Translanguaging research by/with/for teachers: How might it ideally be done?

This week’s post summarizes what may be the oldest article I’ve ever summarized on the blog: “Research on Teaching and Teacher Research: The Issues that Divide” (Cochran-Smith & Lytle, 1990). What strikes me about this article is that 30+ years on, nothing has changed! Here, I summarize this short 10-page paper about research in primary and secondary education. My friend Huy is a fan of Cochran-Smith, and I can see why; the paper’s argument boils down to two points to support equity for teachers in educational research: (1) For ethic’s sake, start with what teachers want to know/investigate, and (2) To make a real theoretical contribution—that is, one that is valuable to both teachers and researchers—create research questions that deal with the gap between what was intended and what happened. At the end of this post, I briefly summarize several studies of this kind in the area of translanguaging.

Cochran-Smith and Lytle begin by describing teachers as “disenfranchised” by academic circles (p. 2). They describe two main research paradigms (or types of research) in education, which continue until today. One is the positivist/experimental paradigm, most classically a pretest-posttest classroom experiment, in which an educational intervention thought up by academic researchers is shown to raise at least some scores on the posttest and the teacher is positioned as a technician (Apple, 1986). The other kind is interpretivist research, where an ethnographer comes in and reports on what went on in the class, collecting much of the same “naturalistic” data that the teacher might desire to collect themselves—interviews, recordings of classroom talk, artifacts like student work—to see how that can inform teaching. Unfortunately, this kind of research still concerns itself with questions that the academy cares about more than teachers, and findings remain framed and mediated through researchers’ perspectives.

What is missing from both these kinds of research “are the voices of the teachers themselves, the questions that teachers ask, and the interpretive frames that teachers use to understand and improve their own classroom practices” (p. 3). [And if you want a good example of what that looks like with regard to translanguaging-type pedagogy, read the beautiful opening paragraphs of Christian Faltis’ 2000 book Joinfostering, where a hypothetical young teacher named Julia is shocked by the diversity of names on her class register—tons of questions, and worries, swirl in her mind—but then she gathers herself together, promising to take care of these children. This book is 20+ years old, but it’s 100% relevant today and its insights are equal to those in 10 hot-off-the-press books. And Faltis recently got a Lifetime Achievement Award for his contributions to education.]

Cochran-Smith and Lytle mention the work of someone named Lawrence Stenhouse, who wrote a book called Authority, Education and Emancipation (1983). Stenhouse was an academic researcher who established a Center for Applied Research in Education in the University of East Anglia, UK, in 1970, in order to “demystify and democratize” research so that it would lead to more improvements in teaching practice (p. 3). When it comes to “the issues that divide” (see the article’s title), one of these is that the information gained from research by teachers is not the high status information attained through the traditional modes of inquiry. What then, does teacher research look like, and how is it different from university research? The authors write:

It may appear to be self-evident that the research questions in teacher research emanate from the day-to-day experiences of teachers themselves, but this is not a trivial issue. In traditional university-based classroom research, researchers’ questions reflect careful study of theoretical and empirical literature and, sometimes, negotiation with the teachers in whose classrooms the researchers collect data. Teachers’ questions, on the other hand, often emerge from the discrepancies between what is intended and what occurs [e.g., a classroom routine that works well then suddenly flounders, a student is not progressing like most others when an intervention is implemented, an experienced counsellor’s attempt to mediate between students fails to work, a promising new approach has unexpectedly mixed outcomes…] (p. 5)

Therefore, contrary to the stereotype, teachers do not think just in terms of “what to do”; indeed, they theorize! A teacher might ask:

What happens when my “high-risk” second graders shift from a [basic decoding letters/phonics] reading program to a whole language [literary analysis] curriculum? How will I know when my students are on the way to thinking like mathematicians rather than simply learning new routines? How do my digressions from lesson plans contribute to or detract from my goals for the students? How do my students’ theories of teaching and learning shape and become shaped by writing conferences? Although these questions are not framed in the language of educational theory, they are indeed about the discrepancies between theory and practice. Although they are not always motivated by a need to generalize beyond the immediate case, they may in fact be relevant to a wide variety of contexts. (p. 6)

So these questions of teachers are not just about “what to do on Monday morning”; these questions arise from particular cases that point to more generalizable and abstract theories of teaching. At the same time, nothing is context-free; we still need “insight into the particulars of how and why something works and for whom, within the contexts of particular classrooms” (p. 6). And teachers are uniquely suited for that kind of research—they know better than anyone what happens with the students they teach for a whole academic year, or multiple years:

They have opportunities to observe learners over long periods of time and in a variety of academic and social situations; they often have many years of knowledge about the culture of the community, school and[/or] classroom [including when they were students themselves]; and they experience the ongoing events of classroom life in relation to their particular roles and responsibilities. (p. 6)

A scholar named Holt (1964) is cited, who said:

Once we understand that some of the things we teachers do may be helpful, some merely useless, and some downright harmful, we can begin to ask which is which [in that context]. But only teachers can ask such questions and use their daily work with students to test their answers. (as cited in Cochran-Smith & Lytle, 1990, p. 6)

An article by Sanders and McCutcheon (1986) is mentioned next. It argues that

teaching requires intentional and skillful action within real-world situations. The success of these actions depends on the ability to perceive relevant features of complex, problematic, and changeable situations and to make appropriate choices. [Blogger’s side note: Much like driving; God bless me if I ever finally learn to drive like I’ve learned to teach.] Rather than make a distinction between professional knowledge and educational theory, as is usually done, Sanders and McCutcheon make the case that professional knowledge essentially is theoretical knowledge. (as cited in Cochran-Smith & Lytle, 1990, p. 7)

Shulman (1987) proposed that such factors which teachers may perceive as relevant in the moment can include: “content, pedagogy, curriculum, learners and their characteristics, educational contexts, purposes and values and their philosophical and historical grounds” (as cited in Cochran-Smith & Lytle, 1990, p. 7). Of course, teachers should collect “data” on these things as systematically as they can, but they cannot do so as thoroughly as researchers— they simply don’t have the time, and that may not be the most pressing thing they need to do in their day-to-day work. Which doesn’t mean that they are data-poor… the data they have collected (even if they can’t produce it neatly categorized and systematically arranged) comprises all they’ve seen and laid eyes/hands on over 2, 5, 10, or 20 years. They’ve analyzed this in their minds, and “teachers over time will develop a similarly complex set of standards for evaluating the research generated in and for their community” (p. 8).

So what should be done in teacher-researcher partnerships? In the last 3 pages of the article, the authors argue that teachers MUST become theorists: “articulating their intentions, testing their assumptions, and finding connections with practice”—especially since they “know their classrooms and students in ways that outsiders can’t” (p. 8). If researchers work with teachers, researchers have to work with sensitivity to teachers’ own evaluative standards of what is important to investigate and know. And the findings of these investigations should not just be of interest to teachers—they should interest administrators, policymakers, the general public, and of course academic researchers. But of course, they will be of most interest to other teachers, particularly novice teachers, giving them a heads up on how to deal with the many challenges they face, and making their learning curve easier.

To reap these benefits of teacher research, schools should not just add research as an extra burden for teachers to do. This just reproduces the traditional, disciplinary, and hierarchical nature of school systems. Of all the incentives schools could provide for teachers—reduced workloads, release time, paid overtime, summer workshops, collaborative networks/study groups, teacher-led talks and professional development seminars, grants for their research projects, and publication venues—none of these will mean much, and indeed all of them put together will mean little, if teachers do not have the right to participate on a voluntary basis, and if they do not get to decide what should be researched and whether and how the findings will have an impact on practice. Think about it: would you take on all that extra work, even with the incentives, if you didn’t get to decide what was important to investigate and/or how that knowledge should impact practice once it is gained? Autonomy is the bedrock of all the other perks, showing genuine respect for teacher expertise.

If society empowers teachers in this way, it not only motivates teachers to learn to teach better, but also “create[s] the contexts for their own students to be empowered as active learners” (p. 9). A major obstacle is that teachers are isolated from each other—which may, to some extent, reflect a deliberately designed system to prevent them from doing research of this kind. So “telling teachers they should do teacher research is… an inadequate way to begin” (Myers, 1985, p.126). Cochran-Smyth and Lytle conclude that we need to “confront controversial issues of voice, power, ownership, status, and role in the broad educational community” (p. 10).

Are there studies on translanguaging or bi/multilingualism in education that follow these principles?

There are 62 posts on this blog now, so I am able to give some examples of studies that (1) are grounded in issues that interest teachers and other education practitioners, and (2) examine the discrepancy between what was intended and what happened. The first study is Vershawn Young’s autobiographical piece about code-meshing. Administrators at a U.S. college hired him, a young black male professor, because they felt he would connect culturally and linguistically with black male students, who had a graduation rate of <5%… but this backfired because they essentialized Young as a black male without understanding that his different life story alienated him from other black males and gave rise to more tense situations than automatic affiliation.

We can also examine the intended versus actual effects of English-medium instruction in countries where English is not the dominant language, by looking at the research by Chick and Hornberger in the opening of this post, and the extensive critical discussions between “what was intended versus what happened” by Anthony Bruton in the European Union and Guangwei Hu in China. While Chick and Hornberger studied contexts that have been EMI for a long time due to colonialism (e.g., South Africa), Bruton and Hu look at those that recently became so in the early 21st century. In South Africa, Probyn (2015) examines why “English-only except when it is absolutely necessary to use L1” can seem like the best language policy, a compromise between competing ideologies that many teachers adopt… but this may in fact be worst choice in terms of unintended effects, as seen in her study which shows that intentional bi/multilingual pedagogy results in more English learning.

Some research has iteratively (i.e., in cycles of recording, asking people, recording, and asking people) investigated what teachers, students and researchers think of translanguaging practices in linguistically diverse classrooms where people do not share the same languages (Ticheloven, Blom, Leseman, & McMonagle, 2019). My colleague Laura has looked at how a Dual Language (Spanish-English) program designed to be linguistically equitable still fell short of doing so despite people’s best intentions, due to sociolinguistic and pragmatic factors (Hamman, 2018). My colleague Elaine studied how translanguaging by the teacher in a predominantly Spanish-speaking ESL class yielded the important cognitive and socioemotional benefits intended by the teacher as well as pragmatic problems/challenges (Allard, Apt, & Sacks, 2019). Another study investigated how a young, rather strict Punjabi language teacher in the U.K. who felt very strongly about preserving the language alienated her students by negatively evaluating their translanguaging practices (Creese, Blackledge, & Takhi, 2014).

Another study looked at how reflecting on one’s own plurilingualism in university classroom exercises did not help pre-service teachers to empathize with the plurilingualism of their students, sadly because of class differences and being in the cultural mainstream (Birello, Llombart-Esbert, & Moore, 2021). Another study about the mismatch between teacher educator intention and effect on pre-service teachers is this study by Al-Bataineh and Gallagher (2019) that tried to get elementary teachers to do translanguaging in storybooks they made for their pupils, which they quite violently rejected.

And no matter what we do, whether that’s deliberately teaching students to translanguage or trying to do “immersion” (target language only), it’s best to figure out the complex benefits and drawbacks of our pedagogical actions, which Viniti Vaish (2020) does for translanguaging lessons in a Singaporean primary English classroom and William O’Grady, Raina Heaton, Sharon Bulalang and Jeanette King (2021) do for indigenous language immersion classrooms for children in Guatemala, the Philippines, and New Zealand.

In sum, if we ask, “Translanguaging research by/with/for teachers: How might it ideally be done?”, Cochran-Smyth and Lytle (1990), writing about education research before the emergence of the term “translanguaging,” tell us that all primary and secondary education research must (1) start with issues that interest teachers, and (2) discover the perfect balance of theory and practice by investigating what was intended versus what happened.


Apple, M. (1986). Teachers and texts: A political economy of class and gender relations in education. Routledge.

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

Holt, J. (1964). How children fail. Dell Publishing Co.

Myers, M. (1985). The teacher-researcher: How to study writing in the classroom. National Council of Teachers of English.

Sanders, D. P., & McCutcheon, G. (1986). The development of practical theories of teaching. Journal of Curriculum and Supervision2(1), 50-67.

Shulman, L. (1987). Knowledge and teaching: Foundations of the new reform. Harvard Educational Review57(1), 1-23.

Stenhouse, L. (1983). Authority, education, and emancipation: A collection of papers. Heinemann.

Published by annamend

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

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