Should schools teach EAL children their home language?

I’ve been meaning to write a post about this for a while, after reading a comment on social media some weeks ago, claiming that the lack of attention to home languages in schools is degrading to that language. Could or should schools take more responsibility for teaching a child the language of their family? In my opinion there are arguments for and against.

The most obvious reasons against is that a child who has arrived in England and started school with no English needs help to learn English for both social and academic purposes. Without additional help with English, they are likely to fall behind their peers in the other subjects because they are unable to access them. And this additional help inevitably means they miss out on some of the other timetabled activities. If they were to have lessons in their home language on top of this, it would mean missing out on even more of the other timetabled lessons. This would probably lead to their English suffering because they weren’t practicing it in the classroom as often. Factor in the cost of finding teachers for all of the different home languages of pupils in a school, and it’s quite easy to see why schools feel that their responsibility ends with teaching the children English. After all, if their families want them to continue learning their home language, that’s up to them to sort it out, right?

On the other hand, if children are spending Monday to Friday in school and then all day Saturday having language lessons, they’re going to get tired very quickly. It’s already exhausting for them having to concentrate so hard because teaching is not taking place in their first language, and then at the weekends instead of having time to switch off, they are spending several more hours in a classroom. I have seen children struggling to stay awake because of the extra mental effort they are using. There is a definite advantage to bilingualism, and if they were given lessons in their home language during the school day, they could take full advantage of that later in life, and still only have to learn for the same number of hours as other children their age.

There is also the self-esteem issue to take into consideration. If they are not as good at English as their classmates, and are struggling to keep up in the other subjects because of the language, it could give their self-esteem a boost to spend some time during the school day doing something they are better at than their classmates.

Another thing the comment I saw bemoaned was the fact that EAL children rarely get to achieve qualifications in their home language. This is another tricky area. Of course it would be lovely if all children who could speak another language could get a qualification in it. Many schools already do their best to do this, and I often see pleas from other language teachers asking for speakers of various languages to assist with oral exams. However, there is a cost to exam boards to produce exams, and at a time when languages in general are in decline, there is little incentive for them to write and mark exams in minority languages.

What’s the solution? I’m sure I don’t know! One possibility for the qualifications would be for each country to take responsibility for its own language. So for example, English children living abroad would take an English GCSE, provided and marked by this country; Polish people living in England would take the equivalent qualification in Polish that their classmates would be sitting in Poland. It would need lots of agreements between the governments of the different countries, but in theory it should be possible. As for who should take responsibility for the teaching and, when and how they should be taught… Maybe somebody else could come up with a plan!

If you enjoyed this post, you might also enjoy Endangered Languages

Update: Since publishing this post I have come across this one about the pros and cons of weekend language schools that seems to tie in well with what I have written.

Modular Changes

photoThis is another guest post from Natalie, who wrote the fabulous “Teachers – it’s time to face the music” post about teacher stereotypes.  She has more to say, and this time it’s the modular changes to exams that she is angry about.

Take a deep breath. One heartbeat. Two heartbeats. A slide, a scan, a sigh.

It’s over – you know them now. All the hard work, all the agonizing over dates and names and numbers; it comes down to those few letters on a page. And then, whether they were good or bad, you move on and make plans accordingly.

This year, like so many others 17 year olds in the country, it was in that unforgettable, nervous, sweaty-palmed fever that I got my AS level results. I am, however, one of the last to ever do so, because next year that qualification will no longer exist. Mr Gove and Mr Cameron are changing current examinations to cut out modules, which they say are making a mockery of the system. According to the new government changes, re-sits must be quashed and the old, final examination system has to be brought back in (a system where students sit one set of exams after two years at both GCSE and A level).

As a young person interested in bettering my future, I could not disagree more.

Let’s start by ignoring the fact that countless headteachers and school boards have rejected the proposals (after all, that’s what the government and Ofsted have done), and just look at the impact that changing the system will have on students themselves. When I entered Sixth Form last September, I had no idea how difficult Year 12 was going to be. I had no idea how much work I would have to put into my AS levels. With exams looming in January and June, however, I soon found out. Those initial exams are a crucial wake-up-call to every single student that decides to take A levels. Without them, there is no way that either myself or my friends could have achieved what we had hoped for this summer. And now, with one year left, we can make informed decisions about our futures. Some people will have to change their university plans, realising that perhaps lower entrance requirements are more realistic. Others might drop A levels all together and take up an apprenticeship or a job. A few may re-take the year, giving themselves a valuable second chance. Remove the AS modular system and this will not happen. Students will flounder for two years, convinced they are doing enough and that it will all turn out fine in the end. For those students, results day will really be a nasty shock.

The government counters this argument by saying that the final examination system worked in the past and will work again. To say this, I feel, is to be completely ignorant to the fact that the world of work and education has developed dramatically. Since the modular system was brought into A levels in 2000, we have changed as a nation in unthinkable (and not always positive) ways. Jobs for young people in Britain are now scarce, youth unemployment is high, and the value of a university degree is not only academic but sensible – why not study for a further 3 or 4 years and wait out the economic storm? Why not better your chances at finding a job in the future?  The expectations of young people are that much higher now too, as we are repeatedly told that we must compete with nations across the globe. How can we do this if less people are going into higher education? How can we start to repair the economy of tomorrow if we are not given the opportunities to do so today? After all, employers are not going to know if you sat the 2014 system or the 2015 system. They will simply see your qualifications as they are. For me it all gets a bit personal too, because if I had been born 4 days later I would have been in the year below, putting me in that new final examination system. I am beyond grateful that this isn’t the case.

On top of this initial problem, there is the ever increasing pressure that this sudden change will bring. Balancing an entire future on one set of exams seems absolutely insane to me. One bad day can change everything, and that simply doesn’t work when the stakes are higher than ever before. A level examinations have always been intense, but over the last few years this intensity has multiplied threefold, as my parents’ and grandparents’ generations have told young people that the system will not allow us to achieve. We are told to reach for the stars but are apparently embroiled in incompetence that ties us to the ground. Our exams are ‘easy’, our learning ‘bite-sized’ and  – this is the most common thing we hear – we are given too many second chances. Quite frankly, this makes no sense. As far as I am concerned, second chances are not bad. In fact, I see them as necessary.
Students need to be taught that hard work, and nothing else, leads to success. The most effective way to prove this to young people is to let them experience it first hand – to show them what happens when you do not work hard enough. Is that not what the government wants? A generation that understands what it means to work hard and persevere? Modules encourage this by showing students their potential futures at the end of one year of A level study. This gives them a choice – work hard or give in. It is only by using this system that we can learn the value of hard work, something that pushes people to advance their futures. I have seen this transformation myself in some of my closest friends. It works, and consequently they work.

The government also claims that by removing the modular system they will make exams harder and stop the current ‘dumbing down’ of students. Not only am I shocked at the lack of thought put into this, but I am also insulted, and I have every right to be so. I am not naive, and I know that allowing countless re-sits is not sending the right message to students. However, I also know that the exams I sat this May were not easy. If Mr Gove disagrees with me, he is welcome to try a few. How belittling, how infantilizing, how patronising to say that the exams we work tirelessly for are easy! It is completely unfair to say that one year ‘had it easier’ than the other in the same way that it is impractical to pretend that a string of results reflects a whole person. Not everyone is an academic, but that doesn’t mean they don’t deserve the chance to go to University and further their study. After all, modules reflect working life much more than the final examination system does. No employer allows their employees to mess around for two years and then produces a test and expects them to get 100%. In the real, working world employers expect consistent hard work, and modules teach such consistency in a very structured way, giving students employable, transferable skills. Where exactly, I must ask, is the problem?

In the end it comes down to the simple fact that the proposed radical changes to the examination system will affect negatively on students and their exam results. That this is true I have no doubt. And yet, it appears that these changes will take place anyway. Given this, I call upon the government to give us the other part of the plan. Because surely if you are going to make it harder for students to get to university, there is a plan to provide for them elsewhere? Some super-duper apprenticeship schemes set to roll out across the country? Some foot-in-the-door tips and advice to give young people a chance at finding work? At the very least a plan to reduce youth unemployment? Please, do reveal all.

I was always told as a child that you shouldn’t take one foot out of the canoe unless your other foot is firmly in another. It’s too risky. When it comes to my future, I don’t want to take risks, but want to feel supported by a government that believes in my generation’s ability and wants to help us achieve. Instead we’ve lost both canoes and are facing the reality of plunging into murky, uncharted waters.

Take a deep breath. One heartbeat. Two heartbeats. A slip, a crash, a fall.

What do you think? Are these changes a bad idea? Leave your thoughts in the comments below. Natalie has a lot to say on a lot of different subjects, so if you want to read more of her writing, visit her blog Life as a Unicorn.