How Can Teachers Maximize Engagement among Multilingual Students?

Research, Teaching

How Can Teachers Maximize Engagement among Multilingual Students?

Inclusive learning strategies and programs for your classroom

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The term “multilingual” is increasingly used by educators to describe students from immigrant backgrounds who are in the process of learning the language of instruction at school. This is a positive affirmation that identifies multilingual students as “haves” (speakers of many languages) rather than “have-nots” (lacking proficiency in the school language). Researchers have discovered that by encouraging multilingual students to use their home languages alongside the language of the classroom, they come to view themselves as talented and accomplished speakers of multiple languages who are more likely to engage academically, rather than feeling limited by their current abilities in the school language. In recent years, Canadian teachers have been exploring a wide variety of inclusive learning strategies and programs that leverage students’ multiple languages as enrichment opportunities for all students.

Here are some effective ways to integrate multilingual instructional strategies into classrooms:

  • Each day, teachers invite one or two students to share a word from their home languages with their classmates and explain why they chose that word and what it means. Over time, students and teachers learn a new collection of words in different languages.
  • Examples of students’ work in their home languages and in the school language are prominently displayed in school corridors and at the school entrance. This reinforces the message that students’ diverse languages are both personal and educational assets.
  • School library collections have multilingual books for both students and parents to read at school and at home. School policies can ensure that libraries maintain a diverse and well-stocked selection.
  • Students write and publish online dual language or multilingual stories or projects.
  • Teachers invite parents and community members to the classroom to read and tell stories in community languages.
  • Across subject areas, teachers encourage students to conduct research online in their home languages for class projects.
  • Students collaborate with partner classes across the world or across the city to create a variety of projects involving two or more languages.

The vast majority of Canadian teachers agree that we should connect instruction to students’ lives, build on their background knowledge, and maximize their intellectual and aesthetic talents in an emotionally safe learning environment. When we acknowledge the role of students’ home languages in their lives and explore options that build on their multilingual skills, all students learn how to work across their differences and gain appreciation for different languages and cultures – skills that are highly valuable in our increasingly multicultural and interconnected world.



Examples of Multilingual Projects

The ÉLODiL project (Éveil au Langage et Ouverture à la Diversité Linguistique—Awakening to Language and Opening up to Linguistic Diversity) has developed a variety of classroom activities to promote students’ awareness of language and appreciation of linguistic diversity. This project has been undertaken both in Montreal (Dr. Françoise Armand, Université de Montréal) and Vancouver (Dr. Diane Dagenais, Simon Fraser University) (e.g., Armand & Dagenais, 2012).

The Dual Language Showcase was created by educators at Thornwood Public School in the Peel District School Board to demonstrate the feasibility of enabling elementary grades students who were learning English as an additional language to write stories in both English and their home languages (Chow & Cummins, 2003; Schecter & Cummins, 2003).

The Multiliteracies project involved a series of collaborations between educators and university researchers Dr. Margaret Early at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver and Dr. Jim Cummins at the University of Toronto. Drawing on the construct of multiliteracies, the projects focused on broadening conceptions of literacy within schools both with respect to modality and language.

The Multiliteracies Pedagogy project initiated in 2003 by Dr. Heather Lotherington of York University in Toronto involved a range of collaborations between educators in Joyce Public School and researchers at York University to explore how the concept of plurilingualism could be translated into pedagogical design. The professional learning community at Joyce Public School worked with students on a variety of multilingual and multimodal projects including rewriting traditional stories from a critical perspective using their multilingual linguistic repertoires (Lotherington, 2011; Lotherington & Paige, 2017). 

I am plurilingual! Je suis plurilingue!

This resource was created by Dr. Gail Prasad as a companion to her 2015 doctoral dissertation on children’s plurilingualism in English and French schools. In addition to a description of the research and its outcomes, the site showcases an extensive sampling of the plurilingual multimodal texts created by students and teachers in schools in Toronto (Canada), Montpellier (France) and Sète (France). 

Linguistically Appropriate Practice (LAP) is an approach to working with immigrant-background children in preschool and primary grades. Pioneered by Dr. Roma Chumak-Horbatsch (2012) at Ryerson University in Toronto, LAP consists of both an educational philosophy and a set of concrete instructional activities that build on children’s home language and literacy experiences in order to encourage them to use their home languages in the classroom, take pride in their bilingualism, and continue to develop their home language as they are acquiring fluency and literacy in the dominant language of instruction.

The Dual Language Reading Project was initiated by Dr. Rahat Naqvi of the University of Calgary and colleagues in the Calgary Board of Education. It documented the impact of teachers and community members reading dual language books to students both in linguistically diverse schools and in the Calgary Board of Education’s Spanish-English bilingual program (see and Naqvi et al., 2012).

The Family Treasures and Grandma’s Soup dual language book project was initiated by Dr. Hetty Roessingh at the University of Calgary in collaboration the Almadina Language Charter Academy. Its goal was to enable Kindergarten and grade 1 students to create dual language books to enhance their early literacy progress (see and Roessingh, 2011).

ScribJab is a website and iPad application for children (ages 10 – 13) to read and create digital stories (text, illustrations and audio recordings) in multiple languages (English, French and other non-official languages). The site was created by Dr. Diane Dagenais and Dr. Kelleen Toohey who have collaborated for many years with British Colombia educators in the implementation of projects focused on developing students’ awareness of language and promoting their multilingual and multiliteracy skills (see, for example, Marshall and Toohey, 2012). The website describes ScribJab as “a space for children to communicate about their stories, and come to an enhanced appreciation of their own multilingual resources.” Dagenais et al. (2017) provide a detailed account of the origins and impact of ScribJab.

The Storybooks Canada project is described as follows on its website:

Storybooks Canada is a website for teachers, parents, and community members that aims to promote bilingualism and multilingualism in Canada. It makes 40 stories [derived from Africa] available in the major immigrant and refugee languages of Canada, in addition to the official languages of English and French. A story that is read in English or French at school can be read in the mother tongue by parents and children at home. In this way, Storybooks Canada helps children to maintain the mother tongue in both oral and print form, while learning one of Canada’s official languages. Similarly, the audio versions of the stories can help beginning readers and language learners make the important connection between speech and text. Students can also compose stories using the images on the Storybooks Canada site.


Examples of Multilingual Projects Implemented in France

Comparons nos langues. This project directed by Professor Nathalie Auger of Université Paul Valéry in Montpellier focused on how teachers encouraged recently arrived immigrant students to compare their languages with French.

A video describing the project is available at:

A pedagogical guide written by Professor Auger can be downloaded from:

The impact of this approach to building students’ awareness of language is described as follows by Michèle Verdelhan in the Preface to the pedagogical guide:

L’attitude de comparaison des langues et des habitudes culturelles en matière de communication prend appui sur cette situation intermédiaire de la langue seconde et sur la connaissance de la langue maternelle, rend l’enfant plus actif dans son apprentissage et aiguise ses facultés d’observation, d’analyse, de mise en relation. Le plaisir que prennent les élèves à cette démarche, qui reconnaît leur personnalité, est déjà à lui seul un gage de progrès rapide.

The Didenheim School Project was a language awareness and parental involvement project implemented in an elementary school in Alsace France. The project was initiated by teachers as a way of legitimizing regional and immigrant languages, and also to sensitize students to the variety of languages and cultures spoken by students and their teachers in the school.

A documentary film (in French with English subtitles) on the project produced by Mariette Feltin is available at:

Descriptions of the project can be found in Hélot and Young (2003, 2006).





Armand, F., & Dagenais, D. (2012). S’ouvrir à la langue de l’autre et à la diversité linguistique [Becoming aware of others’ languages and of linguistic diversity]. Education Canada, 52(1).

Accessible from

Auger, N. (2003). Comparons nos langues. Démarche d’apprentissage du français auprès d’Enfants Nouvellement Arrivés (ENA). Ressources formation vidéo/multimédia

Série Démarches et Pédagogie. Accessible from

Chumak-Horbatsch, R. (2012). Linguistically appropriate practice: A guidebook for Early Childhood practitioners working with immigrant children. Toronto: University of Toronto Press.

Cummins, J., & Early, M. (2011). Identity texts: The collaborative creation of power in multilingual schools. Stoke-on-Trent, England: Trentham Books.

Cummins, J., & Early, M. (2015). Big ideas for expanding minds: Teaching English language learners across the curriculum. Toronto: Rubicon Press/Pearson Canada.

Cummins, J., & Persad, R. (2014). Teaching through a multilingual lens: The evolution of EAL policy and practice in Canada. Education Matters, 2(1). Accessible from

Dagenais, D., Toohey, K., Bennett Fox, A., & Singh, A. (2017). Multilingual and multimodal composition at school: ScribJab in action. Language and Education, 31(3), 263-282.

Giampapa, F. (2010). Multiliteracies, pedagogy and identities: teacher and student voices from a Toronto Elementary School. Canadian Journal of Education, 33(2), 407-431.

Hélot, C., & Young, A. (2003).  Education à la diversité linguistique et culturelle: le rôle des parents dans un projet d’éveil aux langues en cycle 2. In D.L. Simon et C. Sabatier (dir.) Le plurilinguisme en construction dans le système éducatif, contextes, dispositifs, acteurs. Revue de linguistique et de didactique des langues, Université Stendhal de Grenoble, Hors série, Sept 2003, 187-200. Accessible from’eveil_aux_langues_en_cycle_2/links/57176d7008ae09ceb2649d09.pdf

Hélot, C., & Young, A. (2006). Imagining multilingual education in France: A language and cultural awareness project at primary level. In O. García, T. Skutnabb-Kangas, and M. E. Torres Guzman (Eds.), Imagining multilingual schools: Languages in education and glocalization. (pp. 69-91). Clevedon, England: Multilingual Matters. Accessible from

Lotherington, H. (2011). Pedagogy of multiliteracies: Rewriting Goldilocks. New York: Routledge.

Lotherington, H., & Paige, C. (Eds.) (2017). Teaching young learners in a superdiverse world: Multimodal approaches and perspectives. New York: Routledge.

Naqvi R., Thorne K., Pfitscher C., Nordstokke D., and McKeough A. (2012). Reading dual language books: Improving early literacy skills in linguistically diverse classrooms. Journal of Early Childhood Research. doi: 0.1177/1476718X12449453.

Ntelioglou, B. Y., Fannin, J., Montanera, M., & Cummins, J. (2014). A multilingual and multimodal approach to literacy teaching and learning in urban education: a collaborative inquiry project in an inner city elementary school. Frontiers in Psychology, 5, 1-10. Article 533. Accessible from (doi: 10.3389/fpsyg.2014.00533).

Prasad, G. (2016). Beyond the mirror towards a plurilingual prism: Exploring the creation of plurilingual “identity texts” in English and French classrooms in Toronto and Montpellier. Intercultural Education, 26(6), 497-514. Special Issue ed. A. Gagné & C. Schmidt. Accessible from

Prasad, G. (2017, December 6).   Parents as multilingual experts: Leveraging families’ cultural and linguistic assets in the classroom. EdCan Network Magazine. Accessible from

Stille, S., & Prasad, G. (2015). “Imaginings”: Reflections on plurilingual students’ creative multimodal works. TESOL Quarterly, 49(3), 608-621.

Roessingh, H. (2011). Family Treasures: A dual language book project for negotiating language, literacy culture and identity. Canadian Modern Language Review, 67(1), 123-148.

Schecter, S., & Cummins, J. (2003). Multilingual education in practice: Using diversity as a resource. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann.

Meet the Expert(s)


Dr. Jim Cummins

Professor Emeritus

Dr. Jim Cummins is a Professor with the department of Curriculum, Teaching, and Learning at OISE. Dr. Cummins holds a Canada Resarch Chair (Tier 1) and has been a recipient of the International Readin...

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