Fluency adds up, even for maths skills

23rd September 2011 at 01:00
Pupils without native English are suffering, study finds

Do aur panch kya hai?*

It makes no difference whether you have complete grasp of the maths skills that this sentence requires. If you cannot understand the words, you will not be able to do the maths. And therefore your ability to do well will be severely limited.

In fact, pupils whose first language is not English need between five and seven years of additional language teaching before they are able to understand the curriculum fully, new research reveals.

Fifteen per cent of pupils in England do not speak English as a first language. In central London, this increases to more than half. And language remains one of the biggest barriers preventing pupils from performing well academically.

"For pupils to have full access to the curriculum, they need to be fluent in English," said Feyisa Demie, of the research and statistics unit of Lambeth Council in south London. He studied the performance of almost 1,600 local pupils who had completed their GCSEs. Non-English speakers were ranked from stage 1 beginners through to stage 4 (full fluency). Dr Demie looked at their progress from Year 6 to Year 11 to find out how long it took each one to progress from one stage to the next, and ultimately to full fluency.

Language skill was a consistent predictor of success. None of the pupils at stage 1 achieved five A*-C grades at GCSE, compared with half at stage 2 and almost two-thirds at stage 3. But by the time they were fully fluent in English, bilingual children were much more likely to attain five good GCSEs than their monolingual counterparts.

However, pupils needed an average of six years of additional coaching to achieve fluency, although this varied depending on their mother tongue. Children from an African background tended to achieve full fluency as much as a year earlier than average.

"Many pupils, particularly from west and east Africa, are exposed to English, as the language (still plays) a key role in government administration and education," Dr Demie explained.

He called for increased numbers of specialist teachers to ensure the necessary support is provided. "There is a need by central Government to provide additional targeted funding for . at least six years," he said.

Mary Bousted, general secretary of teaching union the ATL, said that many teachers do not realise how long it takes for children to reach full fluency. "It's not only certain schools that have pupils with English as an additional language - it can happen anywhere in the country," she said. "But some teachers don't have any experience of it. They need a lot more professional development in this area.

"But local authorities are being decimated. Any kind of specialist teaching is being cut, and language support is no exception."

* What is two and five? The answer is "saat" (in Hindi).

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