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April 1, 2018
Vol. 75
No. 7

Creating the Right Conditions for Multilingual Writers

To develop as writers, multilingual students must have opportunities for authentic expression.

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Instructional Strategies
When we walk into Nancy's 2nd grade classroom in Columbia, South Carolina, there are labels and signs posted around the room in Chinese, Spanish, and Urdu. During morning meeting, the children sing a song in Hindi. And when it is writing time, we observe a student crafting a letter in Japanese to her grandparents, while other children speak Arabic, Spanish, and Korean as they write with tablemates.
According the National Center for Education Statistics (2017), there are 9.4 million English language learners in U.S. public schools, up from 9.1 million in 2004. With this increase, there is a high probability that many teachers in classrooms today have students for whom English is not a first language.
Unfortunately, most schools across the United States do not integrate children's primary languages into learning. Although there could be more than 45 languages spoken in homes and communities within a typical district—as reported on school profiles—too often English is the only language represented in hallways and classrooms. In addition, classroom materials rarely reference cultural knowledge, linguistic resources, or diverse life experiences.

Supporting Multilingual Writers

We prefer to use the term multilingual to describe children who speak languages in addition to English because it disrupts the view that these children have only one learning identity in school (being an "English learner").
As teacher educators, we spend a lot of time with new and veteran teachers who are English dominant and unsure how to provide meaningful writing instruction for multilingual learners. Even teachers eager to work thoughtfully with multilingual learners feel great pressure to usher students into English quickly so they can perform on mandated writing assessments. The writing assignments given are often formulaic and prompt-driven (McCarthey, 2008), and these students are missing out on "opportunities to engage in meaningful activities that encourage language growth" (Fisher-Ari & Flint, in press).
Yet we know that teachers want to reach and teach multilingual writers in ways that are more effective and meaningful. As we unpack instructional practices that make the difference for multilingual writers like those in Nancy's classroom, Brian Cambourne's (1988, 1995) conditions for learning come to mind as applicable to teaching writing in multilingual classrooms. The Australian researcher and educator proposed a theory that includes interconnected and reciprocal conditions for learning: immersion, demonstration, approximation, engagement, expectation, responsibility, employment (use), and response. These conditions support both teachers and students in creating contexts to learn.
We find ourselves returning to Cambourne's seminal work as we think about teachers who engage multilingual students in multilingual writing curriculums. We offer Cambourne's conditions as a way to build support for and encourage writing with young multilingual students (kindergarten through 3rd grade).

Immersion

Cambourne helps us to understand that children come to speak because they are surrounded by authentic language. In their homes and communities, children move seamlessly between languages. Yet classrooms rarely reflect these dynamic linguistic environments. To create the condition for our students to produce multilingual writing, we must construct classrooms where children have opportunities to hear, speak, read, and write across languages.
For example, in Loraine's kindergarten classroom in Columbia, South Carolina, she and her students made labels in English and Spanish to identify classroom supplies such as notebooks, crayons, and bookshelves. Loraine also included poster-sized poems in Spanish to read aloud during shared reading. Other teachers might choose to teach songs and stock classroom libraries with books in diverse languages.

Demonstration

Young children learn by watching adults and others model actions. Just think how quickly toddlers pick up on how to find their favorite Wild Kratts episode on their parents' iPhones or tablets. Demonstration is a powerful basis for learning.
Similarly, multilingual children should be able to see and hear adults move across linguistic contexts. Cambourne (1988) emphasizes that in classrooms, demonstrations need to be "contextually relevant" (p. 50), meaning that teachers must provide demonstrations of literacy actions that are meaningful to the task at hand. Nancy (the 2nd grade teacher) provided demonstrations of multilingual writing in her conferences with children. During a class study of poetry, one student named Sonia wrote a poem about crying. In the poem, she wrote that her mother told her, "Don't cry. It will be okay."
Nancy strategically used this opportunity to ask Sonia, "Did your mother say that in Spanish or English?" Sonia replied that her mother had used Spanish words: "No llores. Está bien."
Nancy told Sonia, "I want to show you how a writer writes in Spanish and English." Nancy pulled out a book of Pat Mora's poetry from the classroom library and together they noticed how the poet used both languages. Nancy guided Sonia to incorporate "No llores. Está bien" in her poem. Sonia then rehearsed the poem and agreed that it sounded better. Nancy affirmed, "Spanish makes your poem sound as beautiful as the bilingual poetry books we have in our room."
To create opportunities for multilingual writing demonstrations, teachers can use multilingual mentor texts in mini-lessons (see "" for suggestions) and invite multilingual adults into the classrooms. They can also ask families and children to share messages across languages in message journals, which may later be shared to demonstrate how to write in multiple languages.

Approximation

A toddler's first attempts at oral language are often bits and pieces of a word (for instance, "ba ba"). Caregivers often recognize these attempts and provide appropriate responses ("Yes, here is your bottle"). Over time and with opportunities to practice, the child moves from approximation—from mimicking the desired action, word, or response, to saying the desired word correctly.
Similarly, when multilingual children engage in writing, their approximations of words and structure should be recognized and valued. In Jennifer's 1st grade classroom in Louisville, Kentucky, Julio decided to write a book about losing a tooth (see fig. 1). He approximated the Spanish words ("theyentes" for dientes and "pethe" for perder). Julio's best guesses on how the words were spelled based on how he pronounces them with his two front teeth missing revealed that his knowledge of writing in Spanish was greater than what is commonly expected from a 1st grade multilingual writer.

Figure 1. Julio's Loose Tooth Story

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In a low-risk, positive environment, Jennifer allowed her multilingual students to explore, invent, and try on new learning. She offered encouraging words—such as "How would you write that in Spanish?"—designed to support their initial efforts. Teachers can also invite approximations by having children "share the pen" during interactive writing activities such as morning message. As children write, teachers can encourage students to approximate how they think words are spelled.

Engagement

Cambourne posits that for learners to grow in their understandings, they need to have engaged, sustained, purposeful, and authentic experiences. Susan, a 3rd grade teacher in Atlanta, established routines and processes in her classroom that invited multilingual children to write meaningfully every day. Following a mini-lesson about how authors get ideas, students created "expert lists," highlighting topics they considered themselves to be experts in. Next they drafted initial ideas that could be used in compositions. These entries often reflected life experiences, such as being an expert on skateboards, going to the flea market with family members, or working with a parent on a painting job. The authenticity of these writing entries supported multilingual children's engagement with the writing process.
Opportunities for engaging writing experiences throughout the academic year are unlimited, and can involve feature articles, plays, musical scores, digital stories, and podcasts, among other products.

Expectation

In Cambourne's conditions, parents and families expect that their children will learn to speak, unless there is a medical or developmental reason. Expectation is also the foundation for the conditions that foster multilingual writing development. Even though we do not speak all the languages our students speak, we can facilitate and support multilingual practices in ways that convey a sense of expectation in our students. In doing so, we send the message, "I know you speak other languages, and you can also write in those languages." When Nancy conducts shared writing in her classroom, she often asks, "What Spanish words can we use?" She invites children to the chart paper so they can record words and phrases in Spanish. She expects and trusts that children will have a response and that what they say will be meaningful.
Educators would do well to consider their own beliefs about learning to write in more than one language and evaluate the expectations they hold for multilingual students' writing development. That development can play out in small ways throughout the school year. For instance, when conducting a writing conference, teachers can encourage children to write words in languages they know when they don't seem to have the word in English. In doing so, teachers will set the expectation that what is recorded on paper is meaningful and makes sense to the writer.

Responsibility

Cambourne teaches us that adults do not control the first words that children speak. In fact, when meaningful demonstrations are provided, children will make choices about what they will pay attention to and engage with. In our classrooms, we must ask ourselves where children have opportunities to make their own decisions about how they use language to convey their intentions. Are children responsible for choosing the topics they write about and the languages they write in?
Lisa, a 3rd grade teacher in Kershaw County, South Carolina, supported her students in making linguistic choices (Stockdale, 2015). For example, Lisa would give assignments that were written in English, and her student Juan would respond in Spanish, saying things like, "No puedo hacer eso" (I can't do that) or "No entiendo" (I don't understand). Lisa would encourage Juan to complete his assignments in Spanish, even if the other students were writing in English.
The impact of Lisa's teaching was made evident when Juan chose to write his Valentine card in Spanish without prompting from Lisa. The card started with "Dear ___. Happy Valentine's Day! I love you because ___." Juan then wrote, in his own approximated spelling, "te ciero mucho como ce ci fueras de mi familia y tamdien tambien a Mr C es pecl i tambien" (I love you so much like if you were my family and also Mr C. is special too). This choice highlights Juan's ability to make a decision that is in line with his current language knowledge so that he could express a sentiment.
To encourage this kind of responsibility, educators should consider what choices they give students in terms of language, topic, genre, project, and audience. Students who use writer's notebooks, for example, can determine the process and routines for using those notebooks themselves. What choices will they have for the entries' formats? How will they know when to move from their notebook of ideas to drafting a text? Taking up these responsibilities will provide children with a sense of agency as they work across languages and ideas.

Employment

Cambourne discusses the condition of employment as opportunities for children to use and practice language, both oral and written. Children need time and reasons throughout the day to talk and write, even when their use of the language is not fully formed or conventional. For multilingual students, the classroom can be a place to practice and try out variations of languages.
In a kindergarten classroom in Dalton, Georgia, many of the students speak Spanish at home and are learning English at school (Rodriguez, 2014). At the class writing center, they move seamlessly between speaking English and Spanish while composing oral and written stories. These stories, based on their own experiences, often include Spanish and English words. For example, Marisol composed a story about getting a new dog. As she drafted the story, she said, "Yo tengo un perrito. Yo ya tengo un perrito. (I have a puppy. I already have a puppy.)" to her tablemates in Spanish, yet on paper she wrote, "I have a dog."
Of significance in this example is that the teacher trusted the students to use talk to support their writing and understood the significance of oral language use in young children's writing development. Having opportunities to use and practice both languages in meaningful ways contributes to children's literacy learning.

Response

Cambourne (1988) writes extensively about response and suggests that in oral language development, adults "accept and celebrate" (p. 78) young children's attempts at language. They should also offer demonstrations of conventional forms. For example, if a child says, "I wuv wu," the adult might reply, "I love you too!"
In classrooms, response is integral to children's written language development. Children need meaningful responses to their ideas and actions. In writing instruction, responses occur through writing conferences, mini-lesson demonstrations, and peer-response groups or author's chair (Short, Harste, & Burke, 1996). Often, teachers designate a specific chair as the author's chair. A student sits in this chair to read their composition aloud, after which audience members offer comments, questions, and feedback. Opportunities for students to share and celebrate their writing promote positive and authentic response to multilingual learners and their compositions.
First grade teacher Mary in Columbia, South Carolina, invited 4th graders to visit her classroom to hear her students read their fictional picture books and to write "comments to the author." Although Roberto's story did not contain any words in Spanish, it conveyed a humorous account of how his cat stole his brother's necklace. His story delighted listeners. Audience members wrote responses related to the content of the story, offered compliments in Spanish ("Qué bueno"), and even responded to how Roberto read his story ("He was very loud and nice"). As multilingual learners share their writing (in their primary language or in English), they make their language visible.
Teachers might also plan celebrations and invite family members to visit the classroom and hear compositions read aloud, praising the writer in the languages they speak. With permission, teachers might share—on school Twitter accounts or other media formats like YouTube—videos of the readings, especially with family members who were unable to attend in person.

A World of Languages

The learning conditions that Brian Cambourne argued for almost 30 years ago are as relevant today as they were then. When children—and in this case, multilingual children—are afforded the contexts, resources, and opportunities to speak, write, and engage across language systems, their trajectories for learning expand. As teachers become more comfortable supporting their multilingual students, they expand their repertoires for teaching as well. When students talk and write about their life experiences in multiple languages, they share new cultural understandings and develop a greater appreciation for the rich diversity in the classroom and the world. Moreover, when the reciprocal and interconnected conditions of learning are in place, the possibility for purposeful and lasting engagement increases.
Through their instructional practices, the teachers featured in this article, all but one of whom is English dominant, make what may seem impossible, possible as they prepare multilingual learners and their English-dominant classmates for the world in which we now live—a global community rich in social, cultural, and linguistic resources.

Multilingual Children's Literature

Poemas familiares para cada dia de la semana/Family poems for every day of the week (Children's Book Press, 2017)

Stepping stones: A refugee family's journey (University of Queensland Press, 2017)

Dear primo: A letter to my cousin (Abrams Books for Young Readers, 2010)

Separate is never equal: Sylvia Mendez & her family's fight for desegregation (Abrams Books for Young Readers, 2014)

References

Cambourne, B. (1988). The whole story: Natural learning and the acquisition of literacy in the classroom. New York: Scholastic.

Cambourne, B. (1995). Toward an educationally relevant theory of literacy learning: Twenty years of inquiry. The Reading Teacher, 49(3), 182–190.

Fisher-Ari, T., & Flint, A. S. (in press). Writer's workshop: A (re)constructive pedagogy for English learners and their teachers. Pedagogies.

McCarthey, S. J. (2008). The impact of No Child Left Behind on teachers' writing instruction. Written Communication, 24(4), 462–505.

Rodriguez, S. (2014). Emergent bilinguals' use of social, cultural and linguistic resources in a kindergarten writing workshop. (Unpublished doctoral dissertation). Georgia State University, Atlanta, GA.

Short, K. G.; Harste, J. C.; & Burke, C. (1996). Creating classrooms for authors and inquirers. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann.

Stockdale, E. S. (2015). Tal vez sueña de estas cosas/Maybe he dreams of these things: Envisioning possibilities for multilingual learners in the culturally responsive rural classroom. Retrieved from ProQuest Digital Dissertations. (3722466)

U.S. Department of Education, National Center for Education Statistics. (2017). The Condition of Education 2017 (2017-144), English Language Learners in Public Schools. Retrieved from https://nces.ed.gov/programs/coe/indicator_cgf.asp

End Notes

1 The examples used in this piece, unless otherwise noted, are drawn from the authors' observations of and work with the teachers named.

Author bio coming soon.

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