Using translanguaging to teach vocabulary across the regional language, the national language, and English

In this week’s post, I summarize a single reading on pedagogical translanguaging for teaching vocabulary and morphological awareness across 3 languages. Why 3 languages? It is quite common for countries to have a three-level linguistic hierarchy: the regional/indigenous languages, the national language, and English. Therefore, this study by Leonet, Cenoz, and Gorter (2020) on how to use translanguaging to raise students’ awareness of word parts/combinations through trilingual translanguaging has fairly broad applications. Their strategies potentially let students develop vocabulary and metalinguistic skills across the 3 languages. The condition that must be met, however, is that all students know and share the regional language, the national language, and English. (Other situations exist… for translanguaging in heterogeneous classes with no clear linguistic majority, see this post. For translanguaging strategies in a class with a linguistic majority plus some minority students and/or sole speakers of their languages, see this post.)

Leonet, O., Cenoz, J., & Gorter, D. (2020). Developing morphological awareness across languages: Translanguaging pedagogies in third language acquisition. Language Awareness, 29(1), 41-59.

“…activation of previous linguistic knowledge can influence morphological awareness” (p. 41) in a language you are learning. But do the languages have to be related? For example, can this work between Basque, Spanish, and English, which all come from distinct language families? Basque/Euskara, a regional language in Spain, is not a Romance language like Italian, French, and Spanish; it is the last “survivor” of its line, with no close relatives. Spanish and English are both Indo-European, but belong to different branches, Romance and Germanic.

Not to worry! According to the authors (pp. 44-45), despite their typological distance, all three languages share some vocabulary from Latin and Greek, and hence they share prefixes and suffixes. More importantly—and here is the relevant message for any other country with a three-level language hierarchy—due to modern contact and language mixing, the national language (in this case, Spanish) has influenced the regional minority language (in this case, Basque) and borrowed many words from English (the global lingua franca). English has likewise borrowed many words from Spanish (and many global national languages). Of course, because any languages that are spoken in the same region have had a history of contact, there will be word borrowings between them. This is the basis of teaching vocabulary and morphological awareness across the languages.

In this study, the researchers first discuss why vocabulary and morphological awareness are important for developing reading skills. Second, they explain how translanguaging can help develop this knowledge. Third, they describe their pedagogical experiment (what they did in 5th and 6th grade classrooms), and report the results both in terms of test scores and students’ feedback on how they liked the lessons.

Vocabulary and morphological awareness

Vocabulary and morphological awareness have been closely related to reading comprehension (e.g., Pasquarella, Chen, Lam, Luo, & Ramirez, 2011). Why? Nation (2008), a famous scholar of vocabulary learning, “explains that word part analysis is one of the most effective vocabulary strategies because it involves recognition of the parts of the word, the ability to attach a relevant meaning to the most useful of those parts and the ability to relate the meaning of word parts to the whole word” (Leonet et al., 2020, p. 42). Morphological awareness is key to figuring out the meaning of words you don’t know, which helps you comprehend and keep reading, rather than becoming confused and giving up. This is why it is important to teach students how to guess unknown words using familiar morphemes.

But does morphological awareness transfer across languages, or is it language-specific? Research reviewed in this paper shows that it transfers across languages. For example, Ke and Xiao (2015), found a relationship between morphological awareness and reading subskills like lexical inferencing, decoding, spelling and word identification between Chinese and English. Zhang (2016) found that teaching English derivation to students in Singapore had a positive effect on both English and Malay morphological awareness and word reading tasks. Lyster, Quiroga, and Ballinger (2013) found that students in an experimental group outperformed the control group in a study that raised morphological awareness in English and French. Therefore, learning word analysis skills in a language can help you in that language in particular, but in other languages as well.

How translanguaging can help develop vocabulary and morphological awareness, leading to reading skill improvement

Leonet, Cenoz and Gorter describe pedagogical translangauging as “the designed instructional strategies that integrate two or more languages” (p. 43). In another article, Cenoz and Gorter (2017) describe different types of pedagogical translanguaging strategies, such as using input and output in different languages (based on Cen Williams’ work in Wales during the 1990s that is the earliest known work on translanguaging), translation, comparing language structures and derivational morphology, and using cognates like immediato, immediately, and immédiatement. Scholars like Jim Cummins have also done this kind of work, e.g., “Cummins and Persad (2014, p. 18) advocate for pedagogies that integrate students’ background knowledge so as to incorporate new knowledge in previously acquired structures or schemata” (as cited in Leonet, Cenoz, & Gorter, 2020, p. 44).

Hopefully, students will be able to relate word formation in the language(s) they know better to the languages they know less. This can involve positive L1-L2 transfer; however, the language(s) they know better for word analysis may in fact be L2/L3, because these are what they have been schooled in (rather than the first language, L1). In any case, it may not be so important to identify the directionality of the language transfer as to harness multi-directional transfer, which has been shown to work even between typologically different languages (see Ke & Xiao, 2015; Pasquarella et al., 2011).

In this study, Leonet et al.’s research questions (p. 45) were:

  1. Do translanguaging pedagogies across three languages influence students’ morphological awareness?
  2. Do translanguaging pedagogies across three languages influence students’ perception of their multilingual repertoire?

To investigate this, they used a mixed-methods design involving both quantitative (numerical) and qualitative (verbal) data.

The study

The study took place among 104 students (5th and 6th grades) in an elementary school in the Basque autonomous region of Spain, where Basque was the medium of instruction. Language classes amounted to 11 hours per week: 4 for Basque, 4 for Spanish, and 3 for English. Participants declared Spanish (51.9%), Basque (26.9%) or both Basque and Spanish (21.2%) as their mother tongue. Because Basque was the language of instruction at school and Spanish the dominant language in the wider society, the children reported being more proficient in these languages than in English, on a scale of 1 to 10.

Leonet, Cenoz, & Gorter (2020), p. 45

The intervention (experiment) lasted 12 weeks. Students were divided into the experimental group (3 classes totaling 64 students) and control group (2 classes totaling 40 students). In the control group’s Basque, Spanish, and English classes, students learned in the target language only. In the experimental group’s Basque, Spanish, and English classes, translanguaging for morphological awareness was taught 40-50% of the time. However, both groups of classes followed the same course syllabi, topics, and language structures. These were some of the pedagogical activities in the experimental classes:

  • Look at pictures of different shops, discuss the type of shop, and write down the names in different languages, comparing similarities and differences, e.g., librudenda, librería, bookstore.
  • Read a text in English and identify cognates in Basque and/or Spanish.
  • Use two or more languages in the input and output following the original translanguaging activities from Wales (Lewis, Jones, & Baker, 2012).
  • At the discourse level, analyze the structure of a text in one language, and then write descriptions following the same structure in the other two languages.

The authors collected three types of data. First, they measured how well students did on a Morphological Awareness Test adapted from Quiroga (2013) and validated by Lyster et al. (2013). The test had two parts. Part one was about morpheme identification (dividing words into root, prefix, and/or suffix). For example, students saw this:

Sportsman can be divided like this: sports/man

…and were asked to divide 5-10 additional words:

teacher, swimmer, surprising, enjoyable, mindful, dangerous.

The second part of the test was about compounding. This task was harder, as they had to come up with new words by compounding known ones. A question might look like:

My sister is always ready to help. She is very ……………….

As well as administering this test, the researchers administered a Translanguaging Questionnaire to ask students how they felt about the activities. There were 9 questions which students had to rate from 1 (strongly disagree) to 10 (strongly agree).

Leonet, Cenoz, & Gorter (2020), p. 48

Finally, the researchers assigned the 104 students to 12 focus groups conducted in Basque, even though students c0uld translanguage if they chose. The focus groups asked two questions (students were given these questions beforehand and asked to write down their answers to prepare for the 10-minute group interview):

  1. You’ve been working with more than one language at the same time; have you learnt more or less this way?
  2. When you look at two or more languages at the same time, do you see more or fewer similarities between them?


Let’s start with the test scores. Similar to another study, the test results show that (1) translanguaging pedagogy does not lead to drastic differences in test scores between experimental and control groups, (2) translanguaging pedagogy does not appear to harm the experimental group’s scores, and (3) there is modest evidence that translanguaging helps the experimental group’s scores.

The tests in Leonet et al.’s study were administered twice, before and after the intervention (“pre-test” and “post-test”). The groups were compared by measuring their improvement across the two tests. Here is a summary of the results.

Morpheme IdentificationCompounding
ControlObtained higher scores on 7 out of 7 items on the post-test; however, no scores were statistically significant, which means these higher scores could have occurred by chanceObtained higher scores in 5 of the 9 items on the post-test, but no items were statistically significant, meaning they could have occurred by chance
ExperimentalObtained higher scores on 5 out of 7 items on the post-test; 2 items were statistically significant and 1 was marginally significantObtained higher scores on 5 out of 9 items on the post-test, 3 of which were statistically significant
Summarized from Leonet, Cenoz, & Gorter (2020), pp. 49-52

Remember, any morpheme instruction, whether monolingual or translingual, is likely to help students “get the answer” on tests. The takeaway here is that translanguaging seems not to harm, and the improved results are only statistically significant for the experimental group (even though the control group did slightly better on Part 1 of the test and the groups performed equally on Part 2). A greater number of test items might have refined these findings, but since the students were very young, administering a long test might not have been feasible.

Where translanguaging seemed to yield the most benefits was in attitudes towards learning and engagement in what was being taught in the language classes. Here were the student responses to the questionnaire (1=strongly disagree; 10=strongly agree).

Leonet, Cenoz, & Gorter (2020), p. 53

As you can see, students felt the 3 typologically unrelated languages were more similar than different (Q1), and disagreed that it was confusing to learn them at the same time (Q2). They strongly agreed that they could learn more when the languages were used in the same class, that it was helpful to analyze them together to promote understanding, and that it made it easier to distinguish word parts (Qs 3-5). They disagreed with learning them separately (Q6), preferred to learn them all at once (Q7), liked translanguaging (Q8), and found it fun (Q9). Key here is the fact that students “enjoy using resources from other languages [that they know] in pedagogical translanguaging” (p. 52), which validates and honors this prior knowledge.

The focus groups also revealed how Students 9, 7, and 16 felt they were better able to make connections between what was learned in the three classes (pp. 53-54):

Leonet, Cenoz, & Gorter (2020), p. 53-54

Two themes stand out here. First, as Students 9 and 7 mention, the class can now handle more challenging material because they are not restricted to the level of their weakest language. Second, Student 16 mentions that because connections are made between the languages, concepts are not easily forgotten… as they would be if they were only taught in an isolated fashion in one class.

Moreover, one student, Student 59, was also able to explain how he/she made sense of compounds in English and Basque, which are both head-final (e.g., kortxo-KENTZEKO or corkSCREW), in contrast to Spanish, which is head-initial (e.g., SACAcorchos) (p. 42):

Leonet, Cenoz, & Gorter (2020), p. 54

Therefore, the children found the intervention both enjoyable and useful. The authors admit that the pedagogical intervention correlated with test scores only mildly because of many other mitigating factors—e.g., “as participants in this study are students in the fifth and sixth years of primary school, it is likely that they have already developed some skills of decomposing words due to their exposure to orthographic representation [i.e., spelling and writing]” (p. 55). As for the motivational impact of translanguaging, if students feel enthusiastic about cross-linguistic comparisons, it is likely that they will pay more attention in class. The children clearly preferred working with languages together rather than separately.

Even more importantly, the translanguaging intervention seems to have influenced students’ perception of the distance between the languages. Instead of seeing them as hindrances to one another, they saw each language as assets to learning the others. This, in turn, could make them more resourceful in drawing on these similarities in the future. The authors conclude:

Our findings imply that more opportunities for cross-linguistic connections should be made in language teaching. … Softening boundaries between languages and acknowledging the resources multilingual students bring to the classroom by using translanguaging pedagogies can have an important potential in all areas of language teaching including morphological awareness. (p. 57)


Cenoz, J., & Gorter, D. (2017). Translanguaging as a pedagogical tool in multilingual education. In J. Cenoz, D. Gorter & S. May (Eds.), Encyclopedia of language and education 3rd ed. (pp. 1–14). Cham, Switzerland: Springer.

Cummins, J., & Persad, R. (2014). Teaching through a multilingual lens: The evolution of EAL policy and practice in Canada. Education Matters: The Journal of Teaching and Learning, 2(1), 4-40.

Ke, S., & Xiao, F. (2015). Cross-linguistic transfer of morphological awareness between Chinese and English. Language Awareness24(4), 355–380.

Lewis, G., Jones, B., & Baker, C. (2012). Translanguaging: Origins and development from school to street and beyond. Educational Research and Evaluation18(7), 641–654.

Lyster, R., Quiroga, J., & Ballinger, S. (2013). The effects of biliteracy instruction on morphological awareness. Journal of Immersion and Content-Based Language Education1(2), 169–197.

Nation, P. (2008). Lexical awareness in second language learning. In J. Cenoz & N. H. Hornberger (Eds.), Encyclopedia of language and education 2nd ed. (pp. 1924–1934). Boston, MA: Springer US.

Pasquarella, A., Chen, X., Lam, K., Luo, Y. C., & Ramirez, G. (2011). Cross-language transfer of morphological awareness in Chinese–English bilinguals. Journal of Research in Reading34(1), 23–42.

Quiroga, J. (2013). Measuring morphological awareness across languages. Master’s Thesis, McGill University. Montreal, QC: Canada.

Zhang, D. (2016). Morphology in Malay–English biliteracy acquisition: An intervention study. International Journal of Bilingual Education and Bilingualism19(5), 546–562.

Published by annamend

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

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