What do pre-service teachers need to know to teach linguistically diverse classes? Is it theoretical or practical?

An insightful study by Birello, Llompart-Esbert, & Moore (2021) shows that young people training to be primary or secondary teachers generally have positive attitudes towards multilingualism, living in the 21st century and knowing multiple languages to varying degrees. But when they start thinking about TEACHING, or picturing themselves in front of a linguistically diverse class, their attitudes towards linguistic diversity suddenly become negative, helpless, or “no can do.” Why do these attitudes suddenly change when a pre-service teacher prepares to enter the field, and how can teacher education better prepare that person professionally, with stronger connections between theory and practice, which pre-service teachers often directly ask for (p. 597-598)? In this post, I first summarize Birello et al.’s study (2021), then a book published 20 years earlier (Faltis, 2001) that makes the necessary theory-practice connections.

Birello, M., Llompart-Esbert, J., & Moore, E. (2021). Being plurilingual versus becoming a linguistically sensitive teacher: Tensions in the discourse of initial teacher education students. International Journal of Multilingualism, 1-15. Early view. https://doi.org/10.1080/14790718.2021.1900195

This study took place in a pre-service teacher education class in Spain for people in their early to mid-20s. It consisted of an individual written reflection, followed by a focus group discussion that was audio-recorded and analyzed using discourse analysis methods. The researchers investigate why, despite positive attitudes towards multilingualism, young teachers who are themselves multilingual suddenly express negative attitudes towards multilingualism when they are faced with the scenario, real or imagined, of teaching a class of 20 or 30 linguistically diverse students.

The authors begin by explaining how “teachers are key to challenging monolingual mindsets and ideologies and to implementing mainstream multi/plurilingual pedagogies” (pp. 586-587). Therefore, their training is of the utmost importance, yet many pre-service teachers still feel under-trained for linguistic diversity (Llompart & Moore, 2020), and Spain is no exception. What these researchers investigated was the disconnect between positive ideologies about multilingualism that pre-service teachers drew on from their personal lives… and negative, “it’s impossible!”, “no can do” attitudes towards multilingualism when they were positioned as K-12 teachers. 

Silverstein (1979) defines language ideologies as “sets of beliefs about language articulated… as a rationalization or justification of perceived language structure and use” (p. 193). This means that people hold beliefs (not facts) about what language structures are used in certain situations, whether or not they should be used in those situations, and why. Irvine (1989) extended the social and political implications of this, defining language ideology as “the cultural system of ideas about social and linguistic relationships, together with their loading of moral or political interests” (p. 255). That is, we have beliefs (which we can mistake for facts) about who is socially, linguistically, or culturally related or unrelated, and with all these beliefs come moral messages and political interests. Woolard (2020) points out that language ideologies are not only mental constructs in our heads; they also appear in our physical practices (like who we sit next to or chat with on the first day of class), our dispositions and gestures (like whether we speak loudly or quietly in a language that is not the official classroom language), and in material and visual representations (for example, which languages are more or less represented in public signs in a “global” university).

When it comes to teachers’ language ideologies, Young (2014) argues that “we cannot move towards plurilingual, inclusive education without fully understanding the obstacles which are preventing its implementation. Therefore, it is important to listen to the voices of teachers and necessary to investigate and question teachers’ language ideologies” (p. 168). Kroskrity (2000) explains that teachers have a set of language ideologies regarding what it means to be a professional or unprofessional teacher, and these can impact their views about plurilingualism in the classroom. In this study, the researchers investigated what ideologies pre-service teachers had about plurilingualism in the teaching profession, comparing these to ideologies about plurilingualism when their teacher identities were not evoked. 

Research (e.g., Arocena Egaña, Cenoz, & Gorter, 2015; De Angelis, 2011) has confirmed what common sense would tell us: teachers, like everyone else in society, support multilingualism because of an intuition that knowing languages can enable communication with people from other cultures, and it is important to maintain our own cultures and languages. However, teachers also feel guilt when students use non-target-languages in the classroom, because they believe it may delay or impair learning the target language [see this other post on why this isn’t so and why they should instead fear something else], and hence they may try to restrict translanguaging.


In this study, which was part of a much larger project called LISTiac (Linguistically Sensitive Teaching in all classrooms) that involved nine universities and three ministries of education, the teacher educator (Birello) and her colleagues Moore and Llompart-Esbert (a LISTiac researcher) had pre-service teachers do an activity to raise their language awareness. There were about 70 pre-service teachers who came from two university classes, and all were aged 20-22, in an undergraduate teacher preparation program. Almost all were born in Catalonia, the region of Spain where this study took place, and the only two who were not had arrived at an early age. Unsurprisingly, the pre-service teachers were all trilingual in Catalan, Spanish, and English, but didn’t seem to have much knowledge of other languages. In fact, the findings about the language ideologies of a group of fairly linguistically and culturally homogeneous students from the cultural mainstream, young and with relatively little professional experience, echo the findings in another study by Al-Bataineh and Gallagher (2018) in the United Arab Emirates.

The activity was simple: students had to do a SWOT analysis (Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities, Threats) about language diversity in the classrooms where they would be teaching. They first had to do this individually, for homework, and then when they came to class they were divided into groups of 5-6 and had to prepare a collective SWOT document on the same theme. Thus, there were 10 small group discussions and two whole class discussions, which were video- or audio-recorded for transcription and discourse analysis. In this article, the researchers translate transcriptions from Catalan and Spanish. They analyzed not only explicit comments about languages and language teaching/learning, but implicit ideologies that emerged in the interactions.


When it came to discussing plurilingualism as an ideal, students drew on their personal experiences as middle-class members of the linguistic and cultural mainstream. They saw “being plurilingual and plurilingual competence as assets necessary for being an open-minded, flexible, and tolerant citizen today” and “the economic and linguistic context present[ing] opportunities for language learning” (p. 590). All this reflected neoliberal logics and the elite forms of plurilingualism they had grown up with—learning the prestigious languages of Europe and speaking the standard variety of one of these languages, Spanish, as native speakers. They felt a sense of pride in knowing languages; “for them, this repertoire is an asset when presenting themselves outside… their own context” (p. 591). They also recognized that there were important connections between language and culture, and who would want to forget their culture, or not want to learn about other cultures? (see dialogues on pp. 590-592)

At some point, they also discussed more instrumental purposes for learning languages, for example, their having to learn English or immigrants having to learn Catalan and/or Spanish to get a job in Catalonia. They realized this wasn’t necessarily voluntary language learning, but still important. As teachers teaching immigrant students, they felt some responsibility for their students’ success in learning Catalan and/or Spanish and their socioeconomic mobility. In other words, “the economic/job market situation means that newcomers have to (obligatory) make an effort to reach a certain level of Catalan or Spanish… and that the pre-service teachers need to have competence in English” (p. 593). Access to local, national, and global languages perceived as mainstream is related to material and economic well-being, and discourses of “you have to speak Catalan/Spanish here” and “you have to learn English as the international language” meant that these languages were languages of access, whereas other languages were not so much. (see dialogues on pp. 591-593)

Now none of this touches on what it means to be a teacher—these are the conversations anyone can have, regardless of whether they are in a teacher preparation program, and they are quite universal; I can see middle-class university students coming up with similar focus group comments virtually anywhere in the world.

When the SWOT analysis asked the students to position themselves as future teachers, the comments took quite a negative turn, reflecting monolingual ideologies and taken-for-granted school language policies and practices. Interestingly, the pre-service teachers did not only see language limitations in their students, but in themselves, and these reflected each other. In the following dialogue, Ferran points out that they do not speak all the immigrant students’ languages, even though they do speak Catalan, English, and Spanish, and so he wonders what he can do as a teacher:

Birello et al. (2021), p. 594

The researchers explain: “there is an elite plurilingualism which [the pre-service teachers] associated with when positioning themselves as speakers and world citizens, but there is another type of plurilingualism—that of some students in the schools the pre-service teachers imagine themselves working in—that is not shared by them. In the second case, plurilingualism represents a limitation for them as teachers” (p. 594). In another focus group with Joan and Maria, the young women were concerned about what they saw to be an insurmountable language barrier (pp. 594-595):

In lines 1-4, Joan expresses the belief that without a common language, not even English, there is no possibility of reaching understanding. She sees English as the lingua franca that allows communication in global scenarios, if no other languages are shared. In actual practice, she may discover that the students probably know more English, and Catalan and Spanish, than she expected, and that understanding can be bridged with a variety of strategies, from gestures to the language brokers she mentions. (Language repertoires do not need to overlap as much as she thinks, and people do not need to select a single code, either, as “it is people, not language codes, that understand one another”; Bamgbose, as cited in Vettorel, 2016, p. 127.) 

Maria continues the negative construction of the situation by mentioning that not having a common language prevents conflict resolution, and makes it difficult to transmit ideas and knowledge to children (ll. 8-9). The ideologies that surface are that people must speak the same language (implicitly, the societally dominant one) to avoid conflict, instead of simply being considerate of one another, and that education follows a knowledge transmission model rather than a negotiation of mutual understanding. “Therefore, there is a shift in the pre-service teachers’ language ideologies: from a positive vision as plurilingual speakers of valued languages to a negative vision as teachers who have to deal with other kinds of plurilingualism” (p. 595). They are in fact quite similar to English monolingual teachers who have little tolerance beyond the linguistic mainstream (themselves), whether that mainstream is monolingual or bi/multilingual.

These feelings of frustration, fear, worry, insecurity and desperation along with the idea of facing linguistically diverse classes became increasingly real to the pre-service teachers who were just transitioning from school to their very first workplace:

Birello et al. (2021), p. 596

As Patricia explains that they are not trained to teach so many newcomers, a complaint against the university program, she turns to the camera—representing their professors—while she says they are not trained for this, although they would like to be. Next, Olga and Miriam say that there is a difference between receiving one immigrant student and ten, i.e., it is much harder for them to teach if there are ten (but does that mean you ignore the student if you receive one?). Then, Patricia imagines herself in the classroom with three out of 25 students being immigrants not fluent in the dominant language(s), and says quite dramatically, “what do you do / (.) do you throw yourself out the window?” (l. 11). This shows the extent of her and her classmates’ worries about their teaching practice. “When the students imagine themselves as teachers in diverse classrooms, monolingual ideologies appear—since their possibilities of communication depend on [their belief in the necessity of] the same language being shared [instead of working together to find overlapping resources and build bridges]—and the idea of plurilingualism is reconsidered” (pp. 596-597). Interestingly, the researchers admitted that

there are many instances when pre-service teachers try to give a justification about why they are not prepared to be linguistically sensitive teachers. Most of the time they refer to a lack of practical resources being given to them during their ITE [Initial Teacher Education] that would help them to manage linguistically diverse students. … [T]hey consider that, in order to learn how to deal with linguistic diversity, they need to have some practice at it, since theory is not enough in this regard. (p. 597) 

In another dialogue, Olga and Paula considered that maybe teaching in a private school with “mainstream” students only (as private schools would screen out anyone with academic challenges of any sort) would be easy, but would not give them the tools and competencies to be better teachers who could teach diverse students (p. 597). Therefore, the pre-service teachers had a sense that they had a lot to learn and it would be good if they could learn it. On the other hand—and this is the study’s very insightful contribution to knowledge—the only positive ideologies surrounding multilingualism that these pre-service teachers had were neoliberal, elitist forms of “banal cosmopolitanism” (Beck, 2004) that proved useless as pedagogical tools when they had to face the forms of multilingualism and diversity in gritty classroom situations. Birello et al. highlight that “[the pre-service teachers’] complaint about lack of practical resources and experience in multilingual settings is key to understanding their needs. … Moreover, to respond to pre-service teachers’ expressed needs, deeper connections between more theoretical and more practical training should be made in order to help them transform the resources they have into practical teaching tools for multilingual classrooms” (p. 598). 

What practical tools might these teachers need, which connect theory and practice?

Faltis, C. (2001). Joinfostering: Teaching and learning in multilingual classrooms (3rd ed.). Merrill Prentice Hall.

The five principles of joinfostering, which Faltis introduces on p. 3 of his book with that title, can be represented on a gamut (see my diagram below). On one end of the gamut, there are uncontroversial, student-centered practices that no teacher would disagree with. On the other end, there is the much more controversial, sociopolitically aware “critical language awareness” stances that not all teachers fully adopt.

What is interesting about these principles is how fundamentally different principles 1, 2, and 3 would be in the presence (or absence) of principles 4 and 5. Therefore, the teachers who embrace 1-3 without embracing 4-5 are teaching in a fundamentally different way from the teachers who embrace all five principles. Let’s examine why.

When it comes to the first three principles, (1) active participation of all students; (2) everyone is socially integrated to foster active participation; and (3) the activities that people participate in involve language learning integrated into content activities, Faltis sees participation as a given right, regardless of how proficient students are in the dominant societal language(s). That is, everyone should be helped to participate as actively as they can, and sincerely encouraged by teachers and peers whenever they do so… (i) whether that participation is more receptive than productive (e.g., understanding a question and participating in a “hands up” vote; see Haneda, 2009), (ii) whether the student responds in a mix of languages and has a classmate interpret for the teacher, who nods and thanks both students for the contribution, and (iii) even if the response is expressed imperfectly, with hesitations and false starts, in the target language, again with the teacher showing appreciation of the contribution (and perhaps shushing others who are not listening or interrupting).

But if teachers treat students who aren’t fluent in the official classroom language(s) like uninvited guests, or expect them to have the oral fluency to “compete for the floor” (i.e., to insert themselves into conversation without assistance), the teachers are creating inequities, whether or not they are doing so on purpose (Duff, 2002; Yoon, 2008). Harper, Coady, and De Jong (2016) criticize teachers whose adaptations for language learners are never pre-planned or organized, but always spontaneous—as if these teachers cannot be bothered to do anything about the students’ challenges in advance, but only adapt when miscommunication occurs or lack of understanding is shown. Instead of providing multimodal aids or footnote glosses/explanations on handouts, or thinking how to organize lectures clearly with graphic organizers students can fill in to follow the talk in a logical way (all teaching strategies that benefit the whole class), these teachers just try to explain things spontaneously when second language learners look confused. When students are in mixed ability groups, and some students are quiet because of language barriers, these teachers shrug it off as the nature of things. They also don’t explicitly explain language points, expecting students to guess them from context, or absorb the language knowledge naturally. Nor do these teachers avoid or explain cultural references that might be unfamiliar, or make any effort to include cultural content in the class that doesn’t belong to the dominant group.

If principles 1-3 are met, with plenty of student-centered learning, and integration of language and content activities, but linguistically minoritized students are treated like “uninvited guests” (Yoon, 2008), for example, there is no effort to draw on any languages but English in the U.S. when language and content are being learned together, or no effort to draw on any languages but English and Chinese in Hong Kong when language and content are being learned together… and yet the teacher expects everyone to orally participate and work in groups all the time for student-centered learning, then the teaching method is fundamentally different than when teachers are doing principles 1-3 with principles 4-5, providing supports for linguistically minoritized students and helping them participate fully and actively. These teachers see these students’ linguistic and cultural knowledge from an asset-oriented perspective; they view such knowledges as resources for learning… not as “irrelevant,” or worse, as preventing these students (and their families and communities) from learning or adapting to the dominant culture and society. In other words, if teachers only embrace the uncontroversial aspects of joinfostering without the critical aspects, the classroom interactions will play out in a totally different way than if the teachers embrace all five principles of the method.

Next, here’s the link between theory and practice that Birello et al.’s (2021) students were asking for. Numerous classroom-based studies have found that certain collaborative talk patterns support effective learning (principles 1-3). Student learning occurs when an experienced teacher has mastered a “pedagogical” way of speaking. But these pedagogical ways of speaking can also occur in small-group interactions (Faltis, 2001, pp. 147-152):

  • orienting others to the task and purpose
  • asking follow-up questions, focusing questions, and checking questions
  • sharing information
  • correcting others’ errors of language and understanding (but being judicious as to which ones to correct, and letting others go)
  • repairing miscommunication and sustaining conversation
  • summarizing/synthesizing what others have said, to show one is listening to others, but also recasting what others say in more “academic” or discipline-specific ways.

Now, going back to how principles 1-3 are empty without principles 4-5, all these positive interpersonal dynamics that facilitate learning cannot arise for all students in the class unless the class as a whole believes that everyone has the right to participate without having to prove themselves in any way first. And when the teacher models how to scaffold learning in whole-class discussions that invite everyone to participate and integrate language and content learning systematically, in both planned and spontaneous ways (principles 1-3), and also shows positive attitudes towards bi/multilingualism and expanded understandings of what counts as “educated” literacy practices (principles 4-5), the teacher does NOT necessarily need to speak students’ languages or be familiar with all students’ cultures, or do more than minimal key word/phrase translations on course handouts using Google translate, because students will do the small-group pedagogical talk themselves to help one another out, acting as translators and language brokers with deep and mutual respect, as shown in the classes of Mr. Brown (Woodley & Brown, 2016), Ms. Rosewall (Linares, 2019), Ms. Winter (Seltzer & Garcia, 2020) and Ms. Cheung (Lin, 2016)—see these four studies that I have blogged about with all the “practical” strategies for how joinfostering-type pedagogies can be done in primary, middle, and secondary education, in general ESL classes, and for specific subjects like social studies, language arts, or science.

 “You can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make it drink”… the factor required for students to drink, that is, to participate bravely and fully in collaborative learning activities even if they are less linguistically proficient in the classroom language, or to include others if they are more proficient in this language, is a strong sense of classroom community. Building that strong sense of community is necessary for the less linguistically proficient students to feel more confident, and for the linguistically stronger students to be humbled by the fact that they are not really more competent, but boosted by certain factors (e.g., working in their first language, being familiar with the cultural topics). This makes everyone interact with two moral principles: interdependence and accountability. They have to wait patiently for one another to get their words out, listen to one another, invite one another to contribute, check understanding with one another, be willing to share their thoughts even if these are half-finished or it is a struggle to articulate them in words that classmates understand, and be willing to re-attempt this (or invite a peer to attempt this) even if past attempts did not work so well. Hence the name “joinfostering.

Once you have experienced joinfostering firsthand in a fully inclusive classroom community (where every learner was included, valued, and inspired to be confident and do their best in that setting), you will understand the teaching philosophy and never look back. What seemed previously impossible and over-idealistic becomes doable and a professional responsibility. Even if “standard” language ideologies and elite plurilingualism are associated with teacher professionalism, K-12 teachers like Mr. Brown, Ms. Rosewall, Ms. Winter, and Ms. Cheung, who reject these ideologies and teach for plurilingualism with empathy, intentionality, and expertise are more, not less, professional teachers.


Arocena Egaña, E., Cenoz, J., & Gorter, D. (2015). Teachers’ beliefs in multilingual education in the Basque country and in Friesland. Journal of Immersion and Content-Based Language Education, 3(2), 169–193. https://doi.org/10.1075/jicb.3.2.01aro

Coady, M. R., Harper, C., & De Jong, E. J. (2016). Aiming for equity: Preparing mainstream teachers for inclusion or inclusive classrooms? TESOL Quarterly50(2), 340-368. https://doi.org/10.1002/tesq.223

De Angelis, G. (2011). Teachers’ beliefs about the role of prior language knowledge in learning and how these influence teaching practices. International Journal of Multilingualism, 8(3), 216-234. https://doi.org/10.1080/14790718.2011.560669

Duff, P. A. (2002). Pop culture and ESL students: Intertextuality, identity, and participation in classroom discussionsJournal of Adolescent & Adult Literacy45(6), 482-487.

Haneda, M. (2009). Learning about the past and preparing for the future: A longitudinal investigation of a grade 7 ‘sheltered’ social studies class. Language and Education23(4), 335-352. https://doi.org/10.1080/09500780902954265

Irvine, J. T. (1989). When talk isn’t cheap: Language and political economy. American Ethnologist, 16(2), 248-267. https://doi.org/10.1525/ae.1989.16.2.02a00040

Kroskrity, P. (2000). Language ideologies in the expression and representation of Arizona Tewa identity. In P. Kroskrity (Ed.), Regimes of language: Ideologies, polities, and identities (pp. 329-359). School of American Research Press.

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

Linares, R. E. (2019). Meaningful writing opportunities: Write‐alouds and dialogue journaling with newcomer and English learner high schoolers. Journal of Adolescent & Adult Literacy62(5), 521-530. https://doi.org/10.1002/jaal.932

Llompart, J., & Moore, E. (2020). La reflexión para la didáctica lingüísticamente inclusiva. Textos de Didácitca de la Lengua y la Literatura, 88, 55-60.

Seltzer, K., & García, 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). Springer.

Silverstein, M. (1979). Language structure and linguistic ideology. In P. Clyne, W. F. Hanks, & C. L. Hofbauer (Eds.), The elements: A parasession on linguistic units and levels (pp. 193–247). Chicago Linguistic Society.

Vettorel, P. (2016). WE-and ELF-informed classroom practices: Proposals from a pre-service teacher education programme in Italy. Journal of English as a Lingua Franca5(1), 107- 133. https://doi.org/10.1515/jelf-2016-0005

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). Routledge.

Woolard, K. A. (2020). Linguistic ideologies. In J. M. Stanlaw (Ed.), The international encyclopedia of linguistic anthropology (pp. 1–21). John Wiley & Sons, Inc.

Yoon, B. (2008). Uninvited guests: The influence of teachers’ roles and pedagogies on the positioning of English language learners in the regular classroom. American Educational Research Journal45(2), 495-522. https://doi.org/10.3102/0002831208316200

Young, A. (2014). Unpacking teachers’ language ideologies: Attitudes, beliefs, and practiced language policies in schools in Alsace, France. Language Awareness, 23(1-2), 157-171. https://doi.org/10.1080/09658416.2013.863902

Published by annamend

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

One thought on “What do pre-service teachers need to know to teach linguistically diverse classes? Is it theoretical or practical?

Comments are closed.

%d bloggers like this: