Wednesday, 21 October 2020

Supporting communication, language and literacy with children with English as an additional language in the early years #1

Pol17I took this lovely photo at a meeting of a Polish under 5s group in Enfield. It was a snowy day, hence the snowman book. As well as books, there were songs, rhymes, discussion and activities in a seamless meld of Polish and English. The children – far more than just the four here – were enthralled. So were the adults.

I was delighted to give a webinar for Liverpool early years practitioners last week on current thinking and advice relating to children with English as an additional language (EAL), and inclusive strategies and resources for developing communication and reading. In this first of a series of blogs I’m concentrating on the benefits of bilingualism, the importance of supporting children’s home languages, what children have to learn to become proficient in a new language, and official guidance on supporting children with EAL in the early years.

For many years now it has been recognised that bilingualism is an asset and should be valued as a positive skill. Bilingualism not only aids the learning of English and other languages. More broadly it develops concentration, cognition and memory as well as empathy, self-confidence, self-esteem and wellbeing.

We know it is vital to support children’s home languages at home and in settings. The EYFS Statutory Framework and the EYFS Reforms Early Adopter Framework contain identical guidance: ‘Providers must take reasonable steps to provide opportunities for children to develop and use their home language in play and learning, supporting their language development at home.’

‘Children will learn English from a strong foundation in their home language’ in the words of the new Development Matters. Both the original Development Matters and the new version are adamant about the importance of encouraging families to use their home language.

‘Talk to parents about what language they speak at home, try and learn a few key words and celebrate multilingualism in your setting’ says the  new document. It is worth unpicking and adding to this sentence. It’s crucial to spend time with parents and carers finding out about children’s abilities and experiences in their home languages. Crucial too to ensure children can hear and use their home languages in settings. Bilingual staff should be valued and involved. Children with the same home language should be enabled to play and talk together.

It’s invaluable to learn a few key words in children’s home languages: hello, goodbye, toilet for instance. Everyone should respect children’s home languages. How important it is to pronounce children’s names correctly.

None of these are new ideas and recommendations. They are all emphasised in the original Development Matters too.

In terms of celebrating multilingualism, the environment should visibly reflect and value cultural and linguistic diversity. This is often taken to mean settings should have lots of notices in a range of languages and scripts, but inclusive play equipment, displays and books send out stronger messages to young children.

As the following list makes clear, there are many things children with EAL may have to contend with in order to learn a new language. (This comes from a valuable overview and checklist by my Early Education colleague Julie Cigman.)

  • a new set of sounds and sound groupings
  • new intonation patterns
  • a new script or alphabet
  • a new set of sound-symbol relationships
  • new vocabulary
  • new grammar
  • new non-verbal signals
  • new rules about social conventions and language
  • an ability to relate to people and express feelings and emotions in a new language

It’s important to make no assumptions. All children learn differently and the rate of language acquisition is very variable. Understanding is likely to be well in advance of spoken language for most children learning English as an additional language. Many go through a silent phase, and for some this may last months. It’s crucial not to pressurise children to talk before they are ready to.

I will blog soon about more ways to support spoken English, vital for all aspects of communication and literacy, as well as self-confidence and wellbeing.