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.

Dave’s Fallacies

Jeremy Corbyn used all six of his questions at PMQs on Wednesday 20th April to take David Cameron to task over the planned forced academisation of schools. It was a good debate and Corbyn was dogged in his persual of answers to the question of why the government is taking this approach against the wishes of much of the profession and many of Cameron’s own MPs.

It’s worth watching the whole exchange, and you can do so here.

In the course of it, it struck me that Cameron could do with some advice on basic logical fallacies and statistics. So in that spirit I have isolate two mistakes Dave made that he and we should be aware of.

First is base-rate fallacy.

Dave's Base-Rate FallacyConverter Academies initially were those that were already ‘outstanding’. These were pre approved for conversion, a dispensation that was quickly afforded to ‘good’ schools as well. A House of Commons briefing paper on academies puts it like this:

“[Pre-approval] has been extended to all schools that are deemed as ‘performing well’” p3

If Cameron is suggesting that it was the act of conversion (and what followed) that led these schools to become “either good or outstanding” then he is fooling himself, or trying to fool us.

That same HoC briefing paper goes on to note that:

“Analysis of 2013 exam results appears to show more progress amongst converter academies than all non-academy schools, especially among the very first converters, that became academies in 2009/10. These schools were all rated ‘outstanding’ by Ofsted at the time, so greater progress made in 2013 might be better explained by pre-existing differences rather than the impact of academy status.” p7-8

Moreover, if only schools that were good or outstanding were allowed to convert, what are we to make of the 12% of converter academies that are not now considered good or outstanding?

Which brings us to the second of Dave’s misunderstandings: regression to the mean

Dave's ignorance of Regression to the Mean

Any variable that is extreme on first measurement will tend toward the average (Mean) on its second measurement. Daniel Kahneman describes this statistical phenomenon very well in is book Thinking Fast and Slow. He does so especially clearly in his report of a flight instructor who noticed that every time he bollocked a trainee fighter pilot for an extremely bad manoeuvre, the trainee subsequently improved. By contrast, every time he praised one for an extremely good manoeuvre the trainee subsequently got worse. This instructor concluded that praise was useless and bollocking was an important pedagogical tool. In fact what he was witnessing was regression to the Mean (and nothing to do with the effects of his approach to critical feedback). Extremely good manoeuvres are extremely rare, as are extremely bad ones. The only place to go from an extreme position is back towards average. These pilots were very unlikely to maintain their either awesome or appalling behaviour in the air and would naturally tend back towards more average behaviour the next time they went out in their planes. This made some look worse and others look better.

This phenomenon is just as true for schools. Ignore for the moment the woefully inadequate judge of a school effectiveness that we call Ofsted, and think about the likelihood that a school will be in ‘special measures’. According to the 2013/14 report from the Chief Inspector of Schools, only 3% of schools across all state maintained sectors were judged to be inadequate. This is an extreme value. Any school that is judged as inadequate has only one direction to move in. Inevitably it will move in that direction, regardless of whether it is in the hands of an academy or not.

Perhaps if Dave looked at the other figures for inadequate schools in that document he might be more inclined to learn about statistical analysis of data. As I have said, the national average for schools judged inadequate over all sectors is 3%. The proportion of inadequate academies (taking converter and sponsor-led together) is 10% of primary school academies, 17% of secondary school academies, 5% of pupil referral unit academies, and a whopping 42% of special school academies.

Should Corbyn point out Cameron’s misunderstandings of basic logic and stats next time this discussion comes up? I think he should.

Multilingual Learners in Context – EAL, community and international school settings

UPDATE 31 May 2016

Last chance to book your place. The programme is now complete and can be viewed here. The titles and abstracts of the presentations can be viewed here. Click here to go to the registration page.


Colleagues and I at Oxford Brookes University are convening a symposium in June to explore issues related to multilingual learners in three contexts: Mainstream UK Schools, International Schools and Community/Supplementary Schools. The symposium is open to all, and we are especially keen to  encourage participation from both academics and practitioners (teachers, EAL coordinators and other educators). Info about the symposium, including how to book, follows.

This symposium brings together academics and practitioners from three importantly different but intrinsically related learning contexts for multilingual learners: mainstream schools, international schools, and community/supplementary schools.

This opportunity to examine the commonalities and peculiarities of these contexts, exchange knowledge, and consider ways forward in meeting the needs of multilingual learners has the potential to radically shape the way we think about and deliver effective provision for our language learners.

Date: Saturday 11 June 2016      Time: 9:30am – 5:00pm

Location: Oxford Brookes University, Gipsy Lane, Oxford, OX3 0BP

Confirmed guest speakers:

Cathie Wallace, UCL, Institute of Education

Oksana Afitska, University of Sheffield

Peeter Mehisto, UCL, Institute of Education

Raymonde Sneddon, University of East London

Therese Hopfenbeck, University of Oxford

Victoria Murphy, University of Oxford

Jane Spiro, Oxford Brookes University


To register online, click here

Early bird registration available until 15th May

For further information please contact Ana Souza,


Click here to download the flyer (pdf)

Assessing the trustworthiness of What Works research

All trials are not created equal.

I made this tutorial video to help my students understand that assessments of the effects of teaching interventions sit on a scale of trustworthiness, and that it is important to take into account an experiment’s position on that scale when interpreting its results. This video briefly explains the principles behind research trustworthiness and walks through the process of assessing it.

Using a paper that describes three studies of SIOP (a sheltered instruction model of teaching children whose first language is not English) as a test case, I use Stephen Gorard’s “‘sieve’ to assist in the estimation of trustworthiness” to assess the first of the three studies.

Feel free to use the video if you would like to. Just let me know how you get on with it, in the comments section.

The papers used in the video are:

Gorard, S. (2014). A proposal for judging the trustworthiness of research findings. Radical Statistics, 110, 47–59.

Short, D., Echevarria, J., & Richards-Tutor, C. (2011). Research on academic literacy development in sheltered instruction classrooms. Language Teaching Research, 15(3), 1–19.

A Three Hundred Year Old Disagreement

It was my birthday yesterday and I was given a really fantastic present.

Hoole - Title Page.jpg

This is the title page of a book originally published in 1684, though my version is an impression from 1700. It is a text book for learners of Latin containing Latin colloquies (passages of everyday speech). Not untypical for publications of the time, the title of the book is 58 words long (see above).

Hoole - Excerpt.jpg

What is really cool about those 58 words are the 19 pictured above.

Now compare them to these words taken from the founding statutes of Adams’ Free Grammar School in Shropshire in 1656.

Fifteenth rule (combined scans).jpg

Fifteenthly No scholars that have attained to such a progress in learning as to be able to speak Latin, shall neither within School or without, when they are among the Scholars of the same or a higher form, speak English. And that the Master shall appoint which are the forms, that shall observe this order of speaking Latin, and shall take care that it be observed and due correction given to those that do neglect it.

Now, these 17th century expressions of the place a language learner’s mother tongue has in his or her education might seem familiar to teachers of language learners in the 21st century.

Here is England’s DfE on mother tongue use from 2006:

Screen Shot 2015-11-24 at 14.52.37.png

And here is the first principle of inlingua language schools’ method from 2015:

Screen Shot 2015-11-24 at 14.55.29.png

So, who’s right? Do we have any empirical evidence to settle this disagreement, a disagreement at least 331 years old? Are there any empirical studies that compare the effects of allowing children to use their mother tongue with the effects of forbidding it? We know that bilingual schools, on average, produce better linguistic and academic results for language learners than do all-English schools. But does this mean that allowing mother tongue use in language classes or in mainstream classes has the same effect?

I think it’s time this ancient argument was settled. And that’s what I’m hoping to achieve with my research.