Does making systematic use of EAL learners’ mother tongues help them do better at school?

It is received wisdom in the EAL teaching community that making systematic use of EAL children’s mother tongues while carrying out class work helps them to do better at school. The theoretical basis for this position is Cummins’ (1979 and 1980) theories of linguistic interdependence and common underlying proficiency. From the underpinning assumptions of these theories, a number of specific recommendations for practice have been extrapolated … with varying quantities and quality of empirical evidence to support them. In conducting my MA dissertation, I sought to assess the effects of one such recommendation (made by the UK DfE, among others), for which I did not find convincing empirically derived support in my literature review.

To feed back to the people who helped me to conduct my trial (students, parents, teachers and others) I wrote a ‘plain language summary’ of it, outlining the background, methods and findings. Here it is:

Do children for whom English is an additional language do better in school if they are given opportunities to use their home languages while doing school work?*
Plain language summary

Hamish Chalmers 2014

Why did I do the study?
Teachers of children for whom English is an additional language are sometimes advised to provide opportunities for those children to use their home languages while doing school work. This is because some people believe that using home languages helps to improve those children’s English, as well as helping them in other areas of learning. However, teachers are sometimes advised to forbid the use of languages that are not English at school. This is because some people believe that the best way to get better at English is to use only English. No one knows which of these conflicting pieces of advice is more likely to help children in British schools. Evidence from research is needed to help us to find out.

Unfortunately, the results of research are not very clear. This is partly because a lot of it has been done in schools that are very different to British schools. For example, a lot of research has been done in schools in the USA that provide lessons in both Spanish and English for Hispanic children (bilingual schools); we cannot be confident that the findings of this research can be applied directly to non-bilingual schools in Britain.

Some of the research used to support the belief that children should be given opportunities to use their home languages while doing school work has measured things other than the effect on the quality of English and other learning. For example, researchers have asked students how happy they are when they are allowed to use their home languages. This does not tell us if using home languages helps them get better results at school.

Only a small number of studies have looked at the effects of using home languages on the quality of students’ English and other learning. However, the number of studies claiming that this helps is about the same as the number of studies claiming that it has no effect or that it hinders success. In addition, some of these studies have been done with university students, not school children, and most of them have been done outside of the UK.

I conducted the study summarised here to add to the small amount of research on the effects of structured use of home languages on the quality of students’ English and other learning, and to help teachers in British schools to decide whether they should act on advice to make use of children’s home languages when they do school work.

Who participated in the study?
At one state primary school in Oxford, UK, I invited the parents of all of the children registered as having English as an additional language in Years 1 and 2 (ages 5 to 7) to give permission for their children to take part in the study. Thirty-six children took part out of a total of 45 who were invited. The children were allocated at random to one of two groups. Depending on the group to which they had been allocated, the children then carried out a learning task using either their home language, or only English.

What was the learning task?
The British government’s Department for Education includes the following in its advice to teachers of children for whom English is an additional language:

“Before the Literacy Hour, a bilingual teaching assistant and children [should] talk through the pictures and summarise the story of a Big Book in the home language.”**

There were 17 different languages spoken at home by the children in the study; the teaching assistants at the school do not speak all of these languages. Therefore, the advice above was adapted to invite parents to take on the role of the teaching assistant at home with their child.

I gave each child a picture book to take home to talk through and summarise with their parents. I gave their parents a set of questions to help guide this discussion. One group of parents had the questions written in English. The other group had the questions translated into their home languages.

I asked the parents to use these questions to help talk through and summarise the picture book with their child in the language to which they had been assigned (only English or only their home language). At the end of one week the children wrote a story in English based on what they had understood about the story in the picture book.

I graded the quality of the children’s stories using the school’s normal assessment criteria for English. I also used a measure of English writing proficiency designed specially for use with children who are learning English. I then compared the averages of the scores for each group to see if there were any clear differences between the quality of the stories that had been written by the children in the two comparison groups.

What did I find?
There were some small differences between the average scores of the two groups. However, these were too small to be considered clear differences, and could easily have been due to chance. Furthermore, from the answers given by parents and children to a questionnaire taken at the end of the study, it was not clear whether they had always carried out the task in the way intended.

What do the results mean?
This small study does not resolve the question of which language children for whom English is an additional language should use in this kind of learning task. So, more research is needed to guide teachers on what is most helpful for these children.

What next?
This study involved a small number of children and was conducted over a short period of time. To be more confident about the effects of using home languages in the way described, further studies should be done, involving a larger number of children, lasting for a longer period of time, and with support for parents in how to carry out the tasks.

I am very grateful to the children, parents and teachers who agreed to help me try to resolve the question of home language use in British schools by taking part in this study. I am also indebted to the many friends who helped to translate the discussion questions into the 17 different languages used by the children in the study.

*This is a plain language summary of an MA dissertation entitled Harnessing linguistic diversity in polylingual British-curriculum schools. Do L1 mediated home learning tasks improve learning outcomes for bilingual children? A randomised trial. A copy of the full report is available on request.

**Taken from “Home Languages in the Literacy Hour” by Jill Bourne. Published by the Department for Education and Skills, (2002)


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