New kids from the bloc

15th December 2006 at 00:00
With the surge in immigrants from East Europe, Highland now has 500 Polish children in its schools. So how do staff and pupils cope? Raymond Ross reports. Photographs Ken McPherson

it is Kamila's first day at Crown Primary in Inverness and her first experience of a Scottish school.

Eleven-year-old Kamila Rzepka is Polish. She has been in Scotland for only three weeks. She has very little English and, with some trepidation, is about to enter a P7 class. Her class buddy, Laura, will try to make her feel at home. But Laura doesn't speak Polish. No one in her class does.

Kamila also has a playground buddy called Chris. Chris is Polish. He's been here three months. But he's in another P7 class.

At first Kamila seems marooned. She is withdrawn. Quite upset. But two Latvian girls in her class quickly make friends with her. Their home languages are close enough for some communication and they know what she is feeling, what she is experiencing.

Kamila brightens. Within a couple of days she seems more settled. The double buddy system proves a great help and staff make sure she meets the other nine Polish pupils at her school, whose ages range from four to 11.

Immediately, Kamila begins one-to-one Polish to English tuition with bilingual language assistant Anna Holda, a native Pole who will also support her in class, as she does the other Polish pupils. In less than two weeks, Kamila is proving to be very able in maths. Towards the end of her second week she seems relaxed, happy and confident.

Kamila is one of around 500 Polish pupils now attending Highland schools.

Since European Union enlargement in 2004, many East European families have arrived in the area, including Czech, Latvian and Lithuanian migrants, attracted by employment opportunities in the construction, catering and fish processing industries. But the vast majority are Polish.

This presents a huge challenge to Highland, especially on top of the 41 other home languages which Highland schools share, ranging from Tagalog (Philippines), Tamil and Bengali to French, Spanish and Vietnamese. But it also presents a great opportunity. "Inward migration is good for the economy, for the Highland population which has been declining and for our school population," says Margaret Crombie, the council's support for learning manager.

"It's good in terms of promoting bilingualism and cross-cultural fertilisation. We know that bilingualism promotes cognitive development, and the sharing of different cultures can only be good for child development."

But what does this entail for the busy teacher, for new pupils grappling with the host language and for the school community? Sarah MacAlpine, Crown Primary support for learning teacher, has developed a series of teaching aids and strategies, following authority guidelines, and has Mrs Holda - one of only five newly-appointed East European bilingual assistants in Highland - to help her develop and employ them.

ICT is to the fore with easy-to-use programs that support early English acquisition while promoting awareness of how other languages like Polish look and sound. Pupils can record their voices to practise and hear how their English sounds; they can record in their own home language andor practise speaking a little Polish. It is important to value the home language and to make it part of the school's culture.

"From day one pupils can record answers on screen, which is very important because oral skills precede written ones. That allows the pupils to contribute from the start. It raises their confidence and allows them to do group work which is crucial, because it's through social interaction that they will learn English," says Mrs MacAlpine.

"Younger children may hardly have seen their home language written down.

Development of the home language helps with proficiency in English, especially if there is no English spoken in the home."

Mrs MacAlpine is making a welcome video for the school foyer. Representing all the languages and cultures in the school, the video begins "Children come to Inverness from all over the world" and allows new (or any) pupils to access information about the different nationalities and languages.

"It's important that we share each other's languages and cultures and that we support the home language as far as we can. So we try to get them to write in both, with Mrs Holda's support. Hopefully, their written Polish will develop too. Our major focus is English, but we can't have this to the detriment of their home language."

CLASSROOM STRATEGIES:

Label familiar objects in English and first language

Involve the new pupil in classroom tasks

Sit the child in a group of able pupils who are good models

Encourage the pupil to use a personal dual-language wordbook (if literate) Pair all pupils for some tasks

Include pictures, books and photographs of life in the pupil's heritage country, thereby sharing all the home cultures in the school community

Play end-of-day games that reinforce vocabulary ("Simon Says", "The Minister's Cat")

Computer facilities:

Voice-recorded instructions in Polish

Wordbanks or predictive word processors to support writing

Picture or symbol support to aid reading

Opportunity to voice-record responses as an alternative to writing, in Polish and English

Webcams to record role play or group work

Activities presented in dual-language format

Opportunity for groups of children to voice-record in various languages

Mind-mapping software for brainstorming

Dictaphones: maths questions and instructions are recorded in Polish by language assistant. Children can record responses in Polish, to be translated later

Talking dictionaries: CD-Rom dictionaries with graphic and speech support develop language skills and support writing activities

Websites

www.freetranslation.com gives rough translation of text; www.manythings.org offers a variety of exercises for developing English; www.blssportsmouth.sch.uk covers many aspects of EAL support and bilingual issues; www.dgteaz.org.uk gives translations of standard school letters in many languages www.rds.com has a good selection of SQA-approved dictionaries.

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