In 2016, in state primary education there were 20.1% of children with a language “known or believed to be known other than English”. It equals to nearly a million boys and girls between age 5 and 11 and those numbers are steadily increasing since 2006. As a migrant and a mother to a six-year-old, who last year started school, I cannot underestimate the words I’ve recently read in The Casey Review, where Dame Louse Casey, who was asked by former prime minister David Cameron to report on social integration reminds: “In relation to integration and economic success, one factor that stands out strongly as a barrier to progress is proficiency in English.”
English as an Additional Language
Department for Education defines English as an Additional Language (EAL) as a language a child has been exposed to “during early development and in the home, or in the community”. The government only recently has officially begun to gather information about pupils’ level of proficiency in English, therefore it’s hard to specify the exact numbers of children who at the start of primary school speak little or no English. Nevertheless, Dame Casey indicates that even though the gaps for many of the most disadvantaged groups in society are increasingly narrowing, speakers of English as an Additional Language still “perform less well than the average across all school Key Stages”. Personally speaking, it’s quite obvious in a situation when they cannot completely understand what the teacher is saying. I imagine I’d be no different if someone attempted to talk to me in Mandarin.
Some people will say “Children are like sponges and they will learn English in no time”. Yes, they will. One day. Until then, many will struggle to integrate and will feel socially isolated due to poor language skills and lack of cultural knowledge. After Prof. Strand and his research team from the University of Oxford , The Casey Review specifies some of the disadvantages related to poor English language skills: “a negative impact on children’s integration, education, and life chances”.
To different experiences, every child can react differently. They will react differently to school, to a new environment, or to people. They will react differently depending on a cultural group, home experience, or simply depending on a personality. An outgoing and sociable child will learn quickly because “they want to be like their English-speaking peers”. Unlike their shy and quiet friends, who will learn by listening and observing and who will speak little for fear of making a mistake, sociable children will not worry much about mistakes. Nevertheless, no matter what their personality and experiences are, they all are children who met an abrupt change of language, environment, culture, and expectations and those are the reasons why from day one they all need a support to help them overcome any obstacles as quickly as possible. Considering the reports, though, it seems that there is still a lot to do.
New Solution for Schools
Recently, I found an interesting website I Say You Say with an even more interesting product. Someone had a fantastic idea, just right for the little ones and their first encounters with English. There is a magnetic board with 160 magnets with nice, child-friendly drawings of numbers, colours and shapes, animals and other things that we usually learn as the first words. In a package, there is also something that looks like a barcode scanner. The device works in 22 (sic!) languages and it is so easy to use that a three-year-old can play with it without any supervision. I’m guilty to confess that I requested a free presentation, so curious I was of the thing. The device has been designed for schools and preschools, and not for individual families like mine but then, if I Say You Say added a short introductory video to their website, I wouldn’t have to do it (smile).
And, I loved it, especially when I saw the pack of magnets called “Feelings and Situations”. “Jestem prześladowana. – I’m being bullied”, “I’m tired”, “I want to go to the toilet”, a clear voice explained the image in Polish, my mother tongue, and then translated the sentence to English. As a linguistic purist and proud of it, I give the producer a big plus for choosing a speaker with such a perfect, clear voice. And, the idea of teaching at the very beginning of a language introduction at school something as complex and difficult to explain as feelings and specific situations or challenges, is just spot on. With the time passing, it will be getting easier for a child to express what they think or feel. At the same time, though, it’s the start: the first weeks, and most often months when they are feeling the most insecure and vulnerable, and when they will need this help and support the most.
A Peek into a Reality
I remember this little Polish girl from a nearby village. My son was then three and I was looking for a nursery for him. In one of them, the manager was apparently pleased that my son could speak Polish. That came a bit as a surprise because until now, he had always been applauded for speaking fluent English and among the English no one really cared whether he spoke Polish, or not. Quickly I understood, why his bilingualism was so important. Among 15 or so English speaking little kids there was this one little girl who spoke Polish only and everyone else was unable to communicate with her. I was told how on the first day the little one was inconsolable and the teachers had to ask a Pole, who worked in the village pub as a chef to come to the nursery and interpret for them. With the time passing, the things were slowly improving but for most of the day the girl anyway kept away from others. Sometimes, they would hear her trying to sing to herself in English but there wasn’t much more than that. And then, within moments from hearing my son speaking Polish, Ania changed completely! They started running around, playing, and laughing. Typical pre-schoolers. I also remember her teachers looking in amazement and one of them saying how great it was to see Ania being finally herself – a completely comfortable happy four-year-old.
Nevertheless, I didn’t feel comfortable with the idea the preschool teachers had at one point. Actually, I was quite shocked as a parent when I heard that they were hoping for my three-year-old to act as an interpreter for Ania. As much as I felt both for her and for them, I didn’t like the idea of another child taking on the responsibility for being a connector between adults and her. How fair would that be on him? Later, I heard that this approach is common at preschools and schools, and children often are interpreting for their peers. Considering that there isn’t enough funding for the EAL Teaching Assistants I can appreciate it that teachers are just clutching at straws to be able to communicate with their pupils but I disagree with this highly unfair approach.
So, when I saw this device from I Say You Say, I immediately remembered our encounter with Ania. I thought what a difference it could make for this little girl if she could sit somewhere with this set of pictures and learn the first words and expressions at her own pace. For a child who has come to a strange new place and is surrounded by strangers whom she cannot even understand, such a device might be this one, simple but necessary, “click” to help take the first steps, familiarise herself with the new words, and remember them thanks to associating them with pictures. She could express what she liked or how she felt without having to rely on anyone’s help. I’m sure that also her English-speaking peers would be curious about the images and it could be such a great starting point for a chat.
Furthermore, how different would it be for Ania’s teachers, who were so enthusiastic and willing to help if they could sit with her and practise together, maybe even learn a few words in her language. What a great chance to bond and to start communicating with their pupil they would have!
Considering the government cuts on the EAL support, schools don’t have a wide variety of choice. Looking at the recommendations shouting with capital letters from The Casey Review, this hopefully might change soon. For now, though, the minimum funding level for pupils in primary school is £466 a year.
At the same time, the cost of employing a Bilingual Teaching Assistant or an EAL Teacher ranges from £14 000 up to £33 000 a year, depending on their qualifications and experience. Bilingual Teaching Assistant’s salary it’s in average £18 000. The Irish government estimated up to how many pupils with English as an Additional Language should a school employ to offer the right support:
• 14 to 27 pupils – 1 post
• 28 to 41 – 2 posts
• 42 to 64 – 3 posts
• 65 to 90 – 4 posts
• 91 to 120 – 5 posts
• 121 or more – 6 posts
According to NALDIC (National Association for Language Development in the Curriculum), teacher salaries account for approximately 99% of EAL expenditure. And now, I cannot help wondering how often schools are actually looking into new technologies and new ideas and inventions to help their pupils and/or reduce the costs. Certainly, nothing will replace an interaction with a human being, there’s no question about that, nevertheless, the use of a simple device that costs less than the government funding for six pupils can make an enormous difference to a number of children at the start of their language adventure. If only I could, I would love to use it for my little son to help him with learning Mandarin. Have I said that this device works in twenty-two languages? Twenty-two! I imagine it might be quite hard to find a Teacher with similar qualifications.
Devices like the one from I Say You Say can also vastly reduce the silent phase, which most of the EAL children enter once they have been thrown in at the deep end and are expected to “be fine” and learn the new language with the use of the immersion technique. The length of the silent period differs and is dependent on many factors like a child’s personality, culture, or the family support. The way the silent phase (called also non-verbal or mute) appears is simple: a child who doesn’t speak the dominant language refuses to communicate until they have become more familiar with the new sounds and the new environment, and until they feel more comfortable and confident in speaking the new language.
First Months with English as an Additional Language
Dr P. Clarke in her report on Learning English as an Additional Language suggests that among others it’s talking with children, persistent including them in activities, using their first language, and providing activities which reinforce language practice through role playing that are among the best strategies to help overcome the non-verbal stage. Associating pictures with real-life images and situations, the ability to use them anytime and anywhere, help with pronunciation and immediate translation of images into the language a child understands and feels comfortable with sound then like the right support for the first months of a new language introduction. Add it up to working with the images at a child’s own pace and without any pressure or fear of being judged by a native-speaker and at present, I cannot see other solutions designed for schools that can help EAL children with low levels of English in a complex way that is similar to I Say You Say. Intense support is especially important in the first months of learning because not only is gives a solid base for a further introduction but also allows the learner to quicker overcome any barriers they might have. Looking at the number of children with English as an Additional Language and considering the reports, which don’t sound incredibly optimistic, I just hope that the schools will make good use of such easy to use yet complex (22 languages!) solutions. As a community, we all need it.