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Posted by christinefjohnston in Directions in Education.
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Dr Jacqueline D’warte

Last week Bill someone not connected to academia or education asked me what I was researching. I explained that most recently, I had been working with students and teachers in two primary and two high school classrooms and we were studying the way students were reading, writing, talking listening and viewing outside of school and in their homes and wider communities. His response was: “Well if those kids speak another language (other than English) they don’t need any help, they are clever, they are smarter than Australian kids who only speak English, they will learn English really quickly”

I have continued to think about Bill’s comment and the assurance that being bilingual or working towards bilingualism provided obvious cognitive benefits. Unfortunately, evidence from my own research reveals that most bilingual students do not recognize or see the inherent value in the understandings, experiences and practices they possess. This was the case for the 5 classes in which I have recently worked, despite the fact that these students spoke 31 different languages and dialects and engaged in wide ranging multimodal activity. Speaking two languages is clever? Is the incredulous question I received from many students as we discussed how they used language/s in their everyday lives. I guess this is not surprising considering this is not something they talk about in school.

Australia’s significant history and ongoing presence of Indigenous languages is enhanced by the inclusion of people from countries from around the world. In 2011, Australian Census data report that 23.2% of people nationally and 40.1% of people in NSW speak a language other than English. Australians speak over 200 different languages. Ongoing scholarship across disciplines has made us increasingly aware that language is inextricably linked to students’ identities, experiences and most importantly, opportunities to learn. While recent editorial and new research into language learning with bilingual adults continues to provide evidence of the cognitive benefit of bilingualism, our National English literacy testing program (NAPLAN) provides little space for recognizing the linguistic diversity inherent in Australian educational environments.

While language and literacy-based practices are central to all school learning, and how language meets our academic needs is a key focus of English curriculum across school, few opportunities exist to explore the ways students use language every day in their homes and wider community. Recent work (Hull & Schultz, 2002; Lee, 2007; Compton-Lily, 2008; Orellana & Reynolds, 2008; Moje, et al., 2004) suggests that there are increasing connections between home and school language and learning experiences. A dichotomised view of language use at school and home may be a false one and new ways of thinking about variations across contexts are continually emerging.

What was most surprising about this recent work that engaged students in exploring their ‘repertoires of linguistic practice’ (Gumperz, 1964; Gutierrez & Rogoff, 2003 Rymes, 2010; Zentella, 1997), was the multilingual nature of the everyday practices of all students both monolingual and bilingual. Monolingual and bilingual students were engaging in wide ranging online activity in multiple languages.  Students were speaking and translating in multiple languages and across modes but also skyping, playing online video games, downloading song lyrics and reading and viewing a wide range of audio-visual programs and texts in multiple languages. It seems that our classrooms are becoming truly global communities of multilingual, multicultural learners, whose linguistic and cultural resources and understandings are for the most part untapped in many classrooms.

Teachers are under enormous pressure to manage an already overloaded school curriculum, and meet ongoing assessment benchmarks, but they see students’ linguistic repertoires in particular as valuable cultural resources and funds of knowledge (Moll, Amanti, Neff, & Gonzalez, 1992) that can be built on in school. Despite teachers’ best intentions, recognizing and building on the language, literacy, and cultural competencies that students develop in their everyday lives in service of classroom learning, can be a vast challenge. This research attempted to consider the broad language resources students already possess as a starting point in studying English.

Engaging students in studying their linguistic repertoires, enabled the students, teachers and me to see the value, complexity and power of everyday language practices. We could draw on them to listen, learn, think, and make meaning; we could build on them to further develop understandings and academic competencies. We moved beyond thinking about bilingualism as the process that only helps students learn and/or improve English.

Evidence from this work suggests students’ emerging awareness of their linguistic dexterity continued to have a powerful influence on achievement, self-efficacy and identity. Identifying and recognizing all students’ full linguistic skills and capabilities, ensures we both utilize a rich learning resource and underpin students’ academic language development with their foundational linguistic knowledge. It may also promote intercultural competencies and offer us new insights and understandings about how the world works. Then like Bill we may all come to realize that being bilingual is truly clever.

Australian Bureau of Statistics. (2011). Cultural diversity in Australia. Reflecting a nation: Stories from 2011 Census. Retrieved from http://www.abs.gov.au/ausstats/abs@.nsf/Lookup/2071.0main+features902012-2013

Compton-Lilly, C. (Ed.). (2008). Breaking the silence: Recognizing the social and cultural resources students bring to the classroom. Newark, DE: International Reading Association.

Gumperz, J. J. (1972). Introduction. In J. J. Gumperz & D. Hymes (Eds.), Directions in sociolinguistics: The ethnography of communication (pp.1-25). Oxford: Basil Blackwell

Gutiérrez, K. D., & Rogoff, B. (2003). Cultural ways of learning: Individual traits and repertoires of practice. Educational Researcher, 32(5) 19-25.

Hull, G., & Schultz, K. (Eds.) (2002). School’s out! Bridging out-of-school literacies with classroom practice. New York: Teachers College Press.

Lee, C. D. (2007). Culture, literacy, & learning: Taking bloom in the midst of the whirlwind. New York: Teachers College Press.

Moje, E. B., Ciechanowski, K.M., Kramer, K., Ellis, L., Carrillo, R., & Collazo, T. (2004). “Working towards third space in content area literacy: An examination of everyday funds of knowledge and discourse”. Reading Research Quarterly 39(1) 38-70.

Moll, L. C., Amanti, C., Neff, D., and Gonzalez, N. (1992). Funds of knowledge for teaching: Using a qualitative approach to connect homes and classroom. Theory Into Practice, 31(2), 132-141.

Orellana, M. F., & Reynolds, J. (2008). Cultural modeling: leveraging bilingual skills for school paraphrasing tasks. Reading Research Quarterly, 43(1), 48-65.

Rymes, B. (2010). Classroom discourse analysis: A focus on communicative repertoires. In N. H. Hornberger, & S. L. McKay (Eds.), Sociolinguistics and language education (pp. 528–546). Bristol, UK: Multilingual Matters.

Zentella, A. C. (2005). Building on strength: Language and literacy in Latino families and communities. New York: Teachers College Press.

Dr Jacqueline D’warte is a Lecturer in the School of Education at the University of Western Sydney


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