Category: secondary

Does forcing Welsh children to learn both English and Welsh make them educationally ‘weaker’ than their English peers? – #AskForEvidence Update

It’s been three weeks since I asked Toby Belfield, principal at Ruthin School, Denbighshire, North Wales if he would be willing to share the evidence upon which he based his assertion that “part of the problem with forcing young people to learn both English and Welsh (arguably, both to a substandard level) is that young people in Wales will continue to be educationally weaker than their peers in England and abroad.” (see this post).

I have not had any response (not even a cursory ‘no comment’) to the two emails and three tweets I sent to him. Perhaps he is too busy to want to get involved further after his public and unreserved apology – it is exams season, after all.

In that apology though, Belfield fails to address his claim about the effects of dual language education. Instead, he engages in special pleading to recast his assertions as something they were not. His original letter stated that dual language education (“forcing young people to learn both English and Welsh”) puts Welsh children at a disadvantage. In it he also contended that the educational system in Wales should have English as its first language. He now says that what he meant was that he rejects Welsh only education, that he thinks finding suitably qualified teachers who speak Welsh would be difficult, and that he supports parental choice. He did not address any of these things in his original letter (indeed, his insisting that schools in Wales should have English as their first language rather contradicts that last point). This special pleading, in lieu of addressing what he actually said in his letter, suggests either that he is unwilling or unable to support his original position or that he is not sufficiently adept at expressing himself in a letter written for public consumption. I will leave readers to consider which of these possibilities should be the greater concern for the parents of children at his school.

But, to the question of evidence. Belfield has shown no interest in addressing the claim he made, so I felt it only right to attempt to do so on his behalf.

First, I want to be clear that I intend only to address the question of the effects of dual language or Welsh Medium education in Wales with substantive, empirical evidence. There are other claims that Belfield makes that could be assessed in the light of evidence. For example, we could look at whether it would be hard to find sufficiently qualified bilingual teachers, whether children with Welsh as their first language do find it harder to get into top universities, whether job prospects are worse for Welsh-speaking school leavers, whether those Welsh-speaking school leavers who want to find employment outside of Wales do find it more difficult, and so on. I will say no more about them, other than to invoke Hitchen’s Razor.

Belfield is quoted as saying that he based his opinion about the precursors of the poor performance of Welsh school children on the NfER report on the PISA assessments of 2012. In 2012 PISA tested the reading, science and mathematics attainment of 15 year-olds in 65 countries.  From the UK data, the NfER prepared reports for each of the constituent countries of the union. I obtained a copy of the Wales report referenced by Belfield to see if I could find anything in it that would lend support to the notion that Welsh medium or dual language education is responsible for poor performance among Welsh children.

On reading the report it is easy to sympathise with Belfield’s concern for the Welsh education system. In summary, Wales is said to be performing significantly below the mean average for OECD countries in all subjects assessed, and significantly lower than all other areas of the UK. Notwithstanding that half of the countries in the sample necessarily must fall below the mean average; so far, so concerning.

These data are derived from the averages of all 3305 Welsh students attending a total of 137 Welsh schools that took part in the assessments. So, if you want to draw conclusions about the effect language of instruction has on attainment, the sensible thing to look for is the languages of instruction of the schools that took part in the assessments. Were they Welsh Medium, English Medium, dual language, or all three?  If it was all three, is there any breakdown of results by school type that could indicate if any one type is outperforming the others?

In the appendix of the report (page 101) we learn that “The sample in Wales contained Welsh and English medium schools and bilingual schools, although language of instruction was not a stratification variable.” This means that when the 137 schools that took part in the assessments were initially chosen, no attempt was made to sample a representative number of each type of school. So, we know that Welsh and English medium schools and bilingual schools took part in the assessments, but not how many nor in what proportions.

Later in the appendix we are told that a Welsh language version of the test was made available to schools who requested it (page 103). They report that in 14 schools all students completed the Welsh language versions of the tests and that in a further 8 schools some students completed the Welsh language version. The report states that, in total, 381 students carried out the tests in Welsh. From these figures we might infer that 14 of the 137 schools were Welsh medium and that the other 8 schools might have been bilingual schools, or Welsh medium schools with students who nonetheless preferred to take the tests in English.

According to Welsh Government statistics, in 2012 there were 56 (25%) Welsh medium secondary schools, serving 41,262 (21%) children. So if my guesswork is in any way accurate, we might conclude that Welsh medium schools are underrepresented in the PISA sample as a proportion of secondary schools in Wales as a whole (approximately 10% as opposed to 25% – or approximately 16% if we include the schools where only some students took the test in Welsh), as are students taking the test in Welsh, compared to the proportion of children in total who attend Welsh medium schools (11% as opposed to 21%). But, as I say, this is guesswork, and nowhere in the report is this clarified. And nowhere in the report are the results of the assessments broken down by school type anyway. This leaves us none the wiser as to any potential associations between language of instruction and student attainment.

So, what can we conclude from this? Mainly, that Toby Belfield can’t have based his claims about the effects of Welsh language education on anything contained in the PISA report that he suggests informed them.

I wasn’t happy to leave it there though, so I contacted the authors of the report to ask if they would be willing to share the raw data so that I could do my own sub-group analysis based on language of instruction.

Bethan Burge, one of the authors of the report, was extremely helpful and explained to me that the data was owned by the British and Welsh governments and that I would need to ask them if I could see it. However, she did send me a copy of another report that she and a colleague had prepared using the PISA data, entitled Additional Analysis of Wales’ Performance in PISA 2012. In addition to the sub-group analyses you would expect (results by gender, free school meals, ethnicity, SEN and so on) it had a short analysis of the results of the PISA assessments, stratified by medium of instruction.

Here it is in all its glory:

In reading and science, the performance of learners attending Welsh medium and English medium schools is comparable, that is, score differences are not statistically significant. However, in mathematics, learners attending Welsh medium schools outperform those in English medium schools by 10 score points. This difference is statistically significant.

Burge and Lenkiet (2015:7)

In addition there is some analysis of GCSE results and language of instruction:

At the school level, there are significant associations between medium of instruction and mathematics GCSE scores […] if we look at a group of learners with similar scores in the PISA mathematics assessment and similar individual learner characteristics, those in a Welsh-medium school will, on average, have higher mathematics GCSE scores.

Burge and Lenkiet (2015:12)


At the school level, as is the case for mathematics, there are significant associations between medium of instruction and science GCSE scores […] This means that if we look at a group of learners with similar scores in the PISA science assessment and similar individual learner characteristics, those in a Welsh-medium school will, on average, have higher science GCSE scores.

Burge and Lenkiet (2015:12-13)

So, I can now answer my own #AskForEvidence based on the same data source that provoked Belfield to make his bold claim. Far from putting students at a disadvantage, the PISA data suggest that language of instruction makes no difference to outcomes in science and reading (and so guilt-free parental choice can be exercised) and that Welsh medium schools put students at an advantage in maths. In terms of GCSE results, all else being equal, Welsh medium schools are associated with higher achievement in GCSE maths and science.

Of course there are always caveats to any data set, some of which I have addressed in my original post on this matter, and the article linked to by one of the comments on that post is a useful read in this regard. Nonetheless, it is helpful to know that empirical evidence is available to inform assessment of the effects of different models of Welsh education. And empirical evidence is always preferable to personal opinions based, we can only assume, on no more than gut feeling.


Finding an Audience

A really important aspect to developing good writing habits in our students is to give them authentic or authentic-like activities through which to use their language.  A key ingredient to the authenticity of a writing task is to find an audience for the output.











This blog post describes a number of ways that teachers can provide authentic audiences for the students’ work.  Some super ideas for ELLs and L1Es alike.

image by Alan Cleaver 

Writing Like a Historian – EAL strategies make it into the mainstream

The guardian has published a short piece about the frustration felt by a Year 9 history teacher when confronted with otherwise academically proficient students’ lack of finesse in their written work:

My year 9 class are typical of many classes I’ve taught over the nine years of my teaching career; enthusiastic, bright, of limitless academic potential. But when it came to marking their written work I would be left tearing my hair out at their inability to express their understanding clearly.

It will come as no surprise to those familiar with the principles of teaching of ELLs (especially colleagues who have done the TESMC or ESLEL courses) that students must be given opportunities to bridge the gap between talk-like language and written-like language on the register continuum.  It is great to see the value of these learning principles being acknowledged for E1L learners too, and reflects the field’s long held and demonstrable* assertion that good EAL teaching raises attainment for all learners.

The author describes the seeming dissonance in teaching English in a History lesson, and counters well:

“Why are we doing English in history, sir?” came the question as I asked my year 9 history class what kind of word disarmament was. Having anticipated this kind of reaction I had an answer prepared: “Do we only use language in English lessons?”

He also remarks on the oft voiced concern that teaching language comes at the cost of curriculum content.  One might argue that without the  language skills to effectively communicate content knowledge, then the possession of that knowledge is of questionable value.  But the author goes further and demonstrates that in fact the language is used in the service of learning the curriculum content, and as such each is strengthened by the other.

Read the full article on the Guardian website here.

* see for example Eschevaria, J 2012

Self Assessment of Discursive Writing

Student self assessment using rubrics and checklists is a powerful tool for all students.  It is especially helpful to English Language Learners (ELLs).

ELLs do not necessarily come to the classroom with the same knowledge of texts types that their English proficient peers do.   English proficient students are more likely to understand through experience that certain registers, vocabulary and styles are used in different genres.  Put (over)simply, they know that a story begins with “Once upon a time…’, that a letter to the local council is not signed off ‘Love from…’  and that a recipe needs imperative verbs.  ELLs need to be specifically taught these ‘rules’ for a particular genre or type of writing in order to succeed in re-creating and innovating on them.*

Using student checklists and rubrics is a great way of explicitly showing ELLs what is needed in order to succeed at the task, and to guide their process of proof reading and editing.

One of our EAL Specialists, Naen, put together the rubric below to help the Year 7 classes who have been studying discursive writing this term.  It has helped to make all the students aware of where they are succeeding and how they can improve their work.  The ELLs have found it particulary helpful.

Click for PDF version

Have a look and let us know in the comments section how it went down with your class.

*You can read more about the challenges and solutions to writing across the curriculum in Scaffolding Language; Scaffolding Learning by Pauline Gibbons.  We have a copy on order for the EAL library at Shrewsbury International School, which teachers here are welcome to borrow once it has arrived.

Snowball Fight: vocab strategy

Snowball fight is a great interactive way of introducing new vocabulary, activating prior knowledge, building schema, or checking understanding of concepts.

PDF version here.

Its kinaesthetic nature goes down extremely well with younger children, but I think that older students can enjoy it just as much, given some encourgagement to join in.

You can put anything on the snowballs: pictures to match with words, definitions to match with vocab, pairs of synonyms, pairs of antonyms…the choices are as varied as your imagination.

Key for emerging ELLs is to allow them to decide on and explain their pairings.  As long as they are thinking and justifying, it doesn’t matter if the answer is not ‘right’ at this stage.

Let us know how you get on with this strategy in the comments section.

Grammar Activities

We often get asked for help with improving grammar and syntax in ELLs.

Of course, refining the precision of language is done through lots of exposure to, and use of, authentic language – not decontextualised grammar drills.  That said, giving your students ‘Bell Work’ (a small task they do as they enter the classroom and settle for the lesson, which needs little or no introduction) that requires them to think about grammar and syntax and discuss with their talk partners about solutions to a grammar-based challenge is no bad thing.


The attached pdf contains a host of daily activities that you can use in your class. Basically, each day the students have to manipulate a sentence in a different way; for example add an adjective, up-level the verb and so on.  The pdf gives you the task for each day and sentences for your students to work with.  There are 30 weeks worth of activities!

I would recommend making this richer for ELLs by asking them to discuss their responses with their talk partners and critically evaluate those responses.  You can very easily adapt it to suit your age phase or subject.

Let us know how you get on in the comments box below.