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November 1, 2020
Vol. 78
No. 3

Honoring All Their Languages

Cultivating multilingualism in early-grade classrooms can have lasting benefits for students.

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Miss Watts's kindergarteners, half of whom were emergent bilingual learners, were at recess when they made a discovery.
"¡Mira! ¡Mira, Miss Watts!" Misael, one of Miss Watts's students, exclaimed as he quickly but carefully came toward her with cupped hands.
"What did you find?" asked Miss Watts.
"I found una mariposa!"
"Wow! It does look like a butterfly, doesn't it?" Miss Watts replied.
Diana chimed in, "¡No! Es una polilla!"
When Miss Watts asked what polilla meant, Diego answered, "A moth." The crowd of kindergarteners proceeded to discuss the small winged creature Misael gently held on the tip of his finger.
"What's the difference between a moth and butterfly?" wondered Kate.
"What a great scientific question, Kate! Let's find out." Miss Watts smiled. She realized the inclusive language practices she had worked so hard to implement were finally evident within her classroom community of learners.

Linguistically Sustaining Practices

I drew this hypothetical anecdote from the experiences of many educators who engaged in a professional development workshop I recently led on best practices for teaching young emergent bilingual learners. Most teachers enrolled in this PD program were monolingual and worried they wouldn't be able to foster and sustain a multilingual learning environment. "Miss Watts's" linguistically diverse students reflect the demographics in many early childhood classrooms. The number of English-language learner students entering U.S. schools continues to rise each year. The highest percentages of emergent bilinguals are in preK–2nd grade, where language development and initial literacy instruction are a primary focus. Yet many states still employ "English-only" policies and the majority of classroom teachers remain English-dominant (National Center for Education Statistics, 2018).
The term emergent bilingual (García, 2009) capitalizes on bilingualism as a strength. It involves valuing and including home language(s) in the classroom—which has significant instructional implications. Sadly, the younger children are when they enter English-dominant classrooms, the more likely they are to lose their native language(s) completely, which hinders the development of identity, cognitive functioning, language, and literacy, as well as social and familial relationships (Wong-Filmore, 1991).
Children benefit from classrooms that promote using multiple languages without showing preference for one (Bauer, 2009). When multiple languages are well supported in early childhood, English acquisition isn't delayed, and there are long-term cognitive and cultural benefits associated with bilingualism. Studies of multilingual classrooms found no adverse effects for monolingual English speakers, but benefits like additional language learning and social-emotional development for all children (Bialystok, 2009).
While many practitioners draw on culturally relevant pedagogy and similar approaches when serving diverse learners, fewer pay attention to sustaining home language(s). Educators must emphasize the importance of linguistically sustaining practices for emergent bilinguals, especially in the early grades when native language(s) are at high risk of being replaced by English. Sustaining and building all of children's linguistic abilities is crucial for them to thrive in later learning and life.

The ABCs of Support

Luckily, educators don't have to know many different languages to foster children's multilingualism. However, all stakeholders—families, teachers, and administrators—must work together to systematically support multilingualism. Each stakeholder can help promote language-sustaining pedagogies. I use an acronym to highlight key aspects of maintaining collective support for linguistically sustaining practices: using our ABCs—administrators, building relationships with families, and classroom practices.

Administrators: Three Ways to Affirm All Languages

School administrators play an important role in the overall educational experience and academic success of young emergent bilingual learners. To begin the shift toward linguistic inclusivity and to promote linguistically sustaining practices, administrators should (1) establish welcoming environments for families, (2) create peer language partners for students, and (3) offer professional development for teachers.
1. Welcoming environments. The perception of welcoming (or unwelcoming) environments is formed the moment families arrive on campus. Families need to feel valued to engage in the school and classroom. Be sure they see their languages and cultures represented. Having welcome signs and directions posted in multiple languages is a wonderful first step—so why not have families help by creating and hanging signs that include all languages students speak?
Display a world map so that when families register their children for school, they can mark the map to represent where they're from. For emergent bilingual students who enroll mid-year, create a welcome wall where you post photos of the newly enrolled students, including greetings in their family's native language ("Dites bonjour à Phillip!, our new student from Zaire").
Ensure paperwork for enrollment and other procedures is available in various languages and that office staff knows where to locate these items. Keep a "Hello/Welcome" translation chart by the front desk so office staff can greet families. You may also consider initiating and keeping a list of any individuals connected to the school who are willing to serve as a temporary translator for new families who need to communicate with school staff. Administrators could create school-level emergent bilingual advisory boards, inviting families from multiple language and cultural backgrounds to serve. Family members on such advisory committees could give input on new policies, projects, curriculum, and materials; advocate for engaging diverse families; and work as liaisons between other families and the school to share needs and concerns. These steps can go a long way in creating welcoming school environments.
2. Peer language partners. When creating class configurations and assigning newly enrolled students to classes, place children in classrooms with peers who share their native language. Many emergent bilingual students experience a "silent period" in environments where their native language isn't spoken or understood. Having someone in their classroom who speaks their home language provides the opportunity for them to continue using that language. This supports new language learning; accessing one's native tongue helps a child who's acquiring a second language understand new information in that language. It also makes the new classroom much less intimidating.
3. Professional development. Many teachers aren't sure how to support emergent bilingual students. Planning ongoing PD for teachers and providing support as they try out just-learned strategies and techniques in the classroom can help promote teaching practices that honor all languages. Administrators can model inquiry and professional learning by participating alongside teachers.
They can also prioritize teaching staff linguistically sustaining practices, strategies for providing equitable access to content, and ways to partner with families of students learning English. For instance, administrators can ensure compensation and release time for home visits and family engagement activities.

Building Relationships

Building relationships with families takes time and repeated effort to establish a trusting partnership. Families and educators need to work together to support young learners. Our emergent bilinguals have already experienced rich language use and home activities that are integral to language and literacy development, such as writing notes to family at holidays. But too often, when students enter school, these resources aren't recognized or understood. We can work with families to draw from these funds of knowledge and purposefully bring those experiences into the classroom to support language and content learning.
To cultivate linguistically sustaining practices, early-grades educators should work with families to support three things: (1) continued use of native languages, (2) classroom partnerships, and (3) parent advocacy on behalf of children's learning.
1. Native language use. Often, families of emergent bilingual children heed the misguided suggestion that they should use English at home as much as possible. Educators who seek to sustain students' home language abilities know the importance of maintaining and further developing native languages. They should share the benefits of bilingualism with families, reinforcing the reality that home activities like cooking or gardening provide opportunities for language development.
Educators can support families in furthering native language literacy by providing families with native language books to read at home, or even wordless picture books to look at with children. They can encourage families to tell cultural stories and sing songs in their native language. This affords all family members the opportunity to support language and literacy development.
2. Classroom partnerships. Families and teachers who engage in true reciprocal partnerships act as a team in the classroom. Families might hesitate to come into the classroom, fearing they won't be able to communicate or understand American school structures. So, at first, invite family members to observe and help with activities that don't demand much language. As they build confidence and their relationship with the school strengthens, parents or caregivers can take a more active role. They might read books aloud in their native language(s) or introduce math games using translated instructions that allow children to play in their home language before playing in English. Family members can help rewrite game instructions in other language(s) so families who cannot come to school during the day can play the games at home.
Family members can also help newcomers who don't yet know much English enter into social play with other children in the classroom, such as by enjoying dramatic play and art activities. They can label items in the classroom in their language(s). Eventually, such a partnership may lead to suggestions for curriculum and content inclusion that highlight children's language(s) and culture(s).
3. Advocacy. One component of empowered family engagement is advocacy. Families who engage in reciprocal relationships with educators often feel they make a valuable contribution to their child's education and will likely begin to advocate for effective instruction, appropriate assessment, equitable educational opportunities, and the right for their children to maintain and develop their home language(s) in addition to English. They may advocate for not only their children, but all children to reach their bi-/multilingual potential. Teachers and administrators alike should support parental advocacy efforts.

Classroom Practices: Translanguaging and More

Translanguaging, a helpful theory for teachers who seek to implement linguistically sustaining practices, highlights how children use multiple languages simultaneously to construct and convey meaning. Translanguaging practices encourage speakers to use their full linguistic resources with fluidity—and encourage teachers to design social and instructional opportunities for students that tap their multilingualism (García, Johnson, & Seltzer, 2017). Early childhood teachers can leverage this approach to create inclusive environments that:
  • Support bi-/multilingualism.
  • Promote positive multilingual and multicultural identities.
  • Provide opportunities for language and literacy development within social and academic contexts.
  • Help students engage with content (García, Johnson, & Seltzer, 2017).
When teachers adopt this approach, they leverage these learners' language(s) and implement three effective instructional practices: (1) multilingual modeling, (2) using translanguaging texts, and (3) providing multilingual materials.
1. Multilingual modeling. Not only should teachers encourage students to use their full linguistic abilities, they should also provide models of successful multilingualism. Multilingual picture books are an excellent model for early childhood classrooms. These books can empower young emergent bilinguals as they connect to published authors who also speak multiple languages. Teachers can also model language curiosity and drawing on various languages by asking students the meanings of words in their first language and having a student share meanings and pronunciations with their classmates (as Miss Watts did with polilla in the opening anecdote). This practice situates teachers as language learners who seek expertise from children and families, so they can learn basic words and phrases in the languages represented in their classrooms.
Families who engage in classroom partnerships can serve as multilingual mentors for young children and demonstrate how they use multiple languages concurrently to build and share meaning. Such meaning building is at the very heart of translanguaging.
2. Translanguaging texts. Teachers often use culturally diverse texts, but rarely consider using linguistically diverse texts for instruction in English-dominant settings. But there are books suited to young children in which the author utilizes multiple languages, representing examples of how languages are or could be used together. I refer to these as translanguaging texts, because they use multiple languages interchangeably, as many bilinguals do.
Children's book authors like Duncan Tonatiuh, Margarita Engle, Yuyi Morales, Susan Middleton Elya, Roseanne Greenfield Thong, and Hena Khan, to name a few, intersperse words and phrases of other languages within a mostly English text. Each author chooses specific instances to translanguage within their text, ranging from single words such as colors to multilingual character dialogue. In some books, the author provides the direct translation of the word or a glossary at the end of the book; in others, readers infer the meaning from the context.
When these translanguaging texts are read aloud to the class, emergent bilingual students who know the non-English language featured can be seen as language experts, sharing pronunciations and meanings of words. In this way, translanguaging texts support positive literacy identities for emergent bilinguals and reposition them as successful readers.
3. Multilingual materials. Including multilingual materials and materials that encourage emergent bilinguals to employ their multilingualism is an important native language-sustaining practice. Teachers can place multilingual labels on visuals and common areas around the classroom. For early childhood classes, I recommend teachers use color coding for written language labels (such as English in blue, Spanish in green, etc.) to help children identify various languages. Including "environmental print"—like packaging from food or other products connected to a non-English-speaking culture—on word walls and in play areas provides opportunities for emergent bilinguals to leverage their existing language knowledge.
Finally, a teacher might, sensitively, ask for family pictures, which she can display to show that each student's family is valued. This validates children's identity and prompts discussion about people's families—during which students can use both their home language and English.

Linguistic Capital

Like Miss Watts, monolingual educators, including administrators, can implement linguistically sustaining practices. Valuing the cultural and linguistic capital students add to our classrooms leads to more inclusive classrooms and schools. Students from various language backgrounds realize they can construct meaning and share ideas with others in ways that surpass language barriers.
When administrators, families, and teachers together support and promote linguistically sustaining practices in the early grades, emergent-bilingual learners—and all children—can thrive in a more inclusive educational environment.

Bauer, E. B. (2009). Informed additive literacy instruction for ELLs. The Reading Teacher, 62(5), 446–448.

Bialystok, E. (2009). Bilingualism: The good, the bad, and the indifferent. Bilingualism: Language and Cognition, 12, 3–11.

García, O. (2009). Emergent bilinguals and TESOL. What's in a name? In TESOL Quarterly, 43(2), 322–326, special issue edited by Shelley Taylor.

García, O., Johnson, S. I., & Seltzer, K. (2017). The translanguaging classroom: Leveraging students' bilingualism for learning. Philadelphia, PA: Caslon.

National Center for Education Statistics. (2018, January). Digest of Education Statistics, 2017. Retrieved at

Wong-Fillmore, L. (1991). When learning a second language means losing the first. Early Childhood Research Quarterly, 6(3), 323–346.

Kelly Hill is an assistant professor of early childhood and English as a second language education and the director of the Maryann Manning Family Literacy Center at the University of Alabama at Birmingham. Her work focuses on enhancing language and literacy instruction for young emergent bilingual learners.

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