The case of the vanishing language: valuing bilingualism

Long summer holidays are great. But some teachers with children in the early stages of learning English express concern. They know that some pupils who speak EAL will go through the holidays without many opportunities to practice English. The consequences of this are that children can appear to return to school in September, seemingly less able to communicate in English than before, having ‘forgotten’ much of the language during the six-week break.

Is this really a problem though?
  • Most children will still hear and speak English in some form or another. They may watch TV programmes in English, visit shops with their parents, chat to English-speaking siblings or play with English-speaking friends. Many of their social activities might involve their home languages, which is a great thing. Very few children will be totally separated from social interactions in English.
  • All children learn during the summer holidays. They might be thinking and talking in a language that is not English, but cognitive and academic development is still happening in their brains as they experience life around them.
  • Continuing to develop home languages alongside learning English is very important. It enables pupils to become more balanced bilinguals who think and problem solve in different and advantageous ways from their monolingual peers.

So, how can schools harness and encourage learning (in largely non-English speaking homes) in ways that will help bilingual children to continue developing all their language and literacy skills?

Here are a few ideas you can try:

1) Quality picture books:

Send home well-illustrated and visual stories that children can share with their families, regardless of what languages they speak. Talking to a child in any language about the themes, settings and characters of a story will help the child’s development. If you can accompany the books with translated advice for parents on how to share books effectively, even better.

2) Bilingual stories:

Most schools have a box of bilingual stories hidden in the library; dig those out and send them home too, so that parents can share quality story books with all their children, if they don’t have any themselves. Help children to experience literacy in languages other than English.

3) Home-made bilingual dictionaries:

Encourage children to learn new words in their home languages and to find out the English translation. Discussions about words in any language can lead to a healthy understanding of how languages work. Pupils could make a small vocabulary notebook before the holidays start and take it home to write in and illustrate the words.

4) Holiday journals:

Provide pupils with a journal to fill in while they are away, especially if they are travelling abroad. When the work is complete, children can bring their memories into school and use the diary as a prompt to recount their experiences. It doesn’t matter if they do this in their home language or bilingually with a mixture of English; a visual prompt will lead to lots of opportunities to translate key vocabulary and share experiences with the class.Have a look at our Summer Journal for ideas. 

5) Digital diaries:

Ask children and their parents to take photos of visits or travel abroad so that they have a digital record of their experiences. These can then be shared and displayed when they return to school in September to show the breadth and depth of pupils’ learning during the summer break. Parents might even be available to help with labels and captions in home languages to help all children understand what an exciting and diverse world we live in.

6) Supporting parents:

If you are a nursery, reception or kindergarten teacher and are expecting children from different cultural backgrounds to join you at the start of the new academic year, take a look at this translated advice from Rochdale Council, UK. The advice is translated into many different community languages and will help parents to understand how they can prepare their children for school.  Thank you to Erica Field and colleagues in Rochadale for generously sharing this free resource.

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