April 2017
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Zhongfeng Tian, Boston College, Chestnut Hill, Massachusetts, USA

In the last few decades, the demographic landscape of students in the United States has changed drastically. “One in five students in the United States is the child of an immigrant” (Capps et al., 2005). English language learners (ELLs) are the fastest growing student population across the country, increasing 60% in the past 10 years, as compared with the 7% growth of the general student population (Grantmakers for Education, 2013). Moreover, ELLs are not homogeneous. Although more than 70% speak Spanish, as a group, ELLs speak nearly 150 languages other than English, coming from diverse cultural, racial, and educational backgrounds (Baird, 2015). To emphasize the potential of these students to become bilingual and biliterate instead of only focusing on the learning or absence of English, I hereinafter refer to them as emergent bilinguals.

While the population and diversity of emergent bilinguals continue to increase, the privileging of English in U.S. language education policy have had a negative impact on their education. Spaces for bilingualism in education have shrunk due to English-only curriculum and the pervading atmosphere of high-stakes testing (e.g., Escamilla, 2006; Hornberger, 2006), which refuses to acknowledge their language resources and shuts down opportunities for the development of multilingualism (García & Kleyn, 2016). This is despite the fact that time and time again, research has demonstrated that using students’ home language facilitates better understanding of new content and further leads to stronger academic outcomes (Collins, 2014; Rolstad, Mahoney, & Glass, 2005; August & Shanahan, 2006). To this end, translanguaging provides a viable approach to support bilingualism and biliteracy and to make the rigorous standards-driven curriculum more accessible to emergent bilinguals, “leveraging the students’ full language repertoires to teach and assess, and enabling a more socially just and equitable education for bilingual students” (García & Kleyn, 2016, p. 17).

Translanguaging Theory in Education

The theoretical orientation undergirding this paper is García’s (2009) translanguaging theory in education. Before elaborating on that, I will present a brief review of the development of the translanguaging concept.

Welsh Origins of Translanguaging

The term translanguaging, “trawsieithu,” was first coined by Cen Williams (a well-known Welsh educationalist) to respond to the call for Welsh revitalization in the 1980s. It refers to a pedagogical practice in which students are asked to deliberately switch the language mode of input and output in bilingual Welsh/English classrooms:

Translanguaging means that you receive information through the medium of one language (e.g., English) and use it yourself through the medium of the other language (e.g., Welsh). Before you can use that information successfully, you must have fully understood it. (Williams, 1996, p. 64)

Williams (2002) suggests that translanguaging often uses the stronger language to develop the weaker language, thus contributing toward a potentially relatively balanced development of a child’s two languages. It is a strategy for retaining and developing bilingualism rather than for the initial teaching of second language (which means translanguaging is more appropriate for children who have a reasonably good grasp of both languages, and may not be valuable in a classroom when children are in the early stages of learning and developing their second language). In 2001, a close colleague of Williams published a piece on translanguaging in the third edition of Foundations of Bilingual Education and Bilingualism, and thus launched the term internationally (Baker, 2001). He discusses four potential educational advantages to translanguaging, further arguing for the importance of the concept as a pedagogical practice.1

The Development of Translanguaging Theory: Ofelia García

Since then, the term translanguaging has caught the imagination of expert North American educationalists. In particular, Ofelia García valuably extended the concept of translanguaging beyond pedagogy: “languaging” captures the dynamic process of using language to make meaning, to gain understanding and knowledge, to shape experiences, and to communicate with others. The “trans” nature of languaging further describes the natural communicative practices of bilinguals who move between their languages spontaneously, flexibly, and pragmatically to make sense of their bilingual worlds (García, 2009).

Some people may argue that translanguaging is just another version of code-switching. However, translanguaging is epistemologically different from code-switching. Code-switching takes an external, monolingual view of looking at bilinguals’ language behavior of switching back and forth between two separate, named language systems (i.e., the first language and the second language). Translanguaging, on the other hand, takes an internal, multilingual view of looking at bilinguals’ language behavior in which what is recognized is one complex, dynamic, unitary linguistic repertoire that bilinguals themselves appropriate surreptitiously and strategically to acquire, understand, and demonstrate knowledge (see a full discussion in Otheguy, García, & Reid, 2015).

Translanguaging in Instruction

In accord with the Welsh educational origins of translanguaging, García further argues that translanguaging could be a most effective means to enhance a pupil’s cognitive, language, and literacy abilities, centering not on languages but on the observable, natural communicative practices of bilinguals.

Translanguaging in instruction is not random or haphazard but strategic. In the translanguaging education model,

teachers start from a place that leverage all the features of the children’s repertoire, while also showing them when, where, and why to use some features of their repertoire and not others, enabling them to also perform according to the social norms of named languages as used in schools. (García & Kleyn, 2016, p. 15)

García, Johnson, and Seltzer (2016) identify three dimensions that are at play in instruction that uses translanguaging: teacher’s stance, design, and shifts (see Table 1).

Table 1. Three Dimensions of Translanguaging in Instruction


(1) Acknowledge that bilingualism is a resource at all times to learn, think, imagine, and develop commanding performances in two or more languages. (2) Position language in the lips and minds of the children, and not in external standards or regulations. (3) Believe that translanguaging transforms subject positionalities, enabling children to perform with their own internal norm that will make them more creative and critical. With these three, teachers should develop a transformative stance, using the child’s full repertoire to transform the language hierarchies in the U.S. schools.


Three elements: (1) constructing collaborative/cooperative structures, (2) collecting varied multilingual and multimodal instructional practices, (3) using translanguaging pedagogical practices.


Teachers must be prepared to change the course of instruction in order to respond to individual children’s language repertoires. While translanguaging is planned and purposeful, it can also be spontaneous during big and small classroom moments. Reading students and making on-the-spot decisions is necessary.

Source: García, Johnson, and Seltzer (2016).


To understand and further figure out how the translanguaging theory in education (García, 2009) might best be applied in K–12 classroom contexts for teachers and researchers, this literature review aims to chart the landscape of current efforts and initiatives of putting translanguaging theory into instructional practice. It is guided by the question: What are some current practices of applying translanguaging as pedagogy for emergent bilinguals in the United States?


This literature review specifically draws upon six empirically grounded ethnographic case studies (See Table 2 emanating from the CUNY-NYSIEB2 project, which are documented in the book Translanguaging with Multilingual Students: Learning from Classroom Moments, edited by García and Kleyn (2016). These six representative case studies were selected according to the following parameters: (1) studies with direct relevance to the topic (with a specific pedagogical framework of translanguaging); (2) studies conducted only in the United States, given the particular policy context considered in this review; (3) studies focusing on K–12 education, specifically from the elementary to high school level (i.e., excluding studies involving early childhood, postsecondary, or adult learners); and (4) empirical studies only.

Generally speaking, the primary focus of the City University of New York – New York State Initiative on Emergent Bilinguals (CUNY-NYSIEB) project is to improve the educational outcomes for emergent bilinguals. Participants in this project recognize multilingual students and their teachers as natural translanguagers and engage them in the development of an approach to teaching and learning centered on translanguaging.

The six case studies are varied by age group, type of students, subjects, programs, and teachers. Each endeavor of adopting translanguaging approach in classrooms, with their own merits and drawbacks, suggests promising avenues to implement translanguaging as pedagogy for emergent bilinguals.

Table 2. A Brief Overview of the Six Case Studies

Source: García & Kleyn (2016)

The Current Landscape of Translanguaging in Practice

The translanguaging approach, which starts where the student is and builds on what the student brings, engages the complete repertoire of emergent bilinguals and develops bilingualism through interaction with others and texts with multiple language features, while also showing them how to perform according to the social norms of using languages. In the following section, the current findings will be presented according to different content areas: English language arts, social studies, and science.

Translanguaging in English Language Arts

There are three case studies in this category (Ebe, 2016; Kleyn, 2016; Seltzer & Collins, 2016); they share similar translanguaging pedagogical strategies though they differ in grade levels and classroom contexts.

All of the case studies utilize translanguaging as a scaffold in a variety of forms to engage students’ interaction with the new vocabulary, concepts, and directions.

(1) Teacher-to-student: For instance, Ms. Chapman-Santiago provided translations of the questions in the students’ home languages on a handout so that all students would have immediate access to what they were to do at the start of class. Ms. Yau and Ms. Angeles adopted teacher translanguaging to encourage students to draw upon language features from their own repertoires flexibly and to facilitate their comprehension and production of knowledge.

(2) Student-to-student: Group discussion was a norm for every case study (e.g., Ms. Chapman-Santiago grouped her students based on the same home languages), and students could make use of their full linguistic repertoires to share opinions and co-construct understandings of English texts. During discussion, students can serve as linguistic resources to one another, helping to build off their ideas and language. The teacher’s role here is to stand back, listen, and accept students’ responses across languages, with the larger goal of having them comprehend the story and make inferences.

(3) Student-to-self: At the end of the class, teachers asked their students to write responses or create journal entries without mandating their language use, which created more opportunities for them to explain their understandings. In the absence of limitations to use any one language, they were able to use all the linguistic resources available to them to fully express themselves so their teacher could assess their understanding of the content and gauge their language use and needs.

In addition, the three teachers chose culturally relevant texts that resonate with students’ background purposefully. For example, Ms. Chapman-Santiago selected a poem from a novel about a young girl who leaves Vietnam after the fall of Saigon and comes to the United States, and the poem itself adopted translanguaging as a literacy device (the author used Vietnamese words in certain places). Likewise, Ms. Angeles chose three poems about immigrant students’ school life. As students read the texts, they made strong connections between the narrators and people they knew—their families, friends, and classmates. Having so much to say pushed students to use all of their linguistic resources to “talk back” to the poems and make their ideas understood to one another. The use of culturally relevant texts not only enhances students’ active participation, comprehension, and proficiency, but also it goes beyond scaffolding—it is a way of releasing their voices and enabling them to bring their whole selves into the classroom (García & Leiva, 2014). In the case studies, students engaged in translanguaging in both intra- and interpersonal ways to express their emotions (e.g., feelings of anger and frustration) and connect with and support their peers. Through establishing the network of supportive peers, students developed a sense of belonging and membership in the social order of the school (Johnson, Crosnoe, & Elder, 2001).

All of the three classrooms cultivated translanguaging as the discursive norm of the students in the class. For the two transitional bilingual education program cases, the fluidity of translanguaging provided a safe haven for all languages instead of policed language zones. The freedom students were offered to bring in their language practices and to use their bilingual voices opened up spaces for learning both content and languages. For the mainstream classroom, the class became comfortable with hearing a variety of languages during sessions in which students developed empathy for others, and a linguistically inclusive classroom environment was formed. Moreover, the monolingual teacher, Ms. Chapman-Santiago, stressed that a teacher in a translanguaging classroom need not be bilingual. Instead, they must be colearners, discovering and learning from their students. In that way, bilingual students are empowered.

Overall, here are some recommendations for ELA teachers:

  • Look for texts that have connections with students’ lives, whether they are written in English, their home language, or bilingually.

  • Give spaces for students to use translanguaging, both in oral and written forms (teacher modeling if necessary).

  • Take advantage of different grouping strategies (according to home languages, cultural backgrounds, etc.).

  • Be aware of the teacher’s role as facilitator and colearner.

Translanguaging in Social Studies

There are two cases in this category. The topics students learn about in social studies lend themselves to connection to cultures and languages. In Woodley’s (2016) case, the teacher, Mr. Brown, introduced upper elementary school children in a mainstream class to slavery in the United States, whereas in the case of Collins and Cioè-Peña (2016), the teachers, Mr. Vásquez and Ms. Arias, had middle schoolers in their transitional bilingual education program explore the Declaration of Independence.

Both topics require in-depth understanding of the history of the United States, which posed challenges especially for students who have been part of an education system in a different country, where they were exposed to different histories and perspectives. The teachers in both cases allowed the students to make cross-cultural connections through using translanguaging in class. For instance, Mr. Brown gave space for bilingual students to make connections to oppression that occurs in their home country, while Mr. Vásquez and Ms. Arias let students make connections to key documents and laws in their countries of origin. The significance of translanguaging lies in that, “translanguaging is both the reflective mirror bringing students’ worlds into the classroom and a window into new perspectives and multilingual/multicultural awareness” (García & Kleyn, 2016, p. 95).

Additionally, the inclusion of multilingual/multimodal resources really expanded students’ learning capacity. In Collins’s and Cioè-Peña’s (2016) case, the teachers used a BrainPop video, first shown in English and then in Spanish, to contextualize the work around the Declaration of Independence. The students were also shown a painting depicting the signing of the Declaration of Independence, as well as a picture of the original document to differentiate primary and secondary sources of information. By using multilingual/multimodal texts, the teacher was able to give students multiple points of access for them to participate and engage with the content, the materials, and their peers. Meanwhile, the use of multilingual, multimodal texts facilitated students’ abilities to work collaboratively in multiple languages.

In summary, here are some recommendations for social studies teachers:

  • Be sure to make cross-cultural connections.

  • Make full use of multilingual/multimodal resources.

  • Create spaces/activities for students to use translanguaging in both spoken and written modes.

Translanguaging in Science

Research of translanguaging as pedagogy in science and math classrooms is scarce. Among the six case studies, there is only one specifically addressing science.

The case study of Espinosa and Herrera (2016) depicted a middle school science classroom (a dual language bilingual education program) where students are learning about different states of matter. It uncovered how students and their teacher utilize their bilingual resources in a minoritized language-medium classroom where Spanish is the language of instruction (instead of the usual English-language majority classroom).

The teacher, Ms. Montoya, employed translanguaging to invite her students to speak and write in the language of their choice. First, she asked students to identify cognates and false cognates of key words/terminology of that science lesson. She gave the students space to use their entire language repertoire to construct meaning and scientific concepts. Also, she provided support through multimodal translanguaging and hands-on experiments with realia, gestures, and actions to maximize meaning. Finally, she used teacher translanguaging to confirm, restate, and build on what students say, positioning the students as scientists. For Ms. Montoya, translanguaging is not only an approach to support students whose English practices are emerging, but also those who are reclaiming a minoritized language.


Through reviewing current practices of applying translanguaging as pedagogy across content areas in different types of classrooms, several common themes have emerged:

  • Translanguaging is student-centered, and the starting point lies in the features of the linguistic repertoire that the child already has available in his or her evolving linguistic system.

  • Translanguaging is planned and strategic, but also requires making immediate decisions (teachers must adaptively attune to the needs of students).

  • The use of multilingual, multimodal resources expands the space for translanguaging and maximizes students’ learning.

  • It is essential to make translanguaging the communicative classroom norm to create a linguistically inclusive atmosphere.

  • Translanguaging serves as a scaffold to facilitate students’ understanding of new language and content.

  • Translanguaging also goes beyond scaffolding and has the transformative power to challenge the hegemony of English to make education more just and equitable to language minorities.

However, the implementation of translanguaging as pedagogy in content-area classrooms still faces challenges: (1) In mainstream classrooms, it is important to consider how to include monolingual students or empower monolingual teachers/administrators, monolingual peers, or students who are at the early stages of bilingual development. Students with no or limited bilingualism may feel uncomfortable during a lesson that includes translanguaging. (2) Administrative support and leadership at the school level (or higher) is instrumental in developing a sense of purpose, maintaining a spirit of unity, and achieving the translanguaging goals. “Translanguaging practices are often constrained by the socioeducational and sociopolitical circumstances in which schools operate” (García & Kleyn, 2016, p. 2). Garcia and Sylvan (2011) suggest that translanguaging best operates in a context where seven principles are engaged: celebrated heterogeneity in language, collaboration among teachers and students, learner-centered classrooms, language and content integration, inclusive plurilingual use from students, experiential learning, and local autonomy and responsibility.

Lastly, given the body of work in this field is still inadequate, especially empirical studies, some future research directions are provided here: (1) translanguaging as pedagogy in mathematics classrooms; (2) translanguaging as pedagogy in other educational contexts, such as higher education institutions; (3) the role of the teacher’s background in adopting translanguaging as pedagogy in instructional practices; (4) the effect on students’ achievement outcomes; (5) large-scale studies other than ethnographic case studies.

Translanguaging is more than responsive or relevant to the cultural experiences and multilingual practices of emergent bilinguals. As Paris (2012) indicated, it is a linguistically sustaining pedagogy, which “supports young people in sustaining the cultural and linguistic competence of their communities while simultaneously offering access to dominant cultural competence” (p. 95), and it seeks to “perpetuate and foster – to sustain – linguistic, literate, and cultural pluralism as part of the democratic project of schooling” (p. 95).


August, D., & Shanahan, T. (2006). Developing literacy in second language learners: Report of the national literacy panel on language-minority children and youth. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.

Baird, A. S. (2015). Dual language learners reader post #2: Who are dual language learners? EdCentral. Retrieved from http://www.edcentral.org/dllreader2/

Baker, C. (2001). Foundations of bilingual education and bilingualism (3rd ed.). Clevedon, United Kingdom: Multilingual Matters.

Capps, R., Fix, M., Murray, J., Ost, J., Passel, J. S., & Hewantoro, S. (2005). The new demography of America’s schools: Immigration and the No Child Left Behind Act. Washington, DC: Urban Institute. Retrieved from http://www.urban.org/url.cfm?ID_311230

Collins, B. A. (2014). Dual language development of Latino children: Effect of instruction program type and the home and school language use. Early Childhood Research Quarterly, 29(3), 389–397.

Collins, B. A., & Cioè-Peña, M. (2016). Declaring freedom: Translanguaging in the social studies classroom to understand complex texts. In O. García & T. Kleyn (Eds.), Translanguaging with multilingual students: Learning from classroom moments (pp. 118–139). New York, NY: Routledge.

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1The four potential educational advantages are: (1) it may promote a deeper and fuller understanding of the subject matter, (2) it may help the development of the weaker language, (3) it may facilitate home-school links and cooperation, (4) it may help the integration of fluent speakers with early learners (Baker, 2001).

2This project funded by the New York State Education Department argues that for schools to be successful at meeting the needs of emergent bilingual students, schools must develop ecologies of bilingualism that build on the home language practices of their students. (See a full description including their vision, principles, participating schools at www.cuny-nysieb.org)

Zhongfeng Tian is a doctoral student majoring in curriculum and instruction with a specialization in language, literacy, and cuulture at Boston College. He is a bilingual speaker of Mandarin and English. He earned his master’s degree in TESOL at Boston University. His main research interests are translanguaging, bilingualism, and language and literacy development.

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