Curriculum, Diversity, Promising Practices, Teaching

Competent and Valued

Responding to Culturally and Linguistically Diverse students’ literacy and identity

Understanding cultural and Linguistic Diversity (CLD) as an asset has discursively been present within Canadian society, and by extension Canadian schools, for many years. Although generally accepted as one of the grand narratives that Canadians take pleasure in celebrating, what has not been well established is how Canadian society and schools are responding to this increased diversity. Our collective response to diversity within our schools is, however, inarguably vital given the assimilative orientation Canadian schools have historically taken. The need for effective responses to CLD is further demonstrated when we consider our current socioeconomic context. North American educational settings are more culturally and linguistically diverse than they have ever been as a result of international restructuring and a subsequent increase in labour market mobility.[1] A significant number of children in Canadian classrooms located in urban centers now speak a first language (L1) other than English or French. Ontario alone has experienced a 29 percent increase of ESL students within elementary schools since 2000.[2] Several researchers have noted that despite these changing demographics, there is a dearth of research about culturally and linguistically diverse (CLD) children in educational contexts and disparity in providing for them.[3]

This article contributes to the more recent and growing body of research that addresses gaps in the provision of responsive education for CLD children in Canadian elementary schools. Drawing on research that explored CLD children’s literacy and identity in two Grade 1 and two Kindergarten classrooms over the course of a school year, it identifies, describes and explores culturally responsive multilingual and multicultural pedagogies, and articulates various ways of approaching linguistic and cultural incorporation within diverse classrooms.


My research was informed by multiliteracies and critical perspectives. Multiliteracies theory conceptualizes literacy as a social practice and socially mediated. Meaning making is understood as varied and dependent upon different cultural, social or professional contexts. Meaning is also made in increasingly multimodal ways, and as such involves interactions with written, visual, verbal and non-verbal communication and objects.[4] Within this dynamic and generous conceptualization, literacy is understood and positioned as multiple, expansive and contextually specific. A critical perspective as it relates to fostering multilingual literacy, therefore, not only values and develops proficiency in speaking, writing or reading in two or more languages but also fosters the ability to control and choose discourses in various contexts and understands the connections between power and language. During the year-long ethnography I conducted within two Kindergarten and two Grade 1 classrooms, I drew on these perspectives to analyze the literacy practices and events that I observed.



First, it is essential to accurately identify languages spoken by students. Based on my research, official student record information must be understood as fallible. The processes by which schools gather data and the conditions parents encounter during the initial information-gathering meeting with the school secretary can create inaccuracies. It is therefore essential for schools to review the initial intake process and form they currently use with and for CLD students. These preliminary meetings communicate a great deal about what is valued in schools and how languages and cultures are positioned within a school’s culture. Whenever possible, a translator who speaks the same language as the parent(s) should be present to assist with the information gathering and aid with the welcoming and transition of the parent(s) and their child to the school community. Further, despite whatever mechanisms are put in place to collect initial information about citizenship and language(s) spoken at home, it would benefit a teacher to ask students, older sisters and brothers (if any) and parents about first languages spoken at home for any CLD child in their classroom.

A multilingual environment

Once students’ first languages have been identified, teachers can create multilingual environmental print consisting of common items (e.g. blackboard, window, shelf) and concepts (e.g. colours, numbers) found in the classroom. Online sources can be used to translate English words into different languages. Whenever possible, involve students in writing and placing multilingual environmental print in the classroom and provide opportunities for them to verbalize the words in their first languages. During this process it is also valuable to make cognates explicit and ask students to do the same. (Cognates are words that are similar in terms of the CLD student’s first language and English – e.g. fruit/fruta is an English/Spanish cognate). Multilingual posters, alphabets of the languages spoken by class members, the names of children in their own languages and in English, product packaging in various languages, common phrases in various languages, and work done by students in their first language can also be displayed in the classroom to create a multilingual print environment.

What is key is to immerse students in an environment where various languages are used purposefully and are part of the instructional space. However, multilingual or multicultural window dressing should be avoided. In various schools I have visited, I have noticed posters with the word “Welcome” written in large letters in the middle of the poster, surrounded by the word for “welcome” written in smaller font in various other languages. These posters are almost never at a height where children can read them, but rather placed at adult eye level. Further, their effectiveness in communicating that languages other than English are valued is highly questionable.

Multilingual texts

Bilingual books written in both English and first languages are purposeful and effective multilingual texts for use in read-aloud, independent and home reading programs. Bilingual books can be versions of titles that are commonly found in elementary classrooms as well as speciality titles that deal with culturally specific content and/or situations that may be relevant to a variety of cultures and available in a variety of languages (e.g. English with Albanian, English with Arabic etc.). Another Story is a Canadian bookstore that carries a variety of bilingual book titles.

Teachers can purposefully draw on their students’ first languages and thus reposition CLD students as knowledgeable communicators.

When using bilingual books during read-aloud or shared reading sessions, students who speak the language the book is written in can sit beside the teacher and either read what is written in their first language or translate what the teacher has read in English. If they translate, the teacher can follow the text written in their first language and look for words that resemble what they have said while pointing these words out to the student and the rest of the class. Most of the CLD students in my study were eager to participate in this shared read aloud. In fact, this practice arose as a result of one student’s desire to demonstrate her knowledge of Spanish to her classmates. She asked to sit next to me and showed me how to incorporate her into the shared reading I was conducting with a Spanish/English bilingual book. I replicated the practice with other students, who also became my co-teachers. This practice repositioned them within their classrooms from “quiet,” “shy” children who “didn’t speak English” to classmates who possessed assets that became explicit and instructionally relevant. They were no longer solely reduced to what they were learning (i.e. “ESL”) but rather seen as capable communicators who knew another language that other students both valued and were interested in learning. CLD children began to be understood as having something they could share and teach.

In making linguistic assets further explicit within a classroom, literacy instruction can be organized in ways that enable students to create their own bilingual books or texts. Although none of my participants had an opportunity to create a complete bilingual narrative, some of them wrote and drew various “identity texts” (texts in which CLD students have invested their identities and reflect who they are).[5] These texts mirrored the structure of the bilingual books they were being exposed to and could have been extended into a complete book. One student, for example, valued the bilingual books I read so much that she asked for her own copy of several titles. She relayed to me that she was reading them to her mom at home and therefore teaching her mom English as well as continuing to develop her ability to read Spanish. Her immersion and interest in bilingual books developed to the point where she created a text that followed the structure of these books. In the identity text she created, she drew a picture of me and underneath wrote “Man” and then her phonetic hypothesis of the word “Hombre.” Another student in the study wrote her name in a proud and pronounced way across the page and then made declarative statement about who she was: “I am an artist.” On top of the powerful sentence was a self-portrait of her at work at her art.


In order to further develop classrooms spaces that are responsive to and respectful of the multilingual and multicultural assets students bring with them into the classroom, acceptance of codeswitching (CS) must be made explicit and recognized as a viable pedagogic resource. Classrooms that allow for CS (switching between two languages) set conditions that allow students learning English to renegotiate their “less than” and deficient school identities by showcasing and instructionally drawing on the linguistic resources they possess. When this occurred within the classrooms I observed, children whose first language was English began to understand that their often quiet “ESL” classmates had fully developed thoughts they could express in their first language, but were simply not as proficient in the privileged code. Incidents that required them to use their classmate’s first language further reinforced this understanding.

Teachers frequently question their ability to allow for and foster CS when they don’t speak the language their students speak. Many of the events I observed during my research confirmed that it is not necessary for the teacher to know the languages of their students (an impossibility) but rather to be open to negotiating what their interactions and literacy curriculum in general looks and sounds like. This meant, for example, that some teachers asked CLD students to use and/or teach specific words and phrases to them that were relevant to the classroom. One teacher asked a student who spoke Albanian to do a head count of students in her first language out loud to verify if everyone was present. During a lesson on the letter “e,” the same teacher elicited responses from students in their first language about various illustrations of things featured in a picture dictionary that all began with “e.” Teachers can purposefully come in and out of English during their interactions and lessons in order to draw on their students’ first languages and thus reposition CLD students as knowledgeable communicators. Improvisation and situated decision-making is key to instructionally engaging and including CLD students while validating and occasionally using their first language to support their English language learning. More importantly, students’ identities can become valued and pronounced within the classroom as opposed to being hidden and silenced. Encouraging codeswitching can therefore perhaps improve learning conditions for CLD learners while creating classroom spaces that allow them to be and become who they are.

More strategies

There are many other practices teachers can develop that access and instructionally draw on CLD students’ first languages. One example is inviting students to bring in a word of the day that is meaningful to them, and then having the rest of the class learn the word and talk about its meaning and cultural connotations.[6] One of the mothers I interviewed during my study mentioned similar practices when discussing what might have helped her daughter feel welcomed and accepted in school. Teachers can also generate a list of words that are commonly used and important to classroom life (e.g. bathroom, coats, lunch) and keep the list in an accessible place. One of the Kindergarten teachers in my study had this list of words laminated and at hand in several key places around the classroom so that she could understand and communicate essential words and phrases. Again, the Internet can serve as a translation resource. When CLD parents volunteer to work in classrooms, teachers can make explicit how accepted codeswitching is and encourage them to CS or converse with students who share their first language. Parent volunteers can also be encouraged to share their language and culture with the class, and to help students who share their first language and culture create bilingual books and other identity texts that can also be shared with the class and celebrated.


The approaches and practices offered throughout this article are by no means all-encompassing, definitive, prescriptive or examples of “best practices” (a problematic and dangerous concept). What is offered is meant to provide educators with ideas that can assist them in responding to the increasing cultural and linguistic diversity they are experiencing within their schools and classrooms. How these practices are integrated and used should remain flexible, malleable and ultimately responsive to and respectful of the CLD students we have the good fortune of teaching. Multilingual, multicultural literacy practices should continue to evolve and be recognized as sound pedagogy that extends classroom language barriers, increases the status of students’ first languages and ultimately, opens up identity options available to CLD students within schools.

If we are genuinely interested in being able to respond to the rich cultural and linguistic diversity of our ever-changing classrooms, then we need to consider and experiment with a variety of practices that value and cultivate who these students are and what they bring to our schools and classrooms.

Photo: Christopher Futcher (iStock)

First published in Education Canada, January 2014


EN BREF – Cet article faisant référence à une étude ethnographique d’un an réalisée par le chercheur, examine la littératie et l’identité d’enfants d’origines culturelles et linguistiques diverses dans deux classes de maternelle et deux classes de première année. Les constatations sont issues de la pédagogie plurilinguistique et des perspectives critiques. L’article identifie, décrit et explore des littératies et des pédagogies multilingues et multiculturelles démontrant l’enseignement adapté à la culture. Différentes façons d’aborder l’intégration linguistique et culturelle dans des classes diversifiées sont examinées. Les pratiques de littératie favorisant cette adaptation sont ciblées afin de proposer aux éducateurs un répertoire d’approches susceptibles de les aider à tenir compte efficacement d’une diversité culturelle et linguistique croissante dans les milieux scolaires canadiens.

[1] Nicholas C. Burbules and Carlos Alberto Torres, Introduction to Globalization and Education: Critical perspectives (New York: Routledge, 2000); Jim Cummins, “Diverse Futures: Rethinking the image of the child in Canadian schools,” presented at the Joan Pederson Distinguished Lecture Series, University of Western Ontario (April 2005); Festus E. Obiakor, “Research on Culturally and Linguistically Diverse Populations,” Multicultural Perspectives 3, no. 4 (2001): 5-10.

[2] People for Education, The Annual Report on Ontario’s Public Schools, (2007). www.peopleforeducation.com/adx/aspx/adxGetMedia.aspx?DocID=634

[3] R. Falconer and D. A. Byrnes, “When Good Intentions Are not Enough: A response to increasing diversity in an early childhood setting,” Journal of Research in Childhood Education 17, no. 2 (2003): 188-200; Carola Suárez-Orozco, “Afterword: Understanding and serving the children of immigrants,” Harvard Educational Review 71, no. 3 (2001): 579-589; Kelleen Toohey, Learning English at School: Identity, social relations and classroom practice (Great Britain: Multilingual Matters Ltd., 2000).

[4] Nancy Hornberger, “Multilingual Literacies, Literacy Practices, and the Continuation of Biliteracy,” In M. Martin-Jones and K. Jones (Eds.), Multilingual Literacies (Amsterdam/Philadelphia: John Benjamins Pub. Co., 2000), 353-369; James Paul Gee, “The New Literacy Studies: From ‘socially situated’ to the work of the social,” in D. Barton, M. Hamilton and R. Ivanič (Eds.), Situated Literacies: Reading and writing in context (London: Routledge, 2000), 180-196.

[5] Jim Cummins, “Diverse Futures.”

[6] Jim Cummins, Negotiating Identities: Education for empowerment in a diverse society (CA: California Association for Bilingual Education, 2001).

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