Multilingual Learners in Context: A wrap

The Multilingual Learners in Context symposium at Oxford Brookes University on Saturday was an excellent bringing together of academics and educators from related but importantly different fields, under the umbrella discipline of teaching multilingual learners. The order of events allowed a narrative to unfold over the course of the day that revealed common themes which were revisited and enriched as we heard about them from the perspectives of mainstream schooling, community schooling and the international sector. Victoria Murphy and Therese Hopfenzbeck, both of the University of Oxford, bookended the day with discussions of quantitative data that described achievement of multilingual learners in the UK, the character and extent of controlled intervention studies pertaining to EAL learners’ education, and international comparisons of literacy attainment. Murphy ended her talk by impressing on us four key takeaways: 1) more research on EAL in the UK is needed, 2) more funding is necessary for the type and scale of research necessary for us to really know what works, 3) understanding of appropriate pedagogy for EAL students needs to be better integrated into Initial Teacher Education, and 4) We need to abolish the monolingual hegemony. Whether by design or as a result of happy coincidence, these themes would recur throughout the day from very different starting points.

Strand et al 2015

Figure shared by Victoria Murphy from Strand, Malmberg and Hall (2015), showing KS2 SATs achievement relative to the grand population mean, by ethnic classification and stratified by EAL and non-EAL status.


We heard from Ana Souza and Jane Spiro of Oxford Brookes University about the importance of grassroots advocacy, from London to Hawaii, for building and defending provision for appropriate education of multilingual learners. Both Spiro and Souza described the critical role of promotion of all aspects of a multilingual person’s self – their language, their history, their culture – in developing linguistic and inter-cultural competences, and the benefits of raising the visibility of multilingualism generally. As well as the promotion of inter-cultural competence through community schools, Souza described a kind of organic, student initiated, development of meta-linguistic competence as a result of attending these kinds of schools. This was an important acknowledgement of both the social justice aspect of community schooling and its academic utility. Spiro described the Hawaiian situation as a forty-year work in progress, underscoring the time and commitment needed for change to happen.

Segueing perfectly from this thought, Peeter Mehisto described his work (in more countries that I can remember) on bringing together stakeholders to improve the educational lot of multilingual learners. In a serendipitous call back to Murphy’s talk, Mehisto emphasised the need for good research reviews that summarise what we know about educating multilingual learners and how these should be available to all stakeholders. He argued that buy-in from stakeholders is contingent on unbiased understanding of what we know about multilingual education. He also described how crucial the support from the upper echelons of power can be. A sympathetic ear at City Hall from the outset pays dividends when multilingual projects hit the inevitable road bumps caused by forces working against them, either by willful blindness or self-interested power, he said. Mehisto touched on ‘monolingual disadvantage’ in another related call back to Murphy’s four key takeaways, emphasising that multilingual education should not be reserved just for high achievers, members of the ‘elite’, or in order to suppress L1. Among a number of mechanisms necessary to move this agenda forward he proposed shining a light on incompetence – wherever it lurks – as key. This put me in mind of Louis Dembitz Brandeis’ 1913 contention that “Sunlight is said to be the best of disinfectants; electric light the most efficient policeman.”

Drawing on the theme of stakeholders and the importance of what goes on in the homes of multilingual learners, Raymonde Sneddon described work she was engaged in, developing bi-literacy through dual language books and by helping children to create personal texts, inspired by Cummins ‘Identity Texts’. She says this started as an attempt to get languages acknowledged in the classroom, but quickly developed into a deeper exploration into bi-directional transfer of literacy skills and deeper understanding of texts read in two languages. Self-report from parents and children suggested that this work had positive social and academic implications.

Oksana Afitska’s presentation on the use of L1s in promoting learning for multilingual learners used concrete illustrations to emphasise that if a student cannot demonstrate their knowledge using English, this doesn’t mean that they do not possess that knowledge. She showed some helpful examples from SATs that, if considered only in terms of the official marking scheme, would lead one to conclude that the children knew very little about the topics being assessed. Looking through an L1 lens, however, reveals a different picture. Her presentation allowed for some useful discussion about whether there have been any empirical demonstrations of the value of translanguaging as a pedagogic tool. For me, this discussion reinforced the notion that translanguaging has neither been sufficiently well defined, nor has it been sufficiently well assessed as a pedagogic tool for us to say anything particularly conclusive about it.

Cathie Wallace, of the IoE at UCL, framed her talk with the need to provide enriched and expanded text worlds for multilingual learners. She used case studies of pupils in London, describing their engagement with texts on their journeys to becoming literate users of English. She discussed ‘relevance’ and ‘resonance’, citing Arthur Miller’s A View from the Bridge as a text that, while on the face of lacking in relevance, actually was one that resonated very well for some of the young learners with whom she worked. This brought to mind the recent debate about the appropriateness of the texts used in the KS2 SATs. These texts, some have argued, would precipitate success only for ‘white, middle-class girls’, such was their non-relevance to other demographic groups. In the light of Wallace’s differentiation between relevance and resonance, I feel this is a debate worth reviewing.

Therese Hopfenbeck of the University of Oxford described PIRLS (Progress in International Reading Literacy Study), an assessment programme not dissimilar to PISA that is conducted every four years to provide data about how well children in different countries are doing in reading after four years of schooling. Her talk underscored for me the importance of teacher engagement in research for making it relevant, understandable and useful/useable. This is why I feel that we were lucky to have a small number of teachers from local schools present at the symposium, contributing to the discussion and helping to ensure that the end users in all of this were represented.

In sum, the cross-disciplinary nature of the event, the contribution of teachers, advisors, and academics and the broad diet of research approaches made the symposium an excellent educational experience for all in attendance. As a researcher who leans towards intervention studies as a preference, I found hearing first-hand about research which uses other approaches fascinating. Moreover, it helped me to better contextualize the world of research and provision for multilingual learners that I inhabit. This learning was reciprocal, and I was delighted to hear one presenter (more familiar with collection of qualitative data) say how great it was to learn about the data presented in Murphy’s and Hopfenbeck’s presentations as “we never get a chance to see it normally”.

My one regret about the day was the difficulty we had in making local teachers aware of it and its relevance to them, and encouraging them to attend. This is something we will need to work on for next time. However, the symposium was billed as an opportunity to examine the commonalities and peculiarities of differing multilingual contexts, exchange knowledge, and consider ways forward in meeting the needs of multilingual learners, with the potential to radically shape the way we think about and deliver effective provision for our language learners. From my perspective, I’d say mission accomplished.

The event was videoed and, subject to a bit of administration, should be available soon. I will post links when I have them.

*This post has been updated from the original to clean up some typos and rephrase some clumsy passages.


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