Plurilingual awareness

The Victorian Curriculum F-10 EAL is mandated for use in all government schools. 

The Victorian Curriculum F-10 EAL includes a strand called Cultural and Plurilingual Awareness. This strand builds on a wide body of research into second and additional language acquisition. This research shows that it is important to move away from the ‘deficit’ view of EAL students as ‘non-English speaking’. Instead, teachers should embrace a positive view of EAL students as speakers of multiple languages. This can improve learning outcomes and help students feel valued. 

About plurilingual awareness 

Plurilingual awareness refers to a person's ability to use their knowledge of different languages. This knowledge can help them communicate and learn. EAL students are adding English to the language(s) they already speak and use. As they develop proficiency in English, their plurilingual awareness develops too. Plurilingual awareness influences the student’s learning of English. It is also part of the student’s learning. Teachers play an important role in helping their students develop skills in these areas. ‘Plurilingual’ is different from ‘multilingual’. ‘Multilingual’ refers to communities or texts in which more than one language is used. 

Teaching and monitoring plurilingual awareness in EAL students 

The content descriptions in the EAL curriculum outline teachable knowledge and skills. This covers what to teach and what students should learn. The Cultural and Plurilingual Awareness strand outlines a continuum of skills and knowledge. There are two sub-strands within this strand: ‘Cultural understandings’ and ‘Plurilingual strategies’. These sub-strands provide teachers with more detailed descriptions about what to teach. The Cultural understandings sub-strand relates to students’ communication skills. Students are learning how to communicate (verbally and in writing) in a way that may be different from their previous school experience. The Plurilingual strategies sub-strand relates to the use of students’ home language(s) for learning. Teachers can teach these skills to their students. For example, they can encourage students to use bilingual dictionaries and to look for similarities and differences in the language(s) they know and the language they are learning. Teachers can also encourage their students to use their home language(s) at certain times, for instance, when they are learning new concepts. 

Cultural and Plurilingual Awareness and the achievement standards 

The Victorian Curriculum F-10 EAL achievement standards do not describe plurilingual strategies. However, teachers should use the content descriptions from this strand to inform lesson and unit planning. The content descriptions will help teachers support students at all levels. Teachers can review how well students are learning these skills and ensure they are progressing along the continuum by developing a range of plurilingual strategies. 

Plurilingual awareness and an EAL student’s prior learning 

EAL learners have previous learning experiences. These include informal learning in their communities and, usually, formal learning at school. These experiences vary depending on the learner's age, years of schooling, and the education they have experienced. 

Many EAL students have had the usual learning experiences of children their age in their country of origin. However, some students have not had the same opportunities to access formal schooling. Civil strife or natural disasters may limit opportunities, or schooling may be difficult to access for some groups of people. Families who have been displaced as refugees may have limited or no access to schooling in the places they move to. Other students may speak a home language with no formal writing system. 

Research shows that newly arrived EAL students can take two years to develop English for social interaction. Students with age-equivalent schooling in their first language take at least five years to develop the language to engage with age appropriate curriculum. Students with disrupted or limited prior schooling take an average of seven to ten years (Cummins, 1996; Cummins, 2008). During this time, EAL students’ home language can support them to learn new content. 

Case studies illustrate how teachers can address issues relating to Cultural and Plurilingual Awareness in the classroom. In the example below, the teacher finds a way to support a student who does not have same-language peers in her class or access to bilingual resources. 

Case Study 

Sao Nang is a Year 5 student from Myanmar who has been in Australia for two years. Her teacher found that Sao Nang could only read and write few words of her home language Dai, so bilingual dictionaries were not very useful. She also discovered that oral translation software was not available in Sao Nang’s home language. As Sao Nang was the only Dai speaker in the class, she could not discuss her learning with same-language peers. As such, the teacher encouraged all students in her class to use English in pair and small group work so that Sao Nang would feel included. While Sao Nang had limited opportunities to use her home language in the classroom, this was not the case at home. The teacher encouraged Sao Nang to discuss her learning with her older sister when she got home from school and suggested that the two girls test each other’s vocabulary using spoken Dai translations. As such, Sao Nang was still able to draw upon her linguistic resources to support her English learning. 

Languages can differ in many ways 

There are many differences in the ways languages work. For example, sounds and grammatical patterns vary depending on the language. Some languages, such as Chinese and Vietnamese, are tonal, and the meaning of a word depends on the pitch or the tone (e.g. rising, falling) the speaker uses. The writing systems of some languages, such as Chinese, are primarily ideographic. This means that symbols represent words. Other languages, such as Spanish and Vietnamese, use alphabetic writing systems. In these systems, letters represent the sound/s of a word. In some writing systems, such as Arabic and Spanish, one sound is represented by a single letter. In other languages, such as English, the sound represented by a letter changes in different words. Some languages, such as Japanese, have multiple writing systems that are used in different contexts. Some languages show social distinctions with different forms of words like ‘you’. Other languages have only one or two words to mark these distinctions (Swan & Smith, 2001). These features can influence which aspects of English students find most challenging to learn. 

Languages can also be identified as ‘closer to’ or ‘more distant from’ a given language. In general, learners usually find it easier to learn languages that are closer to languages they already know. Speakers of languages close to English, like Italian and German, can draw on their home language knowledge readily. More distant languages, such as Mandarin Chinese or Vietnamese, have fewer similarities with English. 

The nature of a language and how it is used can affect the way it is learned. For example, memorisation and visual learning are essential to mastering the written form of Chinese. These learners may then use this as a general approach to learning other content. Another example is Classical Arabic, which is learned for religious purposes. It emphasises reciting and memorising words, and learning to write is less important (Yates, 2003). In many countries it is not unusual for the ‘standard’ or most highly valued form of the language to be taught at school even though it may not be used in the home (Kirkpatrick, 2007). 

How a student’s other languages influence their plurilingual awareness 

An EAL learner’s plurilingual awareness reflects the nature of the language(s) they have learned and the ways they have learned it. Some EAL learners have well-developed and successful approaches to learning based on memorisation. Other students may expect consistent sound and letter relationships. These students may struggle with the irregularities of English spelling. Some EAL learners may take a visual approach to learning, while others may be strong aural and oral learners. This is often the case among EAL learners with limited literacy skills or from oral-only cultures. Some learners have learned their languages socially, while others have learned formally (Nicholas & Williams, 2003; Yates, 2003). 

Depending on their experiences, some students may approach learning English as if ‘starting to learn all over again’. Other learners may see themselves as building on the languages they already speak. Some students may translate from one language to another the majority of the time. There is no one standard pattern of development of plurilingual awareness in EAL learners. EAL teaching involves drawing on students’ existing knowledge and approaches to learning. 

Understanding plurilingual awareness in your students 

One way to understand a student's plurilingual awareness is to observe them using their different languages (Davison, 2019). You do not need to be able to speak the student’s languages to do this. Observe who they speak to, and in which languages. You can often infer the topic of a conversation through the context and the participants' attitudes. You can check your hypotheses with a colleague who speaks the same language as the student or with the student themselves. If students have some literacy in their home language(s), observe the texts they read and write, using illustrations and other visual clues to help you understand the context and content (De Jong & Freeman Field, 2010). This will be easier to do if it is made clear that use of the child’s other languages is accepted and appreciated. You can talk to colleagues and parents about what they have observed and noticed. Keep records of what you observe and look for changes in patterns and details over time. Teachers can also administer a range of first language assessment tasks to learn more about their students’ home language proficiency (see Resources section for links). 

When the student has sufficient English, you can ask about the different languages they use with different people. If possible, ask them why they use certain languages for certain purposes. Refer to the plurilingual dimensions of the EAL curriculum to help you to understand what you notice. For more information, watch the ‘What is Plurilingualism?’ webinar located on the VCAA’s website (link in Resources section). 

Students and parents will usually appreciate your interest in their experiences and languages. However, there is always a need to be sensitive and respectful in these conversations. Avoid infringing on a student’s or family’s privacy, and respect preferences they express not to share information on certain topics. 

Older students can be more self-conscious, so teachers may need to actively encourage them to use their home language(s) for learning. This is especially true if students feel concerned that their home language is not as well-developed as that of their peers. Home language attrition is a common problem among EAL adolescents, especially if they use mainly English at home.

Schools are encouraged to administer the Language and Learning interview with EAL students as part of the enrolment process. It is important that class teachers and school communities are aware of the English and language learning background of their students, so their language learning needs can be recognised and catered for. The interview begins this process (see Resources section for more information). 

Case study 

Bilal is a Year 10 student from Turkey who has been in an Australian school for three years. His EAL teacher found that Bilal was reluctant to use Turkish and was more confident working closely with non-Turkish speaking peers. He was not comfortable working with more recently arrived Turkish-speaking students as he said they teased him about him not speaking Turkish well. The teacher encouraged Bilal to see Turkish as valued in the classroom but did not push him to use it in ways that made him feel uncomfortable. The teacher spent time establishing the classroom as a safe space where mistakes are welcomed as opportunities for learning, and he made clear the expectation that it was not acceptable for students to laugh at others’ mistakes. By taking the time to understand Bilal’s attitudes towards his language use, the EAL teacher learned important information that helped him establish an inclusive classroom environment. 

Plurilingual strategies in practice 

Teachers do not share need to speak their students’ languages to use plurilingual teaching strategies. Practical ways for teachers to use plurilingual strategies include: 

  • encouraging students to label vocabulary in home language (Schwinge, 2003) 
  • where possible, grouping students with shared languages (Chau, 2007; Goldstein, 2003; Liu, 2010). Students can brainstorm ideas in their shared language and discuss how to communicate the ideas to the class in English
  • encouraging students to give each other feedback using home language (de Jong & Freeman Field, 2010; Hardman, 1999)
  • learning aspects of students’ languages. For example, knowing that verbs in Chinese do not change tense might help teachers understand why students can take time to express tense using verbs
  • displaying vocabulary charts with multiple languages in the classroom
  • using resources such as bilingual dictionaries or home language books (de Jong & Freeman Field, 2010). 

Teachers can also teach students to transfer linguistic knowledge from one language to another (de Jong & Freeman Field, 2010) by: 

  • comparing expression and meanings across languages 
  • modelling experimentation with different languages (García et al., 2012) 
  • asking students to teach and explain aspects of their language (Skilton-Sylvester, 2003). 

Fine motor skills such as handwriting are also transferable across languages. As such, practising home language writing is also valuable (Skilton-Sylvester, 2003). 

Case study 

Qiang is a Year 8 student with peer-equivalent prior education in China. The teacher found that Qiang was skilled at using dictionaries and online translation tools to check the meaning of unknown words in English. He also used home language extensively to check his understanding with peers. While this was often a useful strategy, the teacher noticed that Qiang was not getting a lot of practice at speaking English at school. So, she set clearer parameters about the use of English vs home language in the classroom. When the learning intention involved practising a particular language structure or speaking skill, she established the expectation that all students would use English in pair and small group work. However, when the learning intention involved a new concept or content, she encouraged students to use home language to help each other understand. Qiang’s case study illustrates that plurilingualism is not about allowing students to use home language whenever they like. On the contrary, it involves thinking strategically about when and how home language can be leveraged to support learning. 

Key points to consider in understanding students’ plurilingual awareness 

1. Peer-equivalent schooling in home language 

If the EAL student has had peer-equivalent schooling in their home language, he or she is likely to have some home language literacy skills. This means that they can use resources such as bilingual dictionaries. Older EAL learners may already understand academic concepts in their home language. These students can carry out direct translations of words and concepts from their home language to English. 

If the EAL student has not had peer-equivalent schooling, there should be less reliance on plurilingual strategies involving reading and writing. For example, bilingual dictionaries will not be helpful if the student has limited literacy in their home language. Memorisation strategies and oral repetition might be more useful. Learning language in context will also assist the student to retain new information. 

2. ‘Distance’ between home language and English 

 If the EAL student’s home language is close to English, the student should be able to transfer many cognate words from their home language. Cognate words are words in two languages that share a similar meaning, spelling, and pronunciation. They may also be able to transfer reading and writing behaviours, such as reading from left to right. 

If the EAL student’s home language is not close to English, then features like handwriting will need to be systematically taught. New sounds and sound combinations will need to be modelled for the student. 

A student's plurilingual awareness will not only be shaped by the distance of their home language from English. It will also be shaped by the culture of that language and the student's prior learning experiences. Even if the student’s home language is close to English, they still are learning to behave in the new context of an Australian school. This can involve behaviours that are unusual in their own culture, for example, telling a teacher when they don’t understand something. EAL students need to be supported in this learning, which can take time and be difficult. 

Older students are developing their plurilingual identity and personal sense of identity at the same time. This may lead them to reject or completely adopt elements of either their home culture or what they see as Australian norms. This is part of the process of exploring their own sense of self during this time of transition. Schools need to understand the challenges they are facing and provide appropriate support. Home-group teachers may be best placed to monitor how students are settling in and check in with students if they have any concerns. Journaling activities or class discussions can also be an opportunity for students to share their feelings, provided they feel comfortable enough to do so. It is important that the school’s values support and celebrate cultural diversity and that all students feel valued and respected, regardless of their backgrounds or personal attributes. 

 3. Age-appropriate resources in the home language 

Schools can support students' plurilingual awareness with age-appropriate resources in the home language. Some students may be able to continue formal learning in their home language. If they cannot, the school can encourage the ongoing learning and use of the home language through more informal means. 

The Languages and Multicultural Education Resource Centre (LMERC) has a wide range of resources available in a variety of languages to support students’ home language proficiency, including audio books in English and other languages. Resources can be borrowed for up to one term. 

Teachers can learn more about their students by talking to: 

  • Parents/carers 

Parents and/or carers can tell you more about how the child behaves at home and in family activities. Schools should use the Language and Learning interview to create a socio-linguistic profile for each EAL student. This profile is a living document that can be updated as schools get to know the student’s family better. 

  • Multicultural Education Aides (MEAs) in schools 

MEAs can tell you about the students’ county of origin and the community in Australia. They can also share their own knowledge of the students they work with. 

  • Interpreters 

Interpreters can assist you in conversations with students and parents/carers. School administrations have guidelines for the use of interpreters and translators. 

  • School colleagues 

Colleagues who share the languages of your EAL students may be able to share valuable insights. You could talk to them about languages in students’ countries of origin, the community in Australia, or the language itself. 

Resources to help teach and understand plurilingual awareness strategies 

Department of Education and Training (DET) resources: 

VCAA resources: 

Resources available at the Languages and Multicultural Education Resource Centre (LMERC):

  • Derewianka, B. & Jones, P. (2016). Teaching Language in Context (2nd ed.). Melbourne: Oxford University Press. 
  • Dutton, J., D’warte, J., Rossbridge, J., & Rushton, K. (2018). Tell me your story: confirming identity and engaging writers in the middle years. Primary English Teachers’ Association Australia. 
  • Meier, G. (2020). Supporting peer collaboration and social cohesion in multilingual classrooms: Practical insights from content-based learning contexts. In K. Bower, D. Coyle, R. Cross, & G. Chambers (Eds.), Curriculum Integrated Language Teaching: CLIL in Practice (pp. 165-186). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. 
  • Slaughter, Y., (2020). Challenging the monolingual mindset: Understanding plurilingual pedagogies in English as an Additional Language (EAL) classrooms. Language Teaching Research, 25(1), 39-60. 
  • Swan, M. & Smith, B. (2010). Learner English: A teacher’s guide to interference and other problems (2nd ed). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. 

This book can tell you about the language(s) the student speaks and the likely ways this will influence their EAL learning. It is available at LMERC. 

Note, the word ‘interference’ in this title suggests that the student’s first language is a barrier to learning English. However, more recent research demonstrates that a student's home language is a resource for, not a barrier to, learning English. The home language may influence some aspects of the English produced by EAL learners, especially in the area of pronunciation. These resources compare and contrast features of English and other languages. This can help teachers identify elements of their EAL student’s plurilingual awareness. 

Resources available from VicTESOL 

VicTESOL is a professional association committed to promoting excellence in Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages (TESOL) and supporting cultural and linguistic diversity through high quality multicultural education. 


Chau, E. (2007). Learners’ use of their first language in ESL classroom interactions. TESOL in Context, 16(2), 11–18. 

Choi, J., and Ollerhead, S. (2018). (Eds.) Plurilingualism in teaching and learning. New York: Routledge. 

Cummins, J. (1996). Negotiating identities: Education for empowerment in a diverse society. Ontario: California Association for Bilingual Education. 

Cummins, J. (2008). BICS and CALP: Empirical and theoretical status of the Distinction. In B. Street & N.H. Hornberger (Eds.), Encyclopedia of Language and Education, Volume 2: Literacy (2nd ed., pp. 71–83). New York: Springer. 

Davison C. (2019). Using Assessment to Enhance Learning in English Language Education. In X. Gao (Ed.), Second Handbook of English Language Teaching (pp. 1–12). Springer International Handbooks of Education. Springer. 

Davison, C., & Williams, A. (2001). Integrating language and content: Unresolved issues. In Mohan, B, Leung, C & Davison, C. (Eds.), English as a second language in the mainstream: Teaching, learning and identity (pp. 51–70). London: Longman Pearson. 

de Jong, E. J., & Freeman Field, R. (2010). Bilingual approaches. In C. Leung & A. Creese (Eds.), English as an additional language: Approaches to teaching linguistic minority students (pp. 108–121). London: Sage. 

García, O., Flores, N., & Woodley, H. H. (2012). Transgressing Monolingual and Bilingual Dualities: Translanguaging Pedagogies. In A. Yiakometti (Ed.), Rethinking Education, Volume 5: Harnessing Linguistic Variation to Improve Education. Oxford: Peter Lang AG. 

Goldstein, T. (2003). Contemporary Bilingual Life at a Canadian High School: Choices, Risks, Tensions, and Dilemmas. Sociology of Education, 76(3), 247–264. 

Hardman, J. C. (1999). A community of learners: Cambodians in an adult ESL classroom. Language Teaching Research, 3(2), 145–166. 

Kirkpatrick, A. (2007). World Englishes: Implications for international communication and language teaching. Cambridge, Cambridge University Press. 

Liu, C. (2010). Home Language: A Stigma or a Vehicle to Literacy? Literacy Learning: The Middle Years, 18(1), 26–40. 

Nicholas, H., & Williams, A. (2003). Oracy is more than the absence of literacy: Changing learner groups in ESL classrooms in highly literate societies. In G. Wigglesworth (Ed.), The kaleidoscope of adult second language learning: Learner, teacher and researcher perspectives (pp. 29–52). Sydney, NCETR. 

Schwinge, D. (2003). Enabling biliteracy: Using the continua of biliteracy to analyse curricular adaptations and elaborations. In N. H. Hornberger (Ed.), Continua of Biliteracy: An Ecological Framework for Educational Policy, Research, and Practice in Multilingual Settings (pp. 278–295). Clevedon: Multilingual Matters. 

Skilton-Sylvester, E. (2003). Legal Discourse and Decisions, Teacher Policymaking and the Multilingual Classroom: Constraining and Supporting Khmer/English Biliteracy in the United States. International Journal of Bilingual Education and Bilingualism, 6(3–4), 168–184. 

Swan, M. & Smith, B. (Eds.) (2001). Learner English: A teacher's guide to interference and other problems (2nd ed.). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. 

Yates, L. (2003). The influence of prior learning. In G. Wigglesworth (Ed.), The kaleidoscope of adult second language learning: Learner, teacher and researcher perspectives (pp. 53-78). Sydney: NCETR.