When should I allow or encourage translanguaging in an academic subject class taught in English?

This is not going to be a prescriptive post since translanguaging is about dynamic activity flows, even in academic subject classes taught in English (Lin & He, 2017), known as Content Language Integrated Learning (CLIL) — or in the U.S., as “sheltered instruction” for ESL students. In these classes, students must get enough exposure to target language. For me, the chapter that addresses the above question best is Chapter 5 in Angel Lin’s book Language Across the Curriculum & CLIL in English as an Additional Language (EAL) Contexts (2016), which takes the teacher’s point of view — Prof. Lin is a Canada Research Chair with many years of secondary teaching experience in Hong Kong. She shows that the question of how to implement translanguaging in a subject class taught in English cannot be addressed separately from three other questions: (1) how to draw on multimodal learning, (2) how to scaffold students’ learning of genres in discipline-specific academic communication, and (3) how to provide both basic foundational knowledge (reading/writing texts) and enrichment activities. Teachers have to deal with many needs at once, some of them contradictory, at least on the face of it. But Lin (2016, Chap. 5) shows that when you address one need well, you also address the others effectively.

Lin, A. (2016). Curriculum mapping and bridging pedagogies. Language across the curriculum & CLIL in English as an Additional Language (EAL) contexts: Theory and practice (pp. 77-110). Springer.

Let’s start not with translanguaging but with CLIL. According to Gibbons (2009, p. 153), cited by Lin at the beginning of the chapter, effective CLIL instruction can be characterized in this way:

  • Teachers must understand the language demands of the subject and how language is used in the subject
  • Content and language must be integrated in a well designed, academically rigorous program
  • Teachers must be aware of the best conditions for L2 [second language] learning, have high expectations, and know a range of language-based strategies.

In Lin’s view, the key to helping students meet high expectations through language-based strategies is to teach by bridging familiar and unfamiliar linguistic knowledge, as well as familiar and unfamiliar conceptual schema. (In Chapter 2, she describes theory by Jim Cummins and Ahmar Mahboob that grounds this work; also worth a read.) An example of how this might be done in a middle-school CLIL science class, from a real teacher, is as follows:

“Jay finds that burning candles gives out heat (Chinese character). He wonders whether the size of the candles affects the temperature of the flames. So he does an investigation on it. [Hypothesis: He thinks that a bigger candle gives a hotter flame.]”

Here, you can see the lab report genre blended with a familiar genre (story) that engages students and removes some of the cognitive load (for now… they will write a science report in third person objective later!). The hypothesis (“He thinks a bigger candle gives a hotter flame”) is at the top, the directions are in the scroll, and the worksheet questions — another familiar genre that would not appear in a science report — are at the bottom. Despite the familiarity of the worksheet questions as a genre, and the everyday language in which these two questions are given, answering them is actually cognitively challenging; students have to explain why Jay’s experiment was flawed. To help students with the challenge, there is a multimodal visual aid showing the candles and test tubes. In short: (1) When students are cognitively challenged to learn new genres and language, they are motivated and assisted by familiar genres/language, and (2) When students are linguistically challenged to understand or produce new academic target language, they are helped by multimodalities and/or translanguaging. When one type of challenge goes up, another goes down — dynamically.

Lin’s theory, building on Cummins (1980/2001) and Mahboob (2017), is called the “rainbow diagram” (Lin, 2016, p. 98); see below. In a nutshell, Cummins noted that there was everyday (mostly oral) language and academic (mostly written) language, which he called BICS and CALP: Basic Interpersonal Communicative Skills and Cognitive Academic Language Proficiency. Students can gain access to CALP (academic texts) by deconstructing them in BICS (oral discussions), or by translating CALP knowledge from the first language (L1) to the second language (L2) if they have prior knowledge in their L1. His colleagues in Canada note that the more recent the arrival is, the more likely cross-linguistic translation is to work; beyond a certain point, students no longer have age-level academic proficiency in their L1, and if they haven’t acquired BICS to talk things through in L2 or continued developing academic literacy in L1, they are in trouble (Roessingh & Elgie, 2009).

Writing from an EFL context, Mahboob pointed out something that scholars in ESL contexts (i.e., Inner Circle English-speaking countries) miss because what is locally relevant to them is often also presented as globally relevant. Literacy is an eight-part framework, not a four-part framework (spoken/written, everyday/academic):

  1. Local everyday spoken, e.g. conversations with neighbors
  2. Local everyday written, e.g. texts to friends you see often
  3. Local academic spoken, e.g., local business transactions
  4. Local academic written, e.g., local/national government websites
  5. Global everyday spoken, e.g. dinner table chat in an international dorm
  6. Global everyday written, e.g. text chat on Youtube
  7. Global academic spoken, e.g. UN conferences
  8. Global academic written, e.g. articles in international academic journals

Drawing on these eight types of literacy, Lin’s rainbow diagram for when and how to use translanguaging in a CLIL class is as follows.

Lin (2016), Language across the curriculum & CLIL in English as an Additional Language (EAL) contexts: Theory and practice (Rainbow Diagram: Bridging Multiple Resources — Ultimate Goal: Expanded Repertoire, p. 98)

Your eyes may pop out trying to visualize just how many layers of linguistic knowledge and schema need to be harnessed to get to the goal of “L2 academic registers” (I am not even sure if orality always scaffolds written work in academic communication; it could be vice versa; Duff, 2010). The point is, a lot of translanguaging and multimodality in ALL students’ languages are needed to scaffold further development — and we cannot assume it is always the L1 that scaffolds the L2. For ESL students, if students’ most recent years of education have been in the L2, they may have forgotten or underdeveloped the L1 (for academic purposes) and also lost touch with age-appropriate cultural resources in L1. So it is almost pointless to identify what will scaffold what. A better approach might be to teach for dynamic, multidirectional transfer, which varies from student to student.

To go back to the teacher in the example above, the next step is for her to let students write their own lab reports. They cannot just understand a lab report, but must produce one of their own. So she prepares this next handout:

In this worksheet, another key word that the teacher would like students to memorize the English-Chinese translation of (“improve”; in the previous worksheet it was “heat”) appears with an L1 translation. Also note that because of the previous handout, students have the linguistic resources to copy for writing their lab report. However, they must also make modifications to these resources — changing from 3rd person narrative to imperatives (for the directions) and 3rd person objective (for the findings). This makes them realize what target language is needed for the genre.

The teacher’s pedagogical approach might be summarized as a cycle of 3 stages:

  1. Use all of students’ resources (translanguaging, multimodalities, everyday English) to unpack the model/informational text. –> reading comprehension
  2. Use all the resources (translanguaging, multimodalities, everyday English) to analyze and extend thinking from the model/informational text. –> learning process
  3. Use all the resources (translanguaging, multimodalities, everyday English) to plan how to create the academic English text (lab report). –> assessed product

Because all the resources have been used in stages 1 to 3, there is a greater chance that the assessed product, which is a student-created academic English text, will be of higher quality.

Many tasks in CLIL thus involve “reading to write” or


based on readings

which are processed through discussion

to consolidate knowledge and generate new knowledge

— which gets us into Vygotskian theories of learning, sociocultural theories, etc. Students must be learning from each other, but teachers must also teach academic language in the L2 explicitly. Very competent teachers have ways of maximizing explicitness while minimizing threats to face. For example, in the worksheets above, the students write down the target language and can largely translanguage in oral planning; the teacher corrects individual worksheets discreetly. If students have to present target language in formal oral presentations, they could write notes and rehearse first.

Now let’s get into how to teach both “back-to-basics” tasks and “enrichment” tasks in a CLIL class using translanguaging.

Translanguaging in “back-to-basics” tasks, like reading comprehension and note-taking, in preparation for traditional writing assignments

Lin, who writes this chapter by drawing on her prolific teaching and academic reading experiences, cites the work of Rose and Martin (2012) in this section. Rose and Martin present back-to-basic literacy tasks as involving a cycle of teacher-student interactions called FIE/A, or Focus-Identify-Elaborate/Affirm. Students first have to know what they should be looking for when they encounter a text, then they need to find and understand it, then they need to elaborate on it or have the teacher affirm their answer. This has to happen on many nested levels because there different levels of information to process, from the genre of the text to its structure to its individual sentences and words.

Here is a simplified version of how FIE/A could happen…

  • Class begins. The teacher tells students that they will be doing several readings in the unit, and how each reading is different and contributes something different to the topic of the unit. (focus)
  • To prepare students for Reading 1, the teacher can have an engaging discussion about the topic of the reading. [For example, in a university-level class on second language acquisition, I would ask students: “Can you learn a language simply by watching TV and reading, but without talking to people?” to prepare them to read about the Interaction Hypothesis.] Students can translanguage in small groups but report their thoughts to the class in English during this previewing.
  • The teacher hands out Reading 1, which they will be working on in the next 1-2 classes. When all students have it, she leads students through a series of questions to determine what the structure of Reading 1 is, drawing their attention to the headers and macro-level organizing features. (still focusing)
  • The teacher directs students to the intro of Reading 1. She has a student read out a sentence or two, and after that, she focuses students’ attention on key aspects of the sentence(s). As they work through the intro, she then starts to ask comprehension-checking questions, identifying and unblocking key vocabulary. For example: “Look at the bold word. What does this mean?” “Where is X [that term we learned already]?” Or new concepts: “What does Y do to Z?” (As students respond to her questions, they are allowed to use other languages to discuss with their neighbors. Also, the teacher translanguages between everyday and academic English, or between languages, to give background information “just in time and just in need” and explain academic vocabulary that students encounter in the reading.)
  • As well as focusing students’ attention on key concept points in the intro, the teacher also identifies key language points: “Look at where it says Y does it to Z. Is it in the active or passive voice? Why do you think this is?” or “Why do you think that tense/modality is used?”
  • Once the teacher has done FIA, FIA, FIA enough with the intro of Reading 1, she moves on to the second section of Reading 1 and works students through that. Before students get tired, she assigns the rest of the reading for homework. To help them focus on key takeaways from the reading at the level of word, sentence, section, text, and genre, she creates a worksheet or graphic organizer. She uses Google translate for certain key terms on the worksheet that she would like students to focus on, and invites students to correct the translations next class if they are wrong. During class, she may model how they are to fill in this worksheet as they move through the reading—e.g., on the board, an overhead projector, etc.

FIE/A moves students fluidly up and down levels of discourse, from the most micro-level grammatical and lexical details to the author’s greater purpose and/or features of the genre. The same process occurs for the rest of the readings in the unit: students must be asked to focus on micro-level linguistic details as well as “big picture” features like the structure, purpose, and audience of each reading, how the author accomplishes the purpose, etc. The teacher must also make connections between these micro- and macro-level features: small linguistic details like grammar and word choices often reflect genre, purpose and audience. When students understand things, the teacher affirms the answers.

Moreover, after unpacking each reading, teachers must repack to give students productive as well as receptive language skills! Otherwise, students will only understand texts, but cannot speak or write about what they have learned. The worksheets and graphic organizers students filled in during each reading can then be used to compose extended pieces of speech or writing. There can be one short assignment per reading, then one longer assignment at the end of several readings incorporating the notes from all the readings.

Of course a “text” can also be something more multimodal like a movie or website, and FIE/A also works for these, but with modifications. For example, a teacher cannot stop a movie to ask a question about it every 5-10 seconds. Students may instead be provided with a worksheet that asks both micro- and macro-level questions about language and discourse, and the class can discuss the answers later. The worksheet should be tailored to the media: if students are browsing a website, which is mostly text, the worksheet may be similar to that for a written text; however, if students are watching a movie, a few open-ended questions that they need to collect information from the whole movie to answer might be appropriate, as they need to be allowed enough time to focus on the movie.

Translanguaging in “enrichment” assignments

Before Reading 1, there is a prepare/engage stage in which first languages (L1s) can be used to engage students in everyday discussion about the topic before it takes an academic turn. After all the readings are consolidated, there can be an extension activity to wrap up the unit. That is, the unit’s final assignment can be more creative and challenging than a straight-up essay: a speech, poster, kit, presentation, comic strip, play, or website. Students can translanguage orally to prepare to create these oral or written projects that are in English only — to brainstorm ideas, research content in many languages, and discuss how to phrase things in English. When it comes to discussion of how to phrase things, they must learn what is correct and appropriate, but also go beyond this to discuss issues of rhetoric (e.g., “how to design a catchy heading”). Such acitivites involve “rich tasks and high support—i.e. learning in the challenge zone” (Lin, p. 98, italics in original). Translanguaging (between languages, between registers of English, and between multimodalities) is used freely, but the formally assessed final product is in academic English.

Lin (p. 99) draws on Gibbons’ (2009, p. 152-158) pedagogy of designed scaffolding and learning to suggest how a larger unit might bridge all of students’ linguistic and schematic knowledge:

1. Programmes build on students’ prior knowledge and current language skills (e.g., L1/local languages and L2), while embracing new content and language goals;

2. Clear, explicit programme goals are shared with the students;

3. Tasks are sequenced so each task serves as the “building blocks” for subsequent tasks;

4. A variety of organizational structures are created: pair work, group work, individual work, teacher-directed whole-class work [because each offers linguistic input and interactional opportunities that the others do not];

5. Curriculum is amplified, not simplified—there is “message abundance” (key ideas are presented in different ways, using rhetorical strategies and genres, visuals and images, and academic and social practices as inquiry practices).


I end this post with two ways to visualize how to implement translanguaging in CLIL classes; you can choose which one suits you better. The first is from Rose (as cited in Lin, 2016, p. 95):

Rose (2013), Orbital Structure of a Learning Task

Students prepare to encounter a text, in any modality, through a motivating everyday discussion about the text’s topic — translanguaging based on their needs (e.g., multilingual, multimodal, and/or multi-register translanguaging). Then, the teacher uses FIA, FIA, FIA cycles on multiple levels to help them through the text, as they take notes or complete graphic organizers. Students then elaborate on that text, and possibly others, in their own products, which can be traditional or creative. At all these stages, translanguaging is used, but it may be invisible if you only look at the final products. However, one may argue that the final products can also involve a plurality of languages, registers, and modalities, and we need to create space for these in academic discourse (Canagarajah, 2011; Seltzer & Garcia, 2020; see also Lin’s Multimodalities-Entextualization cycle below).

Lin (2016), Language across the curriculum & CLIL in English as an Additional Language (EAL) contexts: Theory and practice (Multimodalities-Entextualization Cycle, p. 103)

This is the second graphic for “rich tasks and high support” pedagogy (Lin, 2016, p. 98). Note the importance of both parts of this cycle: Multimodality and Entextualization. Multimodality (translanguaging between local/global/written/oral/everyday/academic modes) is used to unpack academic discourse. In Entextualization, students must re-pack what they learned in their own way — individually or collaboratively, generating new knowledge for themselves and others. This is not just a regurgitation of material; they must sort out and re-present the knowledge at some higher level. Entextualization lets students develop productive (speaking/writing) skills, not just receptive (listening/reading) skills.

In closing, I want to share a quote from an abstract for a keynote speech by Lourdes Ortega, at the HKCPD 2021 conference:

findings from SLA [Second Language Acquisition] need a large amount of contextualization and critical professional translation before they can be of use in actual local classroom contexts. … But the best research is about generating knowledge without which we would see the world of language teaching differently. Like discovering that the earth is round, not flat. … [B]ut only when a delicate balance between idealism and pragmatism is struck.


Canagarajah, S. (2011). Codemeshing in academic writing: Identifying teachable strategies of translanguaging. The Modern Language Journal95(3), 401-417. https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1540-4781.2011.01207.x

Cummins, J. (1980/2001). The entry and exit fallacy in bilingual education. In C. Baker &
N. H. Hornberger (Eds.), An introductory reader to the writings of Jim Cummins
(pp. 110–138). Clevedon, UK: Multilingual Matters.

Duff, P. A. (2010). Language socialization into academic discourse communities. Annual Review of Applied Linguistics30, 169-192. https://doi.org/10.1017/S0267190510000048

Gibbons, P. (2009). English learners, academic literacy, and thinking: Learning in the challenge zone. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann.

Lin, A. M., & He, P. (2017). Translanguaging as dynamic activity flows in CLIL classrooms. Journal of Language, Identity & Education16(4), 228-244. https://doi.org/10.1080/15348458.2017.1328283

Mahboob, A. (2017). Understanding language variation: Implications of the NNEST lens for TESOL teacher education programs. In J. de Dios Martinez Agudo (Ed.), Native and non-native teachers in English language classrooms: Professional challenges and teacher education (pp. 13-32). Berlin, Germany: DeGruyter.

Ortega, L. (2021). Exploring teaching-research interfaces: A down-to-earth SLA perspective. Keynote speech at HKCPD Conference: Innovative teaching and research in English Language Education. https://hkcpdhub.hku.hk/conference2021/keynote-speakers

Roessingh, H., & Elgie, S. (2009). Early language and literacy development among young English language learners: Preliminary insights from a longitudinal study. TESL Canada Journal, 26(2), 24-45. https://doi.org/10.18806/tesl.v26i2.413

Rose, D. (2013). The potential of Detailed Reading for second language literacy [PowerPoint slides]. Seminar delivered at the Faculty of Education, The University of Hong Kong, January 22, 2013, Hong Kong.

Rose, D., & Martin, J. R. (2012). Learning to write, reading to learn: Genre, knowledge and pedagogy in the Sydney School. Sheffield, UK: Equinox.

Seltzer, K., & Garcia, O. (2020). Broadening the view: Taking up a translanguaging pedagogy with all language-minoritized students. In Z. Tian, L. Aghai, P. Sayer & J. Schissel (Eds.), Envisioning TESOL through a translanguaging lens: Global perspectives (pp. 23-42). Cham, Switzerland: Springer.

Published by annamend

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

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