National Writing Project

Flipping the Educational Script: Teachers as Learners

By: Rosa Jimenez, Marjorie Orellana
Publication: California English
Date: Summer 2006

Summary: If teachers learn to recognize and value the translation work that students do with their immigrant parents, they can better build those skills into academic literacies.


Untitled Document Growing up, I was known as "la secretaria." Literally translated this means "secretary," but in my home it meant much more. As "la secretaria," I helped my family speak, read, write, and communicate with the English-speaking world. My parents, aunts and uncles used this as a term of endearment and as a compliment. Calling me "la secretaria" signaled their recognition that I was acquiring the English language skills necessary to translate information between home and the outside world.

When my family called out, "Dónde está mi secretaria?" I knew they weren't simply trying to locate me, but that they needed my support as their translator. They might be calling on me to help with almost any facet of our household life-calling the insurance company with questions about our health coverage, filling out a credit card application at a department store, helping my mom with her homework for her ESL classes, or many other things.

My work as "la secretaria" was always quite separate from my homework as a student. And while I knew that my role as a translator, and secretaria, was important for my family, I never really thought about the value it had in helping me develop linguistic or academic skills. I also never had the sense that my teachers knew much about my work as a translator, beyond a few who may have had a general awareness. Oftentimes immigrants, and their life experiences, become "invisible" to the general population. Students who translate may be even more hidden because they are children. Thus, the work children do as translators and cultural brokers most often slips under the radar of teachers. Even to children and families it may not be really noticed because it is a normal part of every day life.

When I became a teacher, I knew that many of my students did similar kinds of language brokering work for their families, but I didn't necessarily know how to meaningfully build from those experiences in school. Now, as a researcher, I am working with a team to learn more about the wide variety of experiences that children of immigrants (and English learners) have as translators, how to build upon the skills they acquire from these experiences, and find ways to bridge this specific practice with academic literacies.

We draw from data gathered by Dr. Orellana (co-author) over many years with child translators from Chicago and Los Angeles. From the research, we have learned:

  • Almost all English learners participate and/or observe translation-reading, writing and speaking for their families, though the extent and breadth of their experience may vary (Orellana, 2003).
  • Children and youth who translate are active participants in their households and in immigrant adjustment processes (Orellana, Dorner and Pulido, 2003; Valenzuela, 1999).
  • Children who translate act not only as conduits of information, but also as socializing agents, who provide access to information, resources and opportunities in communities (Tse, 1995). Their skills and expertise are vital for families' health, survival and social advancement.

What if we as teachers learned to recognize and value this kind of work that students do? How would we go about this process?

Flipping the Educational Script

In order to build upon the skills students have, we suggest flipping the educational script to one of teachers as learners. This involves looking at what youth do in their everyday lives, and what experiences they have had. By asking about our students' translating skills in particular, we may see a rich repertoire of language experiences that could be built upon in our classrooms.

In our research we learned a great deal about translating by reading journals kept by students in our study. This was a key method we used to collect data, and we believe it is an approach that would also be useful in the classroom. Here we provide a journal entry by Jasmine, an 11-year old girl in Chicago, the daughter of immigrant parents from Mexico.

When I went to the movie theater with my parents I had to translate an application for a credit for the movies and I had to read the application to my dad... it is easier to translate for my dad because he knows some English. I also translate to my dad when he was ordering the ticket the cashier asked how old was my brother and my dad asked me what the cashier was saying and I told him esta diciendo cuantos años tiene Gabriel and I said 2 years.

At first glance, errors in grammar and punctuation may seem to leap off the page. But what if we suspend these concerns about language conventions for a moment to take the stance of learning from students about their own lives?

A Closer Look

While this entry is short, it can serve as a significant starting point for learning more about Jasmine's experiences as a translator. Jasmine mentions two relevant episodes: "translating" and "reading" the credit application and translating the question the cashier asked about her brother's age. If we probe beneath the surface, we find that this translation episode involved at least five steps and a variety of skills:

  1. While Jasmine does not write about this in her journal, we can infer there was a conversation between Jasmine and her father that led up to the family trip to the movies and the solicitation of the application. This conversation is part of the translation episode in that she has to listen, understand, and synthesize what her father wants her to do as a language broker. This may involve asking questions to get clear on what specific information to relate to personnel at the movie theater.
  2. Once they arrive, Jasmine asks for a credit application in a face-to-face translation. There are a wide array of linguistic skills she needs to employ for face-to face interactions like this one; she has to speak in an appropriate tone, style, register and pitch for her audience - ones that takes into account her own social position as a child speaking to and for adults. Here, audience awareness is key, as she may need to shift her speech according to the social context-not only from Spanish to English, but also from her family to a theater employee.
  3. Jasmine then translates text, or "reads the application" to her dad. Note that in her journal she glosses over filling out the application, a task with complex language demands (Reynolds and Orellana, Under Review). Filling out such forms involves not only making sense of the information and questions, but also figuring out the application itself-where the questions are, what they mean, where to write down the information requested, and what kinds of answers are expected.

In her journal, Jasmine also tells of how she translated when her father, who "knows some English," purchased the movie tickets. Although Jasmine may not have been actively translating at the start of this interaction, she may well have been listening to the conversation, ready to translate at a moment's notice. (We have watched other children in similar circumstances and have been impressed by their sensitivity to social cues.) Jasmine's comment that "It is easier to translate for my dad because he knows some English" is a good reminder that even in families where parents speak some English, children provide important supports. In fact, both children and parents may learn a great deal from these mutually supportive transactions.

As we think more deeply about the linguistic, social and cultural demands that this single translation episode entails, we are able to make visible the skills that students like Jasmine develop through everyday practices.

Classroom Applications

Teachers can utilize journals to learn about the varied and specific ways their students participate in the practices of translation. But more than simply asking students to chronicle their experiences, we can guide the process in ways that help youth to reflect on their practices and gain more awareness of the skills that they develop through translating. We offer the following guiding questions to help students think more explicitly about specific translating experiences:

  1. Where did you translate? (In/Out of Home)
  2. What was it about? (School, bills, parent's employment, household, entertainment, etc.)
  3. Who was involved? (By yourself, with your mom or dad, other family, or another person like a clerk/bank teller)
  4. What did you translate? (Text/written document like a letter or bill, oral language like people talking, Visual/Media like a TV show, radio, movie)
  5. Were there any challenges? (I.e.: things you didn't understand, any difficulty with the people involved? What did you do to address these challenges?)
  6. Describe the events and details of the translation episode.
  7. Reflections (Was it easy/difficult? Why? How did you feel about it?)

We can ask students to think of specific instances when they translated and write journal entries about them, guided by questions like these. Some students may not even realize all the things they do as translators (and secretarias), and so they may benefit from hearing their peers talk, and from questions that encourage them to think broadly about what counts as translating.

Reflections on the challenges of translating seem particularly important. In our research, when we asked questions about what felt easy or hard we were sometimes surprised by the answers; students' comments helped us to see the demands of the tasks. When youth make explicit the strategies they use to deal with these challenges, we can help them to see how the same kind of strategies can be used for school literacy work.

Closing Thoughts

Here, we have elaborated on student journals as one potentially powerful writing tool, which accomplishes many goals: (1) teachers learn more about the variety and complexity of their student's translating experiences, (2) they help students reflect on their linguistic and cultural competencies, (3) journals help students practice writing, and (4) the entries serve as a rich source for other kinds of writing-narratives, short stories or expository essays. The journals could serve as a launch point from other activities that help students reflect on their practice as translators, such as discussions about their varied experiences, and role play or re-enactments of translation episodes. Students can create maps or webs of all the places where they've translated, bring texts to decipher in groups, develop vocabulary activities using challenging words they've encountered, and more.

We have presented an analysis of what journals about translating reveal, how to utilize journals to learn from students, and offered ideas for teachers to develop further as they learn more about their students' lives. Using this approach, we start by affirming student's home language and cultural practices. We begin not with what the student is lacking, but with the skills they already possess. By changing our vantage point and becoming learners of our students, we are better able to recognize and appreciate all that is involved in being a secretaria and a family translator. In this way, we come to understand, affirm, and draw upon students' vigorous linguistic and cultural practices for their own learning and development.

This article was first published in the summer 2006 issue of California English, journal of the California Association of Teachers of English.


Orellana, M. F. (2003). Responsibilities of children in Latino immigrant homes. New directions for youth development: Understanding the social worlds of immigrant youth, Winter (100), 25-39.

Orellana, M. F., Dorner, L. M., & Pulido, L. (2003). Accessing assets: Immigrant youth's work as family translators or 'para-phrasers'. Social Problems, 50(4), 505-524.

Reynolds, J. F. & Orellana, M. F., (Under Review). Problematizing para-phrasing: Leveraging bilingual skills for school paraphrasing tasks.

Tse, L. (1995). Language brokering among Latino adolescents: Prevalence, attitudes, and school performance. Hispanic Journal of Behavioral Sciences, 17, 180-193.

Valenzuela, J., Abel. (1999). Gender roles and settlement activities among children and their immigrant families. American Behavioral Scientist, 42(4), 720-742.

About the Author

Rosa Jiménez is a Ph.D. candidate in Education at the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA). Her research interests include sociocultural learning for English Learners. She was a middle school teacher for 6 years.

Marjorie Faulstich Orellana, Ph.D. is an Associate Professor of education at University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA). She uses sociocultural perspectives to study childrens everyday language practices. Dr. Orellana was an elementary school teacher for 10 years in Los Angeles.

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