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Teaching in a Multilingual Classroom

Being an international teacher brings on a lot of questions, mostly about language and learning English - what languages do my students speak and how can I teach them if they don't know English (yet). Ultimately, the confusion is about how we do it. However, it's not only international teachers that are adapting their instructional practices - this is today's classroom (and I love it)!

related blog post on multilingualism and teaching English language learners by preteaching vocabulary.
If you're a teacher and are still grappling with this, also check out Creative Ways to Preteach Vocabulary for Language Learners. This post is filled with tips and preparing your language learners before and during teaching so they are set up to succeed.

The first (and often most challenging) thing about teaching in a multilingual setting is shifting our mindset. When we walk into a room and think of it as an English speaking classroom (or any other one language), we are excluding all the other languages that allow us to communicate verbally. In order to consider a multilingual classroom, we must first question our own dispositions about what a classroom should be like.

What is multilingualism?

Embracing and welcoming multiple languages. While there may be one common language used, we are encouraged to also use other languages to best express our thoughts, feelings, ideas and knowledge.

Essentially, a multilingual classroom is a learning community where three or more languages are not only welcomed, but also used. It does not mean that there must be multiple languages of instruction.

How do multilingual classrooms work?

There is still a language of instruction. In my case, it's English. Every student who is still learning English as an additional language receives support either daily or several times a week. But just because English is the instructional language, it is far from the only language spoken.

In a single math lesson, I will surely hear English, Korean, Russian, German a bit of Spanish and maybe some Farsi. And that's the way it should be when these are the languages of the people in the room.

Being multilingual ourselves makes a world of difference - literally, it changes our world. Until I learned a second language and had to use it to survive, I had no idea what my students were experiencing. Learning languages in addition to English has taught me:

  • languages are key to understanding cultures and people

  • there's a whole lot that doesn't make sense in English

  • sometimes, there isn't a way to say something in one language

  • there's more than one way to eat an orange 😉  (it doesn't translate well)

So this is how it works:

Lessons are delivered in the language of instruction, using lots of visual supports with subtitled videos, QR codes and links to bridge understanding in other languages. Partner and group discussions happen primarily in English but with a mixture of our other languages. Independent work is done in the proficiency of English that the learner has and supported with the home language or other known languages.

A shared language:

Of course, I want all of my students to understand me and also be able to communicate their needs and ideas with everyone in the classroom. However, this isn't my reality. I've never in my teaching career, had a day like this.

Here's what I can do however:

I can get my students to meet learning intentions regardless of language by designing thoughtful, meaningful and engaging lessons. I've yet to meet a student who needed English to understand how the earth orbits the sun - I need a globe and a lamp more than English! However, building their knowledge of English and preparing them for the academics that are to come after second grade is also important.

A multilingual translanguaging approach to classroom instruction in inquiry

I support this by (almost) always using slides to teach. It doesn't need to be anything extravagant or time-consuming, but if I'm using words like orbit, rotation or planets in my lesson, then I'm going to make sure that everyone - regardless of their language - has visuals to match the spoken and/or written words. When it comes to content vocabulary, every child in my classroom should have access to the written word and an image to guide their understanding and knowledge building.

Google slides for teachers, preteaching vocabulary, eal scaffolding, supporting language learning by teaching with slides.
Use simple graphics to provide vocabulary support in slides.

A resource worth looking into if you have a multilingual classroom or school community. I am blessed to have an amazing EAL team who have brought some incredible ideas into practice. One that shouldn't be overlooked is Widget. It is essential for those new-to-English learners and really makes lessons accessible. While it isn't something I could create for use in every lesson, it is extremely helpful on a regular basis - even more so if you have a language support teacher.

using widget multilingual flashcards to support literacy content when teaching story elements in primary school. Shown are story elements in English and Hebrew with Caps for Sale.
Cards created with Widget to make literacy content accessible to language learners.

Translanguaging is yet another way to support multilingualism in the classroom. From table group discussions to think, pair, share - students can apply the use of more than one language at a time.

Translanguaging is using multiple languages simultaneously. Translating is changing the words from one language to another.

I'm always looking for ways to improve multilingualism in my classroom! I search high and low and especially in the other classrooms of my school (we all know the best PD is in the room down the hall). Here's a little list I've compiled of small moves we can make to make the shift towards a more multilingual learning community.

Let's make a pact. Let us, as educators, agree that we will...

  • know which languages our students speak

  • ask students to teach us relevant vocabulary and phrases in their languages

  • display student work and classroom resources in the languages of our classrooms

  • never tell a student they can only speak English in class (or marginalize them in any other way for their language)

  • learn the proper pronunciation of our students' names in their languages

  • draw on the linguistic resources around us, within our classroom and school community

  • promote a sense of pride in the home languages of our classrooms and schools

We can do this.. right?

When our students thrive, we thrive!

Embracing our learners - along with their languages - enhanced all that we know about learning and developing.

With love from my classroom to yours,

💛  Sativa

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