Talking about teaching bilingual children: Encounters with difference

The EAL Journal blog publishes plain language summaries of EAL-related Master’s and Doctoral research. In this post Judith Flynn, Ed. D., Associate Lecturer in Education at Manchester Metropolitan University and EAL specialist, presents a summary of her doctoral thesis on pedagogic discourse among teachers of multilingual leaners.

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Judith Flynn

Background: Why did I do the research?

As a initial teacher educator and EAL specialist, I was often concerned by a lack of community language use in schools with multilingual pupils. For example, despite learning about multilingual pedagogy and the value of first languages, my trainee teachers were often discouraged from applying these principles when they entered schools. Was it just a matter of tutors and teachers lacking knowledge about multilingualism, or were there other reasons for this resistance to multilingual pedagogy? I wanted to explore what these possible other reasons were.

What I did 

I conducted interviews with teachers in a multi-ethnic primary school, and observed them teaching over several weeks. I analysed the interviews and categorised the things they said about teaching multilingual children into themes. These were: teaching EAL, home language use, parental involvement, the national curriculum, and SEN. I then looked at how the things they said and how they taught related to what research says about language, culture and curriculum for multilingual children.

What I found

I found that a number of key concepts for teaching multilingual children were missing or less prominent in the teachers’ conversations around EAL. These were: a culturally relevant curriculum, promotion of home languages, and knowledge about children’s first and second language development. Instead, their conversations focused on Standard English. For example, one teacher, Mrs. A, stated that they must ensure English should be,as correct and as specific as we can”. Another advised a more traditional way of teaching grammar, in line with National Curriculum expectations. Mr. D said, “The new National Curriculum is very prescribed … and it’s very much back to the old school in terms of ‘this is a model verb’”. He also indicated that teaching was benchmarked against monolingual norms: “There is quite a lot of tense work we have to teach … a girl this morning wrote I feeled instead of I felt … and she just didn’t know, bright girl, didn’t have a clue about that … whereas I have a 5 year old and he would”. Research suggests that this kind of non-standard usage is productive, as it reflects experimentation and risk taking, using first language structures as a basis for exploring the second language.

The focus on Standard English coincided with recent changes to the curriculum. For example, Mr. C, said, “The National Curriculum is so English, the new history curriculum … is all about England. Alfred and his cakes. And we spent years and years and years going away from that.” As a consequence, teachers struggled to fit in the teaching of culturally relevant topics.

As well as a curriculum that lacked linguistic and cultural relevance, home language use was discouraged also. Used sometimes for translation for parents and children, home language use to enrich the educational experiences of children was absent. Mrs. A said, “I think it [speaking another language] is quite a positive thing really. My teaching assistant speaks Urdu but she doesn’t speak it in the classroom. It’s just not promoted as something we should do really”.

Additionally, the teachers reported children’s embarrassment at speaking their home languages. The school declared a positive attitude towards home languages, but this seemed offset by the weight of the curriculum and the desire for children to learn English as early as possible.

Responsibility for EAL teaching at the school was with the class teacher, so the EAL teacher tended to focus on English lessons for parents of EAL learners, and on reading interventions to promote attainment, rather than support for multilingual pedagogies. The pressure for attainment in literacy and numeracy was a dominant concern. As Mrs. E said: “There is so much pressure for progress for all the children, it’s just fitting it all in…”. The school, however, was largely successful, with a favourable OFSTED report and results at around the national average. Home languages did not seem relevant to this success.

Meanings and further interpretation

Considering my findings in terms of national policy, I found discouragement of home languages and cultures at odds, not only to current research, but also the ideas underpinning milestone governmental reports, such as the 1985 Swann Report and the 1975 Bullock Report. For example, the Bullock Report states “No child should be expected to cast off the language and culture of the home as he crosses the school threshold”. These reports recognise the value of home languages for the communities themselves, and the necessity to combat racism in society. The current national curriculum appears to ignore diversity.

From reading about political thinking I find that as powerful groups control policy, the interests of the less powerful can be silenced. As I considered home languages to be silenced, I realised that children, peers and teachers were not being socialised to hear and experience each other’s languages. Educational philosopher Gert Biesta argues that we need to revisit the aims of education to include not just academic attainment, but the realisation of students’ potential, and their socialisation. This needs to be embodied in what schools do, not just what they say. My research suggests that realisation of potential and socialisation must include respect for other languages and dialects to avoid language racism and barriers between individuals and groups.

From thinking about ethics, I realised that a relationship of respect would be for a school to engage respectfully with languages and cultural understandings to support the learner in their translation of both home and school worlds.

This is suggestive of a holistic view of the teaching of bilingual children that goes beyond attainment and which brings together bilingual pedagogy with the teaching of EAL.

My recommendation would be for practitioners to revisit and build on the bilingual pedagogy and techniques advocated in NALDIC Working Paper 9. We need to approach educational leaders and politicians to consider how the curriculum can address the ethical and social needs of a diverse society. This has relevance for tolerance and understanding at a national and global level.

This post is a plain language summary of Flynn. J (2015). Teachers’ pedagogical discourses around bilingual children: Encounters with difference. Ed.D. Thesis, Manchester Metropolitan University. A copy of the full dissertation can be accessed here.

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