To better serve our growing population of multilingual students, we need to develop language curricula that take advantage of their unique understandings about higher-level language concepts. Our research shows that building on students’ ability to translate text between languages can be a powerful tool in the classroom.
I began teaching in New York as a member of the New York City Teaching Fellows. For six years, I worked at the elementary level in Spanish-English multilingual special education settings. This experience drove me to study how we educate multilingual students, especially in the area of literacy development. Too often, students who are multilingual are viewed as having a language deficit; I believe that they are actually at an advantage in understanding higher-level language concepts. Language and literacy programs that emphasize these strengths can be more effective.
How Multilingualism Affects Learning
Because they are constantly moving between different linguistic systems in different social contexts, multilingual students often have a better understanding of language concepts than monolingual students. For example, if you acquired a language as a child, you may know how to use it fluently, but you’re likely not to think about it structurally or analytically. Language acquisition is an instinctive and automatic process, and primarily takes place when we learn our first languages as children. Language learning, on the other hand, becomes a more dominant process later in life in the form of formalized language classes, relying and building upon established knowledge. Once you learn a second language, you understand different grammatical systems and become more sensitive to the social context and practices surrounding language. This greater understanding is something that teachers need to leverage and build upon in their language curriculum.
A More Inclusive Classroom
One major challenge in language education is learning how to navigate the inherent politics of language to make sure every student feels included in the classroom. For example, if a student is a majority language speaker who is learning a minority language (e.g., an English speaker learning Spanish in an American classroom), it’s a very different dynamic than that of a native Spanish speaker learning English in an American classroom. It is easy to fall back on commonly accepted teaching methods, especially for teachers from the dominant culture who never experienced school as an alien or alienating place, so the challenge lies in making spaces for students to speak other languages in the classroom and talk about their culture and life experiences.
If students come into a classroom and don’t see themselves represented, they are being told implicitly that the language they speak at home and their experiences outside of class don’t have a place in their school. To change this we must encourage teachers to value linguistic diversity in the classroom, and develop tools and resources to help them make their classrooms more inclusive.
Language Resources & Cultural Experiences in the Classroom
Through my interest in researching ways to improve literacy education to better serve multilingual students, I became involved in a project based around the process of having students collaboratively translate small portions of text from English into their primary language. My involvement in Project TRANSLATE began the first year of my doctoral studies at Vanderbilt University, and has since expanded into a long-term, ongoing research effort that I plan to continue here at the University of Minnesota College of Education and Human Development (CEHD). In 2015, we were honored to have our work recognized with the Allen C. Purves Award from the National Council of Teachers of English.
The project centers on the idea that multilingual students have a wealth of language resources and cultural experiences that could help them improve their English* reading comprehension, resources which they are often told to leave at the door of the school. Research shows that many successful multilingual students think about the way English and other languages are different or the same while reading: a sign of a strong linguistic foundation. A language curriculum that forces multilingual students to focus solely on English in the classroom while speaking another language at home may actually be less successful at teaching English than a program that incorporates both languages.
We want to develop tools for teachers to help their students actively and strategically access their knowledge of other languages while they are thinking about texts. Classroom activities that focus on translation may be uniquely suited to teach certain kinds of literacy and language skills. Translation requires close reading of the original text, as students check for accuracy and problem solve issues with complex grammar or vocabulary. This involves a variety of important language and reading concepts across both languages, including audience, voice, grammar, semantics and lexicon.
Research shows that activities that build students’ language problem-solving skills are very important for their literacy learning and comprehension. By incorporating multilingual students’ cultural heritage and first language knowledge into the classroom, literacy programs can become more effective and more inclusive.
*To date, this research has focused on improving instruction for multilingual students in mainstream language arts or ESL classrooms, where biliteracy development is not supported.
Making Your Classroom Reflect Your Students
Culturally responsive teaching requires educators to build their methods around what students bring to the class, so it’s important to create a space for students to share what they know and can do. Responsive lesson planning is difficult to teach – a common protocol can’t be created for all teachers, because it must be unique to the classroom.
However, these are a couple principles that you can use in your efforts to create a more inclusive classroom:
Interaction. Teaching in a way that gives students a chance to interact with each other around authentic tasks is crucial. Make your class a place that specifically validates multilingualism and encourages students to use all their language and literacy resources, sharing them and celebrating them with everyone.
Adjust your curriculum accordingly. When you begin to let students share their experiences, start asking yourself where they fit into your curricular goals. There are a lot of ideas out there, and more and more research is being done all the time. For example, students’ experience with translating and interpreting in particular has been leveraged to teach poetry, persuasive writing, and paraphrasing. But there are many other curricular connections that a caring and creative teacher could make, and there are many other language and cultural practices that students could access. When we stop seeing language barriers and begin seeing language resources, we can create classrooms that empower as well as educate.
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