What multilingual learners say …

The EAL Journal blog publishes plain language summaries of EAL-related Master’s and Doctoral research. In this post Monika Reece, teacher, teacher educator, and researcher on migration, equality and EAL presents a summary of her PhD research on perceptions of being an EAL learner.

Monika Reece

Why did I do this study?

Provision for so-called ‘EAL learners’ in schools seems to vary a great deal. As a teacher educator I was astonished how much my student teachers’ perceptions of their experiences in secondary schools differed. Some reported excellent support for multilingual learners, others were shocked by how little provision was in place. While the literature confirms these claims, it seems to focus mainly on academic support or relate to specific strategies to teach EAL learners.

The question arising from my own experience as a secondary teacher and teacher educator as well as my reading of the literature was how the learners actually felt. Furthermore, I wondered if the young people’s perceptions of what it is like to be an ‘EAL learner’ were in any way addressed in governmental documentation on how to support them.

To answer the two questions, I conducted two parallel studies and then compared the findings. Firstly, I interviewed eighteen multilingual learners in two very different secondary schools. The voluntary participants were year 7 to year 10 learners from a range of European, Asian and African countries, boys and girls. Some spoke a little English on arrival, others did not. Some had attended primary school in England, others came straight into secondary school. Secondly, I analysed governmental generic and subject specific guidance, current and older documents which still seemed to be used in schools such as the KS3 Strategy subject specific guidance on EAL.

The data analysis of the interviews produced three main areas addressed by the young people

  1. Bi- and multilingual learners talked passionately about their difficulties when arriving in the country. They wished for more understanding and empathy with a focus on their emotional wellbeing rather than schools concentrating purely on their academic ability by conducting tests on arrival. They mentioned a lack of emotional support to help them settle not only in school but in a foreign country where everything was new to them; the language, people, currency, traditions, the law, the weather, in short, the way of living.
  2. Talking to like-minded people and making friends to play with were given high importance, social interactions being recognised as crucial for emotional well-being. The learners miss former friends, and social media and technology play a crucial role in maintaining contacts. They regretted not being able to continue hobbies they had pursued prior to arriving in England. At the same time, they recognised the opportunities they have by receiving their education in this country.
  3. All learners participating in the study were aware of the importance of learning English. They were however, unaware of their bi- or multilingualism being an asset rather than a hindrance. While the use of English at home was for some forbidden, some were encouraged to speak in English and others used their home language(s) and English to communicate depending on who they spoke with. Pupils seemed not to want to lose their home language(s) but were concerned about being able to speak English to socialise and perform tasks such as shopping or travelling on public transport without language barriers.

In contrast, the analysis of governmental documentation found the guidance to be overwhelmingly focussed on English language learning for academic progress and achievement. The priority is to establish learners’ ability in English and Maths. Learners’ background other than prior schooling or knowledge of English is hardly considered. Emotional needs and social integration rarely feature in EAL documentation unless related to learning English and making a positive economic contribution to British society. The DfES’s Aiming High: Raising the Achievement of Minority Ethnic Pupils, DfES/0183/2003:4 states, for example, that ‘continuing underachievement endangers social cohesion and leaves personal and economic potential unrealised’. There is no current documentation suggesting a revision of this view.

The focus in EAL documentation is mainly on academic achievement and neglects bi- and multilingual learners’ personal needs, especially on arrival in the country. Learners’ social and emotional well-being is left to schools’ discretion which explains the significant differences in provision for these young people in English schools. Their well-being depends on practitioners who are willing to go the extra mile to provide emotional support in the way the learners wish to be supported.

This comparison of multilingual learners’ perceptions with governmental EAL documentation highlights the rift between what learners feel would help them to be ready to achieve academically and what policy says. Learners need first and foremost help with settling in the country, empathy and a support network of friends. Testing on arrival in school, an overwhelming focus on speaking English and integration into British society at the expense of the learners’ cultural identity does not foster academic achievement and motivation to learn. It rather alienates, hinders or at least delays a positive attitude to school life and learning in their new home country.

If not done already, schools could start to explore their new arrivals’ personal basic social and emotional needs and address these needs prior to expecting academic performance. For example, pupils can be buddied-up with peers who can demonstrate how to use pounds and pence, role-play getting the bus or show pictures of snow and ice, or they can look at pictures of their non-English speaking buddies’ countries, friends and families or learn a bit of their language. What hobbies did they pursue in their home countries? If they are different to activities in this country, could they be shared with peers here? A further crucial but simple step to recognise bi- and multilingualism is to rename so-called ‘EAL learners’. The term ‘bi- or multilingual learners’ is associated with a skill rather than a deficit. Multilingualism has a positive connotation and therefore will not be conflated with special educational needs even if the Senco is the person responsible for multilingual learners. Once the learners feel safe, respected and equal in their educational environment, they will be ready to learn and enjoy academic progress.

This is a plain language summary of Monika’s PhD thesis ‘The constitution, positioning and normalisation of ‘The EAL Learner’: a Foucauldian-Phenomenographic study.’ The full document can be downloaded here.

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