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What can English-dominant teachers do in a multilingual context?
Stop, think, and proceed with care

LeAnn G. Putney, Ph. D.
University of Nevada, Las Vegas

Yiqiang Wu, Ph. D.
The College of New Jersey

Joan Wink, Ph. D.
California State University, Stanislaus

Throughout the US, as mainstream classrooms become more diverse, teachers are struggling to answer the question: What can English-dominant teachers do in a multilingual context? In addition, the recent California mandate of twenty students to one teacher in first, second, and third grade classrooms has emphasized the need to find answers to this question. School districts in California are now searching for even more teachers who are prepared to meet the needs of a linguistically diverse population.

Utilizing Vygotskian concepts in multilingual classrooms to ensure equity of access for English language learners, we offer this interpretation and illustration of linguistically diverse classrooms. This work employs the Vygotskian concepts of learning and development by illustrating his work on the zone of proximal development, which promotes an environment in which students and teachers work together to construct communities of learning.

  What can English-dominant teachers do when teaching in a multilingual context ?
  Create a safe environment. Encourage students to negotiate meaning with their peers.

"You have to help us," Lili implored of the adult observer, Ms. Morgan, as she patted a chunk of clay into a round flat piece that resembled a tortilla. "We have to finish this before lunch and Elena does not know how to do this." Lili nodded past the observer toward Elena, a member of this table group who was working with another chunk of clay. Together these fifth grade students were sculpting a replica of a fountain similar to those made by sculptor Harriet Hosmer in the 1800s. The fountain was to be part of an exhibit for a museum being jointly constructed by the entire fifth grade as the culminating project of the school year.

"Well, I can try to help you," Ms. Morgan replied somewhat sheepishly as she sat down between the two students, "but I have to tell you that I have never worked with clay before."

"Oh, that's ok, I'll show you how to work it. I'll make the bowl and you two make the base part. I pat it like it was a tortilla to make it smooth," Lili continued as she worked the clay with her hands. "I learned how to make tortillas from Tía Berta and Nana in Mexico," she explained.

"But what do we need to do for the base?" Ms. Morgan asked, watching Elena try to smooth the chunk of clay into a long, rectangular piece for a pedestal.

"See, you want it to look like this," Lili explained as she provided a picture of the fountain she found during her historical research project. She picked up a popsickle stick and continued, "You take this and smooth it this way," as she deftly smoothed the side of the clay blob, "I learned how to do this from a brick layer in Mexico while I was there," Lili noted.

The three worked feverishly to finish constructing the fountain as the teacher approached them while checking on the table groups. "So they got you to show them how it is done," the teacher smiled and nodded at Ms. Morgan.

"Not quite," she explained, "Lili is helping me learn how to work with clay.

"Oh good, she is bringing to the classroom some of what she had learned during her stay with family in Mexico," the teacher remarked as she moved on to check the progress of other table groups.

"Who is the more capable peer here?" Ms. Morgan mused as they assembled the pieces they had been fashioning. Lili had been the expert when it came to working with the clay, but now they were going to have to call on some other expertise because the bowl that Lili had carefully fashioned was drooping down over the top of the base.

"What you need is a way to make it stronger," noted Gustavo, a new student from Brazil, who had witnessed their collective struggle to finish this part of the project.

"And how do you suggest that we do that?" queried Ms. Morgan.

"Easy. You just have to put these here to make it strong," he claimed as he picked up more of the popsickle sticks from a nearby table. Gustavo pressed the sticks into the soft clay of the bowl while Lili retrieved some more clay to cover the sticks. "Now we put more the other way," he continued as he laid another layer perpendicular to the first, "and now cover it with clay."

Sure enough, the bowl of the fountain now sat securely on the pedestal. As soon as it dried, it would be ready for the exhibit. Clearly the expertise in this classroom was not confined to the adults. Ms. Morgan could see that these were students who were problem solvers, ready and capable of assisting each other in their inquiry based learning environment.

One of the notions from Vygotsky's work that we find most relevant to learning in today's environment is that of the Zone of Proximal Development. Vygotsky (1978; 1986) hypothesized that learning and development are in dynamic and reciprocal relationship to each other. He also theorized the zone of proximal development as "the distance between the actual developmental level as determined by independent problem solving and the level of potential development as determined through problem solving under adult guidance or in collaboration with more capable peers" (p. 86). In other words, what children learn to do today with assistance from others, they can do by themselves tomorrow. It is through interaction, by speaking and thinking together, that we learn. In creating an environment of speaking and thinking together, of interactively solving problems, we can encourage learning in a community of learners.

From the ethnographic field notes of the study in this first example, we know that these particular students had entered this classroom speaking very little English at the beginning of school. However, by the time they were working together on this project at the end of the school year, most of the conversation was in English. Lili was leading the construction of the fountain, and she spoke mostly English to the adult observer, Ms. Morgan. However, as a bilingual student, she was able to speak Spanish with Spanish-dominant Elena from Mexico. Throughout the school year she had also served at times as a translator, speaking in a mixture of Spanish and English with Gustavo, who had come from Brazil six months earlier, speaking only his primary language of Portuguese. All three students knew that they were safe to teach and learn across languages because their teacher established the importance of using all their languages from the first moments of their classroom life together. She also noted on the first day, and continually thereafter, that they were all teachers and all learners together as members of their classroom community.

Proceeding with care

We have started with one example of what it might look like to create a safe environment for students. Throughout this article we will continue to illustrate how teachers can establish a community of learners that is a safe environment for learning, even when the classroom is multilingual, and the teacher is not. Fortunately for classroom teachers, there are resources available to assist them in this process. One such work is that of Faltis (1993, 1996), who builds a foundation for this type of classroom which we have described above as Vygotskian. Faltis extends the Vygotskian notion of a classroom of interactive problem solvers to include linguistically diverse parents in the equation of successful classrooms. He describes what he has labeled a joinfostering classroom as one that is built through: (a) two-way communication, (b) social integration, (c) second-language acquisition, and (d) parental involvement.

While this is not the only work that is useful for English-dominant teachers in a multilingual setting, we have found these four constructs useful to serve as headings for each of the following sections. Under each section you will see a Stop Sign, followed by a reoccurring question that others have asked us about teaching in a multilingual classroom. Our intent is for you to STOP and THINK how to PROCEED with care in this teaching situation. Our attempts to incite and promote your musing on this question will be signaled with a Go Light and suggestion, followed by a vignette which illustrates our own response.

Two Way Communication

  What can English-dominant teachers do when teaching in a multilingual context ?
  Encourage students to speak to each other in their language when discussing content.

The 7th and 8th grade students in an ESL classroom had been given a story in English to read as a homework assignment. When they took a quiz the next day in class, the low scores indicated to the teacher the need to rethink her approach to reading.

"Ok, class. Suppose that we try something different today with our story that we read at home last night. Today I want you to work in groups of four or five, read the story aloud to each other in class, and then we will work on answering these questions in your group," she suggested.

The students turned their desks around to form groups and began to read aloud to each other as Ms. Martin circulated to offer assistance as needed. When they finished reading and began to answer the questions about the text, the discussion was minimal until Maysao spoke up.

"Teacher, do we have to use English?" asked Maysao.

"Hmmm, it doesn't matter what language you use to discuss the questions, as long as everyone participates," she replied, hesitantly at first.

Discussion erupted as students, who would barely speak up in front of the class, were now defending their answers to the other members of their small group. They talked about why an answer was right or wrong until the group arrived at consensus. Some of the students were responding in their primary language, others were using English, and in some groups three different languages were being spoken at the same time. The environment of the small group was a safe one, and the students were able to respond comfortably with each other. When they later discussed the questions in a whole class activity, they were answering in English with the knowledge that they had first confirmed the meaning of those questions in the security of their primary language.

What this teacher did to affect meaningful and positive change was to promote two-way communication between teachers and students. She recognized the knowledge which students brought with them to the classroom, and established interactive exchanges for all students regardless of their level of English proficiency. From a Vygotskian perspective, encouraging all students to talk to each other in their own language generates knowledge. It is through their talk and interaction that students make meaning and make sense of academic content. The participants are doing today what they are able to do with assistance from others. They will be able to do this problem-solving by themselves later when these ideas and words have become internalized.

Social Integration

  What can English-dominant teachers do when teaching in a multilingual context?
  Encourage students to reflect, to discuss, to organize thoughts, to summarize, to generate ideas through social interaction.

You guys need to decide how you will work together. You're going to decide as a group, using these ideas about rights and responsibilities, and all the things we have talked about this year, and how to work in a group and support each other.

You need to come up with a contract, and this contract will be something that you and the group sign. You're going to need a recorder to write down your ideas, and then you, as a group, will sign at the bottom, and that will be your contract.

With these words from the student teacher, so begins the end of the year project for this fifth grade bilingual classroom, The Americana Museum. All of the fifth grade classes came together at the end of the year to construct a museum with actual exhibits depicting some part of US history during the 1800s. The students and teachers in each classroom brainstormed what they wanted to know about the time period, then they divided the suggestions into major categories (e.g., art, laws and government, education, etc.)

The students selected the topic for research in small groups. In those small groups they selected particular areas of interest from the group topic, wrote and signed their contract, and began to work for the next three weeks. After building their exhibits, they presented their work to the other elementary students who toured the museum throughout an entire day at the end of the three weeks.

These students used language to mediate their learning when they raised questions, entered into dialogue, formulated their own perspectives, and engaged in problem solving and critical reflection. All students, second language learners included, must have access to the core curriculum through a language they understand, and taught in a process which promotes intellectual growth. They must be encouraged and given the opportunity to talk, talk, talk about the content areas being studied. When teachers take time to develop positive interdependence among students, small-group learning will improve the quality of interaction and learning in the classroom.

Second-Language Acquisition

  What can English-dominant teachers do when teaching in a multilingual context ?
  Realize that there are various levels of language proficiency. Students who interact informally may not be ready to discuss abstract academic concepts in their second language.

"Speak English, we only speak English in this classroom," exclaimed the ESL teacher during an oral review for a social studies exam.

Silence immediately reigned among the previously engaged students.

"But Mrs. Rogers, these questions are hard," explained Berta, one of the more outspoken students in this linguistically diverse classroom.

"I know they are hard, but you need to be able to answer them in English. I hoped that we could make this review more fun and interesting by making a game of it. That is why, when I ask a question, someone in your row is supposed to give me the answer. If your row can't get it, the next row gets a chance to answer, in English."

Mrs. Rogers did not seem to understand how she was setting these non-English dominant students up for failure to participate in this classroom situation. Most of these students did not want to take a chance that they had misunderstood the question, resulting in a wrong answer for their team. Only the most outspoken and proficient English-speaking students bothered to take a stab at the answer to the next question. Those who were not as comfortable in speaking English simply remained silent rather than give a wrong answer to their teacher. This was not a safe environment in which to try on this relatively new and scary language. In a spontaneous discussion with her instructional aide after class, Mrs. Rogers came to an understanding of what had just transpired.

"These kids can speak English fairly well, I wonder why they did not want to participate? I tried to shelter the questions, to give them hints, so that they would be able to get the answers, but most didn't really even try," Mrs. Rogers mused aloud after class to Ms. Montero, a bilingual instructional aid.

"Do you think it may have something to do with your insistence that they speak only English to each other?" queried Ms. Montero.

"Well of course not," Mrs. Rogers asserted, "why would that make a difference? They already know how to speak English, why don't they just use it?"

"Well," Ms. Montero replied, "You were asking them some difficult questions about social studies. How about the next time letting them talk it over in their primary language as long as they give you an answer in English? I tend to think that you'll have more discussion that way. You may not understand all of what they are saying to each other, but they will understand social studies much better."

In the words of Krashen (1991) students will acquire language when they are given comprehensible input. For English dominant teachers with non-English dominant students, this may mean the teacher will have to find a way to make the content comprehensible to the students. In content areas, where instruction usually relies more upon oral and written language to explain abstract concepts, teachers can facilitate comprehension by presenting the concepts in context under the following conditions: (a) by changing the pace of the spoken language and restating the concepts in more than one way (b) by using gestures and facial expressions; and (c) by utilizing visuals such as maps, diagrams, and timelines, as wells as real objects brought into the classroom. The point is to get the meaning across in varied ways so that students have access to abstract concepts. In short, Meaning Matters (Wink, 1997, p. 153).

Parental Participation

  What can English-dominant teachers do when teaching in a multilingual context ?
  Recognize the importance of involving parents in your classroom.

Rainey was a beginning teacher with no experience in a multilingual context. Because of these limited experiences, she was afraid of anyone from another culture. When Rainey began teaching she focused her frustration on one student in particular, Ollie. She saw him as her worst problem student, and she assumed his behavior must be the result of his family life. Gradually through school-initiated interaction between parents and teachers, Rainey began to question her prior assumptions about Ollie's parents.

Combined parent-teacher trainings provided the interactions which triggered a transformation in Rainey. This transformation gave her the courage to visit Ollie's home. What Rainey discovered upon her visit was a good home environment with a loving and supportive family. Ollie's mother shared Rainey's concern about Ollie's behavior. After all, his brothers and sisters were successful in school. However, Ollie's mother was too uncomfortable and alienated to come to the school and discuss her concerns. Together Rainey and Ollie's mother worked out strategies they could both use to serve Ollie's needs better so that he could find success within the educational system.

What Rainey learned was that it is the teacher's responsibility to contact parents, to share information with them, and to establish with parents meaningful relations. In our work with classroom teachers we have often found that the advise to "Listen first" has been the most useful. Teachers have reported back to us that the parents were most willing to work with the classroom teacher when they realized that the teacher wanted to start with their concerns and their issues in the schooling of their children.

One of the most successful teachers we know in respect to parent involvement begins each year by sending a letter home to the parents, after reading it aloud in class with her students. This letter gives some of her own background so that the parents can feel that they know her better. She also outlines what she hopes that the class will accomplish together, and she invites the parents to write back, with their child as a homework assignment, what they hope to have their child accomplish. This letter writing continues after the parent-student-teacher conferences in which the children share their work with their parents from their portfolios. The teacher writes what she feels their strengths have been as classroom members, and the parents write to their children about what they have witnessed throughout the year in terms of their learning process.


In concluding, we want to demonstrate how one teacher did exactly what we are hoping will result from this article. Roxanne is an English-dominant teacher and graduate student who is studying bilingual and multilingual education for the first time. After reading Cummins (1989), she stopped, thought carefully about her classroom and her students, and proceeded to share her feelings with her fellow teachers and graduate students in class.

"I cannot solve the whole world's problem, but I can start with myself and the students in my class," she matter-of-factly told her colleagues. "After reading Empowering Language Minority Students. I have some thoughts about what I can do."

What I can do.
1.    I will not make a judgment about the students based on any test (language or psychological) which is not in the language of the students.
2. I will not label. If English is the language of the classroom, and they are not yet able to learn in English, I will find the help. I will not make assumptions about "language difficulties" for bilingual students who are in the process of acquiring English.
3. I will encourage all students to speak in their own language.
4. I will respect the culture of each student by encouraging students to share and to write about their families and traditions.
5. I will post assignments in multiple languages all around the classroom.
6. I will invite the students' parents to the classroom to read and to share with us.
7. I will hang signs around the school in the languages of the students.
8. I will encourage all students to speak and to learn in their primary language.
9. I will invite community members to my class.
10. And, most importantly, I will provide books in the languages of the students.

We have probably read Cummins (1989) more times than we can count. However, we have to thank Roxanne for forcing us to re-read and to re-learn an ongoing process for all of us.

In this article we have struggled together to answer a question that has far reaching implications for teachers and students in diverse classrooms. We did not give the answer to the question, What can English-dominant teachers do in a multilingual context, because the answer does not exist in just one simple form. Rather we intended for this article to provide a venue for teachers to break those three rules (Speak English, Be Quiet, and No Copying) by asking them to STOP and to THINK about what they are doing in their educational context, and to PROCEED by providing educational equity for all students and promoting social interaction in the classroom.