Reading Comprehension is key to accessing the curriculum

By Natalie Smith

The literacy skills that are acquired in childhood are the foundation on which future academic success is built, so it is important that all children become successful readers. Research has provided a wealth of information about the development of skilled monolingual readers, but this evidence base is lacking when it comes to children learning EAL, particularly in a UK educational context.

Research has suggested that children learning EAL often fall behind their monolingual peers on measures of listening and reading comprehension (McKendry & Murphy 2011), though research within the UK is not extensive. Hutchinson et al. (2003) report that children learning EAL in the UK perform, on average, one year behind their monolingual peers on measures of reading comprehension. This apparent pattern of relative underachievement perhaps suggests that the literacy needs of children learning EAL are not fully understood and/or are not being met.

My research, therefore, aims to understand which specific skills underpin reading comprehension for both monolingual and EAL children. In my longitudinal field work I use standardised and bespoke measures to explore a range of linguistic and cognitive skills important to reading comprehension. In the first and third year this will include measures of vocabulary, grammatical knowledge, working memory, phonological awareness, listening comprehension and speed of lexical access (how quickly words can be brought to mind). I am working with children in Y2 and Y4 and will follow the development of all participants into Y4 and Y6. My aim is to develop an evidence base that will allow insight into the differences and similarities between English-speaking monolingual children and children who use English as an additional language in two different year groups in the UK.

One of the key issues concerning this line of research, however, is with the term ‘EAL’. The term conflates a very wide range of young people, making it difficult to apply findings from one study to the wider population. For example, there are huge variations in factors such as first-language (L1) proficiency, socio-economic status, the writing system of the L1, parents’ English-language proficiency, the L1 of peers within a school, exposure to linguistic and literacy practices in the home. The list goes on. Irrespective of these differences, these children are all categorised as ‘EAL’. This raises further questions about how to approach EAL research. Should research focus on learners of a specific SES or from just one language heritage so that findings can then be applied to this specific group of learners? Or should individual studies try to incorporate a range of learners with a range of languages to reflect the multilingualism of many classrooms?

To echo the point that many researchers are making, we need to push for research in this field and we need to collaborate with each other to develop a holistic and coherent understanding of our EAL children. I would be very interested in your experiences and thoughts!

*** The full-length blog post was originally posted on the EAL Journal Blog ***

Creating a Language Battery for EAL Children

By Lydia Gunning

Funded by a Leeds Academic Research Scholarship (LARS) and the Bradford Institute of Health Research (BIHR), my project works closely with schools associated with the Born in Bradford cohort (BiB) (https://borninbradford.nhs.uk/). This group is particularly interesting for linguistic study due to both the high numbers of bilinguals in the community and the notably low SES within the city as a whole. However, despite the interesting make-up of this group, and the substantial effects these two variables have been shown to have on language development, there has yet to be any research conducted looking at the language profile of this cohort. This, in part, is likely due to limited resources available that can comprehensively assess language development. Many language assessments currently in distribution either do not allow for a complete assessment of language (focussing only on a specific area), are not standardised in the UK, do not allow for the assessment of primary school aged children, or do not give standardised scores for monolinguals and bilinguals alike. Given that approximately a quarter of children in any particular class in the UK identify as being bilingual, a tool that could quickly screen for any language difficulties, while taking into consideration the number of languages a child might speak, would be highly valuable.

Thus, to sufficiently assess the language development of BiB children, or children similar to those in the BiB cohort, my research aims to develop a fully comprehensive language battery that can overcome the barriers mentioned above. Consequently, the battery can be used to screen for atypical language development in both monolingual and bilingual populations, but will also help further distinguish differences between abilities of these two groups. Once finalised, the battery will allow assessment of core language skills, such as receptive language (the ability to understand language) and expressive language (the ability to produce language), as well as phonological awareness (the ability to manipulate language). It will also identify any deficits in pragmatics; the social use of language.

Measuring a bilingual’s language competence becomes increasingly difficult due to the abundance of research suggesting that the amount, type and context of exposure to language can all affect proficiency. Consequently, exposure to languages must be taken into consideration when studying bilinguals and this is especially true if bilinguals are to be studied alongside their monolingual peers. Although there are various language exposure questionnaires already in distribution that might allow measurement of the extent to which language ability relies on linguistic exposure, many of these rely on parental report, which often has feasibility issues within research. A secondary aim of the project is thus to develop a way of quantifying a bilingual’s language experience without relying on the, often elusive, parental report. For this reason, we developed the Leeds Bilingual Exposure Questionnaires (LeBEQ). Comprising of two separate questionnaires, one to be completed by the child themselves, the other to be completed by their teacher, the LeBEQ attempts to determine the extent of a child’s bilingualism, based on exposure to the languages in question. Factors included were those that research has repeatedly shown to affect a bilingual’s language development, such as length of exposure, cumulative exposure, contexts of use, birth order and language used in various activities (reading, playing games etc.).

Though the pragmatic components of the battery are still being developed, and the data for the LeBEQ and core language components is still being collected and analysed, my research eventually attempts to shed light on questions such as: (1) precisely how, and to what extent, linguistic experience affects language development, (2) how this might be complicated by an overlying layer of poor SES and (3) the effect these variables have on a child’s resultant academic attainment.

Understanding EAL children’s performance in both languages

By Marta Wesierska

Many of the children in UK primary schools are identified as EAL learners. Coming from various language backgrounds (many different first languages – “L1s”) and with varied ability levels of English (their second language – “L2”) the language and literacy development of these children is likely to vary compared to their monolingual native speaking English peers.

Furthermore, assessment of this group of children usually focuses on their abilities in English, overlooking their performance in their native tongue. This is partly due to a lack of assessment measures in languages other than English and researchers with the necessary language abilities to administer them (although efforts are underway to create such tools, for example the recent Receptive Vocabulary Assessment App).

In my research, I have aimed to broaden the understanding of the performance of EAL children within the areas of pre-literacy, oral language, and reading from the perspective of their first and second languages. To achieve this, I have been working with a group of Polish EAL pupils and two control groups of their monolingual Polish and English peers.

The findings of my PhD research have identified areas of strengths and weaknesses in this sample of children in both languages. One of the most striking findings is the EAL group’s substantial weaknesses in oral language in both English (L2) and Polish (L1). This is particularly relevant due to the impact of oral language skills on reading comprehension in later grades. Therefore, one of the implications for teachers of EAL pupils is continued attention to L2 oral language to close this performance gap between them and their monolingual peers and to improve subsequent reading comprehension in the L2. First language is still relevant however: one of my studies has shown L1 phonics to be a significant predictor of both L1 and L2 decoding and L1 decoding to significantly predict L2 reading comprehension in the EAL sample. Therefore, L1 phonics intervention could potentially be used to support reading comprehension in L2, in this population of children. To sum up it is important that both teachers and practitioners are aware of a child’s EAL profile and abilities in all languages spoken in order to reduce the risk of misidentification and inform instruction.

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