When 2 + 2 = happy ending

26th January 2007 at 00:00
Non-English pupils need maths to be decoded

If you go down to the woods today, you're sure of a big surprise: lots of very confused children.

For primary pupils whose first language is not English, fairy tales, popular songs and simple maths equations can be baffling. The range of vocabulary used to tell the story of Goldilocks and the Three Bears, or to add two and two together, is often beyond their comprehension.

Government data shows that around 12.5 per cent of primary pupils speak English as an additional language. But Latika Davis, of the primary national strategy, believes that these children often struggle with lesson vocabulary. "If children are able to have a conversation, teachers think they must be OK in English," she said. "But being conversationally fluent is not enough for maths or science."

Ms Davis is testing guidance for staff working with pupils whose first language is not English. They are advised to surround pupils with language aids, such as posters illustrating the difference between "long" and "longer". Wall displays should include sample sentences, rather than nouns alone, to help children struggling with grammar.

And curriculum subjects should be placed in familiar contexts. For example, a lesson about weddings should make reference to Muslim, Indian or Chinese weddings.

"Make sure children see the language around them," said Ms Davis. "If children can speak more than one language, they're more likely to be divergent thinkers because their brains are more active. They will learn.

They just need the right language."

Pat Smart, head of Greet primary in Birmingham, has been trialling the scheme with her pupils - 97 per cent of whom are from non-English homes.

Her teachers use pictorial instructions. They also model sentence structures for pupils, ensuring that children repeat this back in their answers. And expectations for these children are the same as for those whose first language is English.

"In the past, these children were often lumped together with those with special needs," Mrs Smart said. "They have a tendency to say 'Yes' or 'No', rather than answering in full sentences. They just need to build up their confidence."

Ten-year-old Zakir Mahmood agrees: "At the start, I couldn't understand the work," he said. "It was like I wasn't as clever as everyone else. But now I speak English better than before. I'm learning things quicker."

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