The multilingual child in the classroom: how much language *does* he have, anyway?

Palingui – making early language learning visible!

Last March, I joined a few dozen colleagues from all over Europe for an online workshop, organized by the ECML. The topic was a project dubbed ‘Palingui‘. A strange name, in my view, but the title is clear: ‘the language learning pathways of children – making learning visible’. Usually, ECML workshops take place in Graz, Austria, but after years of covid the organization has become quite adept at organizing workshops online. We worked mostly in Zoom and breakout rooms, but we also had the chance to meet up more informally via wonder.me, an online environment I really enjoyed using!

Before the workshop, we teachers were asked to reflect on the topic of assessment of language learning. We shared ideas ahead of time on a Padlet, based on three main questions:

  1. What is ‘assessment’?
  2. How do you observe language development?
  3. How do you document language development?

We had lively conversations about each of these questions, and we noted our findings in a shared google document. It was really interesting to note how, in different countries, there is a different idea of what language development entails: some educators look at it analytically, with checklists of grammatical structures and lists of words to be learnt. Others approach it more holistically, with lines of language development and skills to be practised. That topic alone would have kept us all happily occupied for the entire workshop.

But we pressed on, exploring the idea of multilingualism: what is multilingualism in the classroom, and is that a good thing? Here, too, a variety of definitions presented themselves. Multilingualism could be bilingual education, but it could also be language-friendly classrooms where translanguaging is applied and encouraged.

We had a few guest speakers, one of whom I’ve written about before in this blog: Diérdre Kirwan. A new topic was also introduced: the language-friendly school, where each child can use his or her own languages during school hours. Experience and research have shown that this approach benefits both the home and school languages.

Towards the end of the workshop, we collaborated on a jamboard to share what we thought was most needed to give multilingualism in education a boost. Of course, everyone had a number of obstacles specific to his or her own country. There were also a number of factors we had in common, for instance the idea that allowing children to use their own langauges might be detrimental to their school language. We also noted that many teachers don’t understand how translanguaging works, or how to use it in their class. We saw that there is a need to be able to describe the child’s language development in all of his or her languages. Besides that, some shared that language development effects all subject-area development, so there is a need to look at the child’s language across the board, throughout all subject areas.

At the end of the day, we didn’t really come out with one answer for each of the questions, but we did come out with a number of new ideas that we could share with people at home.

The tools to measure the child’s (home) language development are, luckily, being developed. The ECML is currently creating another form of assesment, called “Resources for assessing the home langauge competences of migrant pupils“. Hopefully that will be ready for use soon. Another one – WIDA lines of development – is already available for use. The Council of Europe is also working on creating child-friendly language descriptors for the Common European Framework of Reference (CEFR).

To be sure, the idea of using multilingualism in education as a positive force is growing, slowly but surely. I’ll be keeping my eyes open for more information to share in the time to come.

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