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Moving from Deficit Thinking to Asset-Based Thinking in Teaching Multilingual Learners

By Noria (ia) Adam-Lim
Moving from Deficit Thinking to Asset-Based Thinking in Teaching Multilingual Learners

The term “asset-based thinking” has been used in different fields and contexts. An asset-based approach to education focuses on what students can do rather than what they can't, strengths rather than weaknesses and opportunities rather than problems. As language teachers, we probably have heard and used the term more often nowadays to describe what we do. Yet, I wonder, do we really operate in this mindset when we teach multilingual learners (MLs)?

In the Philippines, we have one word for “inner thoughts” and that is saloobin. It comes from the root word “loob," meaning “inside.” As I ponder the topic of asset-based thinking, I realize that I need to check my own inner thoughts or saloobin on this matter before I can really say I believe in it. I have this little voice in my head saying that asset-based thinking while teaching multilingual learners is easier said than done. This nagging thought made me question my own thinking “Am I looking at asset-based thinking through a deficit lens? How can I really say I am adopting this mindset if I have a deficit perspective from the very beginning? When the barriers are so big and sometimes even vague, it can be overwhelming; but then, I also realized that is why there are lighthouses. Just as a tiny light can become a beacon, I know I am not completely in the dark. After taking a deep breath, I made a list (and also because I love making lists!) of what I know and what I want to know about asset-based thinking when teaching multilingual learners.

The director of international programs of WIDA, Jon Nordmeyer, said that instead of looking for “barriers,” we should look for “opportunities” (Cleave, 2020). From this suggestion, I started my saloobin by asking, “Where do I start?”.  From this question, I made a list of mindsets where I think I can find opportunities from:


  1. Disadvantage to advantage
  2. Intervention to inclusion 
  3. Monolingual to multilingual
  4. Equality to equity

If I combine my thoughts from DIME (making acronyms is my next favorite thing to do), I can visualize quarters coming together to create a whole idea. I imagine my saloobin as a circular space that grows from the inside out where all the mindsets I have identified interact with each other as my journey as a teacher of MLs expands.

(Photo source: Noria "ia" Adam-Lim)

These two guiding questions (Where do I start? What are my opportunities?) are my beacons of light to answer my bigger question, how can teachers shift from deficit-based thinking to asset-based thinking while teaching MLs? To do that, I took each mindset and analyzed the deficit thinking and how I think it can be shifted from DIME to AIME (advantage, inclusion, multilingual, equity):

From disadvantage to advantage:

This mindset that multilingual learners are automatically at a disadvantage because they are expected to work double time or that they need to work harder than their peers is probably one of the biggest walls to break. Why? Because currently, that is how it looks. The thought of having emergent multilingual learners in International Baccalaureate programs, especially in the Diploma Programme (DP), might be one of the touchy issues. However, I feel the shift. It is possible to have MLs take the DP at different language proficiency levels. There are definitely developing and well-developed systems and programs that can be used as benchmarks to prove that this is happening and possible. However, I don’t think it’s the issue of language proficiency that we need to break here. I think the wall that we need to overcome is that most of us are worried that we will not be successful if they take the DP. If we are to assume that all of us have good intentions for MLs and that we all want them to be successful, how can we let our good intentions be overcome by our fears? How can that dark cloud of hesitation envelope our course of action? If teaching MLs is an advantage, I would rather focus on what they can bring to the group to enrich the program.                           

From intervention to inclusion:     

Being a multilingual learner is not a learning deficit. Therefore, instead of looking at teaching MLs as support or needs-based, why not approach it as learning variability-based? There is a unique way multilingual learners are learning. Inclusion is all about intentionally including that aspect during goal-setting, lesson planning, and the overall class setting.

From monolingual to multilingual:         

Why is there a hierarchy or prejudice in favor of native speakers? Being a native speaker does not correlate to being able to communicate better. As an ML myself, I have multiple languages in my arsenal I can use to express myself and so do our MLs. Take for example my use of the Filipino word saloobin. There are words in different languages that do not exactly have a direct translation to English and yet, they capture an idea, concept, practice, and so much more. When these words are shared with the community it enriches the discussion even further. There is an opportunity to widen the scope of one language to multiple languages that can deepen understanding of even a simple and single idea.

From equality to equity:

There is an impression that multilingual learners are expected to keep up. How they do it, nobody really knows. Yet, we think that equal treatment equates to equality but what it really promotes are imbalances leading to institutional racism and unconscious bias in schools (Cleave, 2020). Where is the opportunity here? It is not in equal treatment but in equitable access. Let’s start with teaching opportunities. By providing opportunities for multilingual teachers themselves to teach MLs. Take, for example, English teachers from a host country whose mother tongue is not English. When we break down the wall that “native English speakers” are “better” teachers than teachers from the host country just because they are native speakers (Perreras, et al, 2023) then we are a step closer to breaking long-held institutional beliefs that do not serve anybody from the community. A varied and experienced staff with different backgrounds gives a school an opportunity to have a wide range of experiences and expertise on how to teach MLs. For this equity mindset to flourish there are lots of areas to explore from: teachers to students, instruction to materials, tangible to intangible aspects of language learning, and lots more. This is an opportunity I am excited to explore.

There are walls and the path is not straightforward. It is not well-lit at times and can even be tricky, but we don’t have to be stuck. We don’t even have to be correct all the time. We can make lots of mistakes. As long as we are brave enough to correct them every chance we get, then we can change. Beautiful does not have to be perfect.

This advocacy choice of breaking the wall of deficit thinking to shift to asset-based thinking will have a positive impact on multilingual learners in international schools:

  • From the advantage perspective, international schools have a common notion that they celebrate diversity (Perreras, et al, 2023). To have the opportunity to celebrate and learn from each of these languages would benefit not just MLs but the whole community (staff, parents, service partners, host country, etc.).
  • From the inclusion perspective, international schools will have a common space to share, connect, and celebrate linguistic assets and multilingual identities (Perreras, et al, 2023).
  • From the multilingualism perspective, international schools will see emergent speakers not as a burden or concern for high-stakes programs but as an asset carrying with them their own wealth of skills to build on (Cleave, 2020).
  • From the equity perspective, international schools can promote the programs and policies they practice that show how they give access to all students, demonstrating what they can do in their languages when instructed and being assessed in the target language of their school (Perreras, et al, 2023).      

I used to think that shifting from deficit to asset-based thinking was easier said than done, but now I think it's really not that hard. In fact, what we have been doing and keep doing is harder. That is why, more than ever, we need this shift to happen. Nobody wins in this deficit mindset. Moving forward, my first action step is to find ways I can promote asset-based thinking in the classroom (e.g., culture sharing, personal stories, similarities in languages, etc.) and use it to enrich the class’s experience.                                                                

As a professional, I admit that I have a lot of walls to break, and it will take some time to shift as some of the perspectives I have been operating from have been institutionalized beliefs. I think that continuously educating myself and collaborating with professionals in the field will help me stay abreast of the shifts that are happening in teaching MLs. I also appreciate the opportunities to network with fellow teachers who are on the same journey as me. Hearing them say that they experienced the same thing or felt the same frustrations and concerns makes me feel that I am not alone. It is such a reassuring feeling to be in a space where you know you will be accepted and that it’s okay to make mistakes as long as you have the drive to improve. That is one of the many values I can take from asset-based thinking.           


Noria (ia) Adam-Lim is currently working as a teaching assistant at International School Manila, Philippines.

Email: [email protected]

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