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3 Ways to Harness the Power of Translanguaging

by Naashia Mohamed |

When 14-year-old Zena moved from Turkey to New Zealand, she was apprehensive about going to school. Zena had learned some English in school in Turkey but was not confident that she would be able to follow the teachers or converse with other students when she joined her new school. Zena’s family was Egyptian and spoke Arabic and Turkish at home. Zena’s parents worried that because she was an English language learner, Zena wouldn’t fit into her new school or be able to keep up with her school work even though she had been an excellent student in her previous school.

Zena’s story is not unique. It is one that many children and young people from immigrant and multilingual backgrounds share. Children all over the world receive education in a language that is not spoken in their homes, or in a language that forms only part of the linguistic landscape of the home environment. In such cases, what can educators do to make students feel welcome and create a sense of belonging in school?

What Is Translanguaging?

One powerful way in which educators can establish inclusivity is through maximising the use of students’ existing linguistic and cultural resources and allowing them to use their full linguistic repertoire in their learning process. Ofelia García is a well-known proponent of using translanguaging as a pedagogical resource. She describes translanguaging as the natural act of “accessing different linguistic features or various modes of what are described as autonomous languages, in order to maximize communicative potential.”

Translanguaging is not about simply switching from one language to another, or to go across languages, as the prefix trans may imply. Rather, translanguaging refers to the strategic ways in which multilinguals draw from all their linguistic and multimodal resources to make meaning, optimize communication, and enhance understanding. It is about the internal ways in which we language, and do language as an act.

Why Use Translanguaging as a Teaching Approach?

In an International Literacy Association webinar titled “supporting multilingual learners with translanguaging strategies,” Kate Seltzer outlines four reasons why a translanguaging approach is necessary for teaching multilingual students:

  • It helps students to comprehend complex content and texts.
  • It develops students’ linguistic practices.
  • It creates opportunities for multilingual ways of knowing.
  • It supports students’ socioemotional development and strengthens their identities.

A translanguaging approach legitimizes the natural ways in which multilinguals use language and recognizes that multilinguals have a much more complex repertoire than monolinguals.

What Might This Look Like in Practice?

Here are three ways in which educators could put the translanguaging approach into practice.

Create Multilingual Word Walls

A word wall is a space in the classroom dedicated to highlight new words focused on in a unit. For example, in a science lesson, a teacher may decide to add the word electricity to the word wall along with its definition. She could then invite learners to add the word for electricity in their home languages to the wall, and write the definition in their own languages. Word walls can also include visuals and example usage in a sentence.

The process of creating the multilingual word wall is a collaborative one that requires learners to rely on each other’s strengths. The teacher can draw attention to the different ways the word electricity is understood and used in the learners’ homes, creating awareness about linguistic diversity. The wall can be used by students as a resource to recall words and meanings as needed.

Use Culturally Relevant Multilingual Sources

Think about the ways in which you may already ask your learners to inquire into a topic. Are they able to access any resources in their home languages? Are the topics relevant to the cultural communities of your learners?

In a lesson I had the privilege of observing some time ago, a fourth-grade teacher was teaching about the human body. She had students work in small groups to research the functions of different body parts and to create a mind map to record what they found out. The children were provided with online and textual resources primarily in English, but they had access to other languages as well. Providing this access to resources in the home languages allowed learners to build stronger conceptual understanding and helped to validate their linguistic backgrounds. They were proud to show others how to say something in their language and discussed with enthusiasm the learning that resulted from that activity. When students are able to tap into multiple languages within their repertoire to make meaning, they feel empowered and valued.

Invite Learners to Utilise All Their Language Resources

If students in the class share a home language, they may want to work together at times so that they are able to discuss their learning in ways they are most comfortable. This could then be followed up with heterogenous grouping to allow students to share their learning with others, thus allowing them to leverage both languages in discussing academic content.

Suresh Canagarajah argues that because language is an integral part of a multilingual individual’s identity, learners must be invited to use all their language resources not just when conversing, but also in their writing. Parenthetical notes could be added to explain specific aspects of their writing to respect the reader’s perspectives. The use of multiple languages in students’ writing should not be taken as evidence of confusion or a lack of competence. Rather, it illustrates the creativity and strategic ways of making meaning available to multilingual learners.

Concluding Comments

One important aspect of translanguaging pedagogy is that as teachers we reflect on the role of English in our students’ lives and consider how our own teaching might foster ideologies that inadvertently marginalize our students. Perhaps we could begin by reflecting on our own practice and considering the ideologies underlying our actions. Starting a reflective journal about our teaching practice, and/or recording parts of our lessons to trigger these reflections may be a good way to do this.

About the author

Naashia Mohamed

Naashia Mohamed is a Senior Lecturer of TESOL at the University of Auckland, New Zealand. Her work in teacher education focuses on addressing the needs of language learners in schools and considers how school policies and practices can reduce the educational gaps faced by immigrant children and youth. Naashia has published in journals such as TESOL Quarterly, Current Issues in Language Planning, International Journal for Lesson and Learning Studies, and ELT Journal. Her research addresses issues of identity, power, and equity in language education policy and practice.

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