• By Dr. Lizdelia Piñón • IDRA Newsletter • March 21, 2022 • Dr. Lizdelia Piñón

On a rainy Monday morning in Chicago in 2004, I took the day off from my auditing job to observe my niece Lolita in kindergarten because she’d been crying and begging not to go to school every morning. I wondered what was happening to cause Lolita to hate kindergarten.

Upon entering the bilingual education classroom, I heard the teacher declare, “We don’t speak Spanish during our science period!” This happened during circle time. Lolita was sitting on the rug listening to her classmate explain the butterfly lifecycle in Lolita’s native Spanish. Lolita and her classmate were smartly using the resources of their different languages with very little regard for any artificial boundaries between English and Spanish. I watched with fascination as both languages allowed for more effective communication about the butterfly lifecycle.

To my horror, the teacher who made the declaration was a Spanish-speaking, Latina educator. I was angry that the teacher denied Lolita’s use of her native language to comprehend the lesson. The teacher rendered Lolita mute during lessons taught in English because of her lack of English fluency. It seemed the teacher caused a 5-year-old child to feel like a failure because of a contrived boundary imposed on her use of language. I understood why Lolita hated school. Lolita’s mom quickly spoke to the principal and the teacher, and they created a plan to help Lolita learn English while still honoring the Spanish that she brought into the classroom.

The moment was life-altering for me. I decided to change careers and become an educator myself. I could not in good conscience overlook this teacher’s linguistic oppression of her emergent bilingual students. With my new understanding, I felt empowered to do better by emergent bilingual students.

Now at IDRA, I support all the little Lolitas who speak in their native languages to learn academic content. I regularly connect with educators seeking to incorporate their emergent bilingual students’ native languages during lessons. I show how a process called translanguaging can be the best approach for producing confident bilingual learners who enjoy school.

Using Translanguaging to Support Learning

Through translanguaging, emergent bilingual students use all of their linguistic and cognitive resources to better understand content provided to them in a language they have just begun to learn. It involves educators recognizing students’ dynamic bilingualism as an asset in the classroom rather elevating English above all other languages. It is a culturally-sustaining practice used for language development.

This can be a powerful tool for learning. But it also can go against the grain for many educators who are accustomed to focusing emergent bilingual students solely on mastering the intricacies of a single new language while ignoring the student’s home language skills. Instead, in translanguaging, educators value all students’ linguistic resources and bring them to bear on the learning process in all contexts (Cioè-Peña & Snell, 2015).

Using translanguaging is a way to offer emergent bilingual students access to grade-level content in any type of program: bilingual education, dual language or English as a second language. Even though the lesson on the lifecycle of the butterfly was in English, Lolita was able to discuss the new information in Spanish with her classmate. She could see or hear the similarities in the words between the English target language (e.g., cycle) and her native Spanish (e.g., ciclo). Lolita’s native Spanish served as a scaffold that bolstered her acquisition both of the English language and the butterfly lifecycle.

When teachers strategically integrate translanguaging into their plans, emergent bilingual students benefit from their whole linguistic repertoire (Cenoz, 2017). The brain does not isolate languages in separate spaces. Students gain access to “academic content through the linguistic resources and communicative repertoires they bring to the classroom while simultaneously acquiring new ones” (Hornberger & Link, 2012). Educators can observe the negotiations and mediations used by emergent bilingual students during communication in multilingual and multicultural classrooms.

This transformative pedagogy leverages bilingual students’ multicompetence (García, 2009a). Otheguy, et al., represented translanguaging as “the deployment of a speaker’s full linguistic repertoire without regard for watchful adherence to the socially and politically defined boundaries of named (and usually national and state) languages” (2015).

The concept of translanguaging is relatively new in the field of bilingual education (García, 2009b; García, et al., 2017; García & Lin, 2017). It emerged as a direct response to the outdated policies and concepts inherent in the monolingual ideology of subtractive bilingual education in which teachers erect artificial barriers, such as the one Lolita experienced, between languages in classrooms (García, et al., 2017; García & Wei, 2015; Valdés, 2005).

Translanguaging pedagogy is an innovation for traditional bilingual programs because languages may flow fluidly within the classroom. By moving toward translanguaging pedagogy, we can bridge learning gaps among emergent bilingual students. García, et al., encourage bilingual educators to move from a monolingual ideology to a flexible biliteracy model. As educators engage in the practice of translanguaging pedagogy, they can provide empirical evidence of its efficacy in today’s classrooms. (García, et al., 2017)

Implementing Translanguaging

The change can begin by applying a few of these simple ideas in the classroom.

  • Display students’ home language words alongside English words on a word board.
  • Use bilingual texts for read-aloud opportunities and independent reading and practice.
  • Have bilingual dictionaries and glossaries readily accessible in the classroom.
  • Use mobile applications and translation software to translate if needed.
  • Pair students strategically to write in multiple languages.
  • Welcome into the classroom family and community members as language partners.
  • Ask students to share vocabulary being taught in different content areas in their home language.
  • Find cognates where possible; in some cases, the written language may be different, but the sounds may be similar.
  • Provide students with multilingual resources to support their work.
  • Allow students to make journal entries in their home language or in English or both.
  • Start an educator book club at your school or district.

Creating a translanguaging space that uses students’ ways of knowing and entire linguistic repertoires is a powerful tool for learning and strengthens bilingual education. Let me know if you have questions or need assistance from the IDRA EAC-South to better serve your emergent bilingual students (lizdelia.pinon@idra.org).


Cenoz, J. (2017). Translanguaging in School Contexts: International Perspectives. Journal of Language, Identity & Education, 16(4), 193-198.

Cioè-Peña, M., & Snell, T. (2015). Translanguaging for Social Justice. Theory, Research and Action in Urban Education, 4(1), 1-5.

Commission on Language Learning. (2017). America’s Languages Investing In Language Education for the 21st Century. American Academy of Arts & Sciences.

García, O. (2009a). Education, Multilingualism and Translanguaging in the 21st Century. In A. Mohanty, M. Panda, R. Phillipson, & T. Skutnabb-Kangas (Eds.), Multilingual Education for Social Justice: Globalising the Local. Orient Blackswan.

García, O. (2009b). Bilingual Education in the 21st Century: A Global Perspective. Blackwell/Wiley.

García, O., Johnson, S., & Seltzer, K. (2017). The Translanguaging Classroom. Caslon.

García, O., & Lin, A.M.Y. (2017). Translanguaging in bilingual education. In O. García & A.M.Y. Lin (Eds.), Bilingual and Multilingual Education: Encyclopedia of Language and Education, Vol. 5. Springer.

García, O., & Wei, L. (2015). Translanguaging, Bilingualism, and Bilingual Education. In W.E. Wright, S. Boun, & O. García (Eds.), The Handbook of Bilingual and Multilingual Education. Wiley.

Hornberger, N.H., & Link, H. (2012). Translanguaging and Transnational Literacies in Multilingual Classrooms: A Biliteracy Lens. International Journal of Bilingual Education and Bilingualism, 15(3), 261-278.

Otheguy, R., García, O., & Reid, W. (2015). Clarifying Translanguaging and Deconstructing Named Languages: A Perspective from Linguistics. Applied Linguistics Review, 6(3), 281-307.

Valdés, G. (2005). Bilingualism, Heritage Language Learners, and SLA Research: Opportunities Lost or Seized? The Modern Language Journal, 89(3), 410-426.

Lizdelia Piñón, Ed.D., is an IDRA education associate. Comments and questions may be directed to her via email at lizdelia.pinon@idra.org.

[©2022, IDRA. This article originally appeared in the March 21, 2022, edition of the newsletter by the Intercultural Development Research Association. Permission to reproduce this article is granted provided the article is reprinted in its entirety and proper credit is given to IDRA and the author.]