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Creating Space for Translanguaging for Elementary School-Aged MLLs

Written by: Judie Haynes
Published on: Jun 19, 2023

Students working in group
Photo credit: Viacheslav Yakobchuk/Adobe Stock

Many years ago, when I taught elementary English as a second language (ESL), I created and laminated labels for items in the general education classrooms where multilingual learners were assigned. Since multilingual learners (MLLs) in my school spoke a total of 18 different languages at the time, I tailored my labels to the languages spoken in each classroom. I thought of these labels as both a vocabulary development activity for my MLLs and an introduction to various cultures for their English-speaking peers. I’d never heard the term translanguaging during my graduate studies in ESL and bilingual education.

However, when I look back on my years of teaching, I realize that I instinctively adhered to some of the tenets of translanguaging in my elementary ESL class. I always allowed my students to draw from any of the languages that they spoke in class and encouraged them to speak both English and their home language when working in groups. I’d like to see teacher education programs promote creation of spaces for translanguaging to become common in all bilingual, ESL, and general education classrooms. Here are four ways for teachers to foster this practice in their own classrooms:

1. Create Room in Your Classroom for the Use of Multiple Languages

Garcia and Kleyn maintain that teachers often see emergent bilinguals as having two separate languages that emanate from two separate sources. However, for bilingual students, all languages that they speak come from a single source. This single competence perception of bilinguals is at the heart of translanguaging and has inspired a new way to understand what bilingual students and teachers should be doing with language in their classrooms.

Experts like Garcia and Kleyn propose that flexible spaces, where MLLs are allowed to speak both the home language and English, are incorporated into the classroom. Hamman argues that this does not mean that students are encouraged to speak their first language throughout ESL class, but that there are spaces for students to express themselves in all the languages in their repertoire. This needs to be done in bilingual, ESL, and general education classrooms.

2. Foster Flexible Use of Language Where Students Work in Pairs or Small Groups

Most teachers agree that the learning of content material is deepened when students can actively engage in learning with their peers. I have always been a supporter of collaborative learning. I felt this allowed the MLLs in my ESL classroom to access content information. The curriculum of my ESL classes was based on what was being taught in the science and social studies classes geared to the general school population. I encouraged my students to access content by searching information on the internet in their home language. The families of some of my students purchased science or social studies books in their home languages so that they could read the content about what was being taught in the classroom.

When I first started to teach, I found that classroom teachers purposely separated MLLs so that they could be supported by English-speaking peers. The idea of creating a space for translanguaging by grouping students from the same language background was not an accepted practice. Today’s educators are generally much more knowledgeable about teaching MLLs. They acknowledge that both language and content knowledge is scattered across all students in a classroom. MLLs should not be separated from each other when groups are assigned. They need to be paired at times so they can support each other in their groups.

3. Encourage Translanguaging Where Multilingual Learners Use Academic Language

Fred Genesee wrote in an article for Colorín Colorado that there is indisputable evidence that the L1, or home language, of MLLs is of considerable benefit to their academic success. I personally believe that we need to allow MLLs to speak their home language in school and that using L1 in school helps them acquire English.

There are circumstances, however, where MLLs need to focus on speaking English to complete assignments. Teachers need to set fluid policies that specify the situations where English should be spoken. We don’t, however, want to make strict policies about when and where the home language can be spoken. When MLLs are discussing something they read in English, for example, they should certainly be allowed to speak their home language. In a blog that I wrote in 2021 entitled “6 Strategies to Balance the Use of L1 and English in the ESL Classroom,” I included information based on the work of François Grosjean. In his book, Bilingual: Life and Reality, he presents information from his own life where he grew up speaking French and English. He proposes that bilingual students do not have two or more separate languages, but that they have one linguistic repertoire that consists of features of the languages they speak. They pull information from all the languages in their repertoire as they work in school. Although Grosjean did not use the word translanguaging in his book, his description of the nature of bilingualism affected my practice of teaching MLLs.

4. Support Development of Multilingual Learners' Literacy Through Translanguaging

Many of the MLLs in my school came to school learning to function in their home language and English. I used wordless books to teach beginning to intermediate MLLs at all levels. I found that students liked books with pictures that are not too busy and that tell an interesting story. The use of wordless or picture books with few words lends itself to translanguaging. I’d either use the book for a whole class discussion or ask questions about the book and have MLLs share their ideas in small groups using any of the languages they have at their disposal. In the beginning of the school year, I’d start with a wordless book of an Aesop fable, "The Lion and the Mouse." This was helpful because many students knew the fable in their own language. Everyone could participate in the discussion using English or their home language. I think that translanguaging often takes place normally in bilingual classes, but we should create a place where this can happen in ESL and general education classrooms.

This post first appeared on the TESOL Blog. Reprinted with permission.