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Talking their language

How can you help children who speak English as an additional language to succeed? Reva Klein visits a London primary that is showing the way

Surrounded by council estates and just off a busy dual carriageway in Tower Hamlets, London, is Shapla primary. All of the school's pupils have Bangladeshi parents and speak English as an additional language, making the grant cuts it has suffered over the years for teaching bilingual pupils particularly hard.

And yet Shapla is a success story: headteacher Jane Wallace and her staff have surpassed government targets for all mainstream primaries. In 2002, 87 per cent of children achieved at least level 4 in English, while 84 per cent gained that standard in maths and 94 per cent in science.

Their secret? "We take it slowly but we expect high standards," says Ms Wallace, who has led the school since it opened 17 years ago. "We don't churn out exercises for them to do. We expect quality work, so we have to make sure that what they do is attractive and valued."

Shapla is an exception to government figures which show that despite overall improved levels of attainment, the gap between black Caribbean and Pakistani pupils on the one hand and their white peers on the other is bigger now than it was a decade ago. And the achievement divide between Bangladeshi pupils and white children has remained consistent, even though all their scores have improved. Clearly, the National Literacy and Numeracy Strategies are not having the desired impact on standards of achievement for children from these ethnic backgrounds.

To redress the balance, the Government has set itself the aim of raising the achievement of bilingual learners. It has launched a pilot project across 21 local education authorities through the primary strategy, in which specialist consultants will support designated schools in trying to raise literacy and numeracy standards among these children.

The consultants, all experienced teachers of bilingual pupils, will help class teachers and senior managers to develop inclusive teaching programmes. The idea is that once mainstream teachers have developed more confidence and expertise, they will be better able to meet the needs of bilingual learners across the curriculum. Shapla is not part of the pilot, but participants in the scheme would do well to learn from its success.

School is the main place where pupils at Shapla speak English, with most of them communicating in the Sylheti dialect at home. Reception teacher Neena Begum is conscious that her class is a bridge between the two languages and that bilingual children who are supported in their first language tend to have higher attainment in literacy in their second language. "A lot of effort goes into books and displays and posters in their own language," she says. "We make a lot of books with the children throughout the school that they read to each other. In reception, we make books in both languages.

Alphabet books will use corresponding sounds and words."

Ms Begum moves in and out of both languages, depending on the children's needs: "I use simple English and explain specific words in Sylheti when necessary." Some of the books are bilingual, some not. The children choose between them freely and are expected to take one home every day.

Most of the parents are not literate in Sylheti because it is a spoken language, not a written one. When they ask how they can help their children read, Ms Begum shows them strategies such as using visual clues to talk about the story. A family literacy programme is planned to start at the school next term, in which parents will be encouraged to talk, read and make books with their children.

For English co-ordinator Jo Pruden, literacy takes on multi-sensory dimensions: "For beginners, we use texts where words are repeated. I try to make things as visual as possible. Children can understand quite difficult texts when the visual clues are there." She also uses artwork to promote writing, explaining: "It helps children to join in at their own levels when they have images to draw on."

Taking on roles in drama is another way that Ms Pruden engages pupils in difficult texts, such as "The Highwayman" by Alfred Noyes and Tennyson's "The Lady of Shallot". Poetry and art come together in some of the books they create, too. The whole school contributed to Paint Me a Poem, a beautifully produced book of art and poetry based on paintings and drawings at the Tate galleries.

Shapla's bilingual pupils tend to find it particularly difficult to write non-fiction and to extend their vocabulary. They respond to diary writing, traditional tales, myths and legends but have trouble explaining things and putting an argument together. To help them overcome these problems, they are asked to write about issues that concern them. One assignment was to write a letter to the mayor about some nearby wasteland that is plagued by rats and rubbish.

The school puts a lot of energy and thought into exposing the children to stimuli about which they can talk or draw pictures, or write journals, short stories or poetry. They are taken to visit museums, galleries or the opera and have been involved in art and drama projects at the National Gallery and the National Theatre. The school has also had resident artists and poets.

Shapla's pupils leave the school, says the head with some understatement, "ready for secondary school". Some of them have gone on to achieve eight As at GCSE. And this year sees a first: a former Shapla pupil of Bangladeshi descent has been offered a place at Girton College, Cambridge - to study English.

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