Multilingual schools and classrooms are places where students of various linguistic and cultural backgrounds are studying together, where some or all of the students are learning the language of instruction, and/or where teachers and students do not all share a common language or cultural background. Such classrooms exist:
- in countries or cities where newcomers arrive as immigrants or refugees from other countries;
- in International Schools around the world;
- in schools serving indigenous populations for example, in Australia and New Zealand, Scandinavia, and the Americas;
- in language immersion programs where students are learning through a minority language that is not their own for example, French immersion in English-speaking Canada, or Basque and Catalan immersion in Spain;
- in classrooms where a foreign language is used for instruction for part of all of the school day for example, English immersion in Spain.
Many teachers have received little training for teaching students who are learning the language of the school as a second or additional language. Neither have most teachers received much preparation for teaching students whose culture differs from their own, or from the cultural background of the curriculum and textbook writers who determine what is to be learned and how it is to be learned.
I believe this is unjust to students and teachers alike. Teachers need better preparation in order to be effective, derive job satisfaction, and make a significant contribution to society by staying in the profession and enabling all students of all linguistic and cultural backgrounds to succeed in school. All students, including those who are still learning the language of instruction and come from diverse cultural backgrounds, need and deserve teachers who know how to address their learning needs.
I believe that training for all teachers must include thorough preparation for teaching students whose linguistic and cultural backgrounds are different from their own. Only when they feel well prepared and confident in the linguistically and culturally diverse classrooms that are increasingly the norm will teachers be able not only to meet the needs of all their students, but also to view diversity as an opportunity for enrichment for all students and teachers.
Linguistic and cultural diversity in the classroom presents a tremendous challenge for teachers and students. Through my work in pre-service and in-service teacher education, and through my books and articles, I have addressed this challenge in a way that I hope is both research-based and practical. Most of my work has been with students and teachers in areas of high immigration in urban areas of Canada, the United States, and Spain. These days I am especially interested in Spain and other parts of Europe where large-scale immigration is a relatively recent phenomenon and educators are interested in learning about various ways to support language learning and ensure school success for newcomer and minority students.
Elizabeth Coelho is known for her practical, research-based advice on teaching in multilingual/multicultural classrooms. Her books have been published in several countries. She is based in Spain, and travels in Europe and North America giving workshops, conference presentations, and short courses for teachers. She also provides consultancy services in schools and school districts. She manages her own site Multilingual Classrooms.