Translanguaging and Advanced Literacy for Emergent Bilingual Adolescents

Lillian A. Stevens
The Graduate Center, City University of New York


The language of disciplinary texts presents a challenge to adolescent emergent bilinguals (EBLs). When reading a technically sophisticated textbook chapter or writing a critical analysis essay, it is important for students to have opportunities for self-expression and connections to what they already know. This practice brief will offer a particular set of strategies that can facilitate such opportunities for EBLs.

Below, I will demonstrate how EBLs play an essential role in development of their own advanced literacy practices through the use of specific, scenario-based examples. In particular, I will illustrate how the practice of “Deconstructing Complex Texts” (Wong Fillmore & Fillmore, 2012) with translanguaging strategies may be a powerful way of enabling comprehension and production of the lexically dense texts that are the hallmark of the Common Core State Standards for bilingual students (National Governors Association Center for Best Practices and Council of Chief State School Officers, 2010). A translanguaging approach offers EBLs opportunities to directly engage with a range of linguistic features associated with academic registers, as they draw from their home language repertoires to deeply process these forms and functions. In addition, translanguaging during the practice of deconstructing complex texts enables a secondary content teacher to scaffold the content of the difficult text in English.


One type of situated learning activity requires teachers and EBLs to jointly read, examine and discuss the meanings embedded in one single, “juicy” sentence from a lexically-dense text. EBLs need instructional support from teachers to gain access to the ideas, concepts and information that are encoded in the disciplinary language of academic written discourse. Through discussions about juicy sentences, guided by questioning that delves into the relationships between form, structure and meaning, teachers can help students learn to use language as a tool for reasoning and understanding of the abstract concepts associated with subject-area literacy. As Wong Fillmore & Fillmore explain, “The goal of these conversations are to help students learn to unpack the information so tightly packed into academic texts, and in doing so, gradually internalize an awareness of the relation between specific linguistic patterns and the functions they serve in the texts” (2012, p. 69, italics added for emphasis).

The procedure to deconstruct a complex sentence is simple. Consider a text with a high lexile level, layered with technical and disciplinary vocabulary. Then, select and highlight one long sentence from within a paragraph. This will be your “juicy sentence.” Begin to deconstruct the sentence by breaking it down into component parts, labeling the functions of several words and phrases. Identify the subjects or participants, verbs, and circumstances within the sentence, and notice that the writer encodes the sentence’s meaning through the order and grouping of words and phrases. A sample juicy sentence from a 7th grade newspaper article is given below, with examples of how to label the language forms using a combination of technical and everyday language:

Teenagers are social; whether it is due to the evolutionary imperative to find a mate or because they are naturally starting to separate from their parents, teenagers seek out other teens.

  • Teenagers are the participants. They are the ones being discussed in this sentence.
  • Teenagers are something, and then they seek out. The first process describes teenagers, while the second process is about teens doing something.
  • Teenagers are social, while the rest of the sentence gives reasons for why they are social (two reasons).
  • It ends with a statement that teenagers seek out (look for) other teens.
  • To understand the vocabulary word evolutionary, we notice the letter-pattern /ary/. The process word (to evolve) dresses up as an adjective because the final suffix /ary/ is attached to /tion/, a spelling-pattern that signals a participant (or a noun). This diagram shows the transformation of the word: (v) evolve à (n) evolutionà (adj) evolutionary


The following interactions in a 7th grade social studies class highlight the role of translanguaging as a linguistic and expressive scaffold to help Spanish-speaking EBLs of all language proficiency levels enter into a meaning-making process with the juicy sentence. Although this is not officially a bilingual classroom, the teacher does speak Spanish:

Teacher: Today we’re going to deconstruct a text, or as we say in Spanish desempacar el texto. And who remembers why we do this type of activity together?

Marta : Lo hacemos para sacar todo el jugo, all the information de la oración.

Hiliberto: We unpack the sentence to know everything the author wants us to know. Eso se refiere al “jugo” de la oración.

Teacher: That’s right, in these long sentences there are some words and phrases we won’t understand right away. That’s ok, because with help from our classmates, we can understand it, poco a poco. Eso es el proceso de “desempacar” el SENTIDO.

{The teacher and students engage in a shared reading of the juicy sentence. The dialogues below register how individual students then make sense of the sentence.}

Marta: Teenagers… ¿jóvenes? are social… suena como la palabra, “social.” A a los jóvenes les gusta estar con sus amigos. {continues reading} Whether it is due to the evolution- evolu- hmmm, esta palabra sí es difícil, entender y leer… la encierro para preguntar más tarde… I’ll keep reading… imperative, no conozco ésa palabra tampoco.

Xavier: ….they are naturally starting to separate from their parents…. Yo también quise separarme de mis padres cuando entré en high school…. {continues reading} Teenagers seek out other teens. ¿Qué quiere decir, “seek out”? ¿Cómo el juego infantil “hide and seek”? El significado es parecido a esa palabra, creo.

Teacher: We see who the participants or subjects, sustantivos, are in the sentence, yes? [Makes reference to the sentence on the white board]

Students {chorally}: Teenagers!!/¡¡Jóvenes!!

Teacher: Yep, teenagers, just like you all. Once we figure out the WHO of the sentence, el quién, what comes next in our deconstructing process?

Hiliberto: Luego, tenemos que buscar las acciones y los procesos. ¿Qué es lo que hacen the subjects in the sentence?

Beatriz: Are processes always actions? A veces me confunde saber cuáles son los verbos en inglés…

Teacher: Right, Hiliberto. We want to identify the processes, or verbs, identificar los verbos. Some processes just state or say, decir directamente what something is.

Beatriz: Do you mean: am, are, is? Those are verbs?

Teacher: Yep. But other verbs show action, while others show thinking, an internal process. Un proceso que existe en la mente, o dentro del cuerpo. Así que verbos como “sentir” to feel, o “pensar” to think, se pueden considerar procesos internalizados.

{Next, the teacher asks students to work in dyads to identify the verbs in the sentence, as well as explain their selection criteria.}

Teacher: With a partner, search for the verbs, the processes in the juicy sentence. Think about why you selected the word, what it might mean, and a reason for why it’s a verb/process. Quiero que elijan todos los verbos, los procesos, de la oración jugosa. Discutan sus ideas con una pareja.

Hiliberto: I found one, “are” is a verb.

Xavier: Right, are, o en Español, es. That’s one of the simple verbs Ms. Sosa was talking about. “Teenagers are social.”

Hiliberto: Pero mira, más tarde en la oración, aparece la palabra is…y aún más allá el verbo are again. ¿Por qué hay muchos verbos? ¿Pensé que una oración tiene nada más un sólo verbo?

Xavier: Not exactly. I think each phrase, como un grupito de palabras, has a verb. ¿Te diste cuenta cuando Ms. Sosa rompió la oración en pedacitos, y cada pedacito tenía su propio verbo? I think that’s it, but we should ask her.

Hiliberto: A ver, “whether it is due to….because they are naturally….” Ah, veo que sí.


Through the interactions represented above, we see several instances of translanguaging to help students engage with linguistic features and their associated meanings from the text. The first example may be observed when Marta and Xavier whisper-read the juicy sentence to themselves. In their private speech, the students access their own schema to retrieve some unknown English words that may look familiar as a Spanish cognate (social:social) or to an everyday word from a different context (“seek out” ¿cómo el juego infantil “hide and seek”?) Through these private monologues, EBLs deeply engage with the text on a personal level, figuring out which words and phrases they may know and those that present obstacles to full comprehension.

In the final exchange between Hiliberto and Xavier, the students negotiate the function of a clause as well as potential “rules” for verb inclusion within a sentence. The students communicate seamlessly using all their language practices to remain focused and engaged with the learning task. While Xavier generates a hypothesis based on how their teacher parsed the sentence into smaller units, Hiliberto follows along with his logic. Perhaps they will offer this insight during the whole group discussion, or perhaps they will turn to another group for additional evidence to either confirm or negate their working hypothesis about verbs and clauses. What matters here is that students are actively thinking through complex linguistic structures and are encouraged to communicate with whatever language practices they have.

Throughout the dialogic interactions, we notice that both teacher and students translanguage at the utterance and word levels of text production. Some students pose questions entirely in Spanish, while others fluidly transfer at phrasal or word boundaries. Regardless of their official language proficiency, all speakers engage in metalanguage (talk about text) across languages so that they may unpack the features of the sentence that carry the meaning. When Beatriz asks, “Are processes always actions? A veces me confundo saber cuáles son los verbos en inglés…” Here we see that: (a) she understands processes as related to action, but (b) she becomes confused when asked to identify verbs in English. Both bits of information are useful for a teacher to help Beatriz work through the murky waters of biliteracy through, for example, contrastive analysis of English and Spanish verb forms.

In sum, a translanguaging pedagogy can:

  • Help EBLs develop a metalanguage with which to discuss the features of academic language in an interactive space.
  • Encourage participation from learners across language proficiency levels.
  • Illustrate the power to use one’s voice (for private self-talk, for didactic interactions, for public speech) as a tool for thinking and learning.


Fillmore, L. W., & Fillmore, C. J. (2012). What Does Text Complexity Mean for English Learners and Language Minority Students?. Commissioned Papers on Language and Literacy Issues in the Common Core State Standards and Next Generation Science Standards, 94, 64.

National Governors Association Center for Best Practices and Council of Chief State School Officers. (2010). Common core standards. Washington DC: National Governors Association Center for Best Practices, Council of Chief State School Officers. Retrieved from