On 5 October we celebrate World Teachers’ Day not only to honour teachers for their unwavering passion and dedication, “but also to reflect on the support they need to fully deploy their talent and vocation“. In an increasingly globalised world that brings about a continually transforming education sector, teachers are faced with incredible challenges, trying to adapt their pedagogical methods and approaches to the demands of bilingual learners. However, there isn’t a homogenous understanding about how bilingualism works, how additional languages are learned and the growing diversity in schools is often met with varying policies all over the world. The reasons for that are ample, a major one being the need for more widely employed specialised trainings.
Although significant progress has been made in recent years, there is still a long road ahead. One way to support the process is actively establishing a close parent-teacher relationship and exchange. Showing support for and interest in bilingualism, learning about your students and their families – the languages they speak at home, how these languages are allocated, how they are supported, which is the dominant one, student’s personality, interests or their disposition to the school language present indispensable pieces of the puzzle. Below are five other strategies that can transform the learning experience for bilingual students and support teachers.
- Prepare yourself for a linguistically diverse classroom
Regardless of your school’s policy, expecting to have a linguistically diverse classroom is simply foresight and smart planning. A lot of bilingual students start school in a new language knowing very little or nothing at all in that language and then they need to accumulate content knowledge using it. Many of them have probably excelled in the subject matter in their previous school, but the fear of not being able to express themselves in the new language, potentially making them look ‘stupid’ in front of everyone makes them highly unwilling to participate in class and prevents them from learning the content. At the same time, subject matter teachers might struggle with equally engaging the monolingual and the bilingual students. Realising that by supporting language learning for their specific academic area, teachers can enhance content learning as well is crucial. Every teacher is a language teacher! But wait, this doesn’t mean that every subject teacher should be proficient in teaching languages as well. Hands down, it could be rather intimidating and a critical point here is „develop[ing] the understandings and insights that come from looking at language rather than looking through language“, seeing language as a resource for teaching content. Language is learned in a specific context and for a specific purpose and therefore using the context of the subject to teach language would be highly beneficial and meaningful to both language and content learning. There are many ways to approach that, for example, consulting a language teacher, collaborating and strategising on ways to present, teach and practise language.
2. Acknowledge home languages in the classroom
Create a language-friendly environment in your classroom, so that children whose home language is different than the school language will feel welcome, their differences will be acknowledged and embraced. Ask the students to say something in the language and to tell the class about their culture in any way they want and can, watch a short film about the country and the customs, decorate your home room with posters or other elements from the different cultures present in the class.
If you have a lot of students from different backgrounds in your class, and depending on their age, organising a ‘language day’ when parents come and read stories / short books in their respective language might be a fun and engaging activity. You can even have the children guess what different words mean, based on the story and pictures. Leave a display of books in various languages in your reading corner, so your students can easily access them.
3. Enlist parents to help
If you have more than one child with the same home language in your class (or in the same grade), you can ask one of the parents who also speaks the school language to occasionally come and help in class when introducing new content. They can clarify and explain the concepts in the respective home language. You can also give them the content in advance, providing an opportunity for them to meet in a small group and go over it together beforehand. This will help the students understand the general idea and concepts in their home language first, making it easier to acquire the content and language at school.
4. Allow use of L1 in the classroom
If you have two or more students in your class who share the same home language, pair or group them together in class when viable. They will most probably end up using their home language to discuss the task(s), but that is exactly what you want. They can also help each other find answers in the target language and the correct words to express themselves. This can also be valuable language support for students who are new(er) to that language. Indeed, some might consider such practices disruptive, especially when a teacher doesn’t speak the language the students are using, but try to incorporate it if opportunities present themselves anyway. Allow the use of auxiliary materials, such as dictionaries, in class to support language and content learning. Alternatively, pairing up / grouping your student(s) who share a home language with an older student with the same home language to act as a tutor is also an option.
5. Embrace Translanguaging
Do not be afraid to use more than one language in the classroom. Embracing methods, such as translanguaging, by being open to the use of home languages in the classroom could be a powerful catalyst to learning. It will allow students to use all their linguistic skills, thus maximising “both linguistic and cognitive resources, and help[ing] achievement and progress”. It is an inclusive practice that will encourage students with different levels of the target language to participate and will promote a higher degree of self-reliance. Translanguaging is a language-friendly approach that can be both spontaneous and planned, based on the language needs of the students. Another example would be to allow the children to prepare homework in their home language and then transfer their work into the school language by reviewing the issues in the school language and asking additional questions.
Connecting to your students and showing them that you value their languages is the most important step in helping them learn. Something every teacher wants for their students – to learn and succeed! By showing that you value bilingualism, you will automatically impart the feeling that they are appreciated and important, that they are worth the effort even if you cannot communicate with them in the beginning. It will pay off!
- Baker, C. and Wright, W. E. (2021) Foundations of bilingual education and bilingualism. 7th edn. Bristol: Multilingual Matters.
- Cummins, J. (2001) ‘Bilingual children’s mother tongue: why is it important for education’, Sprogforum, 19, pp.15-20.
- Lucas, T. (2011) Teacher Preparation for Linguistically Diverse Classrooms. A Resource for Teacher Educators. New York: Routledge.
- Paradis, J., Genesee, F. and Crago, M. B. (2011) Dual language development and disorders. A handbook on bilingualism & second language learning. 2nd edn. Baltimore: Paul H. Brookes Publishing Co.
Image by Kenny Eliason on unsplash.com
 Lucas, T. (2011) Teacher Preparation for Linguistically Diverse Classrooms. A Resource for Teacher Educators. New York: Routledge, p. 4.
 Baker, C. (2021) and Wright, W. E. (2021) Foundations of bilingual education and bilingualism. 7th edn. Bristol: Multilingual Matters., p. 233.