The brave new world of bilingual teaching

2nd March 2001 at 00:00
At Regents Park they actively encourage pupils to use their mother tongue in class. And the policy is paying off as national test results rise dramatically. Neil Levis reports

Zareen Hussain's Year 4s are talking about the language of fear. Sunna suggests the word "dirrna", but no one in the class bats an eye. Zareen translates the Urdu into English: "Dirna means scared. That's right."

Zareen's pupils readily switch between their home tongues and English throughout the lesson. The children are paired with others of the same language or dialect and, every few minutes, are given a task. "I want you to discuss this in your home languages and report back in the language of your choice," says Zareen.

What is immediately obvious is how engaged the children are - they hardly look round as I am shown into the room. They are keen to contribute and, as they answer, use English, their home language or a mixture. It is not an issue for other pupils or the staff.

When they divide into tables for group work, they sit at the Sylheti table, the English, Arabic and Urdu tables, and others for Pushto, Mirpuri, Putwari (dialects of Urdu). The slick, unfussy way they move from whole-class to pairs and groups is impressive.

Next door, Tazeem Akhter, an advanced skills teacher after only five years in the classroom, is taking maths using the same methods. Khayam and Azimah, both Year 6 Urdu-speakers, sit with me at a table working out division in decimals. As they calculate, Khayam, a confident, articulate boy, takes the lead, naturally slipping between two languages. "It helps me sometimes to express my ideas in Urdu," he says.

Wherever else you go in Regents Park primary school, Small Heath, you will find teachers adopting the same approach. Not all of them have the advantage Zareen and Tazeem, both Mirpuri speakers, enjoy of being able to speak a different tongue. But they are pioneers at Regents Park, and their remarkable successes have given others the courage to follow.

Justin Stokes has been teaching for six years. "I was initially unsure of the approach. I was unaware of how important it was in a school where the majority of children have English as an additional language (89 per cent of Regents Park's 400 pupils). How would I plan or structure it?" Watching Zareen and Tazeem teach and talk about their lessons helped him appreciate the practical problems he would have to overcome. He now uses home-language discussion for role play, story-telling, circle time and class discussions. "The children respect each other's language," he says.

The architect of Regents Park's language policy is Pauline Gammon, a Geordie who has taught in Birmingham since 1970. She arrived at the school as headteacher in 1998 with a passion for inclusion. "In the old days, children who didn't speak English well were taken out of lessons. For EAL (nglish as an additional language), read SEN. They think their English is faulty and so their sense of failure is reinforced."

Pauline's passion is matched by her pride in her staff. "What an array of talent we have," indicating Zareen, four years in the job, and Tazeem. "What wonderful role models for the children."

At this point, I am reminded of the situation I faced when teaching secondary English in Tower Hamlets, east London, during the 1980s. We faced a sudden influx of Bengalis when a nearby school closed and struggled to come to terms with the language problems. "You must remember that these pupils are bilingual," we were told. "Rather than simply concentrate on the weaknesses of their English, appreciate that they are competent in one language and are learning another."

The logic of this, even then, was that we should allow pupils to talk in their own tongue. But we feared that we would lose control, that we would not be able to handle the situation. The courage it has taken Pauline Gammon to introduce bilingual teaching at Regents Park strikes a chord with me.

She did not, however, rush into implementing her vision of what she believed had to be done. First, she had to get the teachers on-side and raise the level of discipline to aid the success of such a high-risk strategy. The school adapted Lee Kanter's assertive discipline strategy, which is strong on praise but has a hierarchy of sanctions to encourage good behaviour.

After a year, they had reached the stage that Gammon wanted: she could enter a classroom and the children would not be distracted from their work. "We spent a year with teachers taking risks to build their confidence. That was important. We couldn't have just gone in at the level we are at now."

The teachers who spoke only English were apprehensive and had to be given the confidence and techniques to welcome home languages into the mainstream classroom. "The vision is that all teachers here - no matter what their background is - are teachers of English as an additional language. But we don't force the strategy upon them. That's important. It's a culture we promote.

"Last year, there were hiccups. On a bad afternoon, they were asking: 'Is it all over now?' But, this year, everyone's on board. It never ceases to amaze me how positive the staff are. The other night, they were saying: 'This is a strategy for all our teaching'. It's gone from the airy-fairy way of saying 'Let's respect each other's language', to something much more like 'Let's develop language to make us more literate people'."

Gammon downplays the school's key stage 2 test results (see table), but recognises that they have been significantly boosted by the confidence her pupils have gained through language. "Not everything depends on national tests." But she does admit: "They're absolutely astonishing.'

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