Non-English speaking pupils learn even when silent, new book reveals
Dr Caroline Bligh, who has been sharing recommendations from her research with the City of Leeds High School, investigated what is known as 'the silent period' for the book, entitled 'The Silent Experiences of Young Bilingual Learners', which has been published by Sense Publishers.
Dr Bligh explained: "Children start at a school not being able to speak any English but they also stop speaking their first language, leaving them silent for between a week or two and over a year. I looked at what was happening during this time and why this silent period lasted longer for some than others. I found that a lot of assumptions made about how English as an Additional Language (EAL) pupils learn were questionable. You would think that a student would need to know English before being able to learn anything else at school, such as maths or geography. However, my research showed that, even when silent, children are learning and so shouldn't be denied access to other lessons at the same time."
Through studying this silent period from the perspective of young children, following the line of their vision during lessons and also interviewing adults who went through this period themselves as children, Dr Bligh discovered that, when a child is new to a learning environment, they position themselves on the periphery - for example the back row or the edge of the carpet, where they feel comfortable.
She explained: "If allowed to settle into this, children gradually increase their participation at their own pace. But what tends to happen in practice is that teachers will do the opposite and bring the child to the front, calling them out to interact, thinking that they are encouraging them. But this can cause stress and delay their participation. It's so important that the child feels safe - this peripheral position is called their 'lookout post' - they're using it to listen, observe and copy practices in the classroom."
Dr Bligh notes in her book that many teachers will either send EAL learners out of the classroom altogether, so that they can learn English together before tackling any other subjects, or they bundle them into the bottom sets for maths and other subjects, so that they lose the opportunity to observe and to copy from good role models in terms of skills in English reading, writing and listening, which can hinder their progression.
As a result of Dr Bligh's research, she has been collaborating with the City of Leeds High School, giving her input into the school's new approach to EAL learning. The school has now adopted a whole school approach, teaching EAL to all students as if it were a foreign language.
Rather than separating EAL students and putting them in the top sets, Dr Bligh recommends that teachers in all subjects should: find ways to rephrase concepts three times - not just repeating, but explaining concepts in three different ways to give a different angle; set up 'talk trios' to discuss subjects so that two can talk and one can listen and learn; and introduce 'drama pockets' to humanities lessons - EALs tend to do best at maths and science, subjects with a strong practical element, so using drama to give history a practical context, for example, can have this same effect.