Navigating a multilingual classroom

Navigating a multilingual classroom

Multilingual classrooms pose some similar challenges to monolingual ones. In both classrooms, the teacher aims to foster a positive, connective and social environment yet students may struggle with forces outside the classroom which make these goals difficult to reach. In a multilingual classroom, teachers also...

Navigating a multilingual classroom

Multilingual classrooms pose some similar challenges to monolingual ones. In both classrooms, the teacher aims to foster a positive, connective and social environment yet students may struggle with forces outside the classroom which make these goals difficult to reach. In a multilingual classroom, teachers also need to recognise linguistic and cultural differences to make an inclusive space for all students.

The challenges of a multilingual classroom

Let’s break the challenges down.

1. Communicating effectively

If students can’t understand the teacher, the class is not going to be successful and in a multilingual classroom, some students may not have the English level that a teacher is used to teaching. It’s therefore important for the teacher to grade their language. That means being clear and direct as much as possible and removing any unnecessary words from their sentences. For example, instead of saying ‘John, would you please write down the notes for today?’, a teacher can say ‘John, please write this.’ Instead of ‘Could everyone please have a seat,’ the teacher can simply say ‘sit down’.

At first, grading your language and being more direct can feel rude. However, it is better to be understood than polite! Also, as always, teachers should maintain a calm and friendly intonation.

For younger classrooms, a great way of communicating is through Total Physical Response (TPR). This means using gestures to get students moving and responding to the teacher. The classic example is a teacher cupping their ear with their hand to elicit a student’s response.

2. Different levels of English

Similar to communicating effectively, teachers must grade their language up or down depending on students’ levels of English. Some students will speak fluently and confidently whilst others may struggle to respond in full sentences. In these cases, teachers may need to develop bonus activities for higher level students, while giving enough attention and help encourage lower level students.

If you are teaching younger students, they may not respond at all to you orally at first. This is what linguists call ‘the silent period.’ It is totally normal and you should not panic. The young students are attempting to take in as much of the language as possible before using it. Remain patient. Use gestures a lot when explaining and do not put too much pressure on the student to respond right away.

3. Language distance

Depending on the a student’s first language (L1), they may have an easier or more difficult time learning English skills and grammar. Generally, students whose L1 is more closely related to English, like Dutch or German, will have an easier time learning English than a student whose L1 is Mandarin or Arabic.

It may help to study how their languages differ in sound and grammar. For example, Russian, like many Slavic languages, doesn’t have articles (a, an, the). Therefore, Russian speaking students might struggle with using articles correctly. This also happens with particular sounds. Arabic doesn’t have different sounds for ‘p’ and ‘b’. As a result, students often say things like ‘brobably’ instead of ‘probably.’

It’s a good idea to look up key differences between students’ languages and English to see how you can better understand one another.

4. Making students feel accepted

In a multilingual classroom, it’s more important than ever to be positive and make students comfortable. Smile and greet all the students. They should all feel seen and listened to.

Students may use their first language in the classroom. In this case, do not admonish them. Instead, find positive ways to encourage home language use. Sometimes a student might just need to check their understanding with a friend or they need a break from English. You can ask them to explain what they’re talking about, but don’t push it if you see they feel uncomfortable.

Whenever possible, let students share about their experiences and cultures. This will benefit not only their confidence but also their classmates’ cultural learning. It’s important to remember that bilingual or multilingual students speak each language for different contexts and uses, and may even be uncomfortable at first using their L1 in a classroom setting instead of at home. Offer support for creating a harmonious bilingual development.

The (many) benefits of a multilingual classroom

There are many benefits to a multilingual classroom – let’s take a look at just some of them.

Students are curious

Students will recognise the differences between one another quickly. They will be curious about one another and want to learn about how they are different. Teachers can use this curiosity as a springboard for activities. Pair work activities like interviewing and presenting a partner are often good ways to get students to connect.

Students learn about other cultures and languages

Students have a great opportunity for becoming more open-minded in a multilingual classroom. Each student can share their linguistic and cultural experiences. This is a much more human and social way of learning than using a book or a video.

Students learn to be more inclusive

It’s hard to be prejudiced when your friends speak many different languages and come from different countries. If a class not only recognises its differences but celebrates them, students will develop an inclusive mindset.

Teachers can learn too

Everyday is a learning day! As a teacher, it can be boring teaching the same old material. However, in a multilingual classroom, your students will inevitably have some knowledge that you do not have. Learn about your students, and no class will be boring!

Six multilingual classroom activities

Here are six activities you might like to try in your multilingual classroom.

1. Move your body! (Ages 0–6)

An easy TPR activity, Move your body is a lot like ‘head, shoulder, knees and toes’ only it isn’t run by the teacher, but the students. With a picture of a human, children take turns pointing to different body parts and saying the word for each body part in their L1 or other languages. The other students repeat the word and point to the body part on themselves.

2. Buzzing bees (ages 6–10)

This is a movement activity which gets students to think of lots of words. The game leader (the teacher at first) says ‘buzzing bees buzz!’ and the students walk around buzzing and moving their hands like bee wings. After a few seconds the game leader says ‘buzzing bees make a statue beginning with (a letter) in five, four, three, two, one’ and students then need to make the shape of the letter with their arms. One by one, students say a word beginning with that letter. If a student says a word that was already mentioned, they are out.

This can include words in other languages, making it perfect for a multilingual classroom. Also, after playing once or twice, students can try being the game leader. You could even make the leader say the words in another language if you find a good alliterative translation of ‘buzzing bees buzz.’

3. Is it similar in your language? (ages 6–10)

This is an activity to stretch students’ linguistic knowledge. Make a list of words, usually items that can be found in the classroom. Then, draw a table with languages as shown below. Demonstrate and ask students to give some answers. Once a few rows are done, allow students to ask each other questions in small groups to fill out the rest of the table.

Language table desk pencil notebook whiteboard
French la table (f)
Spanish la mesa (f)

4. Think-Pair-Share (8+)

This is almost more of a method than an activity, but it really promotes pair work and cross cultural interaction. Write a question on the board. Students then discuss their opinions with a partner and later share their opinions with the class.

This can be modified in lots of useful ways. In the end, students can share their partners’ opinions instead of their own. Students could collaborate to write their answers, or if they’re artistic, they could draw their answers. This can also be used with a reading activity. Students could read the question and then skim a text to understand a writer’s opinion. They can then discuss whether they agree or disagree.

Your questions can be linguistic and cultural as well. In this type of activity, your students are your greatest resource.

5. Interview/present a friend (Ages 8–12+)

An easy pair activity for the beginning of a new term, interviewing your friend always gets students talking. Show students an example interview or interviewing project like Humans of New York. Ask what makes a good interview question. If students can’t think of anything, suggest open-ended questions.

Have students write five open-ended questions to ask a partner. Their partner should be someone they don’t know very well if possible. Students record their interviews and then share how the interview went and what their favourite part was.

Younger students may need more help than others to come up with questions or formulate them correctly. For older students, suggest using phrases like ‘tell me about your happiest memory’ or ‘who has influenced you the most in your life?’ Encourage students to keep it light and say that no one needs to answer a question that makes them uncomfortable.

6. Stereotypes and the truth (12+)

Addressing stereotypes is important for developing open-mindedness. Start with a video with lots of national stereotypes like this Bank of Scotland commercial. Have students note down all the stereotypes they noticed. Then discuss how true students think these stereotypes are.

Next, have students note down stereotypes about cultures they know well and discuss how they are true or not true. Discourage students from inventing stereotypes of cultures they don’t know. If they come up, take the opportunity to discuss what racial stereotypes are and how they are harmful.

The multilingual classroom may pose challenges, but it also offers the opportunity to embrace diversity and develop insights into backgrounds from around the world.

Further reading

Interested in finding out more about multilingual classrooms? Take your knowledge to the next level, and watch our multilingual classroom webinar.

Sign up to receive our blog updates

Like what you read and want to receive more articles like this direct to your inbox? Subscribe to our blog and we’ll send you a fortnightly digest of the blog posts you may have missed, plus links to free resources to support your teaching and learning.

Photo by Pavel Danilyuk on Pexels

In this article