The University of Iowa

Embracing Translanguaging in the Classroom with Bilingual Texts

Four children reading books on the floor of their classroom near the classroom library

For educators looking to ease some of the stress and burden on English learning students, incorporating bilingual texts into their teaching can have a positive impact. 


Maya Wald

Student Core Team Member, Iowa Reading Research Center

Posted on: February 28, 2023

Imagine yourself as a child or adolescent entering a classroom where no one speaks your home language. The teacher expects everyone to speak English during the school day and believes that a few weeks of immersion should be enough for you to figure out how to communicate in English. Your classmates are either making fun of you or ignoring you because you don’t speak English fluently. All you want is to be acknowledged as a peer, for your classmates and teachers to understand that language learning is a difficult process, and for them to be respectful of your home language.

This scenario too often describes the experience of emergent bilinguals (or multilinguals)— English-learning students of all ages who are experiencing English immersion in the classroom. Bi/multilingual English learners often are discouraged from using their home language in the classroom because it is assumed that using languages besides English will cause confusion or slow English learning (Souto-Manning, 2016). However, there is significant research suggesting that the opposite is true: multilingual students actually benefit from using their home language(s) when learning a new language and when learning content in the new language (García & Kleifgen, 2019; Souto-Manning, 2016; Oh & Mancilla-Martinez, 2021; Moses et al., 2021). For example, when English learners are explicitly taught English vocabulary in a way that compares unfamiliar English words to analogous words in their home language, it can help them understand and remember the newly acquired word. Another example occurs during content learning. When teachers provide a text in the students’ home languages alongside the text in English, it allows students to engage more fully with the text. These types of instructional supports are a few ways educators can meet emergent bi/multilinguals halfway. I will revisit these supports in more depth below.

When individuals use two or more languages interchangeably to communicate, this is referred to as translanguaging. Picture someone starting a sentence in French, then switching to English, and then switching back to French to finish the sentence. When a person is translanguaging fluently, the transitions between languages can be seamless. Sometimes, they may not even realize they are translanguaging because it becomes second nature to them. As Ofelia García, professor emerita at The Graduate Center, CUNY, stated elegantly, “Translanguaging moves beyond the language of the text itself to focus on the language of the person; that is, on the actions of bilinguals as they engage with the text” (2020).

In the classroom, translanguaging could be used by a teacher when giving instructions for an activity by speaking in English while also providing key terms and phrases in the home languages of the emergent English learners in the class. Educators do not have to be fluent in a foreign language to practice translanguaging; just knowing a few words is great! It is important for teachers to allow translanguaging in the classroom because it not only enhances English learning, but it also allows students’ home language skills to flourish (Moses et al., 2021).

Exposure to multiple languages in the classroom can also benefit native English speakers. It can broaden students’ awareness that there are different languages spoken around the world and in their own towns. That awareness may provide motivation for native English speakers to pursue learning another language later in their schooling, which can open many doors for them in the future in terms of career paths, studying abroad, etc.

Forms of Bilingual Texts

Translanguaging is commonly associated with oral language, but it is also applicable to reading. When bi/multilingual students have access to texts that include their home languages, they will be able to engage with the content at the same level as their native English-speaking peers.

There are several ways to incorporate bilingual reading into the classroom, including the use of full-text translations, single-language translations, embedded text, concept bilingual books, and wordless books (Semingson et al., 2014).

Full-Text Translations

Full-text translations are books that include text in both English and a non-English language. The two translations of the story are either displayed side-by-side on the same page, or with one language on the left page and one language on the right. An example of a full-text translation is Marisol McDonald Doesn’t Match by Monica Brown (see a read-aloud of this book with the text displayed on YouTube). In the classroom, full-text translations are wonderful resources because they include the language students are comfortable with alongside the language being learned (in this case English), which can help support reading comprehension and vocabulary acquisition when accompanied by explicit instruction from a teacher.

Single-Language Translations

Books that were originally written in one language and then translated into a different language are single-language translations. In one case study (García, 2020), a seventh-grade English learner was having difficulty reading a textbook in English because she was juggling language and content comprehension simultaneously. Her teacher provided her with the same textbook in her home language. Having the single-language translation allowed her to focus on content understanding in her home language and English vocabulary acquisition with the original version. Though promising, this is only a single qualitative example. Translanguaging is relatively new as a classroom pedagogy, and it will be interesting to see if further research produces evidence for the effectiveness of teaching with translanguaging.

One way to incorporate single-translation books into the classroom is through literary analyses in language arts class. When the focus of instruction is foundational reading skills, such as word recognition, students should use the English version of the text. However, when the focus of instruction is on literary elements such as craft and structure (e.g., comparing the perspectives of two different characters), students may reference the translated text to support their comprehension. For example, imagine that a fourth-grade reading group is reading the first chapter of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. An emergent bilingual English student might struggle to participate in a discussion of craft and structure while also trying to understand English words that are unfamiliar to them. If this student is allowed to read a copy of the chapter in their native language, they would be better equipped to participate in the activities and discussion relating to craft and structure at the same level as their peers. Then, with teacher support, the student can reread the text in English and focus on learning vocabulary.

When asking English learners to reread text as described above, we want to be cognizant of not burdening them or causing mental fatigue. However, native English-speaking students in English language arts classrooms are often encouraged to read texts multiple times, focusing on different literacy skills with each reading. Thus, rereading does not necessarily require bilingual students to do more work than their peers. Rather, educators can work with bilingual students to support both content learning and vocabulary acquisition. For example, a teacher might instruct native English-speaking students to read a text three times: once for content, once for craft and structure, and once for vocabulary. The teacher could also instruct English-learning students to read the text three times: once for content (in their home language), once for craft and structure (also in their home language), and once for vocabulary (in English). This way, translanguaging does not require extra reading on the part of the English learners. Rather, it is an individualized approach to the assignment.

In a secondary classroom, an extension activity that would provide literary analysis practice for fluent bi/multilingual students would be to compare and contrast the version written in English and the translated version. This is known as a translation analysis. To guide a discussion about the translation analysis the student is conducting, teachers can use questions such as these:

  • How is the story affected when told in another language? What parts of the story are the same in both versions? What parts are different?
  • When was the text last translated? How does it affect your reading of it?
  • Which version of the text did you prefer and why?

It is important to note that not all bilingual students will be proficient readers in their home language. Many bilingual students speak a language other than English fluently, but they may have never received formal instruction in reading or writing in this language. Using translated texts will only be beneficial for students who have been taught reading and writing in their home language.

Embedded Text

Embedded texts are written primarily in one language and include some words or phrases from another language. In a general education classroom in the United States, the primary language would be English, and the secondary language would ideally align with the home language of bilingual students in the classroom. An embedded text that would be a great addition to a classroom library is the book Inside Out and Back Again by Thanhha Lai. The author translanguages by writing free verse poetry in English and Vietnamese as she depicts the life of an emergent bilingual child. As a prime example of the emergent bi/multilingual experience, this book provides a mirror for students who have had similar experiences by allowing them to see a character like them in a book they can relate to (read more about the importance of this in our previous blog post). Embedded texts like this demonstrate that translanguaging is a skill that should be embraced. Speaking more than one language is not a deficit; rather, it is an asset. Including this book and other similar books in a reading unit can introduce all students to translanguaging and how it fits in the classroom.

Concept Bilingual Books

Concept bilingual books are focused on a theme (e.g., animals) and are written in two languages. For our purposes, one of them should be English. For instance, a concept bilingual book about animals might include pictures of animals with their names in both English and the home language of a student in the class.

For an elementary classroom, a concept bilingual book could be used to supplement a vocabulary lesson about animals. The teacher would put up a picture of an animal with the name of the animal printed next to it in English, and students would say the name aloud. Any students who have concept bilingual books could say the name of the animal in their home language. The teacher would write on the board the names of the animals in all the languages spoken in the classroom to make sure that all students know that the word represents the animal. Before going on to the next animal, the teacher would pronounce each phoneme of the word, say the full word in English, and have the class do the same. This activity showcases for the students that every language has a different name for the same animal. The goal is not for the non-English learners to learn the other languages. Rather, this approach is a good way for a teacher wanting to convey concepts to their students including:

  • the existence of languages other than English
  • some of their classmates speak multiple languages and are still learning English
  • it is okay to be bilingual
  • books can be written in languages other than English
  • ways for emergent bilinguals to make connections in their minds between the two languages

Translanguaging in the Classroom and Beyond

Including bilingual books in classroom libraries can help emergent bi/multilingual students feel more involved in class, as these language supports may better support their educational needs. As Assistant Professor of Literacy Lindsey Moses and colleagues (2021) explain, “an easy way for teachers to begin building an identity-affirming community could start with something like celebrating bilingualism and encouraging students to use their knowledge in both languages.” Doing so by way of a multilingual classroom library normalizes bilingualism and translanguaging and expresses to everyone in the class that all languages are welcome. A multilingual classroom library also raises awareness that there are authors writing books in non-English languages and using translanguaging in their writing. Showcasing that there are bi/multilingual authors will allow emergent bi/multilingual students to see themselves reflected in the materials they are reading and see that an accomplished author was able to succeed as a bi/multilingual individual.  

Maintaining one’s home language is not the same as sustaining it. In other words, it is not enough that students keep using their home language. Rather, students should be encouraged to continue to develop their proficiency in both languages. Thus, we need to help our students develop their language skills through explicit and collaborative teaching. By incorporating translanguaging into the classroom, students can utilize their home language background as an asset for their English learning. Using more than one language is not harmful, and using translanguaging in the classroom allows bi/multilingual students to participate in class in an effective and equitable way. 


García, O. (2020). Translanguaging and Latinx Bilingual Readers. The Reading Teacher, 73, 557–562.

García, O., Kleifgen, J. A. (2019). Translanguaging and literacies. Reading Research Quarterly, 55, 553–571.

Moses, L., Hajdun, M., Alvarado-Aguirre, A. (2021). Translanguaging Together: Building Bilingual Identities con Nuevos Amigos. The Reading Teacher, 75, 291–304.

Oh, M. H., & Mancilla-Martinez, J. (2021). Elementary schoolteachers’ bilingual development beliefs and English learners’ English reading comprehension achievement. The Elementary School Journal, 122, 165–190.

Semingson, P., Pole, K., Tommerdahl, J. (2014). Using bilingual books to enhance literacy around the world. European Scientific Journal, 11.    

Souto-Manning, M. (2016). Honoring and Building on the Rich Literacy Practices of Young Bilingual and Multilingual Learners. The Reading Teacher, 70, 263–271.

Waddington, J., Coto Bernal, S., & Siqués Jofré, C. (2018). Creating and evaluating a foreign language area in an early childhood setting. European Early Childhood Education Research Journal, 26, 334–346.