Spelling: teaching and learning spelling

Colin Harrison and Greg Brooks | View as single page| Feedback/Impact

Readers with multilingual backgrounds

Broadly speaking, having a background in another language can have some disadvantages, but many advantages, especially if a child has begun to acquire literacy in another language.

This is a massively researched area, so we shall only make a few key points here:

- Most multilingual learners in the UK have been acquiring English as well as their home language from birth. These learners (often termed 'simultaneous' English learners) may have far fewer difficulties in reading and spelling than 'sequential' language learners, who have come into an English language environment at a later stage in their life.

- The British Council has a useful web site to support those who are teaching English to young learners- including a section with spelling resources.

- Nearly all alphabetic languages derived from a common ancestor, so if a child has begun to learn a different alphabetic language, this could be very helpful.

- One possible disadvantage of coming from a non-English background is that a child may not hear or be able to pronounce every phoneme in English; it is believed that infants acquire the ability to differentiate phonemes in the first year of life, and subsequently find it very difficult to learn ones that they have not heard in infancy.

- An example of this problem would be Japanese learners, who find it hard to hear the difference between 'r' and 'l' in English, but there are many other problems from different language groups, whose users might not hear any difference between 'fought' and 'thought'. Here's a little video that emphasises the importance of combining hearing, seeing and feeling in improving the recognition of speech sounds (click on 'Watch video clip').

- We now know that infant language development, from birth to age 18 months, is multimodal, and brings together speech, hearing, touch and vision in far more complex ways than we used to think.

- English language learners may have hidden literacy talents- if we are able to exploit them:

Case study

I was once in a Y1 classroom with six-year-olds, and the class teacher said to me, 'See if you can get that little girl over there to talk- she's come from Algeria and knows no English. She's only been in England a month, and I can't get her to say a word.' I know a little French, so I asked her to tell me her name, and she beamed, told me her name was Anya, and started to chat away in French. I asked her if she could read or write in French. 'No- not a word,' she said, 'but I can read and write in Arabic.' I said, 'Would you be able to write on the board in Arabic?' and she smiled and nodded.

A little later, I asked the teacher if Anya could show the class that she could speak in French for them, and write in Arabic. The teacher readily agreed. So Anya and I came to the front, and the rest of the class listened intently as a child that they thought was mute answered lots of questions in French while I translated her answers. They learned where she was from and all about her family. Then I asked her if she could write her name and something about her family on the board. The children's mouths dropped open as Anya wrote confidently in Arabic, starting on the right, and translating into French as she wrote. When she stopped writing the class broke into spontaneous applause, and I turned to see Anya's teacher blinking away tears.

About nine months later there was a wonderful coincidence- I was talking to a group of comprehensive school modern language student teachers who had just completed their training about the potential value of a multilingual background, and I told this story. A woman at the back of the class stood up, and called out, 'That was my daughter! I am so grateful to you! You can't imagine what a difference that made to Anya's life in that school. She went from being a silent shadow in the class to being seen as a kind of genius, and her confidence rocketed. Within another month she had loads of friends and was talking to them in English.'

When I first spoke to Anya, my intention had been simply to try to help her to talk a little in English. But what I learned was that giving a child permission to use her multilingual skills could lead to a wonderful learning experience for the whole class, and could make her whole world a happier place.

Colin Harrison