Building on the Translanguaging Practices of Emergent Bilinguals

Below is the text-version of a short article that I wrote for Penn GSE Research into Practice. Click here to see the full web version.

Educational linguists have developed a theory of bilingualism that has significant implications for teaching emergent bilingual students. The centerpiece of this perspective is that bilingualism is no longer viewed as a mastery of two discrete languages but instead as the ability to strategically and continuously weave in and out of languages depending on the context and audience—a skill linguists call translanguaging.

Penn GSE professor Nelson Flores has been exploring the implications of translanguaging for educating emergent bilinguals. Based on his research, he recommends that teachers of emergent bilinguals embrace the following practices that build on these students’ translanguaging practices:

[1] Acknowledge and respect the translanguaging practices of emergent bilinguals: A common misconception is that a language gap exists between children from affluent monolingual households and students from poor bilingual households. This idea stems from studies that test children’s knowledge of discrete vocabulary words. However, ethnographic research that examines students’ language use in everyday situations has consistently documented the complex and fluid translanguaging practices of emergent bilingual students. Teachers who acknowledge and respect these practices are better situated to support these students in adding new language practices to their linguistic repertoire.

[2] Treat translanguaging practices as a springboard for learning new language practices: The importance of connecting new content to students’ prior knowledge has been long recognized in education. The same principle applies to language learning. Therefore, teachers should draw on students’ existing language practices to increase their communicative abilities. For example, when working with emergent bilinguals on appropriate ways of addressing teachers, rather than assuming that students are starting from scratch, have them do a quick writing assignment—in any language(s) they choose—in which they reflect on differences in how they speak to their grandparents versus their friends and on differences between their home language and English.

[3] Set clear language goals while also encouraging students to engage in translanguaging as they work toward those goals: Every lesson should have clear language goals that students are expected to develop. At the same time, it is important to allow emergent bilinguals the opportunity to engage in translanguaging during classroom interactions. For example, by the end of the lesson students might be expected to express in English their agreement or disagreement with a character’s decision in a text they are reading. During the lesson, encourage students to use their entire linguistic repertoire when discussing their opinions in small groups as they prepare their oral response to the character’s decision. This provides important scaffolding that supports the students in achieving the language goal of the lesson.

[4] Draw on literature and other rhetorical models that use translanguaging: One way to do this is to have students analyze writing by authors who use translanguaging for stylistic purposes, such as works by Arthur Durros, Sandra Cisneros, and Huy Voun Lee. As a culminating project, students can produce a piece of writing that experiments with language in ways that parallel the language choices of these bilingual writers. The ultimate goal is for emergent bilingual students to become conscious of ways that they can consciously use language to express their unique bilingual identities.


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