A little bit of joy

Open House is always a great night … seeing the learning that has gone on throughout the year, families milling about, students’ work proudly on display. But this year’s celebration was memorable for a different reason.

Back in the fall, I had the good fortune to collaborate with the teacher-librarian at one of the schools I support. We reviewed the home languages of students and purchased additional dual language books, which were eagerly checked out as soon as they hit the shelves. And every now and then when I visited the school, the teacher-librarian had a new story about a family who had enjoyed the books, or a student proudly exclaiming, “That’s my language!” when the latest batch was brought out. These books had been used all year, by all students, so it seemed only fitting to showcase them at Open House.

We set up the multilingual books everywhere, at every centre in the room: hardcovers and paperbacks, QR codes to scan for free online multilingual books, forms for free international language classes, translated tip sheets on reading with your child … every display and centre we had was in multiple languages, not just English. There was no “ESL table” off to side. Instead, the displays throughout the room reflected how learning normally happened in that space, where it was natural to see many different languages, where students’ linguistic repertoires were centred.

The Learning Commons was situated in the middle of the school, and virtually all families passed through it on their way to various classrooms. Before long, it became a hub of activity. Parents strolling past book displays … older children suddenly noticing the QR codes and tugging on sleeves to ask for the phone … families asking questions about the international language courses. At one point I saw a very tall dad crouched down as low as he could next to his tiny preschooler, whose full height barely reached his father’s chin. The two were happily reading a Punjabi-English version of “Goldilocks and the Three Bears”, the tiny boy jumping and pointing at the pages. Just a brief moment, and the story was over quickly. The dad placed book back on the table, and eventually the family drifted off. But the energy of that moment remained.

Many years ago, I came across an apt statement by Dr. Jim Cummins, who likened the ESL programs of decades past to “satellites” rotating around the main operations of the school and classroom.  Indeed, many years ago it seemed the main goal (perhaps the only goal) was to teach English — and to teach it at a remove from the “regular” learning of their classmates. 

Now of course we know so much more.  

We know that language is learned through meaningful interactions with others, and for that reason the mainstream classroom is an ideal place to acquire oral language, with the right adaptations in place. We know about the benefits of maintaining first language, and the essential linguistic, academic, and social-emotional benefits to including it in the classroom. We know the irreplaceable connection to family and culture first language provides to students, and the strength and vitality a multilingual society provides to everyone. And finally, we know there are achievable ways to include all learners, their identities and their languages, in classroom and school communities. 

The sun was setting as the last of the families left the school, and the hallways that had been so lively earlier suddenly felt heavy with stillness. As I drove home I thought again of the father reading the dual language book to his son, how natural and joyful that moment was.  And I hoped our little Learning Commons, throughout the year and that evening, had given a little bit of joy to everyone. 

Let that be a lesson for everyone (Part 2)

I have always loved drama. And not just the flashy productions that come to mind when we think of school theatre — although those were fun too. No, I liked the smaller stuff.  

When I was a teenager, our drama classroom was tucked away in the basement of the school. In my opinion, though, it was the brightest spot in the building. If memory serves, we usually had about 15 or so students in our class. I think one year it got down to twelve — which as I write this seems an impossibly, wonderfully low number.  The room was carpeted, grey and worn from years of stocking feet running over it in fast-paced chase games, scene studies, and interpretive movement. The walls were painted black, and they faded to an inky void when the fluorescent school lights were switched off and theatre lights shone, illuminating our tiny performance space in little gold pools. Each day, we entered this open space, free of desks and chalkboards and every other thing usually found in classrooms. It was gloriously empty, waiting to be filled with creation.

We were a mixed bag of students, different backgrounds and friend groups. And yet through drama, a new community seemed to spring to life effortlessly.  Even teenage cool could not repress delighted squeals during fox-and-rabbit tag, could not stifle laughter at mishaps and happy accidents as we desperately tried to guide each other out of tangle games, could not shatter the silent connection that can happen during performance, when a classmate conveys something new and beautiful in a bit of script or line of music, bringing it to life with body and voice. That was the good stuff. Essays and exams did not convey our insights and perspectives — movement, expression, and even simple tone of voice did.  And when so much else in our academic lives seemed grounded in sitting still and using comparatively few ways to communicate learning, the multimodal physicality of the drama room offered a freeing alternative.

But what I loved most about drama class was the way in which it allowed us to see one another, in ways I almost never did in other classes. There was something so immediate and personal about drama. Our ideas were alive in the performance space, communicated to one another in fundamentally human ways. It didn’t feel so much like sharing answers as sharing a part of ourselves.

I have often thought back to those classes in my own career as a teacher, and tried to create similar learning experiences for my students. Before my current role, I often used drama to teach elements of the Language curriculum — and one unit was particularly memorable. I used a simple picture book which contained, as so many of them do, rich themes and complex issues to engage readers of all ages. Specifically, this text featured themes of difference and environmental degradation. But when I considered asking the class to show what they had learned in our unit, I knew some of my students would not be able to fully express their thoughts if my tasks were pencil and paper-based: multilingual language learners in the early stages of English acquisition, students with learning disabilities, dyslexia, dysgraphia … there were a number of intelligent and insightful students whose contributions would be cut short or stopped altogether by verbal-linguistic barriers.

So instead, I had students explore the text through tableaux. For those new to drama, tableaux are images students create with their bodies, a series of still-frames that represent a particular scene or moment in a narrative, as if someone snapped a photograph of the characters in action. Tableaux can offer an interactive, multimodal, and accessible way to explore texts: it can be used to re-tell the sequence of a story, to highlight critical plot points, to express character motivation and feelings, to predict storyline, to illustrate possible solutions to problems presented in the story, and to make connections to similar issues in our world and lives. It’s just that instead of doing all of these curriculum-based tasks on paper, students use physical and emotional expression to communicate their thinking. 

One tableau my students created was particularly beautiful. There were about 6 students in the group, all with unique learning needs. As I watched the group plan, one student placed herself in the middle of the scene, sadness in her face as she gazed at the ruined land surrounding her, but making hope visible in her outstretched arms, still attempting persuade people to help her. Some students in the tableau were turned away defiantly; some were looking back, considering; others walking to join her, uncertainty but also bravery in their strides. The group’s creation encapsulated the character conflict in devastating stillness. 

All groups presented at the same time, one after the other, creating live fade-ins around the classroom. And in the three seconds it took this group to freeze in tableau, I knew instantly that the students had understood subtext, made emotional connections to characters, and accurately conveyed motivation. You could see it all in a heart beat.

As always, drama techniques such as tableaux are just one possible tool to engage all students and enable diverse learners to fully participate. It is one of many tasks and activities that allow multiple entry points. In my experience, tableaux is an exercise pretty much everyone in the class can do — and the learning is no less rich for it. In fact, sometimes, it is even more so.

In my previous blog I spoke about the joy of not being able to “find” multilingual language learners (and other diverse students) as we look across classrooms, because the tasks and learning spaces are designed for everyone to have an entry point, for everyone to have a voice and meaningfully participate. This drama activity is always one in which I am willing to wager, if someone walked in during the lesson, they would find themselves stymied by that most wonderful challenge.

Let that be a lesson for everyone (Part 1)

There are countless reasons I love my job.  I get to work with teachers across our board, to collaborate and co-plan for multilingual language learners. I get to exchange ideas with them, diverse teachers in diverse classrooms, adding new knowledge and strategies to my pedagogical arsenal every day. But there is one thing I cherish more than anything else in my role …

The sight of it makes me gleefully giddy. 

The mere thought of it makes my spirits soar. 

And the memory of it puts a little spring in my step as I jaunt down the hall to the next classroom …

(It happens quite a lot in our schools, I’m happy to say.)

Are you ready? Set? Here it is: I absolutely, positively, and unreservedly love it when I walk into a classroom and can’t find any multilingual language learners. 

Let me explain.

It is not that I do not wish to see or welcome or teach MLLs — on the contrary! It is a joy and privilege unlike many others. What I mean is this: when I walk into a learning space where everyone has a way to access the lesson, where everyone is included in the learning, where there is a way for everyone to communicate and share their knowledge … well that’s just it, isn’t it? No one sticks out. Yes, I adore that moment when I knock on the door and enter, when I scan the room and see groups of busy students, or bustling conversations, or engaged expressions, or hands raised mid-lesson to offer ideas … and I see no one off to side or separate. No one relegated to an ESL workbook or learn-a-language app.  No one staring uncomprehendingly.  Instead, everyone is learning. Everyone is contributing. Everyone is a part of the classroom community. 

Happily and joyfully, from my vantage spot at the door, I just cannot seem to find any MLLs.

Of course I am being a little tongue-in-cheek here but the issue is a critical one. Multilingual language learners spend most (if not all) of their time in the mainstream classroom. This is where the bulk of English acquisition takes place. This is where curriculum is learned. This is where community is. So how do we create lessons and learning environments that are accessible and inclusive to all students? How do classroom teachers ensure that MLLs are valued, contributing members of the class? 

I have seen countless examples of this kind of inclusion over the years. Students writing proud autobiographies or sweeping tales, some in first language (L1), some in English, some in both; some with sentence starters and frames, some with assistive tech, some with pencil and paper. But everyone is writing their autobiography. Everyone is writing their fable.   I have seen skilled teachers’ whole-class lessons on everything from fractions to water conservation to community helpers … with every student in the class attending to and accessing the main points of the lesson. Some by listening to the teacher speak, some by attending to the visuals the teacher points to, some by using strategic translation, some by using a combination of many different strategies. But everyone is learning. Everyone is included in the lesson.

When I was just starting out as a classroom teacher, I remember being overwhelmed at the prospect of creating this type of environment for multilingual language learners in my class. Where do I start? How can I possibly make my lessons accessible and understood by all, especially the students who are just beginning to acquire English? One resource I wish I’d had back then is Carol Salva’s strategies for classroom teachers with MLLs in their class. It is a short list of key ways facilitate the teaching of English and curriculum simultaneously.  I have adapted this list a little bit to include first language and building schema, as well as a adding a few examples, but this is Salva’s list nearly verbatim:

  1. Activate / build prior knowledge before lessons (brainstorm with an L1 buddy, create a dual language dictionary of key terms, preview curriculum content in L1 before the lesson, participate in a real-life experience on the lesson topic, build schema from videos, etc).
  2. Chorally read something as a class every day (such as lesson goals, key vocabulary, sentence frames, etc). 
  3. Have visuals you strategically point to throughout the lesson. The walls should be your co-teacher. Multilingual language learners will have a chance to learn that vocabulary at the same time as you are teaching your lesson.
  4. Have kids verbalize to internalize content every day. Sentence starters and a chance to practice privately go a long way. This way, MLLs can participate and contribute ideas in group work with their peers and practice English.
  5. Have students write at least one academic sentence in English per day. Writing in first language is beneficial as well — it helps maintain first language and clarify thoughts and plans before writing them in English. 

As I read through the above, I am reminded that the strategies are good for everyone in the class, not just MLLs. Who does not benefit from choral reading and clarifying goals? From using sentence stems and starters to speak succinctly and clearly? From pointing to visuals during lessons for emphasis, interest, and attention? 

For multilingual language learners, and others, creating inclusive lessons is a matter of social justice. MLLs need to learn curriculum as soon as they enter school, and build English through their curriculum explorations and tasks. While Salva’s list is by no means exhaustive, it is useful as a starting point in creating the kind of learning environment that everyone can access, regardless of their level of English proficiency.

And while the search to create inclusive classrooms is a never-ending journey of reflection and action, it is the best kind of quest: to ensure that we teach in a way that all students learn, and that all students have a place in the learning community. 

Source cited:

Boosting Achievement by Carol Salva, 2017. 


Equitable Phonics

There has been much discussion of late about the importance of systematic, explicit phonics instruction in literacy. Decodable readers and phonics programs are popping up on book room shelves, nudging to the side the guided reading bins that have so long reigned supreme. These days, it seems acronyms such as UFLI are uttered more commonly than DRA or LLI.  And yes, systematic phonics instruction is an essential component of reading, especially for students struggling with learning disabilities such as dyslexia (there has been more than one beloved learner in my family who needed such explicit and multisensory literacy instruction to learn to read). But what about multilingual learners? Is reading instruction different for them? Should teachers jump right into phonics instruction for a student just learning English, as they would for any other student?

Perhaps the following scenario will highlight some critical considerations in this question.

Imagine you are a multilingual leaner, about to learn a new language. And more than that, you are going to learn to read in that new language. Here is your first phonics lesson:

Just three sounds, and you blend them together. Got it? Now read this:

Could you decode it? Read it out loud? You blended all the letter sounds together? Great! Good for you! You are reading.

Just a couple more questions:  

Did you get the joke in the first line? Were you moved by the revelation in the second sentence? Did you see the connection to your science curriculum at the end? Did you gain any ability to communicate in this new language you are trying to learn?


Ah. There is the difference. Native speakers of English already understand the vocabulary they are decoding. When we ask them to sound out c-a-t, they know what the word ‘cat’ means. They can use the word in a sentence for real communication. If they read a story about a cat, they can enjoy it, make connections to it, ask questions about the text. Not so for multilingual learners in the beginning stage of English acquisition. 

So is phonics instruction just as important for multilingual learners as for native speakers of English? Yes. But it is not equitable to make a student decode something they cannot understand. That is where we come in as teachers, to front load and embed oral language and vocabulary development in phonics lessons, so that multilingual learners learn the meaning of the words they are about to decode and encode. So that they can use those words for real communication, in multiple authentic situations. So that they have the same access to rich texts, ideas, and learning experiences as native speakers of English. In this sense, teaching phonics in meaningful context, rather than only as an isolated skill, is an issue of both instructional practice and social justice. 

There are far more considerations in teaching MLs to read than I have discussed here. For a deeper dive into the complexities and nuances of literacy instruction for multilingual learners, I have found Literacy Foundations for English Learners: A Comprehensive Guide by Cardenas-Hagan to be very helpful. And of course, for free insights and best practices in ML instruction, and mapping out the ways phonics and reading instruction need to be tweaked for multilingual learners, there is always https://www.colorincolorado.org/ which has an entire section devoted to literacy instruction for multilingual learners. 

Speaking of which, the Spanish phrase “colorin colorado” might also be a good way to conclude to this blog entry — “happily ever after”  is indeed the sentiment I wish for all readers.

To the heart

I have never been so happy to hear the words ‘thank you’ in my life.

It was decades ago now, but I remember it as though it were yesterday. I had been teaching overseas a while at that point, and at times it felt like living in a different world. Waking up to a language that was not mine, slogging through one linguistic hurdle after another just to get through the basic errands in my day, and finally falling asleep at the end of it pretty much done-in. Please don’t misunderstand, I loved my job. It was an eye-opening and adventure-filled time like no other. But sometimes the exhaustion of continual translation and re-translation could tire me out in a singular way.

I was teaching in a city bordered by mountains to the north, and ocean to the south. Public schools there remained open for much of the summer, when temperatures reached into the high 30s. The school where I taught was perched just where the land began to rise. Below the school, the city stretched down towards the water. Behind it, the earth rose to towering green peaks.

Each weekday morning involved a train ride, followed by a trek on foot through hilly streets. In the heat of the summer, this slow ascent to the school gates was unlike anything I had ever experienced. It was the backbreaking humidity that usually did me in, the wall of watery air that refused to let anyone cool down. This particular day I had been standing at the front of the class, windows open to motionless afternoon air. I began to write something, trailing white chalk down the dark green board. But before I finished the first letter stroke, the chalk crumbled in my hand, breaking into clumps from all the moisture it had absorbed in the humidity, and fell to the floor in pieces. 

That image pretty much sums up the day I was having. 

I was hot. I was tired. I missed my family. All I could think about was getting home and hopefully waking up to more hospitable weather the next day.

After school I made my way down the sloping streets to the subway entrance. The car was nearly full when I entered, but I managed to get one of the last seats. 

As the train moved across the city, more and more people got on, the swell of commuters slowly building. At one of the final stops before mine, an older man walked through the sliding doors. He scanned the car hopefully but seeing no empty seats, he simply held onto the rail as the doors shut behind him. 

I got up to give him my spot, and once he realized what I was doing he began to say something, and then stopped. He looked off to the side, as if mentally going through his old high school English classes, and then looked up at me. “Thank you” he said, in clear, bright English.

Those words appeared so suddenly, so unexpectedly. I stood staring at him with what I now hope was a relatively calm and normal expression, but the truth is I almost wanted to cry. I never heard any English during my daily staff meetings, none during my daily commutes and chores, and yet here it was. An indescribable gift in the middle of a crowded train ride home. Like finding an old friend in a room full of strangers. The sound of those two familiar words was beyond wonderful. 

Years later and back in Ontario, I found myself at an ESL event at our school board. One of the guest speakers was a recently-graduated high school student. She spoke eloquently, telling us about her family’s journey from Somalia to Canada, and her own journey learning English from scratch as a teenager. I don’t remember how it came up, if someone asked her or if she volunteered the topic herself, but she began speaking about the things that had made a difference to her when she first arrived at her new high school, the things that made her feel welcome. She told us several teachers had made a point of learning a few words in Somali. When they first greeted her, she recalled thinking they might know even more Somali and asked them if they did. She laughed as she recounted one teacher saying “Oh that’s all I know!” From her story and her smile, it seemed to me it was a warm welcome indeed.

I am not the first to note that language, first language, is an inseparable part of identity.  I did not realize the loneliness its absence could create until I experienced it myself. And I am continually overjoyed to see the ways in which many teachers across our board have tried to meaningfully include and use the languages of their students.  From the teacher I saw having a basic conversation in Arabic with a newcomer family, to the teacher who takes language classes on his own time in the main languages of his students, to the thousands of friendly greetings and salutations in our schools, bringing a little bit of light and joy with each one … the multilingual framework continues to grow.

I was searching for a way to end this post that encapsulates the importance of first language, and what it means to all of us on a human level. In that sense, it seems only fitting to close with Nelson Mandela, who observed that when you speak to someone in a language they understand, it goes to their head; but when you speak to someone in their language, that goes to their heart. 1

To the heart, indeed.


1 paraphrased from a circa 1992 conversation excerpt in Nelson Mandela by Himself

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 storybookscanada.ca, 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.