Elevator Pitch

I’ve had plenty of opportunities to work on the elevator pitch for my thesis in the six months since starting my research degree. Each time I tell someone about it I get to refine and (hopefully) improve on it. It’s always feels a bit of a gamble though. How much knowledge to assume of my interlocutor? What bits to go into in detail? How much detail to go into?  Where to make editorial cuts to slim down things that fascinate me but would bore anyone else (and how to tell which bits those are)? In essence, how does one get all of the important bits adequately communicated without leaving people either confused or uninterested? Nailing all of this can feel a bit of a shot in the dark. However, I have been asked to write a postgraduate student profile about myself for the university’s website, and so crafting an elevator pitch as close to definitive as I could was a fairly important element of this.

So, pressing the button for the top floor with no further ado, here’s what I came up with

The Pitch

My research centres on EAL (English as an Additional Language) learners’ use of their home languages as a tool for learning English and other curriculum content in mainstream schools in the UK.

Bilingual schools are associated with improved outcomes in English language proficiency and general academic attainment in children whose home language is not English. Bilingual schools have, however, been criticised for their tendency to compartmentalise the different languages used by their pupils. For example, a bilingual school in California serving Spanish speaking Latino children may teach in Spanish in the morning and in English in the afternoon. Some argue that this is an artificial segregation of languages and is unhelpful to bilingual children, whose actual language practices are much more dynamic.

A provisional and developing theory that has grown out of our understanding of the effects of bilingual approaches to education, but which accommodates dynamic use of different languages, is called translanguaging. Translanguaging is when bilinguals make simultaneous use of all of their languages, rather than reserving one language for one context (say, school) and their other language for a different context (say, home). Translanguaging reflects the natural language practices of bilinguals and is a normal feature of how they construct meaning and communicate. Translanguaging theory suggests, therefore, that the learning outcomes of bilingual children will be improved if they are allowed to ‘translanguage’ at school.

The success of bilingual schools and the optimism about translanguaging theory has prompted practitioners to advocate ad hoc use of bilingual/translanguaging teaching strategies with EAL pupils in mainstream schools in the UK. However, mainstream schools in the UK and the pupils who attend them are likely to be systematically different to the bilingual schools and pupils in which most of the research underpinning the theory has been conducted. It does not necessarily follow, therefore, that use of bilingual/translanguaging teaching strategies in these systematically different contexts will have comparable effects.

One key difference is that bilingual schools tend to cater to children who share the same home language. In the UK it is not uncommon for schools to have pupils representing a wide variety of home languages. For example, in the Borough of Ealing, in London, 150 different languages are spoken by its schools’ children. This so called linguistic super-diversity is much less straightforward for teachers to accommodate than the linguistic homogeneity of bilingual schools. Moreover, empirical evidence to inform decisions about ad hoc use of bilingual and translanguaging approaches to teaching in linguistically super-diverse, mainstream schools is vanishingly rare, if it exists at all.

I intend to address this gap in our understanding about the effects of translanguaging approaches in linguistically super-diverse schools by conducting a randomised comparison of alternative approaches and assessing the effects on a range of educational outcomes including English proficiency and curriculum knowledge and understanding.

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Comments welcome.

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2 comments

  1. Fiona McGrath

    I would have stayed to the top floor! There are around 50 languages spoken at my current school, with many of the children at different stages of English acquisition. Ensuring our EAL children continue to learn in all subjects, not just English, is a challenge we face every day.

  2. Hamish Chalmers

    Thank you! You’ve also made a really important observation that I think is lost on some – that it isn’t all just about learning English. In my professional capacity I often heard teachers ask for emergent bilingual children to be taken away and ‘taught English’ before being reintegrated into the mainstream. Quite apart from the obvious point that the language that is needed to do well in, say, Science is best acquired through the contextualised experience available in the science lab, what about all of the scientific knowledge that they would miss out on while they were away being taught English? It is a difficult ask for any non-specialist, but it is a fundamental part of the job if we are to do right by the 1.3 million EAL learners in our schools. I want to see, through my research, whether and how providing home language support for these children helps them to achieve in both English language and curriculum knowledge.

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