How does translanguaging pedagogy work with 27 students, 8 home languages, and 1 monolingual teacher?

“Eight home languages. Twenty-seven students. Twenty-seven levels of English language development, home language literacy, and content knowledge. One room. One teacher. This is the reality of Andrew Brown’s 5th-grade class.” So begins the article co-authored by Mr. Brown and his researcher friend Heather Woodley after doing professional development with Ofelia García in New York. This study—still my favourite empirical (IMRD) study of all time—shows that translanguaging is possible in a subject area class with one official language of instruction, a teacher who is monolingual in that language, and 27 students who speak 8 home languages (some common in the class, some rare). If it is possible in Mr. Brown’s situation, it is possible in yours.

Woodley, H., & Brown, A. (2016). Balancing windows and mirrors: Translanguaging in a multilingual classroom. In O. García & T. Kleyn (Eds.), Translanguaging with multilingual students: Learning from classroom moments (pp. 83-99). Abingdon, UK; New York, NY: Routledge.

While translanguaging pedagogy is possible anywhere, if critically tailored to the context, New York teacher Mr. Brown was fortunate to teach in a community and state that supported bi/multilingualism. Researchers have shown that translanguaging pedagogy is harder to implement in places that are becoming more ethnolinguistically diverse for the first time, where wider societal structures are less likely to support it (e.g. Allard, 2017; Allard, Apt, & Sacks, 2019).

Mr. Brown teaches social studies (history) at an elementary school. “Upon entering his school, visitors are met with a visual display of 17 different languages expressing ‘Welcome!’ Accompanying each printed word or phrase for ‘welcome’ are flags representing the 28 home countries of students. … [T]he school as a whole has embraced a multilingual ecology” (Woodley & Brown, 2016, p. 85). This multilingual linguistic landscape extends into the classroom:

[L]anguages are vividly displayed in the classroom’s multilingual ecology on walls, signs, labels, on the interactive whiteboard, and in notebooks of students. Different languages are used to varying extents in the room, depending on the needs, desires, and abilities of individual students. … This multilingual ecology is created with the support of translation technology, students, families, and teachers and school staff, all providing written support to display the different languages. In the classroom, four written languages—English, Spanish, Polish, and Arabic—are visible in the linguistic landscape. … Cognate lists, labels, and signs for classroom routines are also rendered in multiple languages. (pp. 83-84).

What is important to note, however, is that

[o]ne would be hard-pressed to find a teacher who spoke as many languages as the students in this classroom. And so, the situation is ripe for students to take the lead, to facilitate learning in their home languages, and to use translanguaging to support themselves and others. This is also a valuable opportunity for a teacher to be a co-learner in the classroom. (p. 84) — and, I might add, for students to practice how to correct and guide a non-native speaker respectfully when the teacher makes mistakes!

The classroom is therefore full of “windows and mirrors” (Gutiérrez, 2007): funds of knowledge (Moll, Amanti, Neff, & Gonzalez, 1992) that the students recognize as their own, as well as others that they are encouraged to learn more about.

Mr. Brown is a well-educated, native-born New Yorker, Irish and German American, who grew up speaking only English. However, he has experienced being a language learner of Spanish and American sign language, and “uses conversational Spanish in teaching, while relying on other students, technology, and school community members for more advanced Spanish and other language understandings” (p. 86).

During her ethnography in Mr. Brown’s classroom, Woodley observed that when Mr. Brown planned a lesson, the central question would be presented in the four main languages on the interactive whiteboard. He also drew on multimodal resources, such as visuals, to help students understand meaning. For example, during the slavery unit, he showed them a picture of a plantation and asked them to translate the word “plantation” into Spanish, Arabic and Polish and say these words aloud for the class. (For some students, the word was new in their home languages too, which fostered their development in these languages to some extent even though the class was taught in English.) Next, Mr. Brown took a poll to see who had heard the word “swamp” before, and asked students to describe it to their peers; one student who said he didn’t get it received a description in mixed Arabic and English. After this, the student nodded and smiled, having learned the word in both languages. Mr. Brown then presented this line, translated into English, Spanish, Arabic and Polish, on the interactive whiteboard: 

That was until they caught sight of the African men and women slaves whose raggedy clothes, sad faces, and smelly bodies revealed the ugly truth that this was no heaven at all. (Nelson, as cited in Woodley & Brown, 2016, p. 89) 

Students were then given the job of checking the teacher’s translations, which he had come up with using an online translator. Spanish speakers pointed out that there was no direct translation of “raggedy,” giving several synonyms close in meaning, while one girl thought a phrasal expression was more accurate. Mr. Brown closed that conversation by observing that there were many ways to say the same thing in Spanish, and one person’s translation might differ from someone else’s. He then asked students to brainstorm other situations they thought were unfair. A girl from Ukraine mentioned the corruption of the current Ukrainian administration, which was on the news at that time, while a Yemeni student brought up Palestine after a think-pair-share discussion with a peer in Arabic. (Woodley described seeing a continuous back-and-forth between whole class discussions and small group work, allowing for home language clarification.) Mr. Brown wrapped up the lesson by saying, “Keep bringing in these great examples from all that you already know” (p. 91). 

Discussing the benefits for the class, Woodley notes that English monolingual students were also able to deploy all their linguistic resources, not only those that had been legitimated at school, and they soon became advocates for their bi/multilingual peers. Students, teacher, and technology helped to incorporate newcomers quickly into the class community; diversity became the basis of solidarity rather than causing riffs among groups of students, and students gained both metalinguistic awareness (e.g., how to translate, what did not translate across languages, and tradeoffs in translation) and greater sociopolitical and historical understandings—including better access to the topic of slavery, which was a part of U.S. history that was culturally new to them. Mr. Brown also recalled how students took note of different ways to say things in Spanish and Arabic, highlighting the linguistic diversity of these language diasporas; he also invited students to think about how ways of speaking a language differed across generations and individuals, which was perfectly normal and fine—great, in fact:

My Arabic-speaking students will often use the purple interactive whiteboard pen to write out the translations for vocabulary words since there are many different Arabic varieties. They compare their words while teaching the class how to say something in Arabic as well. I remember some of my Latina girls getting into a polite debate about what is the correct way to say “barrette” in Spanish—“hebilla,” “pasador,” “gancho” or “horquilla.” They took turns speaking, and it showed my class how different cultures have ways of saying things differently in the same language. I just took a step back and let the kids go, and it was really amazing to watch them lead. (p. 98)

The teacher highlighted the importance of letting students “own” the words they used in the many languages the class knew: 

This [translanguaging] has opened doors for all students to really be a part of class, and for students to learn from each other in new ways using language to start some really important conversations about culture. And in these conversations, the students have led the way. (p. 98) 

While this was an elementary school class, the discipline-specific knowledge students were acquiring suggests that translanguaging pedagogy is feasible across the curriculum in secondary school—without the need for a school to be particularly well resourced (you don’t need a “smart” whiteboard), or for the teacher to be bi/multilingual, and even if there are numerous languages represented in a class with highly uneven distributions

And what about the English monolinguals in the class? Of them, Brown writes:

My English speakers are learning through translanguaging as well. They see it as a normal part of our lessons and embrace it. Translanguaging has helped them understand that all the features of their own repertoire are also valid, even though schools might only value some of them. And they also use translanguaging as an opportunity to learn words in other languages as well. (p. 98)

Of the multilingual students, he writes:

I used to translate words, objectives, and essential questions on my own, but now I let the students do it. … It instantly gets them engaged in the unit or the lesson. Students are given time to correct any mistakes on the interactive whiteboard that I have made (either accidentally or on purpose). Just like I want them to own the new vocabulary, I want them to own the class, to make it theirs. (p. 98)

Blogger’s postscript

Woodley and Brown’s article really speaks to me because I remember doing a very similar study where everything Andrew Brown did was manifested in a linguistically diverse 300-level Filipino class at the University of Hawai’i at Mānoa, taught by my dear friend Jayson Parba (Mendoza & Parba, 2018). Jayson’s students spoke Bisaya (Cebuano), English, Ilokano, Japanese, Pidgin (Hawai’i Creole), Spanish, and Tagalog (Filipino). Different students had lived in the Philippines from 0 to 20 years and in the U.S. from 1 year to “my entire life.” One young woman had grown up in many countries, and a young man had spent part of his life in Japan. They were 16 undergraduates representing 11 majors, ranging from first-years to seniors, with varying levels of oral and written proficiency in Filipino. The parallel cases suggest that windows-and-mirrors translanguaging pedagogy also works in a content-rich university-level language class, as Jayson—a trilingual academic, widely published sociolinguist, and award-winning fiction writer in the Philippines—did not talk down to students, instead valuing all their funds of cultural knowledge and their legitimacy as speakers of all the languages in their repertoires.


Allard, E. C. (2017). Re-examining teacher translanguaging: An ecological perspective. Bilingual Research Journal, 40(2), 116-130.

Allard, E. C., Apt, S., & Sacks, I. (2019). Language policy and practice in almost-bilingual classrooms. International Multilingual Research Journal, 13(2), 73-87.

Gutiérrez, R. (2012). Embracing Nepantla: Rethinking ‘knowledge’ and its use in mathematics teaching. Journal of Research in Mathematics Education, 1(1), 29-56.

Mendoza, A., & Parba, J. (2019). Thwarted: Relinquishing educator beliefs to understand translanguaging from learners’ point of view. International Journal of Multilingualism16(3), 270-285.

Moll, L. C., Amanti, C., Neff, D., & Gonzalez, N. (1992). Funds of knowledge for teaching: Using a qualitative approach to connect homes and classrooms. Theory into Practice31(2), 132-141.

Published by annamend

Assistant Professor in the Faculty of Education, University of Hong Kong

3 thoughts on “How does translanguaging pedagogy work with 27 students, 8 home languages, and 1 monolingual teacher?

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