Do your kids know their body parts?

The very first report card my 3.5-year old twins brought home from school was a bit of a shock. They got a “B-” in “knows body parts”. Really? My kids don’t know their body parts? I felt like such a failure as a mother – after all, my oldest daughter certainly knew *her* body parts at that age. Her report cards were all “A”s, from the beginning.
Happily, after a bit of pondering, I realised that it wasn’t my parenting at fault, it was the assessment techniques and standards. Yes, my children knew their body parts (believe me, I checked!). However, the languages they used most at home were English and Dutch. The language of school was French. So, the assessment should read “knows the words for body parts in French”. They knew the parts, they knew most of the words in English, a lot of them in Dutch, but not so many in French.
But this, of course, is the root of the problem. The majority of the schools our (bilingual/multilingual) children attend have monolingual standards of assessment. They don’t care if your kids know things in other languages, and they don’t care if the assessment techniques and standards are biased. In fact, many will argue that they are not biased, because they expect bilingual children to be “the same” as monolingual children in both/all of their languages.
So today I am back to Oxford, for the fifth session of our teacher-training program. And tomorrow we are going to be talking about assessment for bilingual learners; how to figure out what they know before they can express it, how to “evaluate” them fairly and with empathy and understanding of their differentiated language skills. This is one of my most important seminars, I think, because children who are “language learners” in schools so often underachieve in evaluations, which sets the teachers off on a road to blaming bilingualism, or trying to send kids for “special education” and in turn sends parents into a tailspin of questioning their decisions and not knowing how to help their children.

Wish me luck!

And for the record, my kids now know their body parts in French And in English. But they have forgotten a few in Dutch, I think. Such is life in a multilingual household.

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9 thoughts on “Do your kids know their body parts?

  1. Best of luck!

    I had almost the same experience here in France. I’d been helping my eldest do some maths over the years, and then she came home from school one day having lost some marks because she’d put the “+” sign in a test on the right (where I would put it in Britain) instead of on the left as they do in France. So what that she’d got the answer right, she lost marks. So we sent her back to the monolingual school, and got her to explain to her Maths teacher the reason why. She didn’t get the marks back…

    And no, she doesn’t get any special dispensation because her English is better than that of her teacher – she still has to sit through everything!

    • It’s so frustrating for our kids, isn’t it – being penalized for things that are “correct”, just not “right”. I have to say that my experience with the French system was not very positive in that regard, but I know more and more parents are standing up for their children, so one day maybe your daughter won’t lose points for something so silly…

  2. This is an important aspect that every international school should be aware of! And not only in the first stages, at any stage. There will always be things multilingual children “record” in one of the language and not translate into the others they know. I remember that when we did study Charlemagne (I had history in French) and I told this to my cousin in Germany (same age), he said that they were studying “Karl der Große” and I didn’t make the connection immediately. But when we compared the details about what we learned, I “translated” Charlemagne and realized it was “Karl der Große”… This doesn’t mean that multilinguals think in boxes, but it means that they have to sometimes make the connections themselves. They are not so intrinsic. Not always. Good luck with your seminar today. I guess, one of the best things for getting true and honest results at these assessments would be having multilingual teachers ?

  3. Oh Eowyn. This is such important stuff and I’m so glad you are out there trying to change some of these biases!! Good luck!!

  4. I know what you are saying, but to be fair to the teacher they can’t really be expected to know what their student is saying in whatever language they might use. It would be nice to have bilingual teachers, but what if a class has students who speak Urdu, Mandarin and Arabic at home? Is the teacher expected to know all of these languages in order to offer a fair evaluation?

    At the same time, I would hope that any teacher who knew they had multilingual kids in his/her class would at least be sympathetic to the student’s home context.

    For the record, my 2.5 year old son can sing ‘Head, Shoulders, Knees and Toes’ in English, and knows a few other body-part words in Portuguese.

    Good luck with the session on testing and evaluating multilingual children. I would be very interested to hear how it went.

    • A fair evaluation doesn’t have to be done in both/all languages. That would be a great goal, but as you have pointed out, it is logistically impossible to achieve in today’s multilingual schools. There are, however, lots of things teachers can do to “level the playing field” somewhat. These include adaptations to standard evaluations, different evaluation styles, and differentiated output standards, just to name a few. And another area in which teachers can make a big difference in simply in understanding bias in evaluations (a classic example is the fill in the blank test item: “I eat beans with a ____.” Correct answer is “spoon”, but a Mexican-American boy answered “tortilla”.). This is just one example of how things that are clear to the evaluator may not be clear to the test-taker.

    • I think what we’re all saying is that we would like a bit of ‘flex’ for our bilingual kids. I’m not asking for them to have more than others, just not less because they have ‘different’ (and not necessarily ‘wrong’) answers. I don’t expect my child’s maths teacher to speak English, but we made the school very aware that she was bilingual, and a bit of understanding that some cultural things might be different would be welcome (cf: the spoon and tortilla example below). Best of luck in Portugal

  5. So true! I’m currently working on an article and would love to find a developmental chart that could help multilingual parents know about where their children are. I know it depends on each child and I personally go by instinct and I’m confident that my children are where they need to be with their three languages, but for other parents and for teachers especially it would be fantastic to have some kind of a developmental standard for more accurately and fairly judging our multilingual children’s language progress. Thanks for sharing your experience!

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