Top 5 Tips for parents with children starting school in a new language

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It’s that time a year again, kids heading off to school all over the world (with the exception of the Antipodeans!). In an increasingly mobile world, many children will be starting at new schools this year, and that may be in a new language. Parents often like to believe that going to school in a new language is easy for kids, that children are adaptable and will learn the new language within months. This may be true for a minority of children, but for most, it’s not as easy or a quick as parents would like to believe. Here are five things that are important to know if your child is starting school in a new language this year.

  1. Children are not sponges – the don’t just soak up new languages effortlessly. It may seem that this is the case because of the naturalistic way in which they acquire a new language (no vocabulary lists and verb conjugations!) but it’s actually a lot of work for a school-aged child to not only learn a new language, but learn school content at the same time.
  2. The more support they get, the more progress they will make. Support from the school, but also at home. Parents need to be ensuring understanding of school content while their children are learning the new language, because they are surely not understanding what their new teacher is telling them about ecosystems in an unfamiliar language!
  3. They need support for a long time. Conversational language skills (BICS) take 1-2 years to master (to the same level as a native-speaker child) but academic language proficiency (CALP) takes from 3-7 years to fully develop. That means that for up to seven years they will not be processing content learning the same way as a fluent speaker, so they will need support to ensure the understanding of conceptual knowledge, especially.
  4. The stronger their home language is, the better they will learn the school language. Research has proven this relationship clearly; children who are strong users of their own language (their dominant language) and continue to grow in this language, especially through literacy, are  better able to learn a new language at school, and ultimately do better academically than peers who stop using their own language. So parents, don’t stop speaking your own language to your children in order to start using the school language – it will do more harm than good!
  5. Be empathetic. Think for a moment about what it would be like to go to work tomorrow in a completely new language – what feelings would you have? All of those feelings; insecurity, fear of failing, nervousness, your children will likely be feeling all of these, at different levels, depending upon their ages. But it will not always be smooth, they will struggle and they won’t perform in the same ways you might expect them to (see point 3) for quite some time. They need your support, and your understanding, and for you to work with their school and teachers to bridge the gaps in their learning. After all, you chose this path for them, so it’s your job to help them be successful!

So if your child is starting school in a new language this year, make sure that you know what to expect and how to help them, and make sure that you have these important discussions with their new teacher and school! (And good luck!).

Top 5 tips for learning about your new students when you can’t talk to them…

Every year, all around the world, teachers welcome into their classrooms students that they can not communicate with at all. While it’s obviously extremely difficult for the students, it’s also hard for the teachers. Every teacher wants to make their new students feel comfortable and happy and ready to learn. And that’s really hard to do when you can’t communicate with them. Over the years I’ve developed systems and resources for schools to use to structure the process of getting to know new students, but schools and teachers can do this themselves as well. Here are my top tips for getting the new school year off to a great start, for all your students (and for you!).

  1. Ensure that your school collects proper data from incoming families. They need to know the dominant culture/s of the family (not to be presumed as the passport country!), as well as an accurate language profile for each new student. This will help teachers in building knowledge about incoming students who are just starting with the school language. This data should also include information about likes/dislikes, both in terms of school subjects but also about hobbies etc.
  2. Do some research on the cultural background of incoming students. Many aspects of the classroom and teacher/student relationship are different from one culture to the next, so having an idea what your new students are expecting and are comfortable with may help you avoid uncomfortable moments. Topics to look for include typical adult-child interaction patterns, classroom practices, and potential sources of cultural conflict (shoes off inside or shoes on?). This website is a veritable treasure trove of useful links to help you: The Best Sites For Learning About The World’s Different Cultures
  3. Build a language development profile based on the dominant language of each new pupil. The best resource I have found for this is Learner English. It’s a linguistic analysis of the major languages/language families and how they compare and contrast to English. It looks at phonetics, grammar, sentence composition, and cognates/false friends, in depth. There is also a great section on direct translations and common errors. Although the chapters are very dense, it’s incredibly worthwhile to learn to use this resource. Teachers who understand the language starting point of their learners can better predict progress and problems, and better explain/demonstrate the differences between students’ dominant languages and English (contrastive awareness). This means that instead of marking everything as an “error” they can point out where there has been transfer, and work directly on those points of conflict. I advise schools to make a working group and assign one language per person, and then build a data base for the whole school, as the idea of tackling all the languages in a class would be daunting for even the most dedicated teacher!
  4. Learn to say hello in the the languages of each of your students. Imagine the impact on a child starting in a brand new school, knowing that they will have to learn a new language, to be greeted with one familiar word by their new teacher. It’s an instant way to let each individual student know that you see them, and they matter to you. That little effort can have a big pay-off in lowering the affective filter and helping them be more open to learning the school language right from the start. If you want to go a step farther, make a bulletin board with greeting in all the languages of your class, and use them with the class every morning, so all the students can learn to greet each other appropriately.
  5. And finally, help all your students get to know each other in non-verbal and non-threatening ways. We are all used to planning first day activities to help the class bond and get to know each other, but all too often (especially in after the early years of primary) these activities are language-based. Be creative, and find language-free ways to break the ice in the classroom, and let the students get to know each other without the filter of language/ability in the school language/accent. It levels the playing field and allows all the students a chance to shine, not only the ones who are strongest in the school language.

So with this I sign off, wishing you all a fantastic start to the 2017-2018 academic year!

(Cross-posted from LinkedIn for readers who aren’t connected to me there).

Identity language – what’s that? (Spotlight on Good Practice series)

To reject the child’s language in school is to reject the child.

  • Jim Cummins

First language, home language, mother tongue, family language… all these terms are used in international education, to try and talk about the languages students bring into schools. But what is implied by all these terms, and how does that affect the language possibilities of students in international schools? When international schools offer programmes designed to support the other languages their students speak they generally designate the mother tongue of the child as the language to support. They may use any of the terms I listed (and they may even have found another term that I didn’t list!) but the bottom line is usually that they set out to support a language that is spoken in the student’s home – usually linked to their passport country. Families are normally required to declare one language as the dominant language or most important language, to be supported by extra classes.

So what’s wrong with that? I write all the time about the importance of schools supporting home languages, so I should be happy when they do, shouldn’t I? Technically, yes. And technically, I am! But I’ve learned something valuable from the EAL/MT team at the International School of The Hague recently, and I’d like to share it as an example of good practice, and how paying attention to the learners in your schools will make you a better school.

At the beginning of the 2014-2015 academic year, the EAL and Mother Tongue (MT) staff at ISH hosted their annual meeting for parents of bilingual students. This meeting was informational in nature, to present the programmes that ISH offered for language support for learning English, as well as the MT programmes . At the time, ISH was offering after-school MT programmes for some languages, and had a one-hour a week integrated period, where students came together in language groups and worked on accessing classroom learning through their MT. The idea of supporting MT in schools was one that ISH had always firmly believed in, but in practice it was difficult. The after-school programme was run by the school, but was not inherently connected to school learning. The one-hour MT slot in the schedule was unique and working well, but each child could only have one designated mother tongue. In addition, the designation mother tongue didn’t mean that it was the child’s strongest language (and often it isn’t), and so there were varying levels of fluency in groups as well. Nonetheless, they knew they had a better programme than most schools, and were addressing the language development needs of as many students as they could manage.

But at this particular meeting, a parent was to raise an issue that would lead to a year of discussions and ultimately, the creation of a completely unique approach to languages in international schools. The parent in question was American, but had lived in France with his children for many years and therefore they were fluent French speakers. However, by the school’s definition of mother tongue, and indeed  by any traditional MT definition, his children did not qualify for the French MT programme.  It became clear during the meeting, and the “after meeting” with concerned parents, that this was not a one-off issue, and was going to become more common, not less. In an increasingly globalised education sector, trying to categorise children’s language abilities and priorities by their parents’ passports is becoming both limiting and often irrelevant.

ISH formed a working group that included senior management, the EAL managing team (Sue Tee, Mindy McCracken, Nikki Welsh), and the head of MT (Lara Rikers). Together, this group spent a year investigating the profoundly complex issues relating to languages generally, and MT language specifically, guided by the powerful Jim Cummins’ quote:

To reject the child’s language in school is to reject the child.

  • Jim Cummins

At the end of this journey, they had new names for languages in their school: home languages, to replace the insufficient term mother tongue, and identity language, to represent languages that are important to children, but not related to their parents or home. In the renewed programme, students can choose up to three languages from these two definitions per year, rather than the former structure of “mother tongue hour”, which was one language per child, chosen when they entered the school. If students choose more than one language, they can switch each term, or between projects. In this way, each student can potentially have support in maintaining both parental languages, as well as an identity language that they have acquired elsewhere.

In March 2017 McCracken and Rikers presented the ISH approach to languages in international schools at the ECIS ESL/MT (now ECIS MLIE) conference in Copenhagen, with the support of Jim Cummins. Now that the ISH Identity Language has been launched in international education I hope (expect!) more schools to start having critical discussions about the language profiles of their students too.

Wondering about translanguaging?

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I’ve been promising for years to write a post about pedagogical translanguaging. In fact, probably about five years! But I always get stuck in the details… I want to present it accurately, and really show how it works. So I created (with the help of Ollydave) this short explainer video, so people can have a 2-minute introduction to a complex topic. Click on the picture above and enjoy!

Spotlight on good practice: Multilingual Poetry

 

 

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With respect to ELLs, there is undeniable and growing evidence that the home language of ELLs is of considerable benefit to their overall academic success.

  • Fred Genesee (Professor of Psychology Department at McGill University, Montreal and  recipient of the Canadian Psychological Associate Award for Distinguished Contributions to Community or Public Service)

This is the first post in the new “Spotlight on Good Practice” series. The goal of the series is to get teachers and schools talking about critical issues in supporting language learners in their schools. This first profile spotlights Jennifer, a Grade 3 teacher at the European International School Ho Chi Minh City.

I visited the school mid-March to provide three days of professional development for the staff of the school, primary and secondary, and for parents. On the first day we did two intensive sessions, the first was “Bilingualism in Education: Understanding your learners”, and the second was “Languages in the Classroom”. As with most schools I visit, the staff were mainly English-speaking, and their training and experience for working with language learners ranged from very little to fully trained EAL teachers. For staff with little training (and, let’s be honest, for monolingual staff) the content of these first two sessions can be challenging. We debunk quite a few myths about language learners in schools (no, children are not sponges!) and look at the critical relationship between home language development and school language development, and how the former can scaffold the latter.

The second morning, Jennifer arrived in the library to show me a poem a student had brought to her. She does a poem a week activity with her students, but this student had taken the initiative and brought in a poem written in his home language (Taiwanese) and translated into English. Connecting to the content of the previous day’s sessions, she wanted to show me the poem, and discuss her impressions of his work. It was a beautiful example of languages in connection – the Taiwanese writing with English translation at the end. The translation itself showed clearly the influence of his thought patterns and expressions in his own language, which led to an inflected yet clear English poem.

In the meantime, teachers and students can’t wait for these policy debates to be settled before deciding how or whether to draw upon ELLs’ home language. The question arises how can schools and teachers, even those who are monolingual, act on evidence that clearly shows the personal, cognitive, linguistic and educational value of using the linguistic resources that ELLs bring to school.

  • Fred Genesee

Rather than just admiring the student’s work and moving back to her teaching, Jennifer took this poem, and turned it into a whole-class celebration of poetry and languages. The students were all asked to find and bring in a poem in their own languages. They began the process in class, and then continued with their parents at home. The parents were contacted by email about the project, and responded enthusiastically. The children all arrived with their poems the next morning, some translated already, some ready to display. Each student had the opportunity to present their poem to the class, and show their skills in their home language. You can imagine the impact on the students who are less confident in English, to be given place at the front of the class to use the language they are best at, and show their expertise to their peers. It also gave the children the opportunity to see and discuss the wide variety of writing systems used by their peers.

So one small poem, which could have been easily set aside or forgotten, became the basis of a unit that celebrated the diversity of the class, that promoted the importance of home languages, and that connected the strength of home languages to the task of producing a poem in English, therefore functioning as a language-development exercise as well.

Hats off to Jennifer, for being a brilliant and reflective teacher, and to Iain Fish, Head of School, who creates an environment in which teachers are also enquirers, in this case, on the topic of language learners in their school.

Poetry. exhibit

The two quotes from Fred Genesee are from this excellent post: The Home Language: An English Language Learner’s Most Valuable Resource

For more information about the Spotlight on Good Practice series, the introduction can be found here.

If you’d like to share a good practice story, from your class, your child’s class, a colleague’s class, please email me at: eowyn@crisfieldeducationalconsulting.com

Spotlight on Good Practice: New blog series

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In the month of March, I had the privilege of presenting at three international events. The first was the ECIS ESL/MT conference (now the ECIS MLIE group). There I presented on using pedagogical translanguaging to support learning in international education. The second event was the CIS Symposium on Intercultural Learning (Amsterdam), where I presented in the Language as a Pathway to Intercultural Learning strand. My presentation at this event was focused again on translanguaging, this time as a way to bring students’ culture and prior knowledge into the classroom. The final event was the second CIS Symposium, Singapore, where I again presented (for LanguageOne) in the Language strand, with an analysis of models of MT/home language support in international schools, and ways forward for schools who want to engage better on this critical topic.

A recurring point of interest across all three events was the overview of audience members at language-related sessions. On the whole, the audience at these sessions was the “language people” from schools: EAL teachers, language teachers, MT/home language teachers, and mid-level coordinators: EAL coordinators, PYP coordinators, etc. So this leaves the question: Where are the school leaders? Where are the principals and heads of school? They are certainly at these events, but for some reason rarely choose the language-related sessions. This was especially apparent at the CIS Singapore event, which was in a strand-format – all participants stayed in their chosen strand for the two-day event. The strands on global citizenship and developing culturally competent leaders were the two strands where all the leadership-level participants were to be found.

So what’s up with that? Are the language-people not informative enough, funny enough, insightful enough to draw the school leaders? Everyone who attended our strands knows that this is of course not true! What is true, however, is that language is often thought of as a specialist topic in education (international and national). School leadership is often caught up in broader topics that seem to have more importance for the whole than EAL, home languages, other languages. This is a dangerous position to take however, as language is at the heart of everything we do in education; at the centre of identity, culture, communication, and most importantly, learning.

It is hard to argue that we are teaching the whole child when school policy dictates that the students leave their language and culture at the schoolhouse door.

  • J. Cummins et al. (2005)

It is true that language people are not always good at publicity and marketing – we know we have a lot of key information that all teachers, administrators and parents need to know. But we’re not always good at getting our message out there in accessible ways.

In order to do some awareness-raising of the complex and critical issue of languages in schools, I’m starting a new blog series, entitled “Spotlight on good practice“. I’d like to do a regular profile of an activity, teacher, school, leader, program (twice a month), to share what is already happening in our schools that we can be proud of, and hope that this will encourage wider awareness outside the language people of how languages can be used in our schools to either empower or disempower our students, and the resulting effects on culture, character, and learning.

The series will start with examples of good practice from schools I have worked with, but I would be delighted to hear from my readers – parents, teachers, (hopefully) school leaders – about examples of good practice relating to any aspect of languages in schools – EAL/ELL, home languages, host country languages, foreign languages. If you have a story to share, for yourself or for your school or your children’s school, please email me at eowyn@crisfieldeducationalconsulting.com

Looking forward to hearing about all your success stories!

 

 

What I learned this weekend from Cummins, Krashen, and Genesee

Why are we using the terminology ESL and mother tongue, when for many students English is not actually their second language and they have multiple linguistic identities? How does this term reflect the multilingualism of many of our students?

J. Cummins, ECIS ESL/MT conference, 2017

I wrote this article on LinkedIn two days ago, but just had a request to repost here for those who are not on LinkedIn, so here it is! 

It’s not often that one gets to spend a weekend listening to, and meeting, the textbooks from your bookshelf. And yet that is what I spent the weekend doing. At the ECIS ESL/MT 2017 conference in Copenhagen, I opened the textbooks of my undergraduate and graduate studies, and I heard them tell me their stories.

From Stephen Krashen I first learned about comprehensible input, and “i+1”, and that teachers need to give students a safe space to learn by lowering their affective filters. And Krashen certainly did that for all of us, in his witty, intense, informative, and at times scathing keynote, which reminded us why he is one of the greats, and also, why it’s important to consider for ourselves the message of any speaker, and compare it to our own inner knowledge of teaching and learning. For while he did convince us all of the benefits of reading for learning, and made us all feel good that reading every day will help our brains stay healthy, he also provoked us by claiming that grammar teaching is never useful or necessary. Some had the courage to stand up to him (Mindy!) and some did not, but the discussion was always lively.

From Cummins, many years ago, I learned to think about the whole child, and to consider what it would feel like to be unseen in school, with your language, culture and identity denied. I learned that children do not need teachers to put barriers between their languages for learning to happen, and than we can integrate all of a child’s language repertoire as a scaffold and a guide for learning. And that no, using the home language during school won’t mean kids never learn English. This weekend I learned again what it is to listen to someone who truly believes that they can make a difference, and that teachers can make a difference too. And I learned that being in the speaker slot right after a Jim Cummins’ keynote is a mighty uncomfortable place to be – following in the footsteps of his amazing talk, with three Cummins’ quotes in my presentation, and a room full of people who had just heard “wow”.

From Fred Genesee, whose work I have known and followed since my days as a graduate student in Montreal, I was reminded that yes, children with various language and learning challenges can and do become successfully bilingual. I was also reminded that it is okay to say that bilingualism is not the right fit for some children, if their needs and circumstances don’t require it, and the school setting can not give them adequate support. I’ve been making this point gently over the last years, with the fear of seeming elitist worrying me – I don’t mean to say that bilingualism is only for “smart” children, or for children who speak the “right” languages. But Fred gave me the courage to be stronger in standing up for children who will not thrive in bilingual programs, not because they couldn’t become bilingual, but because the programs are not set up to give them the support they need to become bilingual.

Those were my great lessons of the weekend, but there were many smaller moments as well. From Mindy and Lara from ISH, I learned that passionate teachers who believe in doing the right thing for their bilingual learners can convince a whole school to do the right thing too.

From Susan Stewart from ISL Surrey, I heard new ways of talking to parents about raising children with languages, and of contextualising the discussions we have with parents in different ways.

From Paul Kei Matsuda, I was reassured that being against numerical evaluations for language development and grammar isn’t a radical position that is incompatible with modern education. We can, and do, assess students’ language on many measures that do not correlate to a number or a letter or a pass or fail.

I don’t expect I’ll ever have the chance again to pass a weekend with my textbooks, but I’m certainly exceedingly lucky to have had the chance to do it once.