Code Switching in the Classroom

Instructor: Della McGuire

Della has been teaching secondary and adult education for over 20 years. She holds a BS in Sociology, MEd in Reading, and is ABD on the MComm in Storytelling.

In this lesson, we will examine code switching: what it is, how we use it, and how we can practice using it in the classroom in order to reach out to students and speak their language.

Say What?!

If you track your greetings throughout the day to the various people you encounter, you might notice something interesting… how you talk with different groups can change drastically from one moment to the next. For example, take a look at the following list of typical greetings and notice how they vary based on who is being addressed.

  • To a romantic partner: 'Hello, sweetie.' in a low, sultry whisper
  • To a baby: 'Aren't you a pwecious wittle darling?' in a high-pitched squeak
  • To a friend: 'Girl, you will not believe what happened!' in an excited voice
  • To a coworker: 'Is it Friday yet?' in a flat affect
  • To a superior: 'Is there anything I can do for you?' in an eager tone
  • To a grandmother: 'How are you feeling today?' in a deliberate, audible voice
  • To a class: 'Good morning, students!' in a chipper, energetic tone

Code Switching

The list above are examples of code switching. Teachers have to be especially skilled at this to interact effectively with students, parents, administrators and other teachers. Code switching is a communication strategy where one's personality is expressed differently through their tone, diction and inflection.

This helps to establish and maintain healthy boundaries, to make group connections and identify outsiders of a particular group. Everyone engages in code switching to some degree. It begins in childhood, and you can observe it in action. Just listen to children speak to each other when they think no adults are listening.

Code switching is when people speak differently for different audiences
image of code switching

Bilingual Code Switching

The previous examples of code-switching emphasize social interactions among people who speak the same native language, even if it sounds drastically different (just try reading a teen's alphabet soup of text messages). Code switching is most obvious when used in bilingual classrooms, English as a second language classes, and in classes where bilingual students may be present. Some teachers frown on use of a student's native language in an English language classroom, but code switching has some positive effects on student learning and can be beneficial.

Let's take a look at some of the ways code switching is used in bilingual classrooms and how it functions for students learning English.


The equivalence function in code switching helps students fill in the blanks for an unknown English word or phrase by replacing it with the same word or phrase in their own language. This helps bridge gaps in communication where students may not have the vocabulary to articulate what they need to say.

  • Maria: May I go to the… um… biblioteca?
  • Teacher: Yes, you may go to the library.


Floor-holding has the function of filling the silence during communication when the student may not have the words in English so they switch to maintain the conversation. The floor-holding function is thought to reduce the new language fluency over time by reducing the perception that one needs to strengthen vocabulary to improve communication.

  • Maria: We have to speak in English, even before class starts.
  • Juan: Sí, pero necesito más palabras. (yes, but I need more words)


Reiteration is a function in which the speaker repeats a misunderstood phrase in the native language to reinforce the translation and check for comprehension. A teacher might reiterate a phrase in the native language to ensure understanding and increase vocabulary. A student may also reiterate in their language back to the teacher to show the teacher they did understand.

  • Teacher: Take out your homework, please... tareas, por favor.
  • Maria: Here is my homework.

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