Teachers and Language Learning in Primary Schools- part-01

The Acquisition of Additional Languages in the Early Years

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Teachers and Language Learning in Primary Schools:  The Acquisition of Additional Languages in the Early
Years

1.1 Introduction
Language learning in early childhood has been recognised internationally as an area of great interest for researchers such as Cummins, Baker, Wray and Gass. The processes involved in acquiring a first language as well as additional languages are of relevance to this study in the plurilingual Irish situation. Children speaking a home language other than English who have recently immigrated into the Republic of Ireland are expected upon entry to primary school to engage with the curriculum in an L2 (English) with which they may or may not be familiar as well as learning an additional L2 (Irish) as a beginner. This study set out to explore issues around the language learning experiences of these young children in Ireland from the perspective of mainstream class teachers. The review of literature in this area highlighted a particular concern with areas such as the effect of educational language policy at the macro and micro levels on the school experiences of such children and the importance of first language (L1) maintenance to support identity formation and the acquisition of additional languages.

1.2 Aim of this Study
The study is concerned with teachers’ attitudes towards and experiences of teaching children with English as an Additional Language (EAL) and with pedagogical issues around these experiences. Underpinning this is a concern with how the whole school community engages with supporting teachers and children in this undertaking, in particular the policies and practices that are in place. A variety of methodological approaches were used to endeavour to understand these issues including focus group interviews, a postal questionnaire and classroom observation. The specific research questions posed at the outset of the project were:
– What are teachers’ perceptions of the importance of L1 maintenance among
children with EAL?

– To what extent is L1 maintenance among children with EAL being supported by
the whole school community?
– What are teachers’ experiences of English language acquisition among children
with EAL in Junior Infants?
– What are teachers’ experiences of Irish language acquisition among children with
EAL in Junior Infants?
– What types of scaffolding are evident in a Junior Infant classroom with significant
numbers of children speaking EAL?
The research questions emerged from the author’s work as a teaching principal in a primary school and subsequently as a lecturer in education in a college of education, which led to a consideration of the support systems that are in place for all children and in particular newcomer children. The realization quickly emerged that support for newcomer children was primarily aimed at the support teachers rather than mainstream class teachers and a concern for this grew as the challenges for the mainstream teacher,
who spends the majority of time with children with English as an Additional Language and is ultimately responsible for their educational well-being, became apparent to the author in her professional capacity. Furthermore, the personal interest of the author in plurilingual language acquisition as a learner, teacher and researcher led to the interest in the area. The aspects of language addressed in NCCA documents pertinent to the area were explored and literature was drawn initially from the author’s Master’s thesis in
formulating a research proposal. The research questions were altered and added to over the initial research period as originally, the intention had been to explore the language acquisition skills of children with EAL in English and Irish. However, it became apparent that in order to do this effectively and meaningfully it would be important to acknowledge and explore the issue of L1 maintenance among the children in question and to look at the broader picture including support from the Whole School Community.
The personal motivation of the author in choosing this area of study and the particular research questions as outlined above are explored in more detail relating to the literature referred to throughout this chapter.

By-

Anna Marie Dillon, B.Ed., M.A. (Ed.)
Submitted for the award of PhD to Dublin Institute of Technology
Supervisors: Dr. Máire Mhic Mhathúna and Dr. Brian O’Neill
School of Social Sciences and Law

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