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By Denise Dent — Freelance Education Consultant, Race Equality in Education

Denise Dent assesses the kind of help bi and multi-lingual children require in their literacy learning, starting from the very first day they arrive in your classroom

The first few weeks

Many children enter our schools in KS2 with little or no English. For some schools this is a regular occurrence and there will be appropriate policies and procedures in place, resources to hand and experienced staff to provide support. Other schools are less prepared, and the initial reaction can be one of panic.

If you fall into the latter category, there are a number of things you can do. Initially, find out if your school has encountered this situation before and if there are policies and resources or a member of staff who has some experience.

Figure 1

Conversational language skills

  • The ability to carry on a conversation in familiar face-to-face situations.
  • Using high frequency words and simple grammatical constructions.
  • Communication of meaning not dependent on grammatically correct use of language. Child can start very simply with a few words and phrases and build on them over time.
  • Supported by context, facial expression, body language, tone of voice.
  • Instant feedback.
  • High motivational factors – to communicate needs, to feel safe, to develop relationships, to belong to a group.
  • Familiar, everyday situations allow for repetition and consolidation. Modelling from peers, teachers, other adults, TV, etc.
  • Native speakers have generally developed competent conversational fluency by the time they enter school at five. Second language learners generally develop conversational fluency within a year or two of exposure to the language either in school or in the environment.

Academic language skills

  • The ability to understand and produce increasingly complex oral and written language in order to demonstrate knowledge and understanding.
  • Increasing use of low frequency words, complex syntax and abstract expressions that are virtually never heard in everyday conversation.
  • Content is cognitively demanding, increasingly abstract and de-contextualised – comprehension of content relies on linguistic ability.
  • Feedback is delayed and formalised.
  • Motivational factors less immediate and less connected to emotions and sense of identity.
  • Children generally expected to produce written outcomes to demonstrate understanding, and to work on their own.
  • Opportunities to use and develop academic language need to be planned for and supported in school as they may not happen outside school.
  • Bilingual students usually require at least 5 to 7 years of exposure to academic English to catch up on native speaker norms.

Discrete Language skills – the role of the literacy lesson

  • Specific literacy, phonological, and grammatical knowledge acquired as a result of direct instruction and engagement with language and literacy. Involves deconstructing and demystifying the language.
  • Some skills are acquired early in schooling (eg, alphabet knowledge, sounds represented by individual letters and combinations of letters). Others continue to be acquired throughout schooling (eg, spelling conventions, capitalisation, punctuation, grammatical rules).
  • Can be learned at a relatively early stage of acquiring English concurrently with development of basic vocabulary and conversational proficiency. Drill-based early literacy programmes can be effective in teaching discrete language skills to second language learners.

There are some excellent resources online for working with new arrivals, and many local authority websites have good guidelines and advice (see Useful websites). Support may also be available from your local authority, through an Ethnic Minority Achievement (EMA) team or similar department.

Below are some strategies for working with newly arrived children in the first few weeks. For the purpose of illustration, the child is female.

  • Collect as much information as you can about the child – eg, reasons for moving here, languages spoken and written, religion, correct use of names, health, previous schooling, emotional well-being, level of competence in first language.
  • Prepare the class for the new arrival. Make sure everyone can pronounce her name and say hello in her language. Ask them to think about how the new child may be feeling and what they can do to help her settle in. Choose a couple of ‘buddies’ who can help her at dinnertime and playtimes.
  • Use the child’s first language as much as possible: it is her best learning tool. Bilingual members of staff are invaluable here, as are other children in the school who share the language. It isn’t just about translation either – also important is the opportunity to process new information and new ideas at her cognitive level rather than her level of English. If there is no one else in school who shares the language, look to the family and ask them to talk with her about the day’s lessons. Purchase bilingual resources, or borrow from other schools. Your local EMA team may also be able to help.
  • Line up an orientation activity for the first day: someone to show her round the school and introduce her to people.
  • Give her time to adjust, especially if there has been any trauma involved in the move to your locality. Involve her in class activities as much as possible – she will learn very quickly from her classmates. Her primary needs at this stage are around feeling safe and secure rather than attainment.
  • Recognise that she needs a lot of listening time, tuning into the sound of English and its patterns and rhythms. Working alongside other children and joining in as she can will give her lots of models of English and opportunities to use what she feels comfortable with. The social interaction and development of relationships is also crucial to her self-esteem and sense of security.
  • Some children go through a ‘silent period’ which can last weeks or months, whereas others will start to communicate straight away. With quieter children, recognise that they are listening and learning even if they are not speaking. Try to encourage them to speak by providing situations where they feel comfortable – eg, small groups or one to one. *Prepare interesting activities for the times when she can’t join in with the rest of the class – bilingual if possible, eg story tapes, computer games.
  • Find a way to allow the child to become acquainted with a text before it is introduced into the literacy lesson – give her a copy to take home and read with someone, get hold of a bilingual version, use support staff to go through the text with her and talk about the main features. This will help her to follow what is being talked about and will mean that she is more likely to be able to contribute to the lesson. If you can, involve her parents or older siblings.
  • Recognise the child’s prior learning. She may not know much English yet, but she has at least one fully developed language and she will have had previous achievements at school. If connections can be made to what she already knows and can do, it will greatly help her to make sense of new knowledge and a new language.
  • Use support staff in a focused and purposeful way. Ideally they should have some training in how best to support the child. General support of the ‘helping to fill in activity sheets’ variety is to be discouraged if it is done with the child not engaging with the content. Support should be targeted to the child’s specific language needs and should be very much about speaking and listening in the first few months, beginning with survival language. The use of an appropriate EAL assessment tool will help you to see progress and set targets.
  • Be aware that there is a possibility that the child has specific learning needs as well as EAL needs. While it is not desirable to see EAL as SEN, as the needs and the type of support are very different, you don’t want to ascribe all a child’s issues to EAL if she does have a learning difficulty. Deryn Hall’s book, Assessing the Needs of Bilingual Children – Living in Two Languages, (David Fulton, ISBN 9781853467998) is a very useful resource for this purpose.
  • The important thing is not to panic – and to remember that the child will often be highly motivated to learn conversational English. Within a very short time, she will be part of the class and communicating effectively.­

Settled in

As she settles into your class and later moves through the school, the child will be developing and using different types of language skills – including conversational, academic and the kind of discreet language skills learned in the literacy lesson. Figure 1 outlines how these skills differ.

Ensuring engagement

It is vital that teachers think about the relationship between the curriculum objectives and the cognitive demands of a lesson, and the language skills needed to access and engage with them.

Available to download below is a useful visual tool, mapping out those skills. The vertical axis shows increasing cognitive demand, going from what the children already know and understand to the new knowledge and understanding the lesson is designed to give them.

The horizontal axis goes from highly contextualised and supported activities on the left (eg, working in a group to test various materials for absorbency) to more abstract and de-contextualised activities on the right (eg, reading about different materials and their properties and using the information to design a new school uniform).

The bottom left section is where lessons often begin – with some activity or discussion that focuses on what children already know. Consolidation of content also helps to consolidate the language for bilingual children. The lesson then moves on to an activity that is introducing new concepts and new information. At this stage there should be appropriate support and scaffolding in place so that bilingual children can access the content at their cognitive level rather than their level of English. So give them the opportunity to:

  • use their first language where possible, so they can engage with the concept and process the information;
  • carry out practical activities where information is gathered without a complete reliance on language;
  • work collaboratively with other children and contribute to a group effort.

The top right section of the quadrant has children working at a high cognitive level, moving on from the supportive context of the previous activities, with a greater emphasis on the manipulation of ideas and concepts through language alone. Here they are required to use higher level thinking skills to process and evaluate the new learning and make it their own. Suitable strategies at this level include:

Useful websites

  • Rehearsing and redrafting what they want to say;
  • Modelling of appropriate structures by teacher/peers;
  • Working with another child to develop what they want to say, in verbal and written form;
  • Verbally rehearsing unfamiliar language structures and vocabulary before writing it down;
  • Scaffolded writing activities – writing frames, collaborative writing, models.

The literacy lesson is an ideal place to focus on the language structures and skills needed to operate at this level, but children need to put them into practice across the curriculum in a range of contexts.

Finally, it is also important that the support offered is targeted to the specific needs of the children, helping them to develop sufficient language skills to enable them to manage without support in the future.

For the first part of Denise Dent’s article, click here