Home » Volume IV, Issue 1 / Fall 2015 » Translanguaging within the Monolingual Special Education Classroom

Translanguaging within the Monolingual Special Education Classroom

Maria Cioè-Peña
The Graduate Center, City University of New York


The placement of multilingual students receiving special education services has been greatly impacted by local issues such as lack of resources and changes in programmatic structures as well as more universal policy changes that have led to special education reform and a shift to a more testing focused culture. As a result, many of these students are being serviced and educated in monolingual special education settings. Translanguaging can be a way for teachers in monolingual special education settings to tap into their students’ multilingual skills for academic and social gains. The incorporation of translanguaging does not require that teachers have formal language competency in the students’ home language. Additionally, translanguaging can also be used to engage peers of differing linguistic abilities and backgrounds.


Translanguaging is a linguistic practice that takes into consideration the fact that speakers of multiple languages have one single linguistic repertoire that they utilize at all times to understand the world around them.

Many shy away from placing special education students in multilingual settings out of concern that the use of multiple languages will add a level of confusion to students who are already struggling academically. However, this fear is not based on research but rather anecdotal experiences. Rather than further debilitating students, using translanguaging in the monolingual special education classroom can help teachers better access students’ social and academic competencies. In this way, translanguaging is not only an invaluable resource but also an additional modification.

In the following paper, the potential benefits of translanguaging in the monolingual special education classroom will be presented within four areas: English language development, parental involvement, inclusion, and standardized testing.


Translanguaging as a Tool for English Language Development

Many students in monolingual special education settings are also classified as English language learners. Rather than presenting these students as having an additional deficit, beyond having diverse learning needs, translanguaging shifts the focus from a child’s lack of English proficiency to the development of multilingual practices. Although it may seem counter intuitive to use a student’s home language in order to increase their English language proficiency, allowing a student the opportunity to use their home language while they develop their target language offers them a safe space in which they can share what they know while they continue to grow linguistically.

Translanguaging to Increase/Build Parental Involvement

Most multilingual students in monolingual special education classrooms speak a language other than English at home. Often that language is the exclusive family language, meaning that English is not spoken in the home by the parents or primary guardian. As a result, parents who do not speak English may feel excluded from their child’s academic development. Through the use of translanguaging in the monolingual classroom, teachers create spaces in which non-English speaking parents can support their child’s development as well as feel welcome in the classroom. This then generates multiple collaborative opportunities between school and home.

Translanguaging in the Inclusive Classroom

Inclusion for the social emotional benefits of students with and without disabilities has been one of the primary focuses of special education program development. However, if teachers fail to acknowledge linguistic diversity among students and incorporate it into our teaching practices, we create new means of segregation, thus negating the purpose of inclusive classrooms. By employing translanguaging within the monolingual special education classroom, teachers both acknowledge and celebrate linguistic diversity among students. They also grant them opportunities to expand their understanding of diversity.

Translanguaging and Standardized Testing

In order to facilitate the participation of all students in standardized testing, special education students are granted varying levels of modifications and accommodations. One of the accommodations granted to special education students who are also classified as English Language Learners is the ability to take content-area tests in their home language. If student learning is limited to the target language only, this accommodation is less effective because it requires the use of skills that students have not been exposed to and, as such, does not reflect a familiar learning environment. Translanguaging allows teachers the ability to provide learning opportunities that are reflective of student linguistic abilities and that prepare students to take full advantage of the testing accommodations available to them. In addition, multilingual testing platforms allow students a greater number of opportunities to be successful because they are not limited by language in sharing what they know.


The incorporation of translanguaging in the monolingual special education classroom should be reflective of student needs rather than a teacher’s linguistic ability. A teacher’s linguistic proficiency is not required to utilize translanguaging strategies. Teachers who may feel intimidated by their lack of familiarity with students’ home languages can begin by incorporating translanguaging strategies into independent or partnered student work time. For example, students can read in the home language and share in the target language, develop multilingual presentations and/or multilingual research projects. Teachers can also ask students to reach out to the community through exercises like interviews and the collection of culturally relevant artifacts, which could be done in the home language and shared in the target language. Overall, teachers can create opportunities for students to use their home language either independently or collaboratively.

Teachers who share languages with their students can use translanguaging strategies that involve the whole classroom community while still allowing for flexible language use by each student based on their need and comfort level. For example, students can create multilingual plays as a class while making individual contributions to the final project. These teachers can also expand the language that students use in their final products to include the home language as well as the target language.

Lastly, student learning can be checked in similar ways by allowing students to share what they know in the languages available to them during interim assessments. Multilingual assessments allow teachers to gather a more complete picture of their students’ academic development than would be available when using assessments exclusively in the target language. The resulting data allows teachers to plan future lessons without running the risk of losing students who are not ready to move on or repeating lessons that have already been grasped. Teachers who do not share linguistic repertoires with their students can illicit peer review and evaluation to mitigate any potential language barriers.


It is important to note that translanguaging is not designed to serve as a scaffold provided to students and removed over time. Rather, translanguaging is a long-term tool that students and educators can use to access untapped/unmined knowledge reserves that multilingual special education students bring with them to school but are rarely given the chance to share.

Creating translanguaging opportunities and/or translanguaging spaces gives students the ability to feel comfortable and included in otherwise uncomfortable and potentially ostracizing learning environments. It also grants them the opportunity to share their linguistic and content-area expertise with their peers.

Regardless of their linguistic abilities, teachers who create multilingual learning opportunities for their students create a learning environment in which students are not only allowed to work within their developmental level, but also within their individual comfort level. This facilitates cross-cultural sharing in the classroom and increases student collaborations and individual self-esteem.


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