Primary value of recognising first languages

2nd May 2003 at 01:00
An understanding approach is crucial to helping young non-English speakers learn, writes Christine Callender

Succeeding in Diversity: culture, language and learning in primary classrooms

By Jean Conteh, Trentham Books pound;15.99

This book draws on the perspectives of a sample of Bradford-based primary pupils and their parents and teachers. It provides a fascinating outline of the experiences of south Asian communities in Bradford and of the ways in which this history has affected them, especially in education. More than this, it highlights the relevance of discussions surrounding language, learning and culture in primary schools.

Jean Conteh starts with a discussion of the theoretical rationale underpinning her work. She draws on personal experience and reminds us of the important connections between theory and practice. We are introduced to one of the main tenets of her work - that learning is a socially constructed activity affected by and responsive to culture and knowledge.

We are introduced to Rukshana, at the time a student in the final year of teacher training. As part of her coursework she wrote an autobiographical piece reflecting on her early school experiences in England. At the time, she spoke little English and, until the arrival of a pupil who shared her language and who could speak more English, she felt left out. She describes how one day her class teacher appeared "holding up a colourful object and saying something to her". She recalls:"The teacher left me staring blankly at the other children. Every one of them was doing something: playing, reading, working or talking in EnglishI This was a day that I felt so many emotions inside me. Feelings that I had never experienced before. I did not want to be myself." This extract leaves us in no doubt as to the damaging personal (and possibly academic) consequences of failing to recognise first or preferred languages. This, as well as examples of children's work, underpins and illuminates Conteh's central argument throughout.

In other chapters, she shares her observations of children engaging in formal and less formal aspects of schooling, noting how oral skills are embedded within personal experiences outside school. We are introduced to the role and attitudes of the family in relation to the children's learning of English. This is a welcome departure from previous writing in this area, which has, until recently, failed to reflect the impact of parents and other adults in the community.

The concluding chapters propose ways forward and provide useful references for teachers at various stages of their careers. The book provides useful suggestions to enable teachers to evaluate their practice and engage in professional dialogue about issues concerning the education of children whose first or preferred language is other than English.

The book will be useful for teachers and others working in or with schools that may be less diverse. It is a welcome addition to the literature surrounding language, literacy, learning and culture because it illustrates how language and culture have a profound impact on children's learning.

Christine Callender is a lecturer in education at the School of Early Childhood and Primary Education, Institute of Education, University of London

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