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Bilingual learners: bilingualism, learning and inclusion

Maggie Gravelle (2005)

Current debates about the importance of multiculturalism derive, in part, from the fact
that an increasing number of our classrooms are both multicultural and multilingual.
Indeed Cline et al (2002:2) suggested that, ‘The great majority of teachers across the
country may now expect to work with minority ethnic pupils at some point in their
career, and mainly white schools in almost all areas may expect to admit minority
ethnic pupils more frequently than in the past’. The policy of inclusion as set out in
the National Curriculum reinforces the value of diversity and the responsibility on all
teachers to make high achievement a reality for all our pupils.

And yet an alarmingly high number of students leaving teacher training express lack
of confidence in teaching and meeting the needs of bilingual learners. Some of these
NQTs will be fortunate to work in schools where there is a tradition and an
understanding of multilingualism, but many more of them are likely to hear comments
such as:

‘They have no language’

‘Won’t they become confused?’
‘How will they understand what I’m trying to teach?’
‘What do they know?’
‘How will I understand them?’

Each of these statements carries embedded perceptions and theories which it is

worthwhile to explore, since doing so may endow trainee teachers with a deeper
understanding of some of the principles and practices behind the teaching of bilingual

Bilingual learners and bilingualism

We have become used to using acronyms and shorthand terms for groups of pupils in
an effort to make sense of the diversity in all schools and classrooms. Children are
grouped according to ability in many situations, partly in order to facilitate
differentiation. Sometimes the ascribed ability in one area of the curriculum serves as
a device for labelling them in all, or most, other areas. So ‘red’ table, who are the
highest ability in literacy, may invariably sit together in other subjects too, thereby
limiting social and educational interaction and possibly inhibiting their ‘potential’.
Those who are SEN may be separately identified and more finely divided in terms of
their level of need. Pupils whose first language may not be English and who are still
at the early stages of developing English, are termed EAL, as if this was their defining
characteristic, although those who are fluent in English often have their skills in
another language ignored.

But all these labels, useful though they may be on some occasions, disguise a
diversity within the groups which is often greater than that between groups. They
tend to de-personalise. They also carry the danger of creating artificial divisions and

expectations which can inhibit rather than enhance learning. They can lead to
simplistic and damaging notions of ‘us’ and ‘them’.

Far from having ‘no language’ all children, with very few exceptions, have varied and
often extensive experiences of using language in a range of social and educational
contexts. Many bilingual learners are already fluent and may also be literate in one or
more languages. Indeed, as Miller (1983), Kenner (2000), Gregory (1997),
Blackledge (1994) and others have shown, they often demonstrate, even from an early
age, an awareness of language use and diversity that takes monolingual speakers
longer to acquire.

Robertson (2004) describes the three different language contexts within which Ikram
confidently operates in a single day. Similarly Blackledge (1994) discusses the
awareness that Sylheti speakers have of telling their stories in English or Sylheti.
Fahima explains that, ‘In Sylheti there’s more sentences that we need for our story’
and Amin adds ‘because they’re Bengali stories.’ During a lesson in a Year 3 class
when children were re-writing the story of Cinderella in their own words and, if
possible, languages, Anna suddenly remarked that in Portuguese there were different
words for ‘two’ depending on whether the subject was male or female (Gravelle,
2000). These young children already display a remarkable awareness of different
language systems and have the metalanguage to discuss them.

Collier and Thomas (2002) have completed a ten year study in the United States
which investigated the achievements of a very large cohort of bilingual pupils. They
concluded that those who had bilingual education outperformed their monolingual
peers as well as bilingual pupils who had other forms of language support such as
withdrawal or traditional ESL classes. While their recommendations may not be
appropriate in a UK context their study nevertheless highlights the significance of first
language maintenance to children’s academic achievement.

Not only are there linguistic aspects to bilingualism that need to be considered, but the
pupils also have social and cognitive competencies that are connected with their use
of different languages in different contexts.

We are all more or less skilled at using a range of registers according to social
circumstances. We speak to our grandparents with different vocabulary and perhaps
grammar and accent, than to our colleagues and friends. We read a story book to our
own, or relatives’ children, in a different way and with different expectations to those
we hold of shared reading in the Literacy Hour. Heath (1983), Martin-Jones (2000)
and Street (1994) are among those who have shown how social contexts impact on
language and literacy.

Bilingual pupils have and are developing a particularly rich repertoire to draw on in
different situations. It may take them a little time to become familiar and comfortable
with the classroom context for language use. Playgrounds present different, and
perhaps no less formidable, social circumstances in which the rules of social
interaction as well as appropriate language need to be learnt. At first many children
may remain silent and learn through watching and imitation. Later they will find the
security of pairs or a small group can give opportunities for rehearsal before
attempting to contribute in the whole class context.

Not only do bilingual learners, like all pupils, bring their varied social and linguistic
experiences to their learning, they also have rich and varied cognitive abilities. Abdul
and his brother were the most fluent English speakers in the family and took it in turns
to take their ailing father to his hospital appointments and to accompany their mother
to the Housing Office. They knew more about the workings of the Housing, Social
Security and Health Services, than most of their Year 7 and 8 peers. Shakila, newly
arrived from Bangladesh, may have had limited access to computers, but had vast
experience of sand and water play. Many children, whether born in the UK or not,
visit and communicate regularly with family overseas. They know about agriculture,
sources of food and forms of transport that many indigenous children have never

In addition some of the bilingual learners who are new to our schools come from a
different educational system and may be very knowledgeable about certain areas of
the curriculum. Virani-Roper (2000) describes how Yoko, although unfamiliar with
some of the European conventions of laying out arithmetic problems, was very skilled
at solving them once the symbols had been explained.

Trainee teachers already have many tasks and activities to complete while on school
experience, but it is worth taking time to observe children in different social and
learning contexts and to note their behaviour and their language use. Even in cases
where there are no bilingual learners, students will usually learn a great deal about
linguistic diversity.
Hawkins (2004) suggests a number of areas of language and literacy development
which contribute to the complexity of linguistic skills and give insight into language,
culture and identity. Below are some suggestions for systematic observation.

With the guidance of the class teacher select one child to observe over the course of a
day, preferably a child who is bilingual and/or relatively new to the class or school,
but observations of any child will prove interesting. As far as possible make notes of
actual language used. (If it is not possible to do this for a whole day then pre-select
key times during the day e.g on arrival, going to assembly, in a literacy lesson, during
play/lunch-time, in group work.)
What evidence is there of him/her:
 learning class language routines? e.g putting their hand up, remaining quiet,
joining in group discussion, answering questions.
 developing understanding through working with others? e.g copying behaviours
and expressions, holding discussions, asking and answering direct questions
related to understanding, collaborating on a task
 using language in a variety of ways in different contexts? e.g in the playground,
talking one-to-one with an adult, with a group of peers in the classroom, in a
whole class situation, with family.
 taking on different roles? e.g taking guidance from a particular pupil, leading a
group activity, drawing attention to themselves, following behaviour of the class
or group, volunteering.
 engaging in a range of literacy practices? e.g reading quietly alone, talking about
a text with other pupil(s), following a text read aloud, using a book/poster/
display/computer text for reference, writing notes for personal use, distinguishing

An alternative approach is to use the pupil portraits in NALDIC Quarterly as the basis
for discussion.
Monolinguals, or those who have struggled to learn a foreign language at school,
often express concern that children who are exposed to two or more languages will
become confused. Those who have experience of multingualism are aware that this is
uncommon. While there is some evidence of what has been called interference, (see
Edwards, 1994) or interlingual errors (Dulay, Burt and Krashen, 1982) these are
rarely significant or permanent. Indeed it has been suggested that such assumptions
are based on a misconceived view of the brain and of language learning. Cummins
(1984) developed a model that suggested both a surface and a deeper level of
language proficiency. He suggested the dual iceberg metaphor which illustrates the
interdependence of language proficiency whereby ‘experience in either language can
promote development of the proficiency underlying both languages….’ (Cummins

There are many aspects of language that are common. For example all languages
have ways of denoting time, of forming plurals, of indicating actions and actors. All
languages do this with different vocabularies and in many cases different grammars,
but all languages are rule governed and part of the acquisition process involves the
discovery and application of these rules. (see Pinker, 1994) Indeed many linguists go
further and suggest that there is much in common between the rules of different
languages. So far from being confused bilingual learners may well have a ‘headstart’
when it comes to language use and development. Indeed error analysis appears to
suggest that the majority of interlingual errors are developmental and a sign of

The National Curriculum sets out an entitlement for all pupils and as teachers our
main concern must be to ensure that concepts are understood, knowledge extended
and skills are developed. So the question of how bilingual learners understand what
we teach is central.

There are a number of now familiar strategies that teachers use to promote cognitive
development. We know from the work on multiple intelligences that people learn in a
variety of ways. There may be disputes about the identification of Gardner’s
intelligences (Gardner, H, 1993) and some of the applications appear to be ill-
informed, but the underlying principle of using diverse ways of explaining and
illustrating concepts is widely accepted and long practised. Krashen used the term ‘
comprehensible input’ and Lunzer and Gardner (1984) developed approaches which
became known as ‘DARTS’ (Directed Activities Related to Texts). They have been
further developed into ‘key visuals’, ‘writing frames’ and ‘knowledge structures’
(Mohan, Leung and Davison, 2001 for example). What they all have in common is an
understanding that pupils need a range of ways of making sense of concepts. These

 Illustrations, pictures, video

 Charts, diagrams
 Use of gesture, expression, intonation etc
 Role play, drama
 Use of familiar contexts, real objects
 Practical activities
 Story props, puppets
 Memorable and repetitive language including rhyme and rhythm
 Translation
 Key word/phrase lists

Les Esclaves
It is useful for students to gain first hand experience of the strategies that are available
to them when developing understanding of concepts. This example was developed
with a colleague several years ago. It is in a language, French, that many people have
some knowledge of and is therefore not too daunting for tutors. It does not replace
the many excellent examples of sessions conducted in a community language which
serve a different purpose.

It is advisable to use as much spoken French as possible when introducing the subject,
but colleagues who have very little confidence in French have demonstrated the
requirements and used single words as well as gestures etc to explain and encourage.
Students should work in groups to look at the map and complete the response sheet. I
give out one copy between two or three to encourage collaboration and discussion.
Groups progress at different rates and the activity usually lasts 15 or 20 minutes, with
some groups completing the written task. This is followed by a full and sometimes
lengthy discussion of what strategies were used. It can be helpful to organise these as;
social, linguistic and cognitive.


Vrai ou Faux?
A deux;
Regardez la carte et faites vos decisions  ou x

En 1790;
vrai faux
1. Les Européens ont trouvé beaucoup de leurs esclaves en Afrique
2. Les principaux marchands d'esclaves ont été les britanniques, les
français et les hollandais
3. Les francais ont capturé la plupart (la majorité) des esclaves
4. La plupart des esclaves sont venus de l'interieur de l'Afrique
5. Les Européens ont fait le commerce sur la côte.
6. Divers peuples africains ont été pris comme esclaves.
7. Les Européens ont capturé 71,000 esclaves en tout.
8. Les Européens ont forcé leurs esclaves de faire des longs voyages
pour aller a la côte.
9. Le peuple Asante est venu de la Volta jusqu'a la Côte d'Ivoire.
10. Ceci a representé un voyage de 100 kilometres

Avez-vous trouvé des erreurs?

Pouvez-vous les corriger?
Par exemple, le numero 2, c'est faux!
2. Les principaux marchands d'esclaves ont été les britanniques, les français et les portugais

A key feature of almost all the strategies, and certainly central to effective pedagogy
for bilingual learners, is the use of talk.

There are powerful social and cognitive as well as linguistic arguments for a focus on
talk for bilingual learners. Vygotsky recognised that from an early age all children
are involved in talk as speakers as well as listeners and it is through this active
engagement that their skills, as language users and as thinkers, are developed. We use
talk to clarify our thinking, even if for adults this often takes place internally. And we
also use talk to exchange and therefore to extend our ideas, knowledge and
understanding. Even the most ordinary conversations can provide us with new
information or challenge existing perceptions. Most of us also use talk to share
problems and possibly to arrive at solutions.

Pupils engage in all of these functions and in the classroom experience several which
are perhaps less familiar to adults, but are particularly beneficial to bilingual learners.
We sometimes notice children rehearsing explanations or descriptions through talk.
This can help to organise ideas and experiences and to re-evaluate them where
necessary. It also gives them an opportunity to practice the language, through trying
out the vocabulary, grammar and pronunciation in a secure context before presenting
more publicly.

Barnes (1992), Mercer (2000) and many others have explored and analysed the use of
talk for learning in the classroom. While they emphasise the importance of talk for
developing understanding they also identify remarkably little of this talk going on in
classrooms. In many cases conversations are directed and largely monopolised by
teachers who have a tendency to ask closed or semi-closed questions which engage
few of the children for a limited time. Even where group talk does take place it can
be dominated by disputation rather than collaboration and exploration. Alexander
(2003) suggests that dialogic talk, which involves more extended exchanges may
make greater contributions to learning. This can all provide valuable modelling for
bilingual learners, even those who do not yet have the confidence to participate

First hand experience, followed by reflection, of a collaborative activity is

valuable for students who can then plan ways of adapting it for their own
contexts and with bilingual learners in mind.

Groups can be provided with different resources on a topic and asked a

series of relevant questions which they have to agree as a group. Through
‘jig-sawing’ they then compare the answers and discuss discrepancies. A
plenary discussion raises issues of organisation, learning, use of talk and
effective planning.

Krashen stressed the importance of comprehensible input but although he dealt with
the cognitive and linguistic aspects of learning he placed less emphasis on the social
aspects. Language develops in a social context and pupils who simply listen, albeit
with understanding, may get limited opportunities to apply their learning to other

contexts. Swain (1995) argued that learners should be encouraged to produce, not
simply receive, language in order to promote their linguistic awareness and to develop
their understanding. This implies that as well as planning for comprehensible input
teachers need to enable pupils to practice their language skills in supportive contexts.
There are ways of supporting language use which benefit all pupils and offer bilingual
learners some security in which to make errors and extend attempts.

Small group and pair work often provide an appropriate social context and may offer
opportunities for using first language. Group work also gives bilingual learners a
chance to hear and rehearse the relevant language, as well as to try out their ideas.
For those who still lack confidence in English there need to be alternative ways of
representing understanding alongside the developing language. So, for example,
pupils can be asked to construct posters, maps, diagrams and charts to indicate their
ideas and to gradually add the spoken and written language to these. Tasks need to be
genuinely exploratory with a chance for pupils to build on their previous knowledge
and for this to be acknowledged as relevant. These strategies make communication
between the teachers, other pupils and the bilingual learner more effective.

The concept of inclusion is perhaps the most complex of all. We need to be clear
about what we want to include pupils into before we can begin to address issues of
how to achieve this. This discussion is set in the context of multiculturalism which is
itself being debated and some of the values questioned. The National Curriculum, as
the statutory basis for education, lays down a set of principles for inclusion within an
uncontested description of curriculum content.

Linguistically there is a growing understanding of the special place that schooled

language has in a child’s repertoire and that this may or may not be congruent with
their experiences and competencies outside the school gates. It is a language which
has to be learned and for some children, including bilingual learners, this may not be
easy. But teachers may need to spend time and be more explicit than they have been
in the past about the nature of the language they use and expect.

In an age of rapidly developing technologies there will be pupils who are able to
communicate fluently in ways that their teachers find strange and difficult. There is a
growing understanding of multimodality and a recognition that approaches to the
curriculum may need to adapt. (see Kress et al, 2005). The place of first language
may also need to be re-evaluated. Teachers are understandably wary of the use of
language to which they have no access, but the value of first language goes beyond
the linguistic and its use signals recognition of the cultural and cognitive
associations.(see Bourne, 2002)

There is space within the National Curriculum and the Strategies to select and
emphasise some areas of knowledge, skills and understanding at the expense of
others. Some of the disaffection that certain pupils feel relates to their perception that
the curriculum is largely irrelevant to their interests and needs. Black students and
commentators in particular express dissatisfaction with a curriculum that often fails to
recognise their history, literature and contribution, with the exception of the negative
experiences of slavery. Bilingual learners may be among the group of pupils for
whom the curriculum has limited resonance. Inclusion in a cognitive sense means

recognising the knowledge that children bring to the classroom and using this as a
foundation for development. This needs to be done sensitively, with agreement and
without making individuals serve as representatives for a group.

Schools have unique forms of organisation and hierarchical structures which may feel
very alien to some of the participants. Parents can feel inhibited from discussing, let
alone challenging, some of the practices and pupils find it even more difficult. Staff
tend to be predominantly white and, at least in primary schools, female. Children are
often expected to behave in ways which are particular to the school context; raising a
hand to get permission to speak, sitting in places determined by the teacher, standing
in lines, moving from activity to activity and sometimes place to place according to a
timetable. All these behaviours can be learned, but those of us who are accustomed to
them seldom regard them as strange or contestable.

One of the best ways of questioning and explaining a system with which one is
familiar is to experience a different one. Visits or exchanges with students from
another country, e.g through ETEN (European Teacher Education Network) are
excellent although not always possible. Many schools now have e-mail and web-
links with schools in other parts of the country or of the world. Students might be
able to access these or to set up similar links of their own. Even within fairly
small geographical areas there is likely to be some diversity and students could be
required to make visits to educational organisations which complement those they
are familiar with e.g nursery setting for secondary trainees, Special school, Steiner
school, small rural school, supplementary school, selective grammar school, single
sex faith school etc.

Arguments for specialist centres and induction programmes persist. For some
teachers this is a way of removing the ‘problem’ and making a ‘specialist’
responsible. For many it is an obvious way of giving bilingual pupils the best start
possible. But there have always been difficulties in the practice of removing children
from mainstream provision. One of the main arguments in the case of Language
Centres is that they simply didn’t work very well for a number of reasons.

Socially separate provision was very divisive and indeed eventually deemed to
contravene the 1976 Race Relations Act. (see Commission for Racial Equality, 1986)
It excluded pupil for all or part of the day from their peers and from the social life of
the school. Linguistically the practice was problematic since children had limited
models of fluent and natural English use and communication was often therefore
somewhat restricted. There were difficult decisions to be made about when pupils
were ready to return to the mainstream and their actual return often led to confusion
and lack of progress. This was in part due to the fact that they had inevitably missed
significant parts of the curriculum.

Inclusion implies having an understanding of the pupil and what s/he brings to
schooling so that the necessary adjustments can be made. We need to be sensitive to
those aspects of a child’s experience and background that are relevant and not to make
assumptions based on those that are irrelevant. For example, at a time when issues of
religion may seem important we must avoid simplistic judgements based on dress.
There are many interpretations of Islam and whether or not a Muslim girl or woman

wears the hijab tells us relatively little about her beliefs (see Richardson, 2004).
Many children from single parent families are cherished, guided and nurtured.
Difficult lives do not necessarily create difficult children.
Students should always be challenged to explain the relevance of personal and social
information about the pupils. Ethnicity, linguistic background, religion or country of
origin may be relevant, but if so this must be justified and the information given for all
pupils. Clearly, it must also be accurate.

The assessment of children’s linguistic abilities has always been contentious.

Cummins (1984) highlighted an issue, which although less obvious is also still
expressed today in a slightly different form. He, as Coard (1971) earlier, noticed that
many bilingual pupils (in Coard’s case the concern was for children of West Indian
heritage) after making good progress initially were then identified by schools as
failing to maintain their potential and were therefore deemed to be in need of
‘remedial’ or ‘special needs’ support. Cummins argued that the difficulty did not lie
with the child but was founded on a misunderstanding of the language acquisition
process. There was a failure to recognise that although what Cummins called Basic
Interpersonal Communicative Skills (BICS) were rapidly acquired the
Communicative Academic Language Proficiency (CALP) which was largely required
of school based learning, took much longer. So that children who appeared to be
operating well within the social and personal context of the classroom, who were
making friends, following classroom routines, learning to use spoken English with
some confidence were assumed also to be capable of the more linguistically
demanding areas of their learning. When they struggled with aspects of literary
language, found it hard to give reasons and justifications or misunderstood ways of
making deductions at a peer relevant level, they were labelled as under-achievers or
possibly SEN.

Cummins argued that BICS and CALP were two phases of bilingual development. To
return to the iceberg metaphor BICS relates to surface features such as basic
comprehension, reasonable pronunciation and control of essential vocabulary and
grammar whereas at a deeper level we use language to analyse and synthesise
information and to evaluate, interpret and make deductions.

Cummins went on to suggest that language proficiency could be conceptualised along
two continuums. One relates to the extent to which ideas are contextualised and the
other to the complexity of those ideas. Concepts which can be illustrated through real
and familiar examples or made meaningful through the use of charts, maps and
diagrams, for example, are highly contextualised as opposed to abstract ideas which
are hard to exemplify and may be remote from children’s experiences. Even complex
ideas can be understood if they are embedded in a familiar situation, whereas simple
concepts may be harder to grasp if they are written rather than discussed orally.

While this is clearly an over-simplification of the complexities of language in use, it

serves as a useful reminder of the considerable demands of school-based language.
The model can also be of help in planning appropriate learning opportunities for
bilingual pupils.

It can be seen that Quadrant A relates to BICS-type language whereas at the other
extreme Quadrant D requires skills in CALP. The implications of this are clear.
Firstly, it is important that for children in the early stages of developing school-type
language attention is given to the context within which the language is introduced and
required. Children must be given a variety of familiar situations and illustrations in
order to understand the language before being asked to apply it to less familiar
circumstances. Secondly, even when pupils move beyond BICS they still need
considerable support in order to develop CALP. Research suggests that this can take
up to 7 years – often well into secondary school. Indeed Cameron (2003) found
evidence of errors in the writing of bilingual pupils at Key Stage 4 which were
directly related to their bilingualism.

A third implication is to recognise that the leap from quadrant A directly to D is too
large and that teachers need to plan a route via C or B. In other words if pupils are
being asked to consider ideas which are increasingly complex then the context must
remain firmly embedded in their experience or supported with visuals and examples.
If, alternatively, they are being asked to move into more abstract areas then the
concepts need to remain within their understanding. Hall (1995) gives several
examples of planning using this model.

It may be helpful to consider the planning process in terms of the three aspects which
we have been considering, namely social, linguistic and cognitive. From a
consideration of what the learners bring to the task we can then move towards the
identification of appropriate support. (Gravelle 2000)

A Framework for Planning

What do learners What does the task What support needs to

bring to the task? demand of them? be planned?



We began by quoting some misconceptions that can still be heard in staff rooms today
and attempted to analyse what lay behind them and to discuss some of the theoretical
understanding that might dispel some of the myths.

There are a number of principles that arise from the debate;

 All pupils need experiences in which they are challenged and supported to
develop social, linguistic and cognitive skills
 This is more likely to occur in mainstream classrooms
 The role of talk in learning is of central significance
 Within this first language has an important place
 Planning needs to be based on a clear understanding of what pupils already know
and can do and of what the activities demand of them

Students are often worried about the prospect of teaching bilingual learners, chiefly
those who are at the early stages of English language development, and declare
themselves ill-prepared to do so. Equally some teacher educators feel they have
neither the knowledge nor the access to direct experiences that would serve their
students. This paper has attempted to bring together a number of strands within
education and to analyse them with regard to their social, linguistic and cognitive
implications. There is a suggestion within the discussion that bilingualism is part of a
language continuum and that although this is complex we all have relevant
experiences that can develop our understanding. We need to recognise that there are
no simple answers, packs or quick fixes. but that children will respond to our attempts
to make learning interesting, relevant and meaningful. Far from being fearful of the
challenges of diversity we need to relish the excitement and to use our existing
understanding of inclusion, learning and language development to ensure that we
incorporate bilingual learners into every aspect of teaching and learning.


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