Teachers and Language Learning in Primary Schools- part-02

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Teachers and Language Learning in Primary Schools- part-02

1.3 Rationale for the Study

Language is the principal means of human communication (Chomsky, 2006). Language has a central role to play in the Primary School Curriculum, and is noted as one of the key principles thereof (1999, 8-9). Language helps the child to clarify and interpret his or her experiences, to acquire new concepts, and to add depth to and consolidate concepts already known. Morrison reminds us that

Language is a social instrument for the induction of the child into society. Socialization of
children would be difficult without language; thus, parents and schools have a great responsibility
to provide optimum opportunities for language acquisition (1984: 320).

According to Lazenby Simpson (2002: 4), “an inadequate linguistic repertoire in the language of the host society is the greatest barrier to the full development of the individual’s potential within that society.” It is therefore essential that all children are afforded the opportunity to develop their language skills to the fullest extent possible, in
order to gain maximum access to education and the structures and norms that constitute the society of their new community. The Council of Europe considers the primary school to be the keystone of language learning in the education system (2008: 52). It is acknowledged that in an Irish context “One of the main challenges facing teachers and schools is supporting learners from a wide range of diverse backgrounds whose first language is not the language of instruction” (NCCA, 2005b: 162). As mentioned above, the plurilingual nature of education for children speaking languages other than English as L1 is a particularly recent Irish phenomenon. This study explores some of the challenges faced by teachers in this regard, as well as some of the attitudes teachers have towards linguistic diversity in their classrooms. The advent of newcomers to Ireland is a relatively new situation. The main influx of children has come within the last ten years, and the Republic of Ireland has hosted high numbers of immigrants within this timeframe, relative to other countries experiencing a high level of immigration1. Out of 195 independent states in the world, a total of 188 nationalities were represented in Irish society as a whole at the time of the last census in
20062. These nationalities are now present in primary schools and secondary schools. Non-Irish nationals made up almost 10% of the population in 2006, compared with 5.8% in 20023. The Polish diaspora may now be the largest ethnolinguistic minority community in Ireland as of 2007, with Debaene (2008) reporting a number of up to 400,000 Polish nationals in 2008, 26% of all migrants in Ireland. This increased migration has contributed significantly to the “broadening of cultural diversity spanning traditions and languages from around the world”, according to the DES4 (Department of Education and Science). The Council of Europe acknowledges that while this increases the language resources on which Ireland can capitalise, the new demand for English as an Additional Language is transforming many mainstream schools to plurilingual micro-communities (2008: 11-12). The migrant workers and students that have been attracted to Ireland in increasing numbers have made a “unique contribution to our community” (DES Press Release, 2005). With reference to linguistic profiles from the questionnaire data and my observations of classroom practice, important aspects of the experiences of these newcomer children will be identified and thoroughly critiqued.
The years 1999-2000 were very important in terms of language education provision from the Department of Education and Science (DES). Firstly, the Primary School Curriculum was introduced in 1999. This replaced the curriculum of 1971, and has been in a process of implementation over the last number of years through the provision of in-service training and in-school facilitation on the part of the Primary Curriculum Support Programme (PCSP) and School Development Planning Service (SDPS)5. In 1999, the
service of Language Support teachers was introduced with a view to providing children whose native language was not English with specific classes. Reports commissioned by the Refugee Agency and the DES in 1995 and 1996 resulted in the establishment of the Refugee Language Support Unit (RLSU) in 1999. The RLSU in turn was re-established by the DES as Integrate Ireland Learning and Training (IILT), with the purposes of devising curricula, developing teaching and learning materials for use in schools, and organising twice-yearly in-service seminars for Language Support teachers. This marked a very positive move for a country which had experienced so much out-migration and was unprepared for the levels of immigration which would occur over a short space of time.

When the RLSU published their first occasional paper in 2000, entitled Meeting the language needs of refugees in Ireland, a number of recommendations were made. These included a suggestion that a profile of each group of incoming refugees should be profiled according to age, gender and family relationships in order to begin establishing an ethos of learner autonomy (Little, 2000: 21). Other considerations included analysing the learning targets for each sub-group of refugees, and considering the organization of language teaching and learning in order to foster communication at an appropriate level.

The development of language teaching materials specifically for the needs of the refugee groups in question was also recommended. IILT published a wide variety of materials for use by Language Support teachers on their website, which culminated with the publication of Up and Away (2006), a resource book for English Language Support in primary schools. They also collaborated with the National Council for Curriculum and Assessment (NCCA) in devising English as an Additional Language in Irish Primary
Schools: Guidelines for Teachers (2006 – hereafter referred to as the EAL Guidelines) and succeeded in implementing the English Language Proficiency Benchmarks and the European Language Portfolio (ELP) as a method of assessing the language development of newcomer children. Intercultural Education in the Primary School: Guidelines for Schools (2005b – hereafter referred to as the Intercultural Guidelines) was published in 2005, reflecting an awareness on the part of the DES of the changes in Irish society and
the need for teachers to develop a more inclusive classroom environment (Dillon and O’Shea, 2009: 7).

While the Intercultural Guidelines provide guidelines for mainstream teachers, the resource book provided by IILT focuses primarily on the work of the Language Support teacher. Up and Away includes general information for schools, the Language Support programme, the curriculum for Language Support, resources for pupils, examples of classroom activities and literacy development. IILT recognises that on its own, Language Support can rarely be enough because teachers have limited time with their Language
Support teachers. Therefore, “Language Support must focus principally on the language required by the curriculum and on the language necessary for a child’s socialization in the school” (IILT, 2006: 19). Collaboration with mainstream teachers enables a link to be made with the English language developed by the child in both settings. According to IILT (2006, 20), “the principal objective of Language Support is to integrate the pupil as quickly as possible into all mainstream learning and activities of the school”. This
particular handbook has been distributed to over 4000 schools, while their guidelines for teaching English to very young learners has been distributed to around 2000 schools. IILT won the European Award for Languages in 2006, for their in-service programme for Language Support teachers in primary schools throughout Ireland. Some of the strengths of the programme include the fact that teachers were afforded the opportunity to have their suggestions and opinions incorporated into the programme, and that it contributes to building citizenship (Léargas, 2006: 14). IILT was closed in 2008 due to funding restrictions and the documents they produced are now hosted online by the NCCA. Many of these documents will be explored throughout the study in terms of their use by teachers and the appropriateness of advice and suggestions given regarding inclusion and linguistic development.

There has been great fluctuation in the number of Language Support teachers available to schools over the last number of years. In May 2005, over 600 Language Support teachers were being provided to primary schools. By February 2007, that number had increased to 1450. According to the DES, “primary schools which have fourteen or more non-national pupils with significant English language deficits will be automatically entitled to an additional temporary teacher for a period of up to two years”6 Mary Hanafin TD,
Minister for Education at the time, promised to provide a further 350 Language Support teachers between 2008 and 2009, as part of the government’s commitment in Towards 2016. A circular has also been made available to the managerial authorities of all school sectors in the country, in order to assist schools “in providing an inclusive school environment to meet the needs of pupils for whom English is a second language and outline the resources that are available to assist schools in this task” (DES, 2007: 1).
Reference is made within the circular to creating an inclusive school environment, the role of the Language Support teacher, assessment of pupils’ level of language proficiency, allocation of additional teacher support, materials and resources and availability of support.

However, with the worsening economic situation, the promised teachers have not been appointed7. The recent Budget for 2011 has recommended that 500 Language Support teachers be phased out over the next four years and warned that allocation rules may change over that period8. The DES has stated that “the EAL pupil remains the responsibility of the mainstream class teacher at primary level” (Circular 0015/ 2009; Circular 0053/ 2007) and it is indisputable that the child with EAL spends most of his or her time under the tutelage of the mainstream class teacher rather than the Language Support teacher. It is therefore imperative that the role of the mainstream teacher in facilitating children with EAL is given due recognition and support. This study aims to play some role in doing just that.

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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