Incorporating Translanguaging in Middle School Instruction

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A substantial body of research findings in the field of language teaching and learning report that the successful use of one’s native language (L1) can facilitate the acquisition of a second language (L2) The growing desire to learn an additional language has resulted in many English as a Second Language (ESL) or English as a Foreign Language (EFL) classrooms adopting the strategy of translanguaging that merges both the L1 and L2 as one component in language

acquisition. The present study seeks to examine how bilingual English learners employ resources of both languages to attain proficiency during middle school learning. The findings gathered through qualitative methods of class observation, writing activities, and interviews demonstrate that language learners process their thoughts and ideas in L1 before transferring to L2. In addition, it is shown that English-language learners (ELLs) can gain significantly higher writing and speaking English scores when they consistently use both their native language and English. Furthermore, it was found that translanguaging can be positively or negatively affected by the instructors’ and students’ attitudes. The study discusses further implications and suggests recommendations for future research.


The benefits of translanguaging and its contributions to classroom language learning have become the focus of multiple scholarly investigations in recent years. The origin of the term ‘translanguaging’ is the translation of the Welsh word ‘Trawsieithu’ used in bilingual education (Lewis et al., 2012). The term was coined in the 1980s by Cen Williams, a renowned Welsh educationist, who stated that this concept implies the systematic use of two languages for teaching and learning within the same lesson (Baker 2003). Garcia also identifies this term as “the act performed by bilinguals of accessing different linguistic features or various modes of what are described as autonomous languages, in order to maximize the communicative potential” (Garcia, 2009, p. 140). From this perspective, this practice may have a unique potential to improve ELLs’ language acquisition.

The benefits of translanguaging are especially valuable for young learners. Baker (2011) argues that translanguaging promotes a deeper understanding of the subject matter, assists with developing the weaker language, and facilitates home-school connections and interpersonal cooperation. Nevertheless, some major arguments against translanguaging have also been presented, with scholars proposing that the translation of L2 into L1 has adverse effects on students’ learning process and capacity (Thornbury, 2010). As such, learners develop a cognitive dependence on their first language, which affects the acquisition of the second language (Thornbury, 2010). Given my background as an ELL and the knowledge about strategies used by my teachers during instruction, I became especially interested in exploring the concept of translanguaging. Currently, I am prepared for writing articles and conducting major research on the subject due to my experience as a substitute teacher, where I worked with ELLs in different schools. Having explored several pieces of literature on translanguaging and having experienced the role that students’ native languages play towards proficiency in English, I decided to formulate the following questions for my research:

  1. How effective is translanguaging in ESL instruction?
  2. How do attitudes and perceptions of teachers and students affect translanguaging?
  3. Does L1 impact the acquisition of L2?

Review of the Literature: Translanguaging and Writing

Recent research suggests that there is a strong connection between English learners’ writing possibilities and translanguaging practices. During writing activities, bilingual students utilize the languages at their disposal to manage the task at a cognitive level (Kibler, 2010). Blake (2019) studied the effects of using L1 and L2 in academic and creative writing among first-year university students in Japan. During the qualitative investigation, 30 participants, native Japanese speakers and of an intermediate English proficiency level, were split into groups for writing tasks (Blake, 2019). The groups were separated according to the three types of language tasks they were to perform: using monolingual English only, using Japanese for discussion, and using English for writing. Garcia and Lin (2016) referred to such distinction as weak translanguaging and strong translanguaging. While the former concept proposes that using only the studied language does not improve the student’s proficiency, the latter aims to remove the boundary between English and Japanese to allow the learners to use either language for discussion or writing.

The topics for the study task were persuasive-based academic writing and memoir-based creative writing. Participants wrote their essays individually or based on the group discussions. Findings indicate that participants’ essays in English-only categories in both academic and creative writing were disjointed and incoherent, supposedly because the learners did individual work instead of participating in group conversations (Blake, 2019). As such, students in weak translanguaging groups had difficulties choosing appropriate English words for a specific context. Moreover, they encountered problems staying on the necessary topic and negatively transferred direct translations from Japanese to English. In contrast, the strong translanguaging group presented well-structured essays with succinct vocabulary and sentences, remaining more efficient in focusing on the discussion topic and successfully performing language transfer (Blake, 2019). These results support the efficacy of strong translanguaging and its benefits for ELLs in the classroom setting.

Translanguaging and Reading

Another aspect of the translanguaging strategy refers to the attainment of high-level reading skills. The traditional practices of reading and literacy teaching in ESL have been geared towards a monolingual orientation, therefore excluding the language learners’ existing linguistic and cultural repertoires (Day & Park, 2005). Vaish (2012) found that even though some teachers felt that the use of L1 in teaching was a powerful tool, many others were ambivalent in choosing translanguaging for teaching English reading skills. Vaish and Subhan (2015) discuss how the first language can teach Singapore second-grade children to read in English. As such, the authors’ study sought to find the outcome of introducing L1 as a scaffold in English-only model class and the purposes of translanguaging in teacher communicational and interactional patterns when L1 is utilized to teach reading. The scholars report that the use of Malay changed the participants’ interactional patterns, leading to an increase in conversation time between the teachers and the students. The students’ vocabulary and reading comprehension were significantly enhanced, and the rate at which the learners attempted to answer the questions was elevated.

In another qualitative study, Maseko and Mkhize (2019) challenge the African system of monolingual methods in language teaching. The authors report that monolingually oriented practices that were previously used for reading instructions in the 20th century are now frequently replaced by more effective, multilingual approaches. To support this statement, the scholars demonstrate the positive impact of translanguaging on reading efficiency and comprehension among third-grade students. Three separate multilingual reading practices used by the learners and their teacher were implemented. The results indicate that the teacher and the learners were able to understand the English texts by connecting them to their social and cultural contexts. Therefore, the interpretation of the reading materials was positively influenced by their native language, allowing the students to reflect on the presented topics (Maseko & Mkhize, 2019). However, the authors note that conflicts between the implemented practices and the teacher’s assurance in their productivity consistently emerged, suggesting a possible limitation to the translanguaging reading approach.

Teachers’ and Students’ Perceptions and Attitudes towards Translanguaging

Successful utilization of translanguaging strategies tremendously depends on the learners’ and tutors’ impressions regarding this method. Scholars claim that differences in beliefs towards translanguaging can significantly affect the studying process and diminish its effectiveness. For instance, Al-Bataineh and Gallagher (2018) explore future teachers’ attitudes towards both Arabic and English languages used in children’s storybooks by examining the university students’ perceptions of translanguaging. The participants were female native Arabic speakers who spoke English as a second language and were enrolled in a teacher education program. The 22 participants in the interview group were split into six subgroups, each tasked with writing a children’s book using both Arabic and English. The recorded interviews and focus group discussions involved 9 participants each and were devoted to the challenges encountered during story writing, as well as the willingness to use translanguaging.

The authors report that the results were mixed, and the participants could not reach a consensus. While some students felt that translanguaging has the potential of developing bilingualism and encouraging children to learn both Arabic and English in the reading process, others thought that translingual storybooks would be counterproductive for the children due to a potentially small impact and the possibility of acquiring none of the languages (Al-Bataineh & Gallagher, 2018). Considering these insights, future studies will be required to address the negative consequences of translanguaging.


A middle within a public school system in the state of Virginia, specifically, the Chesterfield County Public Schools was chosen. The choice was due to proximity and accessibility to school and the ESL population. As the researcher is familiar with the environment, having worked there for several months, this option was a perfect opportunity to maximize the research output and preserve available resources.


Ten ELL six-graders between the ages of 11 and 12 were randomly selected with the help of two female ESL teachers. The students’ English proficiency was level 4 (expanding) according to World-Class Instructional Design and Assessment (WIDA) standards. Six out of ten learners were female, and the four were male. All participants were native Spanish speakers; five girls and two boys moved to the US between the ages of 6 and 10, while the remaining three learners were US-born. All ten participants had immigrant parents whose first language was Spanish and who were originally from Mexico, El Salvador, and Honduras, with little knowledge of English. As the participants were minors, all consent paperwork was completed by the researcher with the direction and assistance of the school principal.

Data Collection

The data was collected through classroom observation, reading and writing tasks, and interviews with students and teachers. The observation allowed to obtain the background information on instruction and interaction between the students themselves and their teachers. Fieldnotes of all class observations were taken during the study. Two out of the four days designated for the investigation were delegated for the observations, and the remaining two days were used for the interventions in reading and writing.

Students were divided into two groups, with five students in each group falling under a specific category: English only (EO) and English and Spanish (ES). Both groups were given the same short story to read, discuss, and write an individual summary. While EO discussed and wrote their summaries in English, ES discussed the material in Spanish and produced summaries in English. Assessments were done after the practice completion, and performance scores were recorded. On the last day, interviews were conducted, and questions were based on the tasks, observations, and the students’ responses recorded during writing.

Data Analysis

Both groups’ participation and language use was observed and compared to how Spanish and English languages were used among casual student interaction. Afterwards, the data from the interviews, transcripts, and observation notes was analyzed. The comparison of the students’ feedback and responses has demonstrated that the participants who were allowed to use their native language to facilitate the communication felt more confident and empowered to engage in the conversation. Contrary to the theories that criticize translanguaging as an educational approach, the participants did not get distracted and switch to only using their native language (Jaspers, 2018). Freedom of expression created a favorable environment in which all students were willing to communicate and participate in the discussion.

At the same time, the teachers’ observations revealed that the students who were only allowed to use English during their practice sessions tended to hesitate often and appeared reluctant to start or join the conversation. It can be suggested that the “English only” approach focuses more on the linguistic aspect of language practice rather than educational. This, in turn, creates certain obstacles and challenges that make students insecure about their abilities. Unlike the participants in the ES group, EO students did not seem to feel that equal power is given to teachers and students. Because of the limitations set for them, they did not manage to engage in the interactions as actively as the ES students.

The comparison of the writing tasks’ scores was conducted, indicating the level of reading comprehension in EO and ES groups. These levels appeared to be different, as the students in the ES group showed better results regarding reading comprehension and compositional writing skills. Being able to confidently convey their thoughts to their peers, all ES students had enough time and intellectual resources to focus on the choice of words, text organization, spelling, grammar, and punctuation in their written tasks. The interviews conducted on the last day of the research also showed a gap between the levels of understanding in two groups. Both teachers and students have confirmed that the use of two languages in the classroom proved to be an efficient way to encourage students to speak and get them interested in language learning. Students in the EO group, in turn, have reported facing difficulties in continuing with the language practice under the pressure of having such limited access to language aides and devices.


Translanguaging ensures a smooth learning process for ELL students during proficiency attainment. The study results indicate that students’ talk times increased considerably when they were allowed to use both Spanish and English during lessons. They were able to match English words with their Spanish equivalent and participated fully in class. Regarding the writing tasks, ES groups scored substantially higher than EO on thought clarity, grammar, sentence structure, and vocabulary.

Analysis of interview transcripts indicates that 8 out of 10 students had positive attitudes towards using Spanish and English because it helped them overcome the challenges of learning English, especially in writing. The remaining two participants thought that speaking Spanish distracted them from acquiring enough English vocabulary. Both teachers expressed satisfaction with the outcomes of using the languages in class daily but further advocated for moderation, preventing the students from focusing only on L1 at the expense of L2, which is the main target.


The human cognitive ability processes novel events and concepts in a clear, simple language that makes absolute sense. Similarly, it could be argued that second language acquisition is largely based on the learner’s first language resources (Cenoz, 2017). It is evident that the basis of translanguaging practices is bilingualism, two languages as a single linguistic component instead of two separate languages, which requires a fair level of knowledge or proficiency in L2 to merge effectively with L1. It can be suggested that translanguaging promotes the improvement of students’ language learning skills due to a number of reasons. First, they stop thinking of the foreign language as of something complicated and unachievable. Instead, they acquire a more natural, playful approach, which eliminates major obstacles that prevent them from language practice (Mazzaferro, 2018). These include doubting their abilities, fear of speaking the foreign language, and other factors. Second, students get inspired by the element of competition that occurs in the interaction process. Communicating with their peers, they get involved in discussing everything that can bother or excite them, which also promotes language acquisition.

The study demonstrates that ES used their linguistic repertoire to conceptualize ideas in Spanish, their native language, which was reflected in English comprehension and the associated scores. Students from this group did not have any limitations that restricted them from using their native language, which encouraged them to communicate and also improved their memory in terms of language acquisition (Wei, 2017). It is also demonstrated that a less conducive classroom environment regarding acceptance and the adoption of translanguaging adversely affects ELLs, decreasing their language acquisition. Students in this group did not show progress, as they were limited in the use of language devices and experienced the lack of communication.


Based on several expert opinions and empirical studies as well as findings, the present study suggests that translanlanguaging is a pedagogical tool that improves teaching and learning language practices. This strategy is most effective if both students and teachers are bilingual or share a common L1. Furthermore, the current research answers the question as to whether the L1 has any impact on the L2, demonstrating that L1 serves as scaffolding for learning L2. and it helps in producing quality essays in L2 writing. However, negative transfer, when vocabulary and sentences are directly translated from L1 into L2, can also occur. In teaching and learning English reading, research shows that using translanguaging increased the students’ word count and teacher-student conversation time, and students were more willing to answer various questions. On the issue of attitudes and perceptions on the part of teachers and students, it was reported that these individuals are open to translanguaging in their classroom but remain cautious regarding this practice.

Implications for Future Research

This study has narrowed the knowledge gap regarding translanguaging and its connection to the acquisition of a second language. As the focus was on Spanish and English-speaking ESL learners in the middle school setting, the results may differ from other language studies. It is recommended that similar research is carried out at an elementary school level and among the speakers of other languages aside from Spanish. Additionally, the domain of listening in ESL was not included, and subsequent research should determine how different or similar are the listening outcomes in comparison with writing and reading domains. School districts may want to provide more funding for research in translanguaging practices that would impact policies.

Implications for Classroom Practice

Considering the findings of the current study, using both L1 and L2 is undoubtedly a prominent way of learning a second language. ESL teachers should be prepared to revise their lesson plans to pave the way for translanguaging, especially due to the increasing numbers of ELLs in the US and across the world. Pedagogical strategies and methods should be restructured in a way that does not over-concentrate on L1 but provides sufficient focus on the target language.


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ChalkyPapers. "Incorporating Translanguaging in Middle School Instruction." January 31, 2023.