Using first language to support pupils' learning and social well-being

The appropriate use of pupils’ first languages in the classroom can be beneficial to pupils’ attainment, even when they have been learning English for several years and have acquired fluency/proficiency in their use of “everyday” English.  Engagement with, and access to, the curriculum can be improved if a pupil’s first language is appropriately supported. Teachers need to be clear about when and why pupils are being asked to use their first languages to support their learning to ensure that the maximum benefit is derived from it.

Pupils should be encouraged to use their first language in lessons when:

  • the cognitive challenge is likely to be high: problem solving and critical thinking are difficult in a second language, even when the target language has been learnt for several years;
  • they are still developing proficiency in English: this can be particularly supportive when pupils try out ideas in their first language before writing in English;
  • oral rehearsal will help reflection: for example, before responding to a text.

It may not be appropriate for pupils to use their first language when:

  • pupils need to be encouraged to practise the target language to improve fluency;
  • oral rehearsal needs to be conducted in the target language so that pupils are prepared for writing tasks;
  • pupils are being encouraged to take risks in their spoken English in order to build confidence;
  • pupils need to practise expressing themselves quickly in English, for examination preparation.

It is a good idea to conduct a first language assessment.  This should aim to establish the degree to which the pupil has developed L1 skills in listening, speaking, reading and writing.  If a pupil does not have first language literacy skills, for example, then it would be inappropriate to ask them to annotate or draft in first language, hence the L1 assessment is invaluable in informing how to make best use of it at school. 

A go-to tool people often think of first is the dual language translation dictionary, a relatively cheap and easy to procure resource.  Teachers should remember that the use of paper-based translation dictionaries is a skill in itself, and that it takes time and focus to use this resource.  For these reasons, it may be necessary to factor in time to train the pupil how to use their translation dictionary and to provide the words to be looked up before the lesson.  Done this way, the pupil can then focus on the input in class rather than be distracted by trying to look words up whilst the teacher is delivering the lesson.

A range of ICTs can be used to support first language listening and speaking and this can enable even young EAL learners who cannot read or write independently in L1 to use their first languages in school.  Dual language stories with an audio facility can be used in the classroom to enable such a pupil to share access to a particular text.  It can also provide an opportunity for the child’s peers to develop their understanding of the challenges faced daily by their friend, thereby enhancing empathy.  A good range of dual language stories and other audio-enabled materials is available from MantraLingua

The use of translation tools and apps can also be helpful.  SayHI, Google Translate and iTranslate (and other, similar tools) can be used to translate words and phrases on the go, and many of this type of app have an audio function so even where the pupil cannot read the word in first language for themselves, they can hear it being spoken.  This can be a good way of developing their vocabulary as well as increasing their understanding of curriculum content, thus boosting their confidence, their participation and their independence as learners. 

Parents are another useful source of first language support.  The best and most impactful way of eliciting their help and maximising on the benefits conferred by L1 use is to send home key words and phrases or a copy of a text that is going to be used in class in advance so that they can talk to their child in L1 at home, and perhaps translate those words and phrases into the first language (written translations for a child with L1 literacy; audio recordings for one without) or annotate the copy of a text in L1.  In these ways, the child’s L1 becomes a tool for learning and they gain opportunities to continue to develop their academic register in L1 as well.

To aid a newly arrived child for whom English is an additional language to feel welcomed from the start, peer buddying schemes can be a useful approach, especially those which actively promote pupils’ use of their other languages in school.  The Young Interpreter Scheme is one such, and more information about it can be found online here.  A trained buddy who shares a language with the newly-arrived pupil can help with orientation, showing the new pupil round school, explaining need-to-know rules and making sure they are not on their own at break and lunch time.

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