We have quite a large community of Polish children in our school. We host the whole gamut of children in terms of their abilities at speaking/reading/writing English, from children who arrived barely being able to say a word in English to children who are confident English speakers.
It can be really difficult to support children who speak English as their second language, particularly if there are no adults in school who speak the language the child uses as their primary language.
They get total immersion in the English language at this school, because there are no funds to help them in any other way. It is not always easy for those who support them, or they themselves though. Communicating with small children is bad enough when you’re trying it and both speaking a common language, when language and culture divide you, it can be really hard to make headway.
In order to support their literacy, we need to not only teach them to read fluently, but it is particularly important to make sure that they are not missing out in terms of comprehension. Reading and speaking a language is a mechanical skill – do it enough, and eventually you’ll get the hang of it. Having a clue what you’re reading/writing/speaking about? That’s different. That requires time and when you’re teaching shared knowledge to a group, a common cultural background.
The cultural background thing works a bit like coat pegs in a cloak room. If you don’t have hooks to hang things on, everything ends up in a gigantic mess on the floor and nobody knows what belongs to who, and everything takes an age to sort out – with the inevitable consequence that someone is bound to go home with someone else’s coat.
There are lots of things we don’t explain to children when we’re reading with them or requiring them to do a literacy based task, because there are certain things we assume, and lots we take for granted, because, ‘everybody knows that, right?’
If you’re working with children from a different country and culture, you cannot make the same assumptions about them and the background knowledge they bring to anything you might ask of them.
With Early Years’ children, language acquisition and assimilation are much quicker and more fluid than with older children. This is partially because the part of their brain that is attuned to language is pretty flexible and sponge like at this age anyway. Language acquisition is a key brain function between the ages of 1 and 3, but it’s still pretty powerful up to the age of 5. After that age, learning a new language becomes more tricky with every year that passes.
Similarly, with Early Year’s children, comprehension and building a shared cultural background is also easier, because all children, regardless of where they come from, have massive gaps in their shared knowledge at this stage, and the Early Years curriculum and the play they will do at home etc, are all designed to fill that gap in a fairly structured manner.
Again, the older children are when they come to a new language or understanding of a new culture, the harder it is for them to assimilate and pick up knowledge of this kind. Quite often, it is the basic, early years knowledge they miss out on, simply because teachers and other adults who influence and shape their learning, can forget that it is just this kind of material that a child is missing when they come to learning this stuff later in life.
These blanks in their knowledge, will, of necessity impact their ability to comprehend what they read, even if they can read perfectly well in a technical sense. It can cause children to become bored and frustrated, to turn off from reading, simply because they just don’t get it.
We are looking at ways to support children who have English as their second language to have a better experience of literacy, so that we don’t lose them along their learning journey.
We have no formal training as to what to do, and are struggling along, intuiting our way as we go. If you have some ideas or methods we could try, please drop a comment in the comments box.
Here are some basic ideas we are trying:
Dual language books – we are borrowing some from our local library until we are sure that these are helping our children. The majority of the books we have found are simple, foundation level stories and picture books. There are high interest, low ability books for older readers available from dual language book suppliers on the Internet, which we are looking into.
The Book Trust charity, which operates through libraries and schools, giving packs of story books to families for their children, run a dual language service in which you can request packs in many different language combinations. You can find out about which ones are available at your local library, or ask your Early Years staff to find out about them for you.
Asking the more skilled children to help translate for us, and for the children who are less able. This is sometimes a double edged sword, as, having no language skills in the language the children are communicating in, it can be hard to tell how the message you are asking the child to translate for you, is actually being communicated.
We are also looking at the possibility of asking some of the Polish speaking parents in our school to come and run an after school club to teach Polish to interested children, but also staff.
We have thought of other ideas, but we are very conscious that we do not want to single children out, or put undue pressure on them, or ask them to do things that will make them feel awkward or self conscious, as it’s hard enough assimilating without making things worse.
The dual language books are, we know, not the answer, but we feel that they might help us support children, and also give us a sense of where their ability and knowledge is, so that we can help them more when they’re tackling making book choices or doing literacy based tasks in the classroom.
All ideas gratefully received.