WoLLoW: ‘The teaching of languages in a multilingual society’

On Wednesday 10th November, WoLLoW — World of Languages and Languages of the World — held its inaugural conference at King Edward’s School, Birmingham. Over 50 teachers and educationalists, not only from Birmingham but all over the country, attended, coming from state and independent schools, primary and secondary schools.

WoLLoW is a language project which aims to address two key issues:

  • the deep concerns about the teaching and take-up of languages in this country, 
  • the extent to which the teaching of languages is responding to the increasingly multilingual nature of our classrooms. 

The WoLLoW programme provides free resources to teachers in KS2 and KS3 with the following aims:

  • to encourage a curiosity about and enjoyment of languages; 
  • to enable pupils to understand how languages work as a preparation fort studying specific and different languages in the future; 
  • to develop and celebrate the linguistic and cultural diversity of our society; 
  • to use languages as a means of integrating the curriculum, encouraging thought across subject divides.  

These issues are not just about what happens in a few lessons a week. They will have an impact on the future lives — and careers — of pupils, the economic prosperity of the country, the integration of society and respect for cultural diversity. For that reason, the conference’s programme had four distinct elements.

The first element: multilingualism in primary education in Birmingham

Paula Rudd, the Head of Water Mill Primary School in Selly Oak, and Deborah Fance, the Head of Heathmount Primary School in Balsall Heath, talked about the challenges and rewards of running junior school in a city as diverse and fluid in its population as Birmingham: Paula said that, since September, 48 pupils had arrived at her school, almost all of whom spoke no English; Deborah described a school, less than a mile from the City Centre, where 99% of the pupils are EAL. In a small recent survey of 54 pupils at Water Mill:

  • 20 speak only English at home, but of those 20, 11 live in homes where different languages are spoken by their family. 
  • 8 pupils speak only a language other than English at home. 
  • 19 pupils speak English and another language at home. 
  • 7 pupils speak English and two other languages at home.   
  • 30 languages are spoken by pupils in the school. 

And yet, almost all these pupils have been taught French — and another European language — at school.

In addition to these insights, two current students and one former student, Rahul Bagchi, at King Edward’s School spoke of their own linguistic experiences: one spoke of coming from a family of Indian origin whose parents spoke Tamil and Bengali, whereas he learnt neither of those languages: another, a Muslim boy, spoke of the range of language and religion at his junior school which was a school of Jewish foundation: another expressed his regret, as a monoglot, that he had not engaged more with the linguistic richness around him.

One issue that arose from this session needs particular emphasis. There is a danger that children who do know their family/heritage/community language might lose — or not develop — that language as they learn English — and perhaps other languages. This would be a serious failing for two distinct but important reasons: the ability to speak another language — or even languages — is, in itself, a massive asset in terms of skills and future opportunities in work and life; if children lose their original language(s) this can create a separation across the generations in a family and a separation from a family’s history and culture.

The second element: WoLLoW

The co-founders of WoLLoW explained the origins and purpose of WoLLoW and its current progress.

Steffan Griffiths, Head of Norwich School, described his original concern about the way in which the teaching of languages, English, MFL and classical, was working in his own school and how this had led to the idea that this teaching should be integrated. This specific concern then became linked to the wider, national concerns about the teaching of languages. So, the WoLLoW programme, which is now being taught at KS2 and Year 7 at Norwich School, aims to link together the teaching of languages so that the pupils see the links and patterns.

Abbie Dean, MFL teacher at Norwich School and the creator of the resources, and John Wilson, Head of MFL at Cheadle Hulme School, then described their own experiences teaching the course to different ages and in different schools. John explained that he had been teaching it in local junior schools as part of his school’s partnership work. Both agreed that they and the pupils had found the lessons interesting and stimulating for everyone — ‘the highlight of my week’ — not least because the pupils were encouraged to bring their own knowledge of languages to the lessons. Also, the lessons really do enable pupils to think about current events and across different subjects. Abbie and John emphasised that, although the course at KS2 and KS3 was designed as an all-year curriculum, the resources were such that they could be combined with the teaching of a single language, as required by Ofsted.

A brief video was shown of some WoLLoW lessons being taught in Norwich and Birmingham:

The third element: a university perspective on multilingualism

WoLLoW has been working on this project with the University of Manchester, and other universities, throughout its existence. Dr Julio Villa-García, Senior Lecturer, Department of Linguistics and English Language, University of Manchester, gave a presentation entitled:

‘Lessons from linguistics: recycling knowledge of linguistics in the language classroom.’

Dr Villa-García talked about what it meant to be bilingual and how research had shown that someone who is bilingual does not have the two languages in separate boxes but intermingles them — and code-switches — continually. He also described how some of the exercises in linguistics could be adapted and used in the school curriculum. It is WoLLoW’s intention to build on these ideas in collaboration with the university.

The fourth element: a refugee’s perspective

As the first session vividly showed, an important aspect of our education system is how schools help families that have newly arrived in this country. Hafssa is a young woman who has migrated from Iraq via Jordan with her mother and younger brother and sister. She has come to live in Coventry under the government’s refugee resettlement programme. The employment aspect of that scheme is funded by World Jewish Relief. Coventry is one of a number of cities which has been designated to receive refugees and 750 refugees from Iraq, Syria and Afghanistan have been settled in Coventry since 2015.

Hafssa has been in this country for three years and is now working as an apprentice financial officer for Coventry City Council. She explained how her family was fortunate in that she and her mother had learnt English whilst in Iraq and Jordan, whereas it is much more difficult for migrant families, often with limited education even in their own language, to settle and prosper in this country. She also explained the different kinds of support that were provided through the resettlement scheme: language teaching, work experience, employability guidance, housing. She also said that it had been immensely valuable for her to be able to volunteer and work in a shop to develop her confidence in English. Her younger brother was fortunate in that he had been able to take a GCSE in Arabic whilst in Coventry. However, her younger sister was less keen to learn Arabic, despite the best efforts of Hafssa and her mother.

Final thoughts

At the end of the day’s proceedings, there were the following thoughts:

  • Steffan Griffiths emphasised that WoLLoW was in its infancy. However, he said that he increasingly believed that it was a child with serious promise for the future. In particular, he encouraged those present to make use of the WoLLoW resources in the way that they thought best and feed back any thoughts and ideas that they had.
  • Steffan also said that it was important to see WoLLoW in the context of a more holistic approach to the teaching of languages, so that languages departments found common cause.
  • a number of people sought further guidance about the practicalities. How might success be measured? How does WoLLoW fit in with the requirements of the National Curriculum? How can heads, governors and parents be convinced? Where does the time to teach this come from?

On the other hand, there was a great deal of enthusiasm for the project in that WoLLoW was a strategic attempt to solve some key problems in education and the conference had brought together ideas and people across the spectrum of education and life.

John Claughton, Steffan Griffiths, John Wilson, Abbie Dean
Co-founders, WoLLoW

WoLLoW would like to thank the Schools of King Edward VI in Birmingham, King Edward’s School, Birmingham, Norwich School and ISMLA for their support of the project and the conference.

Published by WoLLoW Publishing

All posts on the WoLLoW website are owned by this account on behalf of the original post authors.

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