After participating in Host Jennifer Serravallo’s To the Classroom podcast with guest scholars, Drs. Carla España and Luz Yadira Herrera, I wanted to continue this important conversation about ways to center and celebrate students’ linguistic practices. Below are some frequently asked questions and helpful tips for practical classroom application based on my own experiences and curiosity about this topic.
#1: WHAT IS TRANSLANGUAGING? AND HOW DO I GET STARTED?
On the podcast, Dr. Yadira Herrera described translanguaging as “the ability to use language freely without those boundaries that are often imposed in a variety of settings” and that translanguaging is about “recognizing that [bilinguals] have a dynamic, rich language repertoire…that we can use to make sense, to make meaning, to make connections.” In other words, translanguaging is not only what a bi-/multilingual learner does, but also has to do with the way a teacher teaches. As a pedagogical approach, then, translanguaging describes the methods and instructional practices teachers use to create space for students to respond using their full linguistic repertoires.
So what does this mean for the classroom? As much as possible, students should be invited to translanguage to show what they know. This can provide teachers with a more accurate picture of students’ skills, particularly when the learning objective does not necessitate demonstration of language ability. It also means that teachers are aware that students’ proficiency in certain areas, such as in reading, can be influenced by their language abilities, so it’s essential to assess language ability independent of other components of instruction (Serravallo, 2019).
To get started, Drs. España and Yadira Herrera (2020) tell us in their book, En Comunidad: Lessons for Centering the Voices and Experiences of Bilingual Latinx Students, to reflect on the trajectory of our own language practices. Some questions they shared to ask ourselves might be: “What are your language practices? [How] has your schooling supported or silenced your language practices?” (p. 8). Similarly, invite your students to reflect on their own journey through schooling and where or when they might have felt their language practices were/were not valued. Additional reflection questions might be: “What language and cultural practices are accepted, validated, and celebrated in your school? What examples show what is accepted compared with what is silenced?” (España & Herrera, 2020, p. 13).
When we get to know our students, we’ll be better equipped to know how to support their language practices and be ready to offer varied, multimodal ways in which they can express themselves.
#2: HOW CAN I HELP MY STUDENTS IF I AM UNFAMILIAR WITH THEIR LANGUAGE(S)?
First of all, that’s okay. On the podcast, Dr. Yadira Herrera emphasized the importance of teachers positioning themselves as co-learners in the classroom who view students as “the experts of their own community language practices.” Also, Dr. España described her former classroom as one in which students and the teacher marveled at one another’s language varieties and where everyone was encouraged to analyze features of language in a playful and meaningful way. Hers was truly a polyvocal community!
In Chapter 11 of Jennifer Serravallo’s The Reading Strategies Book 2.0, there are powerful strategies teachers can use to begin to help students analyze and appreciate language, such as:
Strategy 11.14, “Get Help from Cognates” in which students are encouraged to use their primary language to make connections to a new language;
Strategy 11.13, “Look for Word Part Clues: Roots and Bases,” which could be adapted by teachers to allow students to consider whether parts of the word in a language being studied are orthographically similar to their primary language;
Strategy 11.15, “Use a Reference and Explain It,” where students are invited to consult a reference for unknown words, then explain it in their own words.
That being said, there are different resources you can turn to to support your own developing language practice. For example, you can have a student who shares the multilingual learner’s language to translate for you or have a go-to adult in the community. Also, there are some great apps that will translate your feedback to students, such as Mote, which is a Google Chrome extension where you can audio record feedback and that will translate the recording in a variety of languages for your students. Though not perfect, the Google Translate app offers a camera or audio feature that translates an excerpt or spoken language into another language.
Regardless of the resources you use, make sure to offer your students choice in how they want to interact with the content and express their ideas. Ultimately, students need to be able to decide how and to what extent they draw from their linguistic repertoires.
#3: WHAT IF THERE ARE POLICIES IN MY BILINGUAL/ESL PROGRAM THAT RESTRICT THE PERCENTAGE OF TIME A LANGUAGE IS USED?
This is a tricky question, but we have to remind ourselves that bilingual/ESL programs are in service to our students, not the other way around. Translanguaging centers the bilingual learner and their flexible language use. Also, educators who offer space in the classroom for translanguaging are affirming the bilingual learner’s self-concept as language and language use are inextricably tied to identity and belonging within a community (Cenoz, 2013).
One way we can begin to resist policies that are harmful to students is to begin the work in small ways. As you open up space in your classroom for students to translanguage, you’ll find that there are educational advantages to it, such as:
Translanguaging promotes deeper understanding of content area matter;
Translanguaging helps develop the “softer” language;
Translanguaging facilitates home-school connection and collaboration;
Translanguaging helps develop relationships of fluent speakers with emergent learners (Baker, 2011).
Then, you might begin to invite other teachers into your classroom to witness a translanguaging classroom in action. The idea is to grow into a community of like-minded practitioners who advocate as one voice toward programming that fosters identity-affirming classrooms where bi-/multilingual students’ full linguistic and cultural practices are valued and honored.
#4: WHAT DOES A TRANSLANGUAGING CLASSROOM LOOK LIKE?
First, it’s important to acknowledge that English dominates our school spaces unless we work consciously to disrupt that. In a translanguaging classroom, a visible, co-created mission statement, one that values the authentic language practices of multilingual students, can easily be spotted. Also, on the podcast, Dr. Yadira Herrera emphasized the importance of being intentional in planning instruction so that, for example, teachers take the time to select culturally affirming texts that deepen students’ understanding of a relevant topic and that also mirror their dynamic language practices. In a translanguaging classroom, then, students have easy access to a wide variety of culturally and linguistically affirming texts. A visitor to said classroom would also see and hear students’ use of their innovative language practices and biliteracy skills through the student work displayed on walls, during classroom discussions, or when teachers are meeting with students in conferences and small groups. In such a classroom, teachers view students’ primary language as a strength and encourage them to respond using their full linguistic repertoire (Serravallo, 2019).
In a word, a translanguaging classroom is a student-centered environment where teachers know their students and use identity-affirming strategies to scaffold and connect learning with their lives. In The Writing Strategies Book, for example, Jennifer Serravallo (2017) shares a number of strategies that invite students to use their authentic language practices in their writing. Teachers can encourage students to elaborate using strategies, such as:
Strategy 6.33, “How Does Your Character Talk?,” where students are invited to think of a character as a real person to capture how they would really speak;
Strategy 6.39, “Talk to Yourself,” in which students could be encouraged to speak aloud as a rehearsal for writing and then write those words and sounds on paper;
Strategy 6.16, “Read Mentor Texts with Two Lenses: Information, Aesthetic,” where teachers can invite students to read a text they want to emulate, naming the author’s technique and giving it a go in their own writing. This could be especially powerful using a text where the author uses more than one language, such as in Morales’s Dreamers.
Offering space in the classroom for students to translanguage is not just good teaching practice, but it also implies a pedagogical stance in which teachers are showing they value who their students are and all that they bring. In this way, we are helping students connect to one another and build understanding and appreciation for the complexity of the human experience.
Baker, C. (2011). Foundations of Bilingual Education and Bilingualism. Multilingual Matters.
Cenoz, J. (2013). Defining Multilingualism. Annual Review of Applied Linguistics, 33, 3 — 18.
España, C., & Herrera, L. Y. (2020). En Comunidad: Lessons for Centering the Voices and Experiences of Bilingual Latinx Students. Heinemann Educational Books.
Morales, Y. (2018). Dreamers. New York, NY: Holiday House. Pak, S. (1999). Dear Juno. Illust. by S. K. Hartung. New York, NY: Puffin Books.
Serravallo, J. (2017). The Writing Strategies Book: Your Everything Guide to Developing Skilled Writers. Heinemann Educational Books.
Serravallo, J. (2019). A Teacher’s Guide to Reading Conferences: The Classroom Essentials Series. Heinemann Educational Books.
Serravallo, J. (2023). The Reading Strategies Book 2.0: Your Research-Based Guide to Developing Skilled Readers. Heinemann Educational Books.