PP213 authors

Authors (from bottom left clockwise) Janet Dutton, Jacqueline D’warte, Joanne Rossbridge and Kathy Rushton

My language is in my heart and my head: Hearing student voices in multilingual classrooms

By Janet Dutton, Jacqueline D’warte, Joanne Rossbridge and Kathy Rushton

I struggle to grow
New leaves as I don’t understand,
The language that is,
In my blood and my family genes.

Year 8 student

A race between my two languages
My cultural one, left alone with the dust
kicked up by the other
The lack of exercise proves it had no chance
Well behind, struggling to get up.

Year 8 student

As these poetry excerpts so aptly show, language shapes the sense of self and is very much in an individual’s heart and head. Language therefore plays an important role in the way our students choose to use their voices in our classrooms. Many students in mainstream classrooms from a range of socioeconomic and cultural backgrounds are learning English as an additional language or dialect. They need support to enable them to actively participate in learning and feel included in the classroom.

We have therefore developed a pedagogical approach which encourages students to proudly share information about their linguistic and cultural heritage. This approach, which we have employed and evaluated in a range of middle-years Australian classrooms, uses a range of rich texts and focuses on literature and creative pedagogy with the aim of creating quality learning experiences, especially for second-language learners.

In bringing these choices into a creative pedagogy for the multilingual classroom, we have identified a framework of five key factors:

1—Emphasising oral language

2—Engaging in multiple languages

3—Using multimodality tools

4—Providing a rich print environment

5—Positioning students as powerful communicators

Each of these has support in the research literature, and for each one we have trialled a number of creative strategies in the classroom (see Table 1). These strategies aim to support teachers in developing agency for students in which they can proudly share information about their linguistic and cultural heritage, to have their voices heard and valued.

Related publication

Using this five-part framework as a structure, this paper aims to complement and extend the approach detailed in our recent PETAA publication, Tell me your story: Confirming identity and engaging writers in the middle years.

Tell Me Your Story book cover


Emphasising oral language

• Walk-in-role
• Mantle of the expert
• Advance /detail
• Students as researcher

Engaging in multiple languages

• Reading and working with bilingual books
• Readers theatre

Using multimodality tools

• Creating multimodal stories
• Telling stories through visual art and poetry
• Language mapping
• Online translation tools
• Teacher home language

 Providing a rich print environment

• Using quality children’s literature
• Composing bilingual texts
• Creating short films

Positioning students as powerful

• Planning for specific purposes and audiences 

Table 1: Five factors as a framework for generating supportive strategies in the multilingual classroom


Emphasising oral language

Many children do not recognise the ‘repertoires of linguistic practice’ (Gutiérrez & Rogoff, 2003) that they bring to school, and they often internalise deficit views of their own skills. Creating opportunities for students to reveal what they know and can do values the student voice and supports the move from spoken to written language. It offers teachers invaluable information and promotes student self-esteem, confidence and classroom learning (D’warte, 2014), and can be achieved through a number of drama-based strategies.

Using drama techniques

Children exclaiming

Drama techniques such as walk-in-role and mantle of the expert (Heathcote & Bolton, 1995; Ewing & Simons, 2016) provide opportunities for students and/or teachers to take on expert roles. These techniques emphasise the use of oral language and can have a significant impact on students’ views of themselves as learners, as well as on the use of language and on the culture of the classroom. Table 2 provides examples of expert roles where students can be introduced to a rich task (Gibbons, 2014) by the teacher (in the role indicated) and then placed in their role of expert. A classroom example based on TV journalists presenting reports following an earthquake can be found in Dutton et al. (2018).


If students are asked to re-tell a story from their heart, such as from their home or family, it can help to confirm their identity (Cummins, 1981, 1986, 2000; Cummins & Early, 2011; Cummins, Hu, Markus & Montero, 2015). If they are also invited to use their home language in the telling of the story then the importance of their stories and languages is confirmed and an authentic link is made between the school curriculum and the home culture.

To support listening and speaking, and to develop storytelling, teachers can use the advance/detail strategy (Ewing & Simons, 2016). It requires one student to tell their story to a listener who says either 'advance' or 'detail' to indicate when they want the speaker to either continue or provide more detail about the last statement they made. Classroom examples using advance/detail can be found in Dutton et al. (2018).

Students as researchers

This strategy involves students in studying how they communicate — the ways in which they read, write, talk, listen and view in one or more languages inside and outside of school (D'warte, 2014). This strategy can support language learning by enabling students to make authentic connections between languages and to develop their use of metalanguage (language about language).

This strategy begins with a discussion of the multimodal ways people communicate in different situations. Students then collect more detailed information about their communications and how language changes for different audiences and purposes. The class then develops specific interview questions about, for example, individual languages spoken and learned, and use audio recording devices to interview each other in small groups. The teacher combines all group data to create a class dataset. Dutton et al. (2018) present a classroom example.





Hollywood talent scout  Producer, Director, Script writer, Camera person, Editor, Actors Develop a short film for a community film festival 
Scientist / Conference convener Team of scientists Conference presentation to peers in the science community

Table 2: Suggested expert roles for teachers and students


Engaging in multiple languages

Such programs have resulted in high levels of student and parent engagement and has facilitated increasingly complex conversations . . .

Creating opportunities for students to use their multilingual skills in classrooms can be challenging, particularly when students speak a wide variety of languages and dialects. However, improved outcomes in language learning, broader academic achievement and further language development are facilitated when all of a child’s languages are employed (Cummins & Early, 2011; Garcia & Wei, 2014). Research into bilingual reading for example suggests that, in the early stages, reading in the first language can profoundly accelerate the development of reading ability in the second language (Krashen, 2004).

Reading and working with bilingual books Student reader

Within the classroom, reading and working with bilingual books validates students’ home languages and involves students reading and responding to the text. Undertaking a bilingual reading program involves a reading session where a book is read in two languages simultaneously, page by page, with the teacher reading in English and a parent or community volunteer reading in another language (Naqvi, Thorne, Pfitscher, Nordstokke & McKeough, 2013). Such programs have resulted in high levels of student and parent engagement and has facilitated increasingly complex conversations about texts and individual languages (D’warte, Daniel & Allan, 2018). Teachers report increased community participation and a marked improvement in students’ ability to respond to texts and attend to sounds, blends, plurals, vocabulary, grammar, punctuation and orthography.

Readers theatre

The readers theatre strategy (Hertzberg, 2012; Ewing & Simons, 2016) supports students to move from spoken to written language and back again. Several applications of the strategy are shown in Dutton et al. (2018). In brief, students prepare a script based on a text (either their own, a picturebook or a well-known story). After the groups have selected their story they work together to produce a written script to be read as a performance using both English and any other language that the group chooses. This strategy can be extended to encourage the use of the language of appraisal (Humphrey, Droga & Feez, 2012, page 102). Students can be shown how to use the language of appraisal to evaluate their choices if the criteria they have jointly developed with teacher support are used as a scaffold.


Using multimodality tools

Students' knowledge about the world and how language works in one language can become the foundation from which an additional language can be developed (Cummins, 2000; Gibbons, 2014; Krashen, 1982). However, revealing the linguistic knowledge and skills of students and leveraging these for classroom learning can be especially challenging when students are first learning English. Multimodal texts can play a key role here.

Visual deconstruction: the rule of thirds

The rule of thirds is a tool for discussing compositional choices (Figure 1). In this rule, the point of most interest is best placed where vertical and horizontal lines intersect. Choices about what to place on horizontal lines can relate to aesthetics, the flow of information or action, and to what is most valued in the text (Callow, 2013). Figure 1 shows how students used the rule of thirds to talk about choices made by the composer of a visual text.

There are four ways to use rule of thirds:

  1. The participant is aligned near a verticle line in the image.
  2. The participant's eyes are aligned near the horizontal lines.
  3. If the participant is not looking at the audience, the rest of the frame is open.
  4. Landscapes are drawn along the horizontal lines.

Image divide into thirds

Figure 1: The rule of thirds for the effective composition of images

Creating multimodal journey stories

When teaching students skills for developing multimodal texts, the principles of scaffolding and knowledge about texts can be applied in similar ways to their use in developing written texts. The classroom example below uses extracts from a multimodal text, The Boat (Nam Le, 2017), a confronting interactive graphic novel about the escape of refugees following the fall of Saigon in 1975.

The teacher focused on developing student knowledge and understanding of the novel's verbal and visual features, deconstructing them to reveal the ways image and language were combined (Derewianka & Jones, 2016; Rossbridge & Rushton, 2015).

The language focus included how verbs were used in the texts to describe and bring to life what was happening, rather than just retelling events one after the other. This technique is often referred to as ‘show not tell’, but it becomes more powerful when explicit reference is made to particular language features. The class located verbs across the text and discussed how they captured meaning about the events, as illustrated in this excerpt (verbs highlighted in red):

‘The cross wind surged in, filtering through the apertures in the rotten wood, sounding like a chorus of low moans.

Hugging a beam at the top of the hatch, Mai looked out and her breath stopped. The boat had heeled so steeply that all she saw was an enormous wall of black-green water bearing down.’

Source: The Boat (Nam Le, 2015)

After deconstructing the text, students could apply the knowledge they had gained to their own writing, as in this example:

‘As the boat violently sways, the people shield their young. People towered upon each other. The waves overlap the boat.’

Students applied what they had learned as they made conscious choices about where to place the boat and waves in their own images in order to focus attention on particular participants (see Figure 2).

Student drawings derived from The Boat

Figure 2: Student images applying the rule of thirds

Once students understood the effects of verb choice and the placement of visual images, they were equipped to construct their own multimodal texts (see Figure 3). Further, they were able to discuss the impact of their choices on the audience and on the degree to which the text achieved its purpose.

Student drawing with text derived from The Boat

Figure 3: A student’s multimodal text based on The Boat.

Telling stories through visual art and poetry

Self-expression through the visual arts and poetry can offer a level of autonomy (Rosen, 2009) and proficiency that is often hard to achieve for a learner developing mastery of the English language. Poetry spans the space between the spoken and written modes (Rosen 2009), and modern spoken forms of poetry presentation, such as slam poetry, may be engaging for learners in the middle years. For example, the contemporary Australian poet and writer Omar Musa (2017) foregrounds his own cultural background and language while inviting us all to reflect on what it means to be Australian.

The Ranthem (excerpt)

Dedicated to Bankstown Poetry Slam

I represent more than the sum of my
I was just trying to give you some of
my heart
Through my art – la musica, la poesia –
Try to be a warrior like Queen

Omar Musa

Using fragments from longer poems can introduce ideas, structure, language and vocabulary to support students’ English-language learning (Dutton & Rushton, 2018). Similarly, students can also be encouraged to complement their poems with visual representations of their feelings and ideas. See Dutton et al. (2018) for further examples of the uses of poetry.
Sudents working with IPads


Providing a rich print environment

Providing a rich print environment goes beyond the vocabulary word wall to show language structures and features in context and make both image and text visible for students to continually refer to when engaged in learning.

Using quality children’s literature

Book cover for Why I Love Australia linked to Literature Singles unit on PETAA website The picture book Why I love Australia, written and illustrated by Aboriginal author and illustrator Bronwyn Bancroft (2010), provides an excellent starting point for showing students how to tell their own stories and share their own feelings about the place where they live. Teachers can use this picture book to help students develop the vocabulary they need and to learn about some features of English they can use to compose their own texts.

Bancroft describes the images of Australia that accompany the words using literary devices such as metaphor, simile and vocabulary. Her descriptions are structured as a series of extended noun groups (see Figure 4), providing teachers with an opportunity to teach students about this grammatical structure.

Passage with lyrical desxcription, extended noun group, simile and metaphor labelled

Figure 4: Extended noun groups from Why I love Australia (Bancroft, 2010)

Teachers can ask students why they think the author used this grammatical structure, rather than whole clauses and sentences, to compose her descriptions.

The combination of topic (Australian landscape), perspective (Indigenous Australian) and the use of language and image mean that Bancroft’s book is a rich resource which teachers can deconstruct with students to develop reading comprehension and independent writing. Quality literature such as this has the potential to inspire students’ own personal creative responses. Dutton et al. (2018) discuss how a range of other quality picturebooks can be used in creative pedagogy.

Composing bilingual textsTeacher and student with picturebook

Recent classroom studies demonstrate that multilingual students are not changing from one language system to another as they interact with others, but instead are drawing on one combined linguistic repertoire (Garcia, 2009) that includes multiple languages, knowledge and experiences. Students can build on and extend this linguistic repertoire if they are supported by parents, community members, bilingual teachers, first language partners and multilingual tools (for example, Google Translator, bilingual dictionaries). Topics and purposes for creating imaginative and informative bilingual texts can be linked to a wide range of units of work.

Strategies that have been used successfully to support composition of bilingual texts in plurilingual classrooms include providing students with opportunities to:

  • collect and compare English and home-language stories, fables and oral tales
  • create bilingual comics for in-class reading
  • develop a successful bilingual advertising campaign, designing multilingual posters to inform students and parents about cyberbullying.

For further examples, see Dutton et al. (2018) and the multilingual book resources listed in the reference section of this paper.

Creating short films

The display and joint development of texts and resources in the process of composing complex texts is critical in supporting the development of the composer’s process and refinement of ideas. When unpacking the process for creating short films, teachers realised much support was required in leading up to developing a final product. This included brainstorming and sorting ideas; creating 'story mountains' (story maps or flowcharts) to develop ideas and narrative structure; designing, sequencing and annotating storyboard frames; and scriptwriting.

Due to this complex process, it was critical to display models and joint constructions of these resources on the walls of classrooms for frequent reference to ensure the ongoing process was visible. This also provided ease of access for students to reconnect with their ideas from earlier lessons and to draw on vocabulary in context (for both ideas and metalanguage), as well as encouraging a culture for the refinement of ideas through emphasis on process, rather than just product.

In Figures 5 and 6, jointly developed wall displays of texts provided critical reference points for both teachers and students in the short-film planning process. The use of large cardboard and butcher’s paper become important tools (as opposed to books and interactive whiteboards, which often serve to keep prior learning hidden).

Jointly constructed document titled 'The Sandstrom'

Figure 5: Jointly developed wall displays for short film planning process

Further wall displays for jointly constructed texts (continued fomr Figure 5)

Figure 6: More jointly developed wall displays for short film planning process


Positioning students as powerful communicators

Teacher and studentStudents are positioned as powerful communicators both within and beyond the classroom when they know who they're writing for and why. When teachers explain the context and purpose of the interactions (oral, written or multimodal) demanded of students, they are given a clear purpose and can connect what they are learning at school with the broader culture (Parkin & Harper, 2018).

Designing sequences of explicit teaching and learning requires teachers to engage in much planning and collegial talk. Often literacy planning involves embedding literacy within existing units of work such as those designed to teach in the Science, History or Geography subject areas.

The planning process ensures the context, purpose and audience is clear for teachers and will therefore be clear for students too, as it is the teacher’s knowledge that determines the quality of classroom conversations, including those in which language features are made explicit to students. For more about the planning process, see Dutton et al. (2018).


All of the strategies outlined in this paper build on students’ strengths and create opportunities for families and communities to be knowledge producers. Recognising and showcasing linguistic diversity can include:

  • exhibiting language maps in a gallery and inviting students, parents and community members to visit (Somerville, D’warte & Sawyer, 2016)
  • engaging students as researchers, culminating in the sharing of student films (Daniel, 2017), story-reading and whole-school presentations of family biographies in first languages (D’warte, 2015).

Students need opportunities to talk through and showcase their ideas in both their first and second languages so the stories in their hearts and heads can be heard in our classrooms, to confirm their identities and become empowered learners.


Thank you to Nathan Jeffrey from Fairfield PS and Bita Christos, Slobodanka Subotic and the Stage 2 and 3 teachers at Smithfield PS for sharing their work and the work of their students.

About the authors

The authors combine academic achievement with practical experience in Australian classrooms. Janet Dutton is a Lecturer in Macquarie University's Department of Educational Studies, specialising in Secondary English Curriculum. Jacqueline D’warte is a Senior Lecturer in English at Western Sydney University and a Senior Researcher in the Centre for Educational Research. Joanne Rossbridge is an independent literacy consultant working in both primary and secondary schools and with teachers across Sydney. Kathy Rushton is an experienced EAL/D and classroom teacher and a lecturer in the Sydney School of Education and Social Work at the University of Sydney.


Multilingual book resources