A few years ago I had the pleasure of welcoming Maryam (student’s actual name has been changed), a grade 8 newcomer student from Afghanistan. She had multiple years of interrupted schooling due to the political situation in her home country, and arrived in middle school speaking a very emergent level of English while being fluent and literate in Pashto and Urdu. At the time, I was working as an ESL/ELD teacher in the school, supporting all classes in the school with programming for English Language Learners. Her homeroom teacher raised the inevitable question: how do I program and assess a student with such unique needs?
One of the best ways to accommodate newcomer students with literacy and oral communication skills is to use translanguaging strategies. So what exactly is translanguaging?
Translanguaging, as academic and educator Ofelia Garcia states in EAL Journal, is “the act performed by bilinguals of accessing different linguistic features or various modes of what are described as autonomous languages, in order to maximize communicative potential.” Translanguaging is all about students using all of their linguistic resources to explore new learning, making connections with prior knowledge, and communicating their knowledge and lived experiences. It is asset-based and honours the rich linguistic resources multilingual learners bring to the classroom.
Sure – there are moments during instruction where accuracy, concision and proficiency in English will be the focus. But translanguaging practices should be encouraged in areas where the work is content-based. Language acquisition is a journey, and learning should always be accessible no matter what part of that journey a student is on.
How Can I use Translanguaging in the Classroom?
Start by creating a translanguaging-friendly learning space by encouraging students’ use of home languages at the start of the year. Take a language survey to find out what students are speaking at home and with friends and relatives, who has literacy skills in a different language, or who is taking heritage language classes. Once you know the linguistic and cultural assets students are bringing to the classroom, you will also be better equipped to be more culturally responsive. Keep multilingual dictionaries in students’ languages in the classroom, or teach a lesson on how to use digital translation tools like Microsoft Translate, Google Translate, or SayHi. Show students how to set multilingual captions on sites like Youtube. While students may find that digital translations are not always accurate, they can help students who are in the earlier steps of English language acquisition to understand new content.
Use multilingual word walls, media, signs, and posters in your school’s or class’s top languages. If you are multilingual, model translanguaging by communicating with students that also speak the same language. Pair same language speaking students strategically in seating plans or group work. Once multilingualism is seen as an asset and a norm in the learning environment, you can start to see translanguaging occur organically in academic and social contexts.
Translanguaging from Instruction to Assessment
Embed translanguaging throughout your teaching cycle, from instruction to assessment. Encourage multilingual language learners (MLs) to take notes in their home language and/or English during class: it is common for newcomer students think that they are only allowed to use English in class, which should never be the case. Offer multilingual content whenever possible, encouraging the use of subtitles when video content is being shared. When labeling diagrams or visuals, MLs can have the option of using multiple languages, which helps to build critical academic vocabulary for content based subjects.
Text sets are another great way to scaffold and differentiate learning in content-based areas like Science, History, or Geography. To create a text set, gather a set of materials related to one area of learning that enable students to engage with the content in different ways. For example, text set might include similarly themed articles at different reading levels, content in languages used by students in the classroom, related diagrams and photos, photos, and links to different sites and videos. Creating text sets can take time – team up with other teachers to create different sets you can use throughout the year or a teaching cycle.
Finally, offer students opportunities to complete summative learning tasks or assignments in the language or languages they feel most confident using in addition to English. When students with more confident in their first language have the opportunity to use it in school, it can be empowering and create an opportunity for families to engage with their child’s learning. If you do not speak the same language as the student, you can ask a colleague who does to help with assessment, or ask the student to complete a secondary task to translate their work using dictionaries and translators. Make sure your rubric and success criteria are adapted to reflect the curriculum expectations and the student’s STEP: keep in mind that their learning goals may be different from that of their non-ELL peers.
Interested in taking a more detailed look at using multiple languages in your teaching? Check out Classroom Assessment in Multiple Languages (2021, Corwin Press) by Margo Gottlieb for a comprehensive guide. There are so many ways for multilingual students to share their knowledge beyond writing and speaking in English. Once you identify the best strategies for enabling MLs to express their ideas and learning, you will see their growth and confidence flourish.