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Essay: Bilingual learners in schools

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  • Bilingual learners in schools
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The number of bilingual learners in schools is growing. This is due to different factors such as migration, children growing up in a multi-language home or displaced families or children. The reasons might be different for each child, but the consequences are the same. A child will still learn to be bilingual and that bilingualism will either aid or hinder them. Bilingualism is perceived as an asset; however, it is not recognised in schools, other than when pupils have the opportunity to participate in the Community Language GCSE exam. The government has put in place different policies to ensure that bilingual learners can achieve to the best of their ability and research has been done on how to support these bilingual learners in different environments. Many views and opinions are being sought on how to educated bilingual learners, however, the opinion that is missing is the one of the bilingual learners themselves. For all the different reasons a pupil might not speak English as a first language, it doesn’t change whether they will be included in the classroom or not. The legislations have been put in place for teachers to ensure that everyone in the classroom can access the learning, but this will depend on the school, on their resources, and on the individual child. There are many factors to take into account: whether the child wants to learn English, the circumstances under which they have had to move to England and their home life. In this essay, I wish to explore the different opinions and experiences bilingual learners might have in the classroom and at school. I wish to determine what causes a bilingual learner to become isolated from the other students, whether it is their language, their situation or their upbringing. I want to understand how teachers can use the resources available to them to help the bilingual students integrate themselves and how the support staff within schools can also be an important part of that. In order to do so, I will be researching the different policies – from the National Curriculum to Section 11 and the information provided by the National Subject Association for English as an Additional Language – as well as various literary sources, to ascertain how bilingual learners are supported and included in the classroom.
Section 11 of the local government act of 1966 was put in place for local communities to access funding for the ethnic minorities within these communities. Since the act has been put in place, it has enabled successive governments to realise that “immigrant” communities have needs that are not met in the mainstream (Gravelle, 1996:5). The local authorities which were given grants were those who had to make special provisions for the amount of immigrants within the community. Originally, Section 11 was put in place to ‘provide for the multiplicity of needs of this community, but repeatedly a large proportion of the money has been granted to Education Authorities’ (Gravelle, 1996:5). This means that the government recognises that funding for bilingual learners is necessary in schools. The support the English as an Additional Language (EAL) students needed was provided thanks to the funding that had been put in place via the government act.

When Section 11 was first introduced, it was common for bilingual learners to go to “Language Centres” (Gravelle, 1996:5) or to spend time out of school and off site. This meant that EAL students spent a fair amount of time away from their peers, which could have resulted in them feeling isolated. Concerns were raised in the mid to late 80s, when The Swann Report (1985) and the 1986 Commission for Racial Equality report of the Calderdale Local Education Authority highlighted that putting bilingual learners in isolated environments could lead to inequality and racism. This led to the closure of separate Language Centres. It ensured that EAL students were able to be a part of school life, to interact with students their own age, and for them to a part of mainstream education.

The consequence to bilingual learners being an integral part of the classroom was that other forms of support had to be found. This could come in the form of a specialist teacher or teaching assistant that would work with a particular group or individual student within the classroom setting. The teachers then have to liaise with each other, to make sure that the EAL pupil is accessing the curriculum. The specialist teacher would be responsible for the assessment and progress of the bilingual learner(s). Including the EAL student in the classroom has resulted in more of a multicultural learning environment.

The work of the specialist teacher is very different from the classroom teacher’s. This is why partnership teaching was introduced. The specialist and classroom teacher work together to plan lessons, but also ‘share responsibility for the learning of the whole class’ (Gravelle, 1996:6). This means that the specialist teacher is no longer solely responsible for his or her EAL student (or group) but also for the rest of the class. The classroom teacher has more of an impact on the bilingual learner, which means that they are able to also teach and guide alongside the specialist teacher. The teachers work together as a team, which ensures that the EAL student has full access – within their abilities – to the curriculum, and working alongside their English-speaking peers, it enables them to develop their understanding of the language. Working together allows teachers with different sets of skills to develop those skills and to broaden their knowledge. The classroom teacher is able to challenge the EAL student, as they are now aware of their strengths and weaknesses.

Section 11 was put in place to make sure that every bilingual learner had access to learning English. As the years went by, the views on how to do so changed, which meant that instead of being isolated from learners of the same age, the EAL children joined the classroom. Section 11 was the beginning of the process to integrate bilingual students. It was replaced by the Ethnic Minority Achievement Grant in 1999. This grant was distributed to local authorities depending on the number of EAL learners and the number of pupils from ‘underachieving’ minority ethnic groups, combined with a free school meals indicator. The grant was mainstreamed into the Direct Schools Grant for schools in 2011 to use as they see fit. It is important for teachers in schools who benefit from the grant to not single the pupils out. They must be aware of the underachieving students from ethnic minority backgrounds, but despite their language, students must feel like they can participate in every lesson. Art tends to see every student the same, there are no sets, everyone is at the same level, no matter their ethnic background. Section 11 guaranteed that EAL students were treated fairly, the Swann Report mainstreamed them, and through my practice, I want to ensure that I make use of all the support within the school that is available to me in order to engage bilingual learners.

The National Curriculum states that everyone should be included in the classroom, no matter their ‘race, disability, sex, religion or belief, sexual orientation, pregnancy and maternity, and gender reassignment.’ (National Curriculum, 2014). It mentions that teachers must take into account every students’ needs, which may include their language. It says that teachers must monitor progress and provide support for those students who do not speak English as a first language. However, despite mentioning bilingual learners, the National Curriculum provides no real guidance as to how teachers should support them.

The curriculum in England is one of the only ones (as well as Italy) in Europe where it is not compulsory for pupils to study a foreign language at GCSE (Kenner and Hickey, 2008). This leads students to believe that foreign languages aren’t as important as their own, and it encourages teachers to concentrate on English literacy, which is now essential across all subjects.

Some teachers feel too restrained by the curriculum – which prioritises English – which makes it difficult for them to have time for other languages (O’Rourke, 2011). The National Curriculum restricts community language learning, students only have the choice of one language, which means that if they were to choose their first language, they would not be able to study a language they do not know, and vice-versa (Mitchell and Brumfit, 1997). The curriculum has also limited the languages that students can learn, minority languages are not an option, and for many, the only time pupils will get the opportunity to study their first language at school will be when they choose it for their community language GCSE.

Despite little guidance on how to do so, one thing the National Curriculum does do is ensure that EAL students are taught alongside English students. It makes sure that each and every student is included, no matter their language level. It guarantees that each student is not denied access to the mainstream curriculum (Leung, 2005). The National Curriculum has ensured that EAL students have access to the same education as English-speaking students, thus guaranteeing that they will be integrated into the school system, and not isolated from their peers.

The Department for Education issued an EAL policy in 2012 which outlined the different measures put in place by the government to ensure that teachers take into consideration the needs of EAL students. This policy outlines that bilingual learners should acquire English as quickly as possible, and this will be possible by enabling them to access the National Curriculum alongside everyone else. Provision for EAL students should be integrated into all subject areas, and pupils’ language skills need to be assessed. The policy recognises that bilingualism is an asset, in and outside the classroom, and states that the bilingual learners should develop their knowledge of their first language (Department for Education, 2012). However, despite this, it does not state how the learner should develop their knowledge if that language is not available in the school. For that reason, it is common for EAL students to go to community language
classes outside of school to study their first language. One of the points made by the policy is also that although it is important for EAL students to develop their knowledge of their language, it is not to be forgotten that English should remain the core language they should be learning. The government is clear on what it expects schools to do in regards to EAL students, it expects them to succeed. The National Curriculum tries to ensure that every student is included, the DFE’s EAL policy is strongly linked to this, alongside the mainstream policy, however the resources schools and teachers need to have access to are still lacking.

The Art and Design National Curriculum states that students ‘should also know how art and design both reflect and shape our history, and contribute to the culture, creativity and wealth of our nation’ (National Curriculum, 2013). This statement implies that when the government says ‘our nation’, it is talking about England, so it is talking exclusively about how art and design has contributed to England. In art, if students were taught only about British artists, the students who aren’t English, the EAL pupils who are aware of other artists from their home countries, would also feel isolated in a lesson where they can be creative. It is essential to introduce artists who aren’t necessarily English for the pupils from different ethnic backgrounds to be able to relate to them and to find their own creativity. It means broadening the pupils’ – all pupils not just the EAL ones – cultural knowledge by learning about artists from all over the world, hence giving them an insight into other countries.

The National Association for Language Development in the Curriculum (NALDIC) is a UK association that helps and supports teachers when it comes to EAL students. It was founded in 1992 by EAL teachers with the aim of improving the learning and teaching of bilingual students. It offers resources and research to different teachers and schools all over the UK and promotes understanding and best practice when it comes to EAL and bilingual students. The association has conducted research into the education of bilingual learners and publishes its findings on the NALDIC website. The research topics include areas such as: Assessment, Bilingualism, EAL and Special Educational Needs (SEN), Literacy, Policy, Professional Development and Teaching and Curriculum. For this particular topic, I will focus on NALDIC’s research on Bilingualism and Teaching and Curriculum.

NALDIC has researched bilingualism in the context of UK schooling. Its findings suggest that:

There are more than a million children between 5–18 years old in UK schools who speak some 360 languages between them, and more than 60 of these languages are taught in community language classes. (NALDIC, 2015)

This means that teachers every day have to provide for children in their classrooms that do not speak English as a first language. NALDIC claims that this could be 1 in 7 children. On their website, NALDIC publishes findings made by authors and other organisations when it comes to the progress and the success at school made by bilingual students. For example, Kenner C., Gregory E., and Ruby M. found, in 2007, that third generation British Bangladeshi children who learn their mother tongue in community language classes felt it was an important part of their identity and wanted to be able to use it in the classroom. The authors of the research paper argued that knowing two languages enhanced the children’s learning. Another study, made at Goldsmiths University of London, found that Portuguese students who attended mother tongue classes were more likely to obtain grades from A*-C. This means that being bilingual, working towards bilingualism, helps students with their other subjects. The studies aren’t just mentioning grades the students obtain in languages, but across all subjects. Bilingualism is an essential part of any EAL student’s life and it is vital for them to develop it. NALDIC pushes for bilingualism in the classroom, the association believes that it is beneficial to children’s development and learning, and that they should be able to develop their own language alongside English. Bilingualism helps students open up to different social and cultural experiences, it broadens their horizons and helps them see things with a new perspective. Various studies have been done to prove that speaking two languages also leads to better problem-solving, multitasking, decision-making and creativity. Bilingualism also enhances the brain’s ability to focus attention, perform mental tasks, and to process information.

NALDIC mentions in the Teaching and Curriculum research that EAL students are integrated into the mainstream schooling system. It refers to the curriculum:

In the UK EAL teaching and learning broadly takes place within the mainstream and within all subjects. It is primarily about teaching and learning language through the content of the whole curriculum. (NALDIC, 2015)

NALDIC goes on to mention that EAL is considered a separate subject; but does not have its own separate syllabus. NALDIC believes that diversity is necessary when it comes to EAL, which means that not every student can be taught the same way. It is necessary for EAL students to be a part of every day school life, otherwise they will become isolated, however it is not possible to teach them the same way English speaking students are taught. Their needs are different, which is why the curriculum is not appropriate. Every subject has their own separate curriculum alongside the National Curriculum, would it be feasible for EAL to have one as well? NALDIC states that they are disappointed in the DFE’s policy (2012) regarding EAL students, which states that classrooms teachers have the responsibility to ensure that students are making progress and that EAL students should be included in mainstream education with a right to access the National Curriculum. NALDIC believes that it is too little for bilingual learners, compared to other English-speaking countries, where EAL is considered to be a subject a part, with their own detailed separate language curricula and assessment for EAL students. If EAL is really considered to be a separate subject in England, EAL students should have access to their own curriculum, alongside the national one. It is unfair to expect bilingual learners to achieve the same results as English-speaking learners if they cannot speak the language. NALDIC offers as much support and resources to teachers as they can. They have been working alongside EAL students since they were founded and want to ensure that the best education possible is available to EAL students. They want to make sure that bilingual learners aren’t set aside in the classroom, their research and policies demonstrate this. However, the inclusion of EAL students isn’t solely dependent on them or the government, it is also the responsibility of the different schools across the country.

Bilingual learners can become isolated in school for many different reasons: there could be a lack of support coming from adults or peers; stress reactions could be common for newly arrived students; they could be reluctant to show their cultural and religious views for fear of embarrassment, therefore leading them to view themselves negatively as learners; the focus on spoken language could result in gaps in written language; the focus on assessment could be too important; the transition between schools and countries; and whether the pupil is diagnosed with having difficulties or not (Statham, 2008:7). Another reason for bilingual learners to become isolated is racism.

The Swann Report was put in place for bilingual learners to join mainstream schools because the government felt that educating them in separate centres could lead to racism, however it did not anticipate that the students would expe
rience it within the school setting as well. Sarah Coles conducted two case studies in two different secondary schools in Hampshire – one in the more socio-economically deprived area – to see what the students understood of racism and how the schools dealt with the different cases (Coles, 2008:89). The schools she chose were mainly white British schools which had a small number of bilingual learners (10%) from different ethnic backgrounds. The pupils from minority ethnic backgrounds were already isolated because of their language, so did not feel that they could speak to a member of staff about the low level racist bullying they were experiencing. Coles goes on to mention that the EAL pupils will choose to suffer in silence, to endure the bullying, as to not become marginalised:

Due to their lack of familiarity with the dominant culture of the school, they may feel that they have neither power nor, if they lack proficiency in English, voice. (Coles, 2008:90)

In her case studies, Coles discovered that students were aware of what racism is, of how it manifests itself, however, they are unaware of the school’s policy regarding how to deal with racist incidents. This could be another reason as to why pupils are less likely to report anything, they do not know how it will be dealt with, and if it will be dealt with. The report suggests that the pupils were unlikely to report any form of racist bullying because they didn’t think the school would know how to handle it. In her research, Coles (2008:90) tries to understand how the bilingual learner might be feeling. She suggests that students were perhaps less likely to say anything because their English wasn’t good enough, because nobody at the school speaks the same language or even because no one understands how different their previous school might be. These could be amongst many reasons why the EAL pupil is isolated, even if they aren’t being bullied. It is essential for me to know the bullying policies from the different schools I work in. I need to familiarise myself with what has been put in place in order for me to act upon what I see as a teacher.

A child’s frame of mind can alter their behaviour and the way they interact with others. Different testimonies from adults reflecting on their childhood experiences as bilingual learners show that when they moved countries, everything was so different that they felt isolated right from the start. Gus (2008:XIII) states that: ‘my two best friends were from Cyprus and Trinidad, I think we were quite an isolated group at that time – foreign students were quite a new thing.’ It is common for bilingual learners to become friends with other bilingual learners who speak the same language. This will either help them be a part of the school life or they will become an isolated group within the school. Gus goes on to talk about how the culture in England and his home country – Argentina – are different and that was another thing he had to adapt to, all the while learning English. He mentions the teachers, that the pupils worked for the teachers they liked, and their kindness was something they could hold onto when they didn’t understand the language.

Every bilingual learner’s experience with coming to a new school and learning a new language will be different, but many things remain the same. The country they come from, the circumstances in which they’ve moved will play an important part in their transition. The school they go to will also prove to be a significant aspect of their adjustment and whether they feel isolated from their peers or not. The support provided in different schools varies; but is essential for the bilingual learner to attune themselves with their environment.

In a successful school, a bilingual child will achieve no matter their first language or level of English. Successful schools put in place enough resources and help for children who have come to this school from another country or with another language (Statham, 2008). They will ensure that the bilingual child will not be or feel isolated within the school setting. However, successful schools may be isolated themselves. Other schools may not be able to enhance provision for all children by tailoring for their needs. Workers may not have access to the same contacts and families may not have community language classes within reach. No institution seeks to voluntarily isolate learners, but some bilingual pupils might feel that their first language and cultural background are not being represented in their education.

There are advantages and disadvantages to being an isolated bilingual learner. One of the advantages is that the bilingual child will have his or her peers to model him or herself on. They will be able to pick up English faster, learning it from the other students in the classroom. It is important to understand that it could be outside of the classroom teacher’s capacities to cater for the only non-English speaking learner in the classroom. The other students are able to include the bilingual learner by helping them learn English, therefore enabling them to participate in the classroom. However, depending on the school environment, it could go either way.

Being the only bilingual learner in the classroom with a teacher that is not trained to provide for them can isolate the learner, if the other children are not willing to involve the bilingual child and help them participate, the child could not gain the right understanding and could become disengaged. Inclusion cannot be developed by one member of staff sitting with the bilingual student and helping them learn English, there has to be a whole school approach. Everyone in the school environment has a role to play in the bilingual pupils’ education, from administrative staff to lunchtime supervisors. The role of the staff is to ensure that every student is treated the same, that they receive the best education they can, no matter the circumstances.

Gravelle (2000), through her research, has come up with different methods schools can use to include bilingual learners and to ensure they can access the learning and the curriculum. In her book, Planning for Bilingual Learners, an Inclusive Curriculum, she gives guidance to teachers on how to make their teaching effective for everyone in the classroom. She insists on communication. She states that the reason we learn a language is to communicate with others and children ‘must be treated like communicators from the start’ (Gravelle, 2000:2). This does not just mean words, it also means facial expressions, gestures, actions as well as tone of voice. Children need to understand that they are being noticed, that someone is trying to communicate with them, it’ll help them feel included. If communicated correctly, students should be able to understand the meaning, no matter the form. There are various methods of communication teachers can use to ensure that the EAL students knows what they are meant to be doing. Gravelle (2000) mentions practical activities, pictures and videos, demonstrations and the use of first language whenever possible.

These methods are applicable to art. These are approaches that are used for English-speaking students, they are compatible with the classroom and the type of lesson. They could perhaps be emphasised for non-English speaking students, used with more hand gestures for them to understand what they need to do. Showing the student exactly what to do and showing the steps to the process is a technique that works in art due to the practical nature of the subject. The use of the first language of the EAL students comes into play when they are analysing artists’ work. They can use the text in their own language if it enables them to access the same learning as everyone else.

Gravelle (2000) mentions that any situation is an opportunity for language learning, whether it be in class reading or listening to the teacher speaking. She also says th
at it is essential to support the bilingual learner through trial and error. As a teacher, I aim to be as supportive as I can be, and to reassure EAL students that I will do what I can to help them.

In conclusion, bilingual learners have been included in schools but the extent of that inclusion is dependent on the school they go to. The government has done what it thinks right in order to ensure that bilingual learners can access the learning, however this is determined by the classroom teacher and the resources they have access to; whether it be a specialist teaching assistant or other methods used in the school. The learning is not necessarily the only reason why an EAL student would feel isolated. This could be due to the school environment, to the different experiences they could be having all over the school. It is not down to one classroom teacher to make sure that the child is being treated fairly across the school, it is up to the whole school, from the support staff to the School Leadership Team. Resources and studies are available to those who need them, but it could be more beneficial for the teacher and student alike to go straight to the source: the child. Communication will enable the EAL child to feel included, if the teacher makes the effort to communicate, to understand the strengths and weaknesses of the bilingual learners, the latter will access a better education.

Over the years, the different strategies put in place by the government and schools have changed, but the aim has always remained the same: trying to prevent the isolation of bilingual students. Mainstreaming them was a big step in the right direction, however, if there are so many resources and associations that are accessible for teachers and school staff to use, it is proof that not enough is being done by the government. EAL needs to be considered as its own subject with its own specific curriculum. This would enable the bilingual learners to be included into the school life, to socialize with the English-speaking students while learning their own subject.

The research for this essay has allowed me to see what is available for teachers to use when it comes to helping EAL students. It has given me access to research and documents I would not have thought to research otherwise. I will use this research in my practice to ensure that bilingual learners are included and that I know what their needs and level of English are. In art, it is possible to communicate without using words, if a child is creative it will translate in any language. It is also a means of communication for them, bilingual learners are able to express themselves using art, and this is something I intend to encourage them to do. Every pupil in the class needs to know they can communicate with the teacher, and art is the ideal subject to do so. Art is an inclusive subject, where everyone can express themselves, it might be the ideal one for EAL students to be part of, to not feel isolated.

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