in unexpected ways.  As an ESL teacher I have always felt lucky in that regard — multilingual learners continually surprise me with new perspectives, unique interpretations, and inspiration.  

In keeping with that spirit here are just some of the gifts multilingual learners, all in the beginning stages of English acquisition, have given over the years. Some of the students in the following examples were mine, some were the students of colleagues; all bespeak the knowledge and insight multilingual learners can share with their classmates, if we only create the right conditions …

A cell diagram, labelled perfectly and in seconds, entirely in Arabic.

A deftly-sketched graph illustrating the class data survey, the multilingual learner silently guiding his group mates through the math representations. 

An exquisite birdhouse, assembled with the skill and speed of a master carpenter, while the rest of the class still fumbled with their first nail.

That same multilingual learner, upon seeing his struggling classmates, jumping from desk to desk, straightening nails with single taps and fitting panels together seamlessly.

A fable, crafted entirely in Mandarin, covering pages front to back, the precision of characters and fluid writing revealing advanced literacy skills.

A student in grade 4, with limited prior schooling and barely a word of English, demonstrating understanding of the grade-level science curriculum with one or two sessions of multilingual audio and visuals.

The bravery and grit of all multilingual learners, overcoming challenges many of us never have to face, and making it all look easy. 

For all these gifts and more, thank you. 

Winter Gifts (Part 1)

Ms. Garcia* was waiting for us outside the office. Her family had arrived in Canada in the fall, when temperatures were a little closer to what they were used to.  By now the air had turned a bit colder, edged with a hint of the Ontario winter to come.

The circumstances of the family’s arrival in Canada were not happy. Yet despite their sudden uprooting to a new country, her son was doing well.  His teacher had immediately observed skill and understanding in his work, and each new day revealed quickly-developing English skills.  

Ms. Garcia sent word through a family friend that she wanted to speak with us about her son. What kind of work did he do in class? How was he handling the stress of being in a new country? Did he have friends? She had all the questions any parent or caregiver would, but the language barrier prevented her from asking them with the same ease others enjoyed. We immediately scheduled a meeting with an interpreter for the following week.

The classroom teacher and I reached the office and greeted her. She returned our smiles warmly yet silently, and we walked into the adjoining conference room together. Soon after, the interpreter arrived. After a moment of removing coats and pulling up chairs, a stillness settled around the table, that slightly-uncertain pause before a meeting begins.

And then the interpreter gave us a gift.

Seamlessly moving from English to Spanish, he asked us to please look at one another — and to ignore him. We were to think of him, he continued, as an audio system off to the side, who would make our words intelligible to the person we were addressing. Then he stopped, moved his chair back slightly, and lowered his gaze to the table. A second or two passed in silence, and then we all looked away from him and towards one another. 

Ms. Garcia spoke first. Although I could not understand her words, the slight furrow of her brow, the tiny shake of her head, made her worry apparent. Seconds later the gentle, slightly quieter voice of the interpreter followed her words, gracefully trailing them with perfectly concise English. The same thing happened when the classroom teacher responded, still facing Ms. Garcia, and we barely noticed the subdued Spanish rounding off her sentences. The conversation continued in this way, almost like a duet, a back and forth that was different, and in many ways the same, as any other conversation. It took a bit of getting used to, a bit more of a pause between statements, but eventually all of us were lulled into this new way of communicating, this new way of speaking directly to one another. 

The exchange was different from other meetings I had experienced, across the ocean and many years ago.  When I worked overseas as a young adult, I sometimes needed people to interpret for me. And although intentions were always good (to this day I am profoundly grateful for the kindness and empathy shown me) at times interpretations could feel as isolating as the language barrier itself. When someone is talking about you in your presence, with utterances couched in the third person, when the speaker is not looking at you … it can sometimes feel as though you are not really there. Statements such as “Tell her this”, or “She should do that” are double-edged swords — the information you need is communicated, but the human connection inherent in conversation is absent. I suppose in this sense, they were never really “meetings” at all. I was simply the eventual recipient of a message. 

Today, I am keenly aware of the much higher stakes for multilingual parents and caregivers. All those years ago, I received interpreted information that I needed for myself, and no one else. I did not have a child I loved more than anything in the world to advocate for. When I try to imagine what that must be like, to entrust my child to an unfamiliar school system, to navigate it in a different language, I am overcome with awe and respect for multilingual families. 

As teachers we know it is essential to build relationships with parents and caregivers; we cannot serve students to the best of our abilities if we do not have the trust and partnership of their families.  And for those families without the linguistic capital to easily communicate with the school, our responsibility is heightened. With a simple statement, “Please look at one other”, the interpreter at our meeting gave us the gift we needed for the beginning of that journey.

Our conversation with Ms. Garcia continued for some time that day. The classroom teacher showed samples of her son’s work, described his strengths, and even shared laughter with Ms. Garcia. To anyone passing by in the hall, the tableau we presented must have looked curious: three women leaning towards each other in conversation, and a kind-looking man with downcast eyes, off to the side and seemingly shunned!  By the time our meeting ended, the goodbyes and gratitudes stood in lively contrast to our quiet greeting 40 minutes earlier. Our interpreter was all smiles. 

Throughout my career I have gleaned numerous insights from colleagues and ESL specialists on parent and caregiver engagement. Here are just a few tips that I have found useful in creating welcoming schools and ensuring open communication for multilingual families:

  • translating important school notices into many languages 
  • having dual language books and multilingual learning resources readily available and used in classrooms and libraries 
  • creating and translating tip sheets for caregivers, including “how to help your child in reading and math” or “how to maintain first language”
  • ensuring regular contact through settlement workers and interpreters, to see if caregivers have questions or need updates
  • not assuming that silence on the part of caregivers indicates a lack of interest in their child’s education; language barriers, cultural expectations of deference to the teacher, unfamiliarity with how the Ontario school system works, adjustment and feelings of overwhelm are just some of the reasons caregivers may not actively engage with teachers and the school

Many years after the meeting with Ms. Garcia, the events of that day stay with me as a reminder of the importance of connection, and the multilingual tools we have to facilitate it.  As the holidays now draw to a close and we face the cold months ahead, I am looking forward to discovering many more such winter gifts.

*names have been changed

Found in Translation

In my previous blog post “Lost in Translation” I discussed the many unexpected benefits of maintaining first language — and what might be lost if we do not.  Moving from the lost, to the found, I offer these free websites as possible tools we can use to build a multilingual framework in our classrooms. The following links contain books, articles, and guides translated into many languages.  A good number of these websites have audio functions built into them, allowing students to listen to content in both English and home languages. For those that do not, opening them on an iPad and using the accessibility “speak” function will usually allow audio readings in most languages.


Unite for Literacy

Storybooks Canada

World Stories

World Languages

Story Weaver

ERGO Live Well Books    

BBC News in Your Language

World Wildlife WWF

Canada Food Guide Multiple Languages

United Nations Global Issues


At the time of posting, all of these websites were up and running. May they continue to be for many years to come.

Happy Reading!

Lost in Translation

I was looking forward to showing Ali* the science video that day. 

Ali had arrived at our school several years earlier, when he was in grade 2.  If he found sudden immersion in a new country and unfamiliar language at all unsettling, this confident 8 year-old didn’t show it. Despite having only beginner English skills, each new school day saw him marching down the hall with gusto, his infectious grin naturally drawing people to him. In those early days, it was typical to enter his classroom and find him engaged in animated, gesture-filled conversations with classmates and teachers – which, despite being entirely in Arabic, were somehow basically comprehensible to all. Weeks slipped into months, and finally to years. He conversed easily in English before we knew it. We no longer heard the exuberant flow of Arabic; gestures were now stilled. 

When Ali began grade 6, both he and his mother expressed interest in his studying Arabic.  Our department had a series of English-Arabic science videos  – explaining the science curriculum topics he was studying in class no less. I was excited to show him the video, in both languages. 

I remember sitting at the round table in the book room, and pressing ‘play’ on the iPad. Ali watched the video in Arabic in silence. As the short, simple clip came to an end, he looked up.

“What did you think?” I asked expectantly. 

Ali hesitated. Then he replied, “I didn’t understand it.”

I was confused. The topic was relatively simple, and Ali’s teacher had told me earlier that day how solidly he had understood the science unit. 

“You didn’t understand the science?” I asked. 

“No. I didn’t understand the Arabic.”


Losing first language is not often talked about in school. We are usually so preoccupied with helping students acquire English, that thoughts of their home language may fall to wayside. Yet the more I learn about this phenomenon, the more it seems to me like an insidious disease. Slowly advancing, symptoms hidden, its progress out of sight and unnoticeable — until it’s too late. 

Multiple researchers have noted that first language development is arrested upon entering an English-speaking school environment. And it can regress, with English quickly becoming the dominant language. Indeed, web searches for “first language loss” produce an endless chain of heartbreaking stories. Recently I came across an article by Jenny Liao in The New Yorker, which began with the sentence “When I speak Cantonese with my parents now, I rely on translation apps.” The This America Life story RSV-Pa begins with the descriptor, “Larry speaks English. His dad speaks Chinese … After 20 years, with the help of filmmaker Bianca Giaver, he and his dad have their first conversation.”

Their first conversation.

I cannot imagine what it would be like, to be unable to communicate freely (or at all) with the people I love most in the world. I cannot imagine what it would be like, to be unable to communicate with my own child.

Many years ago, I heard an ESL specialist state that the majority of students who begin school in Ontario speaking another language will eventually lose the ability to communicate in that language, to varying degrees, with English becoming their preferred and most fluent language. I remember wondering at the time how that could be true, especially if parents and family members continue to speak first language to the child. This was certainly the case with Ali’s family, who spoke only Arabic to him. But as I later learned, the type of language used in school can be vastly different from the type used at home. Rich and varied vocabulary and grammatical structures are required (and learned) when reading novels, writing literary essays, and explaining cell structure. The language at home can be comparatively simple: “Get your coat”, “Come for dinner”, “What did you do today?”  These every-day exchanges include fewer vocabulary items and simpler grammatical structures. Additionally, students are typically not learning to read and write in first language.  No wonder language acquisition and proficiency leans heavily in favour of English.

As teachers we are in the position of working with families and students to help maintain first languages. From recommending home language classes, to accessing the growing number of free dual language book websites, to encouraging discussion of news events and complex topics at home in first language, there are a number of multilingual supports at our disposal. One of my new favourites is, which contains simple illustrated audio books, written and narrated in English and many languages.

We know that students who maintain and develop first language tend to learn English more quickly and do better academically than those who do not. But the preservation of identity and connection to family offer a particularly urgent motivation for creating a multilingual framework in our teaching practice. To all educators tirelessly working to include first languages in the classroom, 

Дякую 고맙습니다  شكرًا لك  merci  谢谢  gracias ਤੁਹਾਡਾ ਧੰਨਵਾਦ شکریہ mahadsanid Cảm ơn thank you.


*student names have been changed

Fluent in Math

Somewhere along the way in my early days of teaching ESL, I heard the phrase “math is a universal language”. At the time, that statement seemed perfectly reasonable to me. After all, math is comprised of numbers and computations, and surely that would be much easier to navigate than a verbose English or Science lesson. Math is math. 

Over the course of my career, researchers, colleagues, and students have taught me otherwise. 

The following is a short list of some reasons why math may not be as ‘universal’ as we think it is. None of these are my original findings. Rather, I am indebted to numerous educators over the years for making the language of math visible to me.

1. Vocabulary. In my last blog I recounted learning that a significant number of words in math are exclusive to math. “Divisor” and “tetrahedron” really aren’t going to come up in many other contexts. So intentional vocabulary instruction is crucial for multilingual learners (and all learners for that matter).

2. Multiple Meaning Words. Math is packed with them. Let me introduce you to some of the duplicitous characters lurking in our math lessons: Expression, Operation, Odd, Even, Order, Plot, Mean, Prime, Rational, Block, Meter, and Right. Just when a multilingual learner thinks they’ve learned the meaning of a word, they are walloped with a new definition. And I will say that the math word “Table” is more than duplicitous: times table, data table, water table, end table, off the table, under the table, table the bill … this word alone stresses to me how much language work is necessary for math. 

3. Word problems. They can be long, overwhelming, and difficult to extract salient information from, even for native speakers of English. And multilingual learners have the added burden of translating the language first before they even attempt the math.

4. Different algorithms and notations. The procedures and steps for math computations can vary widely internationally. If you have a copy of Van de Walle et al’s Teaching Student Centered Mathematics, the authors display some interesting differences in subtraction and addition algorithms. Simple web searches for “long division algorithms by country” yield fascinating variations. 

5. Different expectations of student role. Some students may not be familiar with group work, explaining their thinking, or working with manipulatives. They may be more familiar with memorization, mental math without showing their work, and deference to the teacher. 

6. Culturally-embedded word problems. It is not uncommon to see a student, skilled in math, freeze up and be unable to complete familiar computations — simply because the context of the problem was unfamiliar to them. Calculating the area of an ice rink when you have never been skating may be a more daunting task than one might think.

7. Exhaustion. This one may be original data from my own experience. I have lived and worked in a country where I did not speak the language. And one of the things that shocked me the most was the amount of time and effort everything took. Even the simplest tasks, that would take me seconds to complete in Canada, would take ages to complete overseas. I shudder to think how long it took me to make a simple withdrawal from an ATM the first few times, simply because I was trying to read and understand the characters on the screen. At times, I was worn out by mid-morning, as a full-grown adult. I cannot imagine the fatigue some of our students must feel. 

So what do we do with all this? Again, skilled educators have shared plenty of strategies with me over the years, and the following are a few of my favourites: Slowing the rate of speech, gesturing to visuals throughout lessons, explicitly modelling the use of manipulatives, initiating student-created dual language dictionaries of math terms which multilingual learners can refer to throughout math units, using sentence stems for participation in math discussions, and learning about the diverse algorithms and math experiences students may have, to capitalize on their strengths and celebrate multiple ways of doing math.

The above list only scratches the surface of possible support strategies. To this day, I find myself still on the journey of becoming “fluent” in math approaches for multilingual learners. May we continue to learn from each others’ travels. 

Works Cited

Van de Walle, John, et al. Teaching Student Centered Mathematics: Developmentally Appropriate Instruction for Grades 3-5. Pearson, 2014, New Jersey.

Social Justice Through Visual Math

Make visible what, without you, might never have been seen.

– Robert Bresson


  I noticed Samira as soon as I walked into her classroom. Students were sitting in noisy clumps, some chatting over iPads, some jostling and joking. But Samira was silent. Although seated at a table with five others, she was visibly separate from the laughter and exchanges surrounding her. 

    Samira was a multilingual learner and new to English. Peer relationships are vital for all students, but Samira did not yet have the linguistic capital to easily join conversations. And on top of that, she now had to learn curriculum in a brand new language. This bright student faced many challenges — and isolation — in her new setting. 

    “All right everyone, let’s get started,” the teacher announced. Conversations trailed off and bodies settled.  After a brief review of the previous day’s math work, the teacher handed out paper, pencil crayons, and manipulatives to each group. There was one instruction: “Show 0.75.”

  The teacher and I had co-planned the day before, and decided to use visual math for the lesson. The question, “show 0.75”, prompts students to represent this number in as many different ways as they can. Some may write the fraction 75/100; others may plot it on a number line; some may colour in 3/4 of a pizza; still others may place three 25-cent coins down for the group to see. 

   Multiple studies have documented the importance of visual math, revealing a positive correlation between representing concepts pictorially and improved math performance.  On the YouCubed website, Stanford math education professor Dr. Jo Boaler describes some of these studies, as well as related neuroimaging findings. Remarkably, when people do math calculations using only symbolic digits (such as 6×3, etc), some of the neural pathways that light up in the brain are visual. As Boaler succinctly puts it, “our brain wants to think visually about maths.”1   So while visuals may help solidify conceptual understanding for all students, for multilingual learners like Samira there is an additional advantage.

    As Samira’s group attempted the question, there were several false starts. A couple of students weren’t sure what to draw. Some started sketching but then quickly erased their work. Samira however steadily jotted down fraction equivalents and drew connected visual representations for each. Before long the others noticed, and stared at her intricate work. “Is that right?” one of the boys finally asked. The classroom teacher leaned over, and smiled.  For the first time that day, someone looked at Samira and addressed her directly: “How did you know that?”

    In this simple, visual task Samira was able to demonstrate her math knowledge — free from the usual language-based constraints of our predominantly verbal linguistic classrooms. In the space of one group session, Samira had moved from near-invisibility to knowledge-holder. She had gained social currency and standing in the group.

    As the teacher bent over the group’s work, gesturing to pictures and numbers as she spoke, I could see Samira listening intently, mentally attaching English terms to math concepts she already knew. And while Samira needed this intentional highlighting of math language to learn English, all students in her group benefitted. I once heard during a seminar that 90% of the vocabulary used in math is exclusive to math. Although I have been unable to locate the original source of this data, when I think of terms such as isosceles, scalene, and divisor, anecdotally I am inclined to agree. In what other context do we ever encounter words such as these?  As for our lesson, both the visuals and vocabulary inherent in the math task were necessary for some, and undeniably good for all.

    At times, multilingual learners may be unintentionally viewed through a deficit lens.  “She can’t speak English” and “We have to help him” are common refrains. But when the bell rang that day and everyone grabbed their books for the next class, Samira rose and stood a little taller, a new confidence in expression. The task, which had been rich and beneficial for everyone, provided the first key towards unlocking her voice, and re-imagining her not as someone who needed help, but as a valued and contributing member of the class.  





(student names have been changed)

The Sweetest Sound

It was the end of September, and my grade sixes were standing in a circle on the grass. It was a touch cooler now, the day bright and sunny, a bit of a breeze.  The students knew the activity we were about to do.  We had been using it over the past few weeks as one of our warm-up games before drama class. 

One at a time, each student would say their own name out loud, and simultaneously create an action to go with it. And then, in an enthusiastic chorus, the rest of the circle would mirror their action back to them and repeat their name. This would continue around the circle  until everyone’s name had been said.   

Personalities always revealed themselves in chosen actions. Abdul said his name with impossibly cool gestures. Jin liked twirling as she said hers. Mike tended to do a short dance move or two. And without fail, the whole class would echo each classmate’s creation, a happy call-and-response comprised only of names and movement, filling the playground with unified sound. 

The simplicity of this game belies its complex benefits to learning and community. 

We have heard much over the years about the positive connection between movement and the brain, with benefits to mood, learning, and focus. The physical representations in this game certainly encourage movement, exploration of physical space, and rhythm.  As teachers, we also know the importance of collaboration within the classroom, of creating situations such as this, where students are engaged with one another in learning tasks. And of course, in order for students to learn optimally, there must be a strong sense of community, connection, and trust in the classroom. Team-building and collaborative games like this may represent one step towards this goal. Indeed, there is something deeply satisfying in seeing all students quietly looking, not at a worksheet or iPad, but at one another. Present in the moment. Waiting for their classmate’s contribution. In our busy and increasingly digitalized world, I wonder how often we stop like this, just for a few minutes, to truly look at each other, acknowledge one another’s presence. And this leads me to perhaps the most important benefit of all for students:

Someone says their name. 

There is power in hearing our names spoken aloud, that one word that represents and encapsulates all that we are. We all know that uplifting feeling when someone remembers our name and addresses us, and the slight umbrage we feel when someone forgets or mispronounces it. It is one of the first things small children learn to recognize and write because of its power to engage; children are naturally interested in their own names. It is one of the first gifts we are given by our parents, one of the first ways we are called into the world. As Dale Carnegie once said, “names are the sweetest and most important sound in any language.” 

I fear some students may not have this experience as often as they should, may not often hear their names uttered by classmates … The student just learning English, who does not yet have the linguistic capital to easily forge friendships. The quiet student, struggling with anxiety or social cues. The new student, who braves a sea of unfamiliar faces every day and tries to find their place among them. 

In my experience, this unassuming game — with virtually no preparation required other than finding an open space — can sometimes accomplish what no amount of labelled photos, friend books, or other “name-learning” activities can. It engages. It connects. It creates a space of knowing. 

Everyone says each other’s names. 

I do not suggest the above game is the only way to engage students and begin to foster connection. There are numerous, effective activities, used across multiple contexts and subject areas. I offer this activity as a springboard, to consider and share the many ways we can help students connect.

I have used this drama game with countless students over the years, from primary to junior to intermediate. And every time it is a joy to see my students call their names into the learning space, and see those names returned back as a resounding gift. In whatever way you choose to bring forth your students’ names, may your classrooms always be filled with those sweetest sounds. 

*student names have been changed

September Leaves

September Leaves 

I met Farah* early in my teaching career, just after she arrived from Iran. Farah was a top student at her former school, already spoke two languages, and was learning English for the first time. As she settled into her new class and environment, Farah’s abilities quickly became apparent. She easily mastered math concepts. She also seemed to have an intuitive understanding of science topics, and nodded in recognition when she saw visuals and demonstrations. She began to pick up on English vocabulary quickly. 

But every now and then there was a moment, just after she had understood a lesson or connected with a topic, where she grew quiet. She would lean forward, about to speak, and then stop. Sometimes she would frown slightly, searching for the words. Sometimes she just ended up shaking her head, as if the English she knew was insufficient to express her thoughts. In moments such as these, it seemed that no amount of sentence starters or alternative ways to demonstrate her knowledge would adequately replace her need to explain in Farsi.

As countless students, teachers, and scholars have noted, first language is an intrinsic aspect of our identities.   It allows us to connect with culture, history, and the people we love. It is through our first language we express everything that matters to us, in ways unique and irreplaceable. Through our language, we make ourselves and our ideas heard in the world. And as many have also noted, in a way our first language isn’t just a part of us — it is us.

That sentiment was confirmed during one of Farah’s library visits.

A new shipment had arrived at the school that week, and when Farah walked into the library a few days later, I picked a book off the shelf and handed it to her. It was one of the stories we had been studying in class, but this version was in dual language, written in both Farsi and English. She held it in her hands a moment and then looked up at me, eyes wide, and gasped.

“I know this!” 

Her face and her voice in that moment are as clear to me today as they were all those years ago. Recognition, surprise, joy, relief … it was a jumbled mix that I still struggle to describe. I will never forget her smile. 

Moving from an English-only school environment to a framework of multilingualism is vitally important, and not just for students like Farah. When it is natural and common for all students to hear, see, use, and recognize the value of many different languages, all students benefit. As teachers, we strive to ensure that students see themselves reflected in curriculum and learning spaces, to ensure that everyone’s identity is affirmed and included — not as an afterthought, but embedded from the very beginning. Language is a fundamental part of that inclusion.

Over the years, I have encountered many different ways to embed multilingualism in learning, such as researching and writing class projects in first language, multilingual counting games in math and physical education, dual language books and multilingual collections, and subject-specific dual language dictionary sheets, with key curriculum vocabulary listed in home languages as well as English. The preceding is by no means an exhaustive list; recommendations from colleagues and researchers continue to expand options and opportunities for students.  The multilingual framework continues to grow. 

A few months ago I attended a conference given by U.S. educator and ESL specialist Cristina Sanchez-Lopez. During her presentation she described visiting a Canadian school; she recounted walking through the front doors to see, as she had many times before, all of the languages spoken by the students adorning the entrance way. But this mural, she noted, was different. She then produced a photo, and in it we could see a tree, its painted branches stretching across the walls. Set onto the leaves was the word “welcome”, each leaf bearing the greeting in a different language. 

But then she pointed to a far branch, where we noticed a few leaves with nothing on them, their blank surfaces waiting. Waiting for the new students not yet present, waiting for the new languages yet to arrive, but that would one day become a part of their multilingual school. A space was ready for them.

As I begin teaching this September, I wonder what languages will colour our learning spaces throughout the year … what stories they will tell, the experiences and hopes they will express, the knowledge they will share.

This year, may the trees in your school grow bright.

*names have been changed