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Anyone in the world

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 ]
Anyone in the world

By Hampshire EMTAS Polish-speaking Bilingual Assistants Magdalena Raeburn and Katarzyna Tokarska.

Have you ever felt frustrated or out of your comfort zone because of communication barrier? Have you been on holiday abroad and found it tricky to explain what you need to your local shops, hotels or restaurants?

Imagine now, how much more complex and difficult a situation of an EAL child in a UK school might be. Try to put yourself in their shoes for a while… They come to the UK not for a holiday and not out of their own choice. They have to challenge themselves against a new language, new culture and a local community as well as the unknown school set of rules and regulations.

EMTAS Empathy Training will help you understand the complexity of the challenge that the EAL child faces every day.  The aims of the session are:

- To increase awareness of the challenges that EAL learners face in the UK schools

- To give an insight into Polish learners’ cultural school differences

- To share ideas of how to approach the most common challenges experienced by the EAL learners. 

During the training you will have a chance to become an EAL learner in a Polish classroom by taking part in a practical group activity on the geography of Poland. You will be expected to understand the teacher’s presentation, participate in a variety of activities, including group work, match the pictures, read and follow instructions as well as answer questions. 

Would it be ‘only’ a language barrier…?

The training participants concluded that acquiring the language is only a part of the bigger picture. Cultural traits, local history, geography and customs are also a part of learning when they are trying to integrate into the new reality.

Our ‘students’ admitted that it ‘really made (them) consider other barriers than language’. 

They also discovered that the manifested child’s behaviour in the classroom might have different roots rather than the ‘obvious’ ones… One of the participants said: ‘Very useful to understand how they would/could come across as ‘naughty’ or ‘distracted’’. It was an eye-opening experience.  

Our workshop attendees revealed that their ‘survival’ strategy during the session was to answer ‘yes’ to any teacher’s attempt of communication. Have you got such EAL children in your classroom? Our workshop ‘students’ said it was their technique to use to be left alone rather than having to participate in the activity they do not feel competent or confident with. Our participants also felt ‘frustrated’, ‘confused’, ‘not very clever’ and ‘wanted to avoid being asked’.  They were ‘easily disengaged’, ‘embarrassed when put on the spot’, ‘wanted to give up’ and ‘finally turned off’.

The session was an opportunity to face your own emotions as well as share the strategies, resources and ideas. Some strategies could involve researching information on the EAL child’s culture, educational system as well as taking your pupil’s personal experience into account.

When the EAL children join the UK classrooms, they need more than technicality of the language and pedagogical strategies.  They need our empathy at every step of their challenging, new journey. 

Take part in our empathy exercise at the Basingstoke EAL network meeting on January 28th. Limited spaces available and free to Hampshire maintained schools. For enquiries, please contact Lizzie Jenner,

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[ Modified: Wednesday, 22 January 2020, 4:41 PM ]
Picture of Astrid Dinneen
by Astrid Dinneen - Thursday, 22 March 2018, 9:58 AM
Anyone in the world

Written by Sarah Coles, Hampshire EMTAS Deputy Team Leader

Alexander Bassano [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Alexander Bassano [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

In the Spring 2018 edition of History Matters, a Hampshire Inspection and Advisory Service publication, a Primary Practitioner said of the subject, “…history is exciting to children when they feel immersed in their learning. The more they see the relevance history has to them, the more excited and interested they will be.”  History teaching can, and should, help children see the links that exist between their cultures, traditions and religions and the present day and in order to achieve this, the history curriculum in primary phase is often worked into topics.  Lots of schools include a focus on The Victorians. 20 years ago, I taught it in Year 5.  More recently, I observed the topic being delivered in a school that had been experiencing a rise in its pupil diversity.

I was not surprised, on walking into the Year 4 classroom at the beginning of this topic, to see a display about The Victorians on the wall.  What did cause me to do a double-take was the choice of noteworthy Victorians portrayed therein: Queen Victoria (of course), Darwin, Alexander Graham Bell, Robert Louis Stevenson, and Florence Nightingale.  What the display said to me was that the Victorian era had happened in a hermetically sealed capsule, with nothing of value contributed to human civilisation by anyone who wasn’t white or British or male, preferably all three.    

Whose history was this that the children were learning about? A balanced, world view of the nineteenth century it most certainly was not.  Then I started to wonder how the child from Poland, about whose progress I had come in to advise, would be enabled to make links with his own culture and heritage through this version of history.  Would it help him better understand the lasting value of contributions to literature from Poles such as Józef Korzeniowski, better known by his pen name, Joseph Conrad?  Or to medicine by Marie Skłodowska Curie, a Polish and naturalised-French physicist and chemist who conducted pioneering research on radioactivity. She was the first woman to win a Nobel Prize, the first person and only woman to win this coveted and prestigious award twice.  But she didn’t feature on the display either. 

Also notable by her absence was Mary Seacole and for me, there was no excuse for this as there are plenty of resources to support teaching about this Jamaican woman’s role in the Crimean war and her contributions to nursing.  I wondered if she would still be skipping class the following year, when a couple of children of black Caribbean heritage would be learning about the (white British) Victorians.  Of course, she is not the only black person who made a contribution to society during the Victorian era.  Less well-known but just as important is the work of Lewis Latimer, the only black member of the Edison Pioneers, who developed the little filament in light bulbs to make it last long enough for the electric light to rapidly replace gas lighting in our homes, streets and workplaces.  Or Elijah McCoy, most famous for developing lubrication systems for steam engines.   

If education is really to prepare children for life in an increasingly diverse society, we are going to have to relinquish the Anglo-centric view of history that formed the diet of my own history lessons back in the 70s and 80s in favour of approaches that better represent the pupils in front of us and the communities that surround and feed our schools today.  Hampshire teachers are fortunate indeed to be able to access the Rights and Diversity Education (RADE) Centre, which is situated right next door to the History Centre.  Both centres contain a wealth of resources to help teachers diversify the teaching and learning experiences of Hampshire’s schools.  Back to ‘History Matters’, the article to read is ‘Teaching forgotten history: the SS Mendi’, about a ship that sank off the coast of the Isle of Wight on Wednesday 21 February 1917 after colliding with another ship, blinded by thick fog.  Nearly 650 people lost their lives in the tragedy, many of them black South Africans from the South African Labour Corps.  Now there’s something new to find out about, and a way in which we can raise awareness of the multiplicity of histories that are interwoven into all our cultural pasts.

[ Modified: Thursday, 22 March 2018, 10:32 AM ]
Anyone in the world

A small scale piece of research into the ‘Any other White background’ (WOTH) ethnic group in Basingstoke & Deane painted a fascinating picture of the experiences of Polish families in UK schools. Parental engagement and home-school communication emerged as an important area for both parents and practitioners – and an aspect of EAL practice that can be difficult to get right.

What are the challenges?

Despite schools’ best efforts, induction can be a delicate time. Parents may struggle to get to grips with school systems, such as getting uniforms right, understanding timetables, knowing how to pay for school dinners, learning about the purpose of different virtual learning environments, etc. – whilst having to fill out forms in an unfamiliar language.

Keeping up to speed with the school calendar might be another difficulty. Parents of EAL learners may struggle to understand letters concerning events such as parent evenings, trips, data collection, and other special occasions such as sports days and INSET days. In fact, the very use of acronyms such as ‘INSET’ is sometimes another hurdle for EAL parents who are new the UK system and often also new to English, especially when these acronyms can be confused for a common everyday term like ‘insect’!

Parents are very keen to support their children with homework and whilst subject knowledge may not necessarily cause them concern, instructions and key words are more problematic due to the more academic nature of the language. However most of all, parents seem to struggle with never being quite certain whether or not they are in the loop. Often, support comes in the form of an EMTAS Bilingual Assistant who is able to interpret for school systems, routines and curricula. Watch this video clip to learn about their experience.

What’s helpful?

In addition to the use of bilingual staff, parents find a simple text message is very helpful in reinforcing the content of school letters, especially when these contain a lot of information to process. Text messages offer condensed details highlighting the most important facts e.g. dates and times of meetings, things to bring to school, reminders, etc. and help parents to keep track of what is happening and when. Yet this is not always a system in place in all schools.

Other parents are another important resource for families. When unsure about any aspect of school life, EAL parents may look to other parents – EAL as well as English-only. However whilst other parents may be a source of reassurance for some, those who aren’t confident with their English to approach other parents may continue to feel lost and isolated at pick up and drop off times. Some schools have tackled this issue by approaching established parents to become helpers in order to offer support to newly-arrived families.     

Receiving feedback from their child’s teacher at the end of the day is another way for parents to feel reassured. In our study, EAL parents said they appreciated school practitioners initiating a conversation about how the children had coped during the day, what they had achieved and what they needed to work on. Sometimes, a thumb up and a word of praise was enough to alleviate parents’ anxieties. This was even more appreciated when parents weren’t confident to take the first step to approach staff themselves. In some cases, EAL parents still felt they were only approached by classroom staff when their child had done something wrong.

EAL parents spoke about the advantages of knowing what was coming up in class from one week to the next. This gave them opportunities to discuss topics in advance at home and in their first language, allowing their children to take a more active part in lessons. Parents found general information shared on the school website about what the children were to learn over the half-term less useful because this information contained less details and didn’t focus on the particular needs of their child. 

Next steps

A network meeting was held in Basingstoke to share findings from the research with local infant, junior and secondary EAL practitioners. Delegates discussed specific aspects of home-school liaison they wanted to improve at their school and collaborated on a checklist. To follow up on the practice discussed at the network meeting, practitioners at The Vyne School organised a coffee morning event for parents of EAL learners joining Year 7. The event was attended by key staff along with the school’s Young Interpreters who spoke to the children and families and gave tours of the school. The event was well-attended by pupils and parents from a range of feeder Primary schools who felt supported in their transition to Secondary education.

What action would you take to help improve home-school liaison at your school? Over to you now: read the full research report, learn about the First Language in the Curriculum (FLinC) projectset up the Young Interpreter Scheme® and share the strategies you have found most successful at your school in the comment box below.

[ Modified: Thursday, 7 March 2019, 4:58 PM ]