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Regular readers may recall from the Hampshire EMTAS blog a series of journal style articles documenting Sarah Coles’ PhD research into the language learning experiences of UK-born bilingual children.  Now in the third year of her part-time studies at the University of Reading, Sarah has carried out some piloting of key data gathering instruments and is now focusing on recruitment for the data collection stage proper.  In this blog she reflects on what was gained from the pilot phase of her PhD research. 

From home to school and back again 

I write this two weeks into the third national lockdown with mixed feelings about how the pandemic will impact on my research.  Since the last time I wrote about my PhD studies back in 2019, I have kept myself busy reading and writing for my Literature Review and Methods chapters, completing two compulsory research methods modules run by the University, one on qualitative and the other on quantitative methods, and piloting the use of both visual methods and the Multilingual Assessment Instrument for Narratives (MAIN) with a small group of Nepali-speaking children who attend schools in Rushmoor.   

I had just finished the pilot phase when the first lockdown happened.  It very quickly took over everything as most children stopped attending school, staff started grappling with the many challenges brought by a shift towards remote learning and we were all prompted to wonder if we should be wearing masks, stocking up on tinned tomatoes or taking day trips to Barnard Castle.    

But much as I dislike how my glasses keep misting up when I put on my now compulsory mask, and much as I rue that I am obliged to continue to live in ignorance of the tourist attractions held by Durham and environs, I don’t want to spend too much time lamenting the impacts of the pandemic.  Here, I want instead to refocus, remind myself and you of the purpose of my research and talk a little about the experience of the pilot phase and what was gained through it from working with the children, their families and practitioners at participating schools in Rushmoor.

My PhD research focuses on UK-born bilingual children.  I aim to document the children’s language learning journeys from a point just before they start school through to the end of Foundation Stage.  This is, I believe, a critical period of the children’s young lives, one that will have a profound and lasting impact on them socially, culturally and linguistically.  It is my hope that my research will lead to new understanding of UK-born bilingual children’s lived experiences of growing up in two languages and that this new understanding will be useful to practitioners working in linguistically diverse Foundation Stage classrooms.

The reason for my interest in UK-born children is due to the ways in which they have appeared to me to differ from bilingual children newly arrived from overseas.  Initially drawing on only anecdotal evidence, it seemed to me that the language development of UK-born bilingual children may differ substantively from that of the international new arrival.  This I saw as important in an educational context mainly because of the way I was hearing practitioners talk about how they were noticing differences in terms of both the children’s home languages and their English.  I started to wonder if UK-born children might benefit from subtly different kinds of support and a good starting point in determining what that might look like would be to first develop a better understanding of their experiences and their needs – hence my research focus.

So how are our UK-born EAL learners different?  Well, for one thing their home languages are often not as well developed as those of children born overseas.  Reasons for this are relatively easy to comprehend if we think about how children acquire language from those around them, both as participants in exchanges and as observers.  In a monolingual context, they will hear only one language spoken both in the home and when out in the community.  A monolingual experience in the early years, such as that experienced by children born in the UK into an English-only family, has informed practitioners’ expectations of typical language development for children in the Foundation Stage.  However, the language learning experiences of children born in the UK into families where a minority language is spoken, eg Nepali, will differ in that they will have some experience of Nepali with family members and friends in the home and in some community settings and some of English, for instance when shopping at the supermarket, playing in the park or attending pre-school.  In the EAL world, they may be classed as simultaneous bilinguals, acquiring their two languages together from an early age.  This means that when they start school, they may not so uniformly match practitioners’ expectations of their language skills in either Nepali or English.  Indeed, research tells us that such children will very likely know as many words as a monolingual child if you count both their languages but if you only count one language, then they may appear to have an under-developed vocabulary.  Interestingly, it has been found that the overlap – those words the child knows in both of their languages – is very small; more typically the majority of the lexicon they have in each of their languages is discrete.

A second difference is that UK-born bilingual children are more likely to share with their monolingual, English-only peers experiences of such cultural icons as Iggle Piggle and Upsy Daisy and of places such as the local library or soft play centre.  This means they may have more experiences that are shared with the monolingual majority population than a child who comes as an international new arrival as well as some that most likely are not, such as taking part in Diwali celebrations.

A third difference can arise from the child’s position in the family.  The first child is likely to have more experience of the home language than any siblings who follow.  Often, parents report that especially where the first child has started school, more English is spoken in the home, particularly amongst the children.  The younger siblings may in consequence have more English and less home language when they start school.  Parents report that in these circumstances it becomes more challenging to keep the home language going, many observing that their children choose to respond in English when addressed in the home language.

In the pilot phase of my research, the children’s backgrounds were explored through the use of visual methods.  Having first gathered information about the family context from parents, each child produced a visual representation of the people who were important to them and talked about the languages they used with those people.  This ‘social mapping’ activity showed that for some children their concept of family was global, including geographically-distant relatives.  For others, it revealed their personal fascinations, for example one boy depicted a dinosaur as a member of his family, alongside his parents.  When talking about their languages, one child confidently asserted that she knew both her languages whilst another child was much less certain about there being present two discrete languages each of which had its own name.  Talking about this with parents, it became apparent that in this child’s family everyone code-switched all the time, mixing English and Nepali in the same sentence so there was no clear delineation.

In addition to the social mapping, each child was seen on two further occasions to do some story-telling activities using the MAIN.  The MAIN is designed to be used to assess narrative skills in children who acquire one or more languages from birth or from an early age.  It evaluates both comprehension and production of narratives.  Each child involved in the pilot phase had two experiences of the MAIN, one in first language and one in English.  Each time, the session began with a model story using one picture sequence and then the child was asked to tell their own story using a different picture sequence.  Only one child chose to use her home language, Nepali, to tell her own story after hearing the model MAIN story in Nepali; the others all chose to use English on both occasions.  When analysing the children’s stories, the attributes I was able to identify included examples of code-switching, aspects of story structure the children had used and their use of particular grammatical features.

When analysing other data (transcriptions of the audio recordings) by coding them, which is part and parcel of qualitative data analysis, the code “confidence” seemed relevant across the children who comprised my sample.  There was evidence of confidence when talking about their home culture, where clearly the children felt most secure, whereas when talking about school and their learning, especially their experience of early literacy (in English), more hesitation was apparent.

In the data collection for my substantive study, should confidence again emerge as a theme I will have more opportunity to explore it in depth as I follow each child through their first year of compulsory education.  During that time, each child will produce a scrap book documenting their engagement with my research, which they will get to keep at the end.  They will also be party to my field notes and they will share in the co-creation of their own personal narratives, all of which will give them first-hand experience of personal reflection and of research in education, hopefully experiences from which they will derive some personal benefit.  At the end of the year, the MAIN story-telling activities will be repeated, enabling quantifiable comparisons of the children’s languages to be made.   

As the fieldwork phase progresses, I will simultaneously be making observations of the children at school and gathering interview data from the children’s teachers and from their parents, these being key participants in the children’s lives.  Parents’ and practitioners’ views of bilingualism and of the children’s home languages and cultures will be sought with teachers having the opportunity to talk about how they shape and adapt their practice to accommodate their diverse cohort.  This part of my data collection will necessitate great care so as to avoid making unreasonable demands on people’s time.  In exchange, I will be sharing my findings as people see fit, whether it be through an input to staff in participating schools at a staff meeting or through network meetings aimed at a wider audience of practitioners working in Foundation Stage or – already on the cards – at the EMTAS Conference on 9th July.

For now though I want first and foremost to extend my thanks and gratitude to all school-based colleagues who supported me in the pilot phase, and to the EMTAS Bilingual Assistants who accompanied me to work with the children.  I would also like to invite anyone out there who works in a school in Hampshire and who thinks they might like to be included in my research to get in touch.  At this stage, you will need only to have a fair chance of having at least one UK-born child with either Polish or Nepali as their home language starting in your Year R class in September 2021.  And, of course, the willingness in principle to allow me access to your classroom to do some observation, to work directly with participating children as described above (adapted as necessary to be Covid-safe) and to carry out a couple of short interviews with you about your views and experiences of working with young, bilingual learners.

Do email me – with questions, requests for more information or offers of support: 

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[ Modified: Wednesday, 20 January 2021, 11:56 AM ]