How does translanguaging pedagogy work when most, but not all, students share the same home language?

In another post, I wrote about a “superdiverse” class with 27 students, 8 home languages, and 1 (monolingual) teacher. There were obvious challenges to implementing translanguaging pedagogy in that classroom, even though the teacher successfully did. He was helped by a school and community environment supportive of bi/multilingualism, in a city that was historically diverse, and had received first-rate professional development (Ofelia García and the program at City University of New York). In this post, I present the opposite scenario: an “almost-bilingual” class where the teacher and most (but not all) students shared a non-English language, in a school and community environment still adjusting to immigration and linguistic diversity. Given the class linguistic composition, the teacher should have found it easier to implement translanguaging, but this was not the case because of the conflicting needs of the linguistic majority and other students. The teacher and researcher co-authors describe the challenges in this article and suggest solutions.

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

One day, teacher Sarah Apt was telling her class about how great it was they were tutoring another class:

“We have gone two times to read to our friends and they love it! Hemos ido tres veces a leer a nuestros amigos y les encanta! You are great teachers. Ustedes son excelentes maestros. These are students who have their heads on their desks and don’t respond. Estamos trabajando con alumnos que bajan sus cabezas y no responden normalmente. It is very special that they like being with you and respond to you.” (p. 73)

As you can see from her speech, Sarah is bilingually fluent. Everything that she says in English is immediately recast in Spanish. Even though there are affordances to this for the class’ Spanish-speaking majority, there are also drawbacks. First, it does not embody the sort of dynamic translanguaging described by leading scholars of the term like Ofelia García. What Sarah is doing is called “concurrent translation.” Second, with concurrent translation, it is not necessary to pay attention to the English.

This raises questions for the researcher and first author, Elaine Allard (also a Spanish heritage speaker), who asks, “Should they [i.e., bilingual teachers] draw on a shared linguistic expertise to benefit the majority while excluding a few, or should they forego significant benefits for most in the interest of equity?” (p. 73). She also asks: “When a teacher can speak the home language of all but a few of her students, what classroom language policies are most effective? Which are most ethical?” (p. 74).

Allard makes the bold observation that the almost-bilingual classroom (a term this article has coined) is seriously underrepresented in the literature on translanguaging, presumably because of the conflicts of interest among majority and minority students that throw a shadow on this celebrated and socially equitable classroom practice. She also introduces another term—singletons—the only speakers of their home language in the class, and asks what translanguaging might look like for them in that ecology.

At Promesa High School (pseudonym) in Philadelphia, there was a surge in 2013 of students who were Central American asylum-seekers, many suffering from PTSD. Most of these students spoke Spanish, and changed the linguistic landscape of the school that had traditionally been English-monolingual (dialects aside). There were also students from the Dominican Republic and Puerto Rico, and “singletons” from more privileged immigrant backgrounds. These singletons tend to have uninterrupted education and grade-level academic literacy in their home languages.

Not only was Sarah bilingual, she was a dedicated teacher who harnessed students’ funds of knowledge in substantial ways. When she learned that many newly arrived students had agricultural experience, she established an after-school club, and they restored and populated a long-defunct school greenhouse. When she learned two Haitian students were coming, she prepared her class by creating a lesson about Haiti and its history, and had them discuss a comic strip about a Haitian student who was bullied.

Sarah’s class was only one class studied by her and her co-authors. They also studied a class taught by Alanna Hibbs, a ninth-grade World History teacher bilingual in English and Spanish, and materials and activities Sarah used when she co-taught African American History with history teacher Judith Marks (who did not speak Spanish). The class compositions were “almost bilingual” in English and Spanish, allowing for conclusions to be drawn from the whole pile of data. When Sarah and her co-authors, Elaine Allard and Isabel Sacks, examined language practices in the class recordings and materials, they found both “good practices” and practices in need of revision.

What are ideal practices for the almost-bilingual classroom?

One of the teachers’ best practices were texts with bilingual glosses:

The glosses were very helpful—instead of students asking the teacher for a translation, they had the ability to read the bilingual information themselves. There is no reason, however, why glosses in other languages cannot also be provided; if the teacher lacks the knowledge of a language to form sentence structures, she could translate key vocabulary words at least. The teacher creating bi/multilingual handouts legitimates bi/multilingual literacy in the class, in a way that students writing bi/multilingual notes cannot… because the bi/multilingual text is in the curricular handouts distributed by the authority figure, not scribbled informally by students. The team found that bilingual glosses gave Spanish speakers “deeper and more complete access to and engagement with grade-level content” (p. 80), such as the speeches of Booker T. Washington and W. E. B. DuBois. In fact, they were so engaged that they identified with African Americans, with one student saying, “It’s a law that segregation uses to deprive me of the right to vote” (p. 80). Additionally, Sarah also encouraged students to speak any language(s) they needed to learn:

Her open language policy is on full display in a video that her ESL 1 class produced in 2016 about their immigration stories. Working with a facilitator from a local arts organization, the video includes dramatizations in Kreyol about the decision to migrate, a Spanish-language account of a Salvadoran’s journey through the hielera, a nostalgic song in Vietnamese, and a student’s Spanish-language rap about growing up in three countries. (pp. 80-81)

Here, students were able to express their life experiences multilingually, across ethnolinguistic boundaries. I note that when students drafted and then presented such works of art, singletons’ languages were on par with Spanish; also, it did not matter to what extent others understood because it is not necessary to fully understand the literal meaning of a work of art. On the other hand, spontaneous translanguaging in classroom talk was largely or entirely in Spanish (for obvious reasons). There is likely nothing Sarah could have done about this. Thus, translanguaging in artistic works (for all students) combined with spontaneous translanguaging (for the linguistic majority) were some of her best practices.

What are less ideal practices for the almost-bilingual classroom?

Sarah’s least effective translanguaging practice was oral concurrent translation. Had Sarah been monolingual, the school would likely have made efforts to get bilingual teaching assistants perform oral concurrent translation for her, but it is not the best strategy. This does not mean it should never be used, but Allard et al. notice that it is often overused. (Note how Mr. Brown’s students are reported to do it in the comparison study mentioned at the beginning of this blog post. In his class, the translation is provided to one student by their neighbour when necessary, not by the teacher to the whole class.) How Spanish-speaking students felt about Sarah’s concurrent translation varied: one really appreciated it; another felt she should reduce it. Allard et al. report:

Some singletons also found the heavy use of concurrent translation off-putting. During preparations for the immigration skits, the visiting artist spoke Spanish and Sarah translated. At these times, Fabienne, a Haitian student who was normally highly engaged and cooperative, put her head down and refused to participate. Multiple times, she said she “hated” the class and wanted to be learning English. While she eventually participated in an improvised skit in Kreyol, and though she elsewhere displayed a willingness to engage in Spanish language play with her peers, it was clear that from her perspective, Spanish-medium sessions wasted time. Fabienne and other singletons experienced the teacher’s use of Spanish as inequitable (García et al., 2011; García & Sylvan, 2011) and responded by expressing withdrawal and dissatisfaction. (p. 82)

It is not that Fabienne and some other singletons were right that Spanish should be avoided, but that too much oral concurrent translation signalled something annoying to them. On the other hand, even when textual translations appeared only in Spanish, this allowed Spanish speakers to help themselves, freeing up the teacher to work with the other students—very helpful in a class of 25-30 students.

Nor is the takeaway here not to speak Spanish. The socioemotional value of hearing their language in the classroom was priceless for unaccompanied minors in the U.S. who had gone through a lot of trauma. However, teachers also needed to be judicious in the use of Spanish, especially when directed to the entire class, as “the frequent use of concurrent translation meant that singletons were confronted with classroom discourse that was sometimes nearly half in a language they neither understood nor had enrolled to learn” (p. 82). Put even more strongly, “Teacher-driven exclusion from a principal classroom language poses a serious challenge to equity” (p. 82, my italics). [I myself have been guilty of researcher-driven exclusion from a principal classroom language in my PhD ethnography, so keen was I to implement English-Filipino translanguaging in another almost-bilingual classroom.]

Too much concurrent translation could also disadvantage Spanish-speaking students, who had far fewer contexts in which they had the opportunity to use their emergent English meaning-making skills and multimodal resources to negotiate meaning with others. The researchers noted: “We observed circumlocution and gestures less frequently among Spanish speakers, who could almost always use Spanish and relied heavily on teachers’ verbal translations in lieu of other more autonomous strategies for understanding and expressing themselves” (p. 84).

Implications and pedagogical recommendations

Though Allard et al. do not create a numerical list of suggestions for improving translanguaging instruction in almost-bilingual classrooms, these lessons can be taken from the discussion and conclusion of their article:

1. Annotate texts in the minority languages as well as majority languages with the help of Google translate, community members, and advanced singletons so that all can benefit from this highly educational practice. “Though time consuming, this would provide greater access for singletons and send a message of inclusion” (p. 84).

2. Schools and classrooms should buy books in less commonly taught languages to help students maintain their literacy skills in these languages. Ideally, these books would be on similar themes and topics as those explored in ESL and content classes to give students more entry points into academic content.

3. As the locus of control in dynamic translanguaging is with students, teachers must guide students when their language choices exclude peers. For example, students can bi/multilingually plan what to say in pairs, or in small groups as long as all their groupmates can speak the languages being used, but must present to the class in the class’ lingua franca. This would encourage the majority language group to practice the class lingua franca while also maintaining their agency to use their whole language repertoires to learn. Teachers may want to explain the rationales for their language policies and elicit mutual goals from the class (Auerbach, 1993).

4. Concurrent translation may be appealing, but it should be used strategically by the teacher. Usually, students should be the ones translating, instead of the teacher’s excessive use of the majority first language, especially in oral communication to the whole class.


Auerbach, E. (1993). Re-examining English-only in the ESL classroom. TESOL Quarterly, 27(1), 9–32.

García, O., Flores, N., & Chu, H. (2011). Extending bilingualism in U.S. secondary education: New variations. International Multilingual Research Journal, 5(1), 1–18.

García, O., & Sylvan, C. E. (2011). Pedagogies and practices in multilingual classrooms: Singularities in pluralities. The Modern Language Journal, 95(3), 385–400.

Published by annamend

Assistant Professor in the Department of Linguistics, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign

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