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How do English language teachers adapt to the growing linguistic diversity in their classrooms?

Tony Burner, Professor of English Education at University of South-Eastern Norway Christian Carlsen, Associate Professor of English at University of South-Eastern Norway

What are English as Second Language and English as Foreign Language teachers’ beliefs concerning multilingualism? And how do they adapt their teaching to take into account students’ diverse language backgrounds? Even though there has been a growing interest in multilingualism in educational research over the past few decades – as reflected in the Council of Europe framework documents such as the Common European Framework of Reference for Languages (2012) – past studies have suggested that this interest has had limited effect on what actually goes on in language classrooms (see for example Burner & Carlsen, 2022).

An essential aspect of what has been termed the ‘multilingual turn’ in language education (Meier, 2016) is the recognition that students’ existing language skills are potential resources for their future language learning (see for example Cummins, 2017). It is important therefore that students and teachers develop an awareness about the benefits of multilingualism and reflect on similarities and differences between languages in a systematic way. All aspects of students’ education may benefit, but especially language subjects.

‘It is important that students and teachers develop an awareness about the benefits of multilingualism and reflect on similarities and differences between languages in a systematic way.’

Numerous studies have looked at teachers’ beliefs and practices regarding multilingualism within different national contexts over the past decade (see for example Burner & Carlsen, 2022; Erling et al., 2021; Haim et al., 2020), but so far insights from these studies have not been systematically collected, described and discussed.

To carry out a scoping review, a total of 2,282 articles were scanned, and 56 articles published between 2011–21 were identified as relevant for the purpose of the review. The articles were analysed and discussed according to their research questions/aims, context and methods, arguments, and findings. Articles included in the review stem from Europe (19), North America (17), Asia (12), South America (3), Oceania (2) and Africa (1). The other two articles included a combination of Asian and European countries. The large range of national contexts included in this review represents one of the main new contributions to the field of research.

Three important conclusions can be drawn.

First, English teachers’ multilingual beliefs and practices may vary considerably within national contexts, where students’ backgrounds and national policy documents seem to play a less important role than the individual teachers’ language norms and ideologies. The evidence of this tendency across national contexts is a new and important insight, particularly for policymakers and researchers. For policymakers it is important to evaluate the effect of curriculum reforms over time on teachers’ beliefs. One example of such an evaluation is a government-funded research project currently  being conducted in Norway by universities which aims to identify how teachers perceive and operationalise the curriculum reform of 2020 (Burner et al., 2022; Møller et al., 2023).

Second, English teachers’ multilingual beliefs are generally more positive than their multilingual practices. More specifically, our findings show that although teachers often hold positive views about multilingualism as a concept, awareness about the cognitive implications for language learning and teaching is much less developed. More research is needed that focuses on how this gap between teachers’ attitudes and practices could be bridged.

Third, when teachers use or refer to other languages, they are mainly restricted to the language of instruction or the students’ first language rather than students’ whole-language repertoire as recommended by the literature on translanguaging and influential policy documents. As a result, future research on the practice of multilingualism in classrooms should take into consideration teachers’ ability to include students’ whole-language repertoire.

To conclude, our findings show that teachers’ beliefs and practices – despite growing linguistic diversity in their classrooms – remain, to a large extent, influenced by traditional language teaching norms and language ideologies.


Burner, T., & Carlsen, C. (2023). Teachers’ multilingual beliefs and practices in English classrooms: A scoping review. Review of Education, 11, e3407.

Burner, T., & Carlsen, C. (2022). Teacher qualifications, perceptions and practices concerning multilingualism at a school for newly arrived students in Norway. International Journal of Multilingualism, 19(1), 35–49.

Burner, T., Alvestad, K. C., Brazier, E., Gustavsen, T. S., Kacerja, S., Ruud, L. C., Salvesen, G. S., & Schipor, D. (2022). EvaFag 2025: Evaluering av LK20. Realiseringer av læreplanen i spesifikke fag. Arbeidspakke 1, delrapport 1. No. 91. University of South-Eastern Norway.

Council of Europe. (2012). A framework of reference for pluralistic approaches to languages and cultures. Council of Europe Publishing.

Cummins, J. (2017). Teaching for transfer in multilingual school contexts. In O. García et al. (Eds.), Bilingual and multilingual education (pp. 103–115). Springer.

Erling, E. J., Foltz, A., & Wiener, M. (2021). Differences in English teachers’ beliefs and practices and inequity in Austrian English language education: Could plurilingual pedagogies help close the gap? International Journal of Multilingualism, 18(4), 570–585.

Haim, O., Orland-Barak, L. & Goldberg, T. (2020). The role of linguistic and cultural repertoire in novice bilingual and multilingual EFL teachers’ induction period. International Journal of Multilingualism, 19(1), 63–84.

Meier, G. S. (2016). The multilingual turn as a critical movement in education: Assumptions, challenges and a need for reflection. Applied Linguistics Review, 8(1), 131–161.

Møller, G., Bergsgard, N. A., Salvesen, G. S., & Burner, T. (2023). EvaFag 2025: Evaluering av LK20. Mellom frihet og struktur – evaluering av LK20 i grunnskolen. Arbeidspakke 2, delrapport 1. No. 117. University of South-Eastern Norway.