Back to School

It's that time again. The start of the school year brings excitement and anticipation--as well as anxiety, fear, and loathing.

Interpreting Language in Classrooms

How can teachers approach multi-language classrooms with success?

By Marilyn Shatz                                  

She was excited about finding her first job, but it wasn’t long before the young teacher called her mentor in a panic. She’d been assigned to a class with a majority of immigrant children who spoke Khmer—a language she had no knowledge of nor experience with.

What should she do, she lamented; she didn’t even know where the language was spoken or where the children came from. Halfway across the country, another young teacher complained to her mother (herself a retired teacher in the same district) that a quarter of her students each spoke a different language. How could she handle such diversity, she asked, but her mother (who had not encountered the problem during her career) had no answers.

These examples are representative of a worldwide educational challenge: the growing linguistic and cultural diversity of students in classrooms. With little experience in diverse languages and cultures, teachers at all levels of the educational enterprise are often unprepared to reach students that may be ill-equipped to deal with the language of schooling—typically Academic English.

In their newly published book, Understanding Language in Diverse Classrooms: A Primer for All Teachers, Marilyn Shatz and Louise Wilkinson  explain—in a readable and useful format—what they feel all teachers need to know about languages, as well as suggestions for how to integrate that knowledge into classroom lessons. Even science and math teachers, they argue, can benefit from learning how to address the needs of students not proficient in Academic English. 

The authors are quick to say that teachers do not need to be expert linguists or know other languages. Rather, teachers need to understand how languages relate to one another and how language experience relates to cognitive and social growth. 

Learning, the authors say, is necessarily a product of interaction between teacher and student, as the former scaffolds new knowledge on what the latter already knows. Therefore, teachers need to take action to help their students integrate new knowledge with old. A first step would be to create a language map of the classroom that records the various languages, student backgrounds, and proficiencies, and that can be used as a reference throughout the year for the kinds of scaffolding that the teacher needs to do as individual students progress.

Understanding Language in Diverse Classrooms: A Primer for All Teachers takes on a perplexing problem—the increasing commonality of varied native languages in classrooms—with real-world, actionable insights. In a rapidly shrinking world, we at Division 15 are certain that concerns about this issue will only continue to gather steam. One potential path to finding solutions, as implied by this book’s message, lies in building a world of well-informed teachers who can effectively surmount language and cultural barriers to quality education for all students.

Back to School