Fair means and fowl

27th June 1997 at 01:00
Every teacher of bilingual children should have one. Angela Hobsbaum reviews a much-needed book on learning to read in a second language

MAKING SENSE OF A NEW WORLD. By Eve Gregory. Paul Chapman Publishing, Pounds 14.95

This book addresses a neglected problem in English education: learning to read in a second language. Few books have focused on the literacy acquisition of bi-lingual learners entering school in the multilingual classrooms now common in the UK. Until now, we have had to draw on research from very different language communities.

Making Sense of a New World deserves a place on the bookshelf of every primary teacher whose pupils are learning to read English as an additional language. It may not solve all the problems, but it will do more to help us understand them than any other book for teachers currently available.

Eve Gregory begins by comparing the experiences of two children starting school: Jessica, a native English speaker, and Tony, a speaker of Cantonese at home (see extract, right). These two, and other children with different linguistic and social backgrounds, become familiar to the reader through a series of vivid and persuasive vignettes which place Gregory's analysis firmly in a familiar classroom context.

She acknowledges the political context of current policies which ensure that most emergent bilinguals learn to become literate in English before they can speak it fluently. The national curriculum requires all children to read, write and be assessed in English, regardless of linguistic background. Gregory draws on her own experiences of multilingual primary classrooms as well as on recent research from the UK, the USA and Europe to illuminate this challenge.

Making Sense of a New World begins by comparing attitudes towards literacy in different social contexts and serves as a useful reminder that our assumptions are strictly local and particular. Case studies illustrate the contrasting practices which children encounter when they go from Bengali classes to Arabic lessons to an English primary classroom, each with a different view of what reading is for and how it is learned.

Gregory touches lightly on theories of reading acquisition, presenting a helpful interactive model which applies to both monolinguals and bilinguals. Many teachers feel it is important for emergent bilinguals to develop some oral skills before they start to read, but are reluctant to hold up the curriculum until oral fluency is established. The interactive model shows how these children will be able to use the cues in the print, although in a different way from their monolingual English classmates. Thus their route to literacy will be distinctive, and their literacy will underpin and extend their English fluency, rather than the other way round.

The second half of the book focuses more closely on classroom practices which can help emergent bilinguals as they learn to read English. What teachers will find helpful is the systematic and detailed treatment of practices which they may well have developed intuitively and on a trial-and-error basis. It is important that the names Gregory gives to these approaches - "inside-out" and "outside-in" - avoid the traps of the labels often used to describe different approaches to the teaching of reading, and should enable teachers to apply them thoughtfully and appropriately.

These two approaches are as applicable to monolingual learners as to emergent bilinguals. The content of The Little Red Hen - planting corn, grinding grain, milling flour, baking cakes - may be strange to many five-year-olds, regardless of their linguistic background. Yet the value of such stories lies in the opportunities for all children to enjoy the simple yet powerful messages and repetitive refrains.

Gregory includes a detailed account of collaborative reading which is not dissimilar to the Guided Reading advocated by the National Literacy Project, with its distinct stages of orientation to the book, introduction to the story, collaborative reading, exploration of the text, consolidation of text processing, and finally extension reading and writing activities.

She points out that detailed record-keeping is essential and recommends the Primary Language Record for recording information about the child's home language and literacy experiences, as well as detailed analyses of reading strategies and support. Gregory suggests carrying out a miscue analysis about twice a year, but the precise frequency should depend on the child's progress. The interpretation of the miscues is the crucial element.

The chapters are long but organised into clear subsections and each is helpfully summarised. There are also questions for consideration, many of which have no easy answers. Nevertheless, they will encourage teachers to translate the ideas in this book into constructive and supportive practices for the emergent bilinguals in their classes.

Angela Hobsbaum is a co-ordinator at the Reading Recovery National Network at the University of London Institute of Education

* Extract from Eve Gregory's Making Sense of a New World

Tony, our Cantonese speaking child, is looking at a book with his teacher shortly after starting school at five.


What's in that book?


That one's called Mr Impossible.


Mr Inpossible. (looks at cover) Mr Inpossible. (repeats four times with different intonation) Mr Inpossible is in ... is (points) the house. (turns page) What's his name?


Mr Impossible.


Mr Inpossible talking a boy. (turns page) Mr Inpossible. He fall down she's hat. (turns page) He's talking. And girl and boy. What's that? (points at Mr Impossible) Teacher

Mr Impossible.

Tony There's a girl and a boy ... that's girl and boy.

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