Tes focus on...Supporting non-native English speakers

Teachers should avoid making ‘recklessly’ generalised assumptions about the needs and abilities of children who speak English as an additional language and instead piece together the puzzle of each student’s unique linguistic background, finds Chris Parr
31st January 2020, 12:03am
Tes Focus On... Non-native English Speakers


Tes focus on...Supporting non-native English speakers


Darius and Anna are both Lithuanian. Darius was born in the UK, his parents speak both English and Lithuanian at home, and he is comfortable in either language. Anna has only recently emigrated to England and neither of her parents speaks English yet, although both are learning. Anna speaks very little English but is very keen to learn.

Both Anna and Darius are classed as having English as an additional language (EAL) as far as school categorisation goes. Often, that can mean they are viewed as needing similar support in school, too.

This, according to many academics, is bonkers. Victoria Murphy, professor of applied linguistics at the University of Oxford, went so far as to call it “reckless” in a May 2018 Tes Podagogy podcast.

“The way it is defined is so general, it really just highlights children who have another language in the home,” she explained. “It does not speak to whether and to what extent the child is exposed to English since birth or any other context, and it doesn’t say anything about their proficiency in English.

“Importantly, it does not say anything about their knowledge of their home language or proficiency in that language. It is a group that is massively diverse. So, any time we talk about EAL in general terms, we are really being a bit reckless.”

And yet, in pretty much every school system in the world, we do categorise children such as Darius and Anna in the same “general” way. So, what should teachers be doing?

First, no assumptions should be made about the current attainment level of the child based on the simple fact of their EAL status. While many may assume that having English as an additional language would hold children back, it is often not the case.

Don’t conflate categories

According to a study of 19,000 UK children carried out by scholars from the University of Sydney, Australia, published two years ago, children who speak a second language do better in maths and writing tests by the age of 7, even if they are behind their peers academically when they start school.

And data published by the Department for Education in June last year shows that, at GCSE, students with EAL who started school in England between Reception and Year 2 have higher attainment 8 scores on average than those whose first language is English.

Obviously, there will be non-native speakers

who struggle, but the classification of pupils with EAL as having special educational needs and disability (SEND) is clearly problematic - yet the two are often conflated.

A natural progression from this is to delve more deeply into the language knowledge of the child. It’s not enough just to recognise that a child with an EAL label may be very different to another with the same label. You have to find out the hows and whys and whens, according to Ludovica Serratrice, director of the Centre for Literacy and Multilingualism at the University of Reading. There are no easy wins, she argues.

“The first task that the teacher has to do when you’re dealing with a bilingual child is to try to find out as much as possible about the language background,” Serratrice says. “Try to involve the family - the parents - as much as possible so that you can try to understand what the language dynamics are like within that family.

“Who speaks what language to whom at home? When is the child using each language at home? Does the child use English or another heritage language or both when they’re speaking to siblings?

“You should also try to find out what kinds of activities the children do in which language. Do they read, or are they read to, in English?”

These sort of things are important, Serratrice says, because “if we know anything about language development, it is that the quantity and the quality of language input that children receive is a very strong predictor of their own language ability”.

Calibrate expectations

Serratrice explains that if there is “one thing we’ve learned from monolingual language acquisition”, it is that children with a large vocabulary “have often got parents or adult caregivers who involve them in a lot of back and forth: they give a lot of contingent responses to what the child says or they elaborate on the topic”.

She adds: “They may recast what the child has said, they may expand it or make analogies and provide synonyms, so they give a very rich experience.”

Understanding how far this happens in one language or both can help to “calibrate the expectations that you might have of the child, both up and down, to be realistic”, she says. “Clearly, the more you hear a language, and the more you get opportunities to use that language and use it in different contexts, and in different registers with different interlocutors, the more competent you will become in that language.

“So, it’s really important for teachers to understand the language background that children come from.”

A knock-on effect of different levels of input in a given language can be the level of vocabulary a child recognises. Serratrice explains there is evidence that children with two languages often have a smaller vocabulary in each one than what you would expect to find in a monolinguist.

“One thing we know about bilingual children, as with the bilingual populations in general, is that because their vocabulary is distributed across languages, the number of words they will know in each of their languages is typically smaller than someone who is monolingual,” she says.

If you add together the words that they know across the two languages, then “they’re comparable to monolingual peers”, Serratrice explains, but “if you’re assessing them on one language” then there may be a smaller vocabulary.

This can manifest in a number of ways. A 14-year-old girl who grew up in France with an English father and a French mother, for example, might appear in conversation to be very confident in her English while still struggling with other aspects.

“Being fluent in the playground and talking about everyday occurrences [is only one thing],” Serratrice says. “Getting the academic English register right can be harder. And especially if you’re going into a secondary school, that’s the kind of level that you need to be at.”

So, if a young person were having issues with, say, physics, an assumption that language was not an issue based on their apparent grasp of it in social circumstances would be wrong: their academic language and their social language would not necessarily correlate.

Which brings us to SEND. Spotting where the root of a challenge lies can be tough when it comes to EAL. For example, it can be tricky to ascertain whether slower language development in a bilingual child is the result of their bilingualism or something else. “Having language skills that are not like those of a monolingual child may be compounded by a developmental language disorder,” Serratrice says.

However, if you have held back your assumptions, and got to know the child and their family - and the language dynamics between them - then things will be easier to spot, she says.

“The ability for teachers to try to understand and to flag those children who may be at risk of developmental language disorders to a speech and language therapist is vital,” she explains. “You can do that only if you find out as much as possible about how the child functions in their other language. So, finding out about skills, not just in English but also in any other language that they speak at home, is really very important.”

Identify the root of the problem

Another tip is to look beyond language as the source of any problem the child may have - too often, this is the only avenue explored. Serratrice explains that, for recent arrivals to the UK, cultural differences between their new country and the one they left can also upset learning.

“For example, in Italy, very often primary schoolchildren will sit in rows; they will have their own desk for the whole year,” Serratrice says. “It is very different from primary schools here in the UK, [where children] will do more moving around - they won’t really have an assigned space or the expectation of having to sit for five hours each day.”

Overall, the message is clear: don’t treat all children categorised as EAL the same. There is no off-the-shelf, one-size-fits-all solution and believing that there is can create huge problems in a school.

EAL can be a complex area that requires a complex response, and embracing that complexity is likely to be your best bet in terms of supporting the child.

Chris Parr is a freelance writer

This article originally appeared in the 31 January 2020 issue under the headline “Tes focus on...Non-native English speakers”

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