Referential communication and executive function skills in bilingual children


Referential communication and executive function skills in bilingual children” is a research project that was funded by the Leverhulme Trust between September 2012 and May 2015.  The team comprised Cecile De Cat (principal investigator), Ludovica Serratrice (co-investigator), Sanne Berends and Furzana Shah (research assistants).

The aims of the project were

  1. to extend previous findings on the relationship between key executive function skills (cognitive flexibility, inhibitory control and working memory) and language experience to bilingual children who have unbalanced exposure to two languages;
  2. to gather new information on the role played by language proficiency, bilingual experience and SES on the above subset of executive function skills and on referential abilities;
  3. to develop our understanding of the linguistic and non-linguistic contextual variables affecting children’s referential choices (visual context, awareness of differences in perspective between speaker and listener, and linguistic factors affecting a referent’s prominence).

We targeted a highly heterogeneous group of children, in terms of socio-economic status and bilingual experience.  There was a total of 28 home languages in our sample: Punjabi (21%), Urdu (17%), Arabic (9%), Spanish (6%), French (8%), Bengali, Cantonese, Catalan, Dutch, Farsi, Greek, Hindi, Italian, Kurdish, Mandarin, Marathi, Mirpuri, Nepalese, Pashto, Polish, Portuguese, Shona, Somalian, Swedish, Tamil, Telugu, Thai, Tigrinya (each of the latter representing less than 5% of the data).

There was a total of 174 children in the final sample (including 87 monolinguals).  The children were between 5 and 7 years of age at the time of testing.  The amount of bilingual experience varied substantially across children, ranging from very little experience in the home language (in the “almost monolingual” children) to clear dominance of the home language (in children for whom English was the weaker language).


  1. A bilingual advantage in cognitive (executive function) skills was only found in the inhibition task.  The main child-related predictors of performance were age, socio-economic status, self-monitoring, and amount of home language experience. Using a novel method of analysis, we identified a critical threshold of home language experience for the bilingual advantage (correcting for age, socio-economic status and self-monitoring). Most of the children above that threshold came from households in which both parents spoke the home language with their children all the time. See De Cat, C., Gusnanto, A., & Serratrice, L. (2017). Identifying a threshold for the executive function advantage in bilingual children. Studies in Second Language Acquisition, 1-33. or for open access: Paper available here.  This paper received the Albert Valdman award for outstanding publication in Studies in Second Language Acquisition for the year 2018.
  2. The language proficiency of bilingual children varies considerably (developmentally and across individuals). We measured different aspects of EAL children’s proficiency in English (focusing on interpreting and repeating complex sentences, and on aspects of vocabulary knowledge). Our analyses show that children’s performance in English proficiency tests is influenced by the amount of experience of English they have had over their lifetime. Using a new method of analysis, we found that children between the ages of 5 and 7 who had been exposed to English for 60% of the time over their lifetime had “caught up” with their monolingual peers. Passivity in the home language does not have a “protective” effect on school language proficiency. Children’s environment (as reflected by the socio-economic profile of their family) also has an impact. See for the full paper, or the summary of our findings on OASIS. 
  3. Children’s ability to communicate information effectively is influenced by the same factors in bilingual and monolingual children. In 5- to 7-year olds, the ability to take the perspective of the listener into account depends on whether the relevant information is presented visually or verbally. At that age, children are generally not able to adapt to the fact that their interlocutor is not able to see what they can see, but those with better inhibition skills are able to take into account the information previously shared verbally with their interlocutor.  English proficiency was also a strong predictor of performance in our tasks, which put some bilingual children at a disadvantage. But bilingual children were as informative as monolinguals when proficiency was controlled for. See Serratrice, L. and De Cat, C. (2019). Individual Differences in the Production of Referential Expressions: The Effect of Language Proficiency, Language exposure and Executive Function in Bilingual and Monolingual Children. Bilingualism: Language and Cognition. 

LITE Fellowship (2018-19) to enhance support for EAL pupils

With one in five pupils across primary schools in England having English as an additional language (EAL) and a similar ratio in secondary education, language skills of teachers have never been more important. LITE Fellows Helen Sadig and Professor Cecile De Cat introduce their project on the subject here and explore how language pedagogy training can help boost learning across the curriculum for all pupils.

A civic need

There were over 1.5 million pupils with EAL in state schools recorded in the school census last year. This doesn’t include those in academies. EALs make up a rising and unevenly distributed population, which is especially dense in West Yorkshire. In many Leeds schools, the proportion is between 50% and 90%.

In addition, the main schools grant was frozen in 2010 and the Department for Education (DfE) had its capital funding budget cut by about a third between 2010-15. This has left many schools lacking the resources to provide additional support for EAL pupils.

The Students into Schools (SiS) programme here at Leeds University is a well-established, successful scheme which attracts approximately 400 students each year, placing them in local schools to provide subject-specific support, raise pupil aspirations and respond to this growing civic need.

An opportunity

Although there is an introductory EAL training session for students, it is voluntary, and the vast majority of students do not attend. Many are unaware of its importance and the prevalence of EAL pupils in local schools, as acknowledged by a student on the scheme last year:

In the school I worked in 89% of the students were EAL students. Because of where I’m from at home I’d never met anyone who’s first language wasn’t English. And a previous school I went to all of the children were born and raised in England.

This LITE project has given us an incredible opportunity to address the needs of both our students on SiS and local schools. Our main aims are to develop language pedagogy training for students and CPD workshops for teachers. This training is being informed by feedback from both students and teachers collected through participant interviews and online questionnaires.

Diversity and inclusion

One of the most rewarding aspects of the project so far has been the opportunity to visit local schools and experience first-hand the sheer diversity among EAL pupils in terms of their linguistic and socio-cultural background, level of English and previous schooling, if any.

Just as every child is unique, EAL pupils represent a hugely heterogeneous group of learners. And the support they receive should be equally targeted and informed. Perhaps one of the most interesting findings is that those traditionally ‘disadvantaged’ groups of monolingual English speakers, such as white working-class boys, benefit equally from the same directed language support as EAL pupils.

Schools have similarly diverse challenges and needs, from those which have an almost exclusively EAL population, to those with perhaps only one or two EAL pupils in each class. And everything in between. We have been inspired by the way in which schools genuinely celebrate diversity and are truly inclusive.

Language for learning

We have been designing and trialling workshop materials to increase students’ understanding of how language works and raise their awareness of both the language needs of EAL pupils and importance of language for learning.

The importance of language for learning cannot be overstated. Language underpins all school-based learning. Specifically, language allows pupils to participate in class, access the curriculum, negotiate academic literacies and succeed in examinations.

As bilingual and multilingual learners, EALs also have a rich linguistic capital which should be valued and exploited in the classroom. To that end, we have been promoting strategies to develop metalinguistic awareness and learner independence. These strategies support the learning of all pupils.

A civic curriculum

Feedback from teachers on effective pedagogical approaches includes strategies to facilitate communicative pair and group work activities; allow learners thinking, planning and rehearsal time; make use of visual and contextual support, pre-teach, extend and recycle vocabulary; and crucially, integrate – rather than separate – EAL and non-EAL pupils within schools.

In addition to the regional impact achieved through this engagement with the community, our project seeks to enhance the curriculum for SiS modules, develop students’ communication and employability skills and raise their awareness of their role as global citizens.

This project has the generous support and guidance of an Advisory Board, which contributes to invited EAL sessions, and includes the following partners:
• Prof Victoria Murphy (University of Oxford)
• Dr Dea Nilsen (Research Fellow for the Better Start Bradford Innovation Hub in Bradford)
• Dr Jean Conteh (EAL specialist)
• Dr James Simpson (University of Leeds)
• Dianne Excell (Regional Groups Co-ordinator for the National Association for Language Development in the Curriculum)
• Therese O’Sullivan (EAL consultant at Leeds City Council and Learning Improvement consultant)
• Beth Mitchell (EAL Area Team Leader, Leeds City Academy)
• Anne McCaffrey (SLT specialising in EAL children)
• Anastasia Karanika (Senior Officer for Students into Schools)
• Owen Radford-Lloyd (Officer for Students into Schools)
• Dr Claudine Bowyer-Crane (University of York)
• Dr Naomi Flynn (University of Reading)
• Dr Holly Joseph (University of Reading)
• Louise Wood (EAL researcher)
• Saiqa Raiquat (Bilingual Learning and Teaching Association Co-ordinator)