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Translanguaging: Harnessing the Power of Multiple Languages in the Classroom

By Lauren Schneider and Megha Radhakrishnan
Translanguaging: Harnessing the Power  of Multiple Languages in the Classroom

Eight-year-old Hyewon recently moved from her home country, South Korea, and enrolled at the American International School Chennai (AISC). Initially, Hyewon knew the letters of the alphabet and could use high-frequency words, but couldn’t formulate or follow full sentences in English. She had a really strong love for science and knew a lot about the solar system. However, she was apprehensive that she wouldn’t be able to share her ideas with her peers, and that they would think she wasn’t smart.
Hyewon’s story is not unusual. International schools around the world have a growing population of English language learners (ELLs), whose academic learning continuum has a parallel language acquisition path. Almost 70 percent of the students at AISC are ELLs, and this is a significant factor in the instructional choices teachers make. AISC believes in inclusive education—students learn best when they learn together—and that standards and learning objectives must be the same for all students, even if they have different levels of proficiency in English. Therefore, instruction that happens in classrooms is intentionally designed to help all students achieve the same standards.
As we explored strategies to differentiate instruction and scaffold language learning, we were introduced to the idea of “Translanguaging.” Ofelia Garcia (2011) posits that “bilinguals have one linguistic repertoire from which they select features strategically to communicate effectively.” Translanguaging, as a pedagogical strategy, helps ELLs access rigorous content even while building academic language capacities, by leveraging their first language(s) and using them to make connections to new learning. In ELL instruction, the “asset model” of thinking views multilingualism as a resource; this is in contrast to the “deficit model” of thinking, which views any “lack” of English as a problem to be “fixed” in the classroom. We saw synergy between the asset model and a core value at our school, that diversity is an asset, something to be valued and utilized. With this view, we began intentionally implementing translanguaging strategies across our last school year.
One of our favorite learning opportunities is the multilingual word wall, most often used to facilitate the development of academic vocabulary. Students write definitions in their own words, draw an image or symbol, and explore a word in different languages. This is a collaborative process that requires them to rely on each other’s strengths. With a highly transient population, it is appropriate to facilitate the learning and understanding of new vocabulary in students’ first languages, as well as in English.
Another translanguaging strategy we’ve explored is the use of texts and materials in students’ first languages. For example, at the beginning of a unit on ecosystems, we’d normally have all students in the class watch a video or read an article and respond to it based on a thinking prompt. Instead, we had students view or read in their respective first languages and respond with the support of a word bank, visual scaffolds, and sentence starters. By using students’ first languages, they were able to activate prior knowledge of ecosystems—even if they only knew it in their own language—and bring it to the forefront. This helped build stronger conceptual understanding for our ELLs. As teachers, we worked simultaneously through the unit on their academic language development in English, creating visual tools and structures to help our students show what they know in English.
A third strategy we’ve tried is collaborative grouping. Depending on the purpose of the learning task, students are to be grouped in homogeneous or heterogeneous ways, based on first languages and levels of English proficiency. For example, in a task to identify the key elements in a food chain, students work in groups with others who share the same first language, thus allowing them to leverage both languages to discuss and clarify the content. Then, they split into different heterogeneous groups, comprising students of different first languages, thus allowing them to share their understanding with each other, and also creating a space for intentional practice in listening and speaking English.
As we worked to develop these strategies throughout the year, what struck us most is how translanguaging has contributed to leveling the playing field in our classes. All students have the opportunity to bring what they know into our learning process and to engage in classroom discussions to their fullest potential. There is a collaborative nature to the translanguaging strategies that encourages students to seek answers through one another, creating engagement and a higher sense of independence. Students have shared feedback about how these approaches have helped them understand more deeply. One student expressed that it was important for her to use her first language to learn, not to talk to friends in class, in order to focus more. Ultimately, when students are able to tap into multiple languages within their repertoire to make meaning, they feel empowered and valued.
Historically, there has been an aspirational status associated with English, with an underlying assumption that being smart implies monolingual use of English. In an international school with a diverse student population, this has the potential to create a lot of pressure on ELLs in an inclusive classroom, as they tend to judge themselves as inadequate compared to their peers, simply on account of not having the same level of English proficiency. Tapping into the power of diversity and using multiple languages as an asset towards student learning establishes equity in the classroom. We would contend that this kind of learning experience is vital for all students, not just for their academic development, but also for them to grow as internationally-minded people, ready to engage and contribute to our globally diverse and dynamic world.

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06/10/2017 - Ute
I welcome this kind of approach in international schools and as a multilingual myself I would have loved to have this kind of freedom at school!
I see one problem though in schools where many languages are involved and also many different levels of proficiency in these other languages within a classroom. Assuming that children/students are able to read and have actually the vocabulary in their heritage languages (or the other languages one want to focus on) is not very realistic and would, again, make them feel excluded or underachieveing. This can only work if the children are biliterate (or multiliterate). – Many children who are bilingual and multilingual are not necessarily biliterate (or multiliterate)...
06/08/2017 - Eowyn
Great post, and descriptions of great pedagogy. Bravo!
10/31/2016 - Karen
Well done! These are such important ideas and practices, elevating not only home languages and cultures but also children themselves. Bravo!
10/28/2016 - Unni
Very insightful and written in a very lucid manner



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