Entry Points for Critical Language Awareness and Culturally Responsive Pedagogy in Teacher Education for Multilinguals: A Reflection (by Dr Leah Shepard-Carey)

Leah Shepard-Carey, our guest blogger this week, is an Assistant Professor of Graduate Studies in the School of Education at Drake University (Iowa, United States). She teaches courses for programs in ESL education, Literacy education, and Culturally Responsive Leadership. Her research explores multilingual pedagogies in English-medium settings, supporting critical language awareness and culturally-sustaining pedagogies in teacher education, and collaborative and design-based approaches to educational research. Her research has been featured in TESOL Quarterly, TESOL Journal, Linguistics and Education, Language Awareness, Classroom Discourse, and The Journal of Early Childhood Literacy.

Frameworks such as culturally and linguistically sustaining pedagogy (CSP) and critical language (CLA) awareness are well-established in research, yet applying these concepts in teacher education and K-12 classrooms continues to be an urgent and pertinent endeavor. Culturally and linguistically sustaining pedagogy (Paris, 2012; Paris & Alim, 2016) is grounded in sustaining the cultural and linguistic “pluralism” of schools and society (Paris & Alim, 2014, p. 85). CSP encourages teachers to challenge the white hegemonic and heteronormative systems in society, while embracing and expanding upon students’ cultural and linguistic identities and skills. Critical language awareness is, in part, a pedagogical framework that brings awareness to the socially-constructed nature of language, involving language ideologies, language variation, and other critical aspects of sociolinguistics (Clark et al., 1990). The combination of these two frameworks is the foundation for my courses on teaching multilingual learners, which also incorporates a variety of related and complementary concepts that support educators in recognizing the connection between language, power, and race (e.g., Flores & Rosa, 2015; Motha, 2014) and the dynamic linguistic repertoires of multilingual students (e.g., García & Li, 2014; García et al., 2017).

My context and identities are tied to how I approach this work, and my ongoing learning surrounding CSP and CLA. Among my many identities, I am a white, bilingual (English is my first language), (dis)abled woman. I am a teacher educator with specialization in language and literacy education, and a former K-12 language educator. I teach at a mid-sized private university in a metropolitan area with significant linguistic diversity. Despite the necessity of CSP and CLA in teacher education, educators come to my courses with varying degrees of knowledge surrounding these frameworks. Furthermore, as Howard and Rodriguez-Minkoff (2017) note, teachers still struggle with being able to “translate theory into practice” (p. 8). As such, the purpose of this blog post is to reflect upon “entry point” learning opportunities in teacher education for building CSP and CLA related to teaching multilingual learners. I frame these practices across three interrelated constructs that guide my creation of objectives and activities for courses: Learning about Self, Learning about Students, and Learning in Community.

Learning about Self

Opportunities to reflect and deconstruct life experiences, personal and community ideologies, and past schooling experiences are foundational for understanding how one’s (intersectional) identities impact teaching and learning (Doucet, 2017), and further understand how “oppressive social identity hierarchies” (Warren, 2018, p.176) have marginalized multilingual students. In my courses, this work is done through several avenues. After learning about the many types of identities, one of the initial activities we do in many of my courses is create an identity portrait, whether through physical or digital creation (see my digital example below). This was adapted from Tiffany Jewell’s “This book is Anti-Racist” and Liz Kleinrock’s “Start  Here Start Now: A Guide to Antibias and Antiracist Work in Your School Community.” This has proven to be an impactful activity, as many students recounted that there were aspects of their identity they hadn’t necessarily recognized before.

Beyond introduction activities, all of my courses have an initial critical reflection essay to orient students to the framing of the course (paired with a reading) and their own experiences and ideologies surrounding language and literacy instruction. While prompts vary according to course, students respond to prompts such as,

  • “What are your ideologies and beliefs about (literacy/language) teaching and learning?”
  • How do your identities, ideologies, and social conditioning shape your perspectives towards your literacy/language teaching for culturally and linguistically diverse students?”

I respond to each student’s reflection, providing continued prompts and questions for consideration.

Learning about Students

            A common phrase in teacher education is “know your students” (TESOL 6 Principles). This means authentically finding ways to learn about the multidimensional identities and needs of each individual that comes to our classrooms and developing stances that see students’ multilingualism as central to their identities and learning (García et al., 2017). In my language and literacy teacher preparation courses, the majority of my students are practicing teachers across a range of age groups and subject areas; some have had extensive experience with multilingual learners, some have had few experiences.

One of my core learning opportunities in introductory courses for teaching multilingual learners is building an “asset-based” profile of a multilingual student in their context. This is an opportunity to learn about a student’s background and educators work with the students, family and educators to help build this profile over the course of a semester (see example below, all names are pseudonyms). Educators are also given explicit instructions not to interrogate, but rather invite conversation. Prior to completing this profile, students read about and discuss topics on language and social justice so that they complete these profiles with the understanding of the historic marginalization of multilingual students and the multifaceted skills and backgrounds of their learners. Students in my courses have reported that this was one of the most powerful assignments they have completed in their training. When set-up with care, activities that encourage educators to learn about and from their multilingual students have the potential to shift perspectives and ultimately transform instruction.

Learning in Community

            The final tenet of this framework follows dialogic approaches of learning (Bakhtin, 1981), asserting that social interaction is crucial building criticality and ultimately change to pedagogical practice (Freire, 1968; hooks, 1994; Kumaravadivelu, 2012). Fostering dialogue is not the equivalent of casual conversation, but rather involves intentional interpersonal opportunities with explicit goals. Dialogic opportunities look different across courses, yet explicitly aim for students to trouble and explore topics surrounding race, language, and power with each other and are organized with great care. Examples for Learning in Community are:

  • Across two courses, another instructor and I intentionally paired students from each course to reflect together (with prompts) on their learning related to Motha’s (2014) Race, Empire, and English language Teaching (see Shepard-Carey & Gopalakrishnan, 2021).
  • In my course on culturally-responsive literacy, students write weekly dialogue journals based on course topics (adapted from Cult of Pedagogy) in which peers and I respond directly to their entry, providing questions and feedback for further consideration.
  • Creating environments that invite dialogic conversations include co-creating community norms with students. This helps create a space in which everyone can participate and be held accountable for their contributions.


Bakhtin, M. M. (1981). The dialogic imagination: Four essays (Vol. 1). University of Texas Pres.

Clark, R., Fairclough, N., Ivanič, R., & Martin-Jones, M. (1990). Critical language awareness part I: A critical review of three current approaches to language awareness. Language and Education, 4(4), 249-260.

Doucet, F. (2017). What does a culturally sustaining learning climate look like?. Theory Into Practice, 56(3), 195-204.

Flores, N., & Rosa, J. (2015). Undoing appropriateness: Raciolinguistic ideologies and language diversity in education. Harvard Educational Review, 85(2), 149-171.

Freire, P. (1968). Pedagogy of the oppressed. Bloomsbury publishing.

García, O., Johnson, S. I., Seltzer, K., & Valdés, G. (2017). The translanguaging classroom: Leveraging student bilingualism for learning. Philadelphia, PA: Caslon.

García, O., & Wei, L. (2014). Translanguaging: Language, bilingualism and education. Palgrave Pivot.

hooks, B. (1994). Teaching to transgress. Routledge.

Howard, T. C., & Rodriguez-Minkoff, A. C. (2017). Culturally relevant pedagogy 20 years later: Progress or pontificating? What have we learned, and where do we go?. Teachers College Record, 119(1), 1-32.

Motha, S. (2014). Race, empire, and English language teaching: Creating responsible and ethical anti-racist practice. Teachers College Press.

Paris, D., & Alim, H. S. (2014). What are we seeking to sustain through culturally sustaining pedagogy? A loving critique forward. Harvard Educational Review, 84(1), 85-100.

Shepard-Carey, L., & Gopalakrishnan, A. (2021). Developing critical language awareness in future English language educators across institutions and courses. Language Awareness, 1-18.

Short, D., Becker, H., Cloud, N., & Hellman, A. B. (2018). The 6 principles for exemplary teaching of English learners: Grades K-12. TESOL Press.

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