Double speak

17th July 1998 at 01:00
The omission of advice for teachers of bilingual pupils in the literacy strategy suggests David Blunkett is just paying lip service to the inclusion ideal, Manjula Datta writes

DAVID Blunkett highlights the importance of literacy teaching for all our children in his introduction to the teaching framework of the national literacy strategy.

The Secretary of State's desire for inclusive education should be applauded. However, the notion that all children were considered equally during the framing of the strategy is questionable.

The overall framework for teaching was sent out earlier this year, and many teachers have already been trained. But guidance for teachers who support English as an additional language pupils has not yet been published. Its exclusion from the major document gives the issue a reduced status. The underachievement of ethnic-minority pupils as a consequence would not be surprising.

Worse still, the proposed guidance lacks specifics, and offers a "deficit and assimilative" model of learning for pupils who speak English as an additional language. They are considered to have "needs" which have to be addressed if they are to succeed in education. Any references to bilingual pupils tend to be ad hoc and showing signs of tokenism, ignoring the real achievements of children who speak two or more languages, and the added richness and diversity which comes from their enhanced capabilities.

The guidance also puts extra demands on teachers, without creating any understanding of what strengths and skills bilingual pupils bring to classroom learning, what their requirements might be, and how working to the guidance could support teachers' understanding and practice.

Through learning to read, bilingual pupils acquire the rules of English - and experience the wide range of meanings so essential for reading fluently. These skills are best learned through talk-based text exploration, rather than as isolated components of English language. The ability setting suggested for "guided reading" is unlikely to prove effective. Mixed-ability peer-group learning is a rich resource to help such children make connections with their own ability.

Talk in the multilingual classroom needs to be collaborative with adults as well as peers. Such oral-based practice has been reported in a major longitudinal research project (1997) in several Nordic countries. It emphasises that bilingual pupils need to carry on learning the language alongside their developing literacy skills in order to make sense of the text.

The national literacy strategy does propose talk-based practice with "high-level oral exchanges"; but close attention to the guidelines reveals that teacher input in these exchanges is heavy, and classroom evidence suggests that it mostly depends on a series of closed questions directed by the teacher. Yet such talk often proves counter-productive with bilingual pupils, since abstract adult discourse which excludes peer-group exchanges affects their motivation to learn. The result is the well-known bilingual syndrome of "switching off" that all teachers are familiar with.

Quality talk is essential, and needs to include peer-group experimentation and explorations at the word, sentence and text levels - with the teacher collaborating and teaching within the context established by the pupils. It is crucial that this talk should encompass pupils' cross-cultural and linguistic experiences and perceptions.

Operating freely within two languages and cultures gives bilingual children freedom of expression, and encourages playful engagement with words. Images such as "an alligator's mouth opening like a car park barrier" or "the frog was as green as my mum's green sari" or "the morning sun spread its wings in the sky" can only be articulated in a playful, safe and stimulating environment. Without this, "transferability of knowledge and skills from one language to another" as suggested in the proposed guidance, cannot take place. In fact this type of understanding should permeate the entire literacy process for bilingual pupils.

Teachers also need to be aware that bilingual pupils are exposed to figurative, idiomatic, and proverbial use of language at home in their own languages. The universal structure of rhymes and natural rhythm in songs and poems in all cultures are rich resources to be tapped to develop literacy. My own research into such usages in a variety of Asian languages fully endorses this; it demonstrates that if children are encouraged to talk about language and culture they will tune into the rules and richness of English, pushing out their linguistic boundaries and developing a sense of self in the process.

Rereading texts after an interval, generating talk on all aspects of language and writing, and comparing texts are all very useful activities that promote the development of higher-level skills. These, together with teacher enthusiasm, are very important in creating a positive attitude and motivation for all pupils.

Let us hope that clear and well-thought-through guidance for the teachers of children with English as an additional language will be embodied in the National Literacy Strategy, and help to create a better understanding of bilingual pupils. This will empower teachers to improve the reading and writing achievements of all our children.

Manjula Datta works at the School of Education, University of North London

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