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European School Education Platform

Education Talks: Language diversity in the classroom

Dr. James Cummins, a Professor Emeritus at the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education (OISE) of the University of Toronto, shares in this interview his views on identity language and supporting non-native speakers in the classroom.
Interview with James Cummings

Hi, my name is Jim Cummins, I'm a Professor Emeritus at the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education of the University of Toronto in Canada.


What is implied by identity language and how important is it for a child to maintain this language?


When we look at who we are, how we interact in our everyday lives, it's very clear that language forms an essential component of everything about us. We speak particular languages, some of us speak more than one language. When we look at children growing up their identities are being formed, they're being formed by the interactions that they experience with their parents, with siblings, with other children, with their interactions in a preschool environment and what they develop in terms of their identities depends on the messages they receive about what's accepted and what's not accepted.


And, unfortunately, historically and currently in a lot of preschool and school contexts children's languages have not been accepted. The message that children have got is that they should leave their language at the schoolhouse door  and that if they want to be accepted in the preschool or the school or the wider society there's only the major societal language that's legitimate or valid and this is rejecting a significant part of the student's identity or the child's identity. And what we know from research is that children will do much better academically and have a more integrated sense of self when they maintain their home language as they're acquiring the school language. And so the goal should be multilingualism for students.


What are the main challenges educators face when engaging non-native speakers?


The most obvious challenge is the one of communication. If a student comes to school as a newcomer and knowing very little or none of the school language, obviously there's a communication gap, but what we know is that teachers can bridge that gap by using all kinds of cues to the meaning. The term that research is used to talk about this is 'scaffolding' and if we think about scaffolding that goes up outside a house or a building that workers are working on, what that does is it allows those workers to get to places that they couldn't have gotten without the scaffolding. And so scaffolding in the instructional sense means providing the support for students to acquire the school language and to develop literacy in that language and this will involve things, like using visuals, such as photographs, images, graphics etc, diagrams, to help get the meaning across. It'll also involve things like demonstrations where in a concrete situation we can show children what's required.


What can educators learn from past strategies used to integrate to refugees into a classroom?


When we look at newcomer students arriving in schools and unfortunately, today we're in a situation where there are large numbers of Ukrainian children entering schools across Europe and in countries, like Canada and the United States as a result of the war in Ukraine, many of these students have experienced traumatic experiences, their fathers are often still in Ukraine. So there's a need for incredible sensitivity to the situation of these students. And this is something that obviously will be a concern to individual teachers, but what we know works much better than just individual teachers doing their own thing is if the entire school comes together and talks about what kinds of school-wide processes we should be engaging in to make the school a welcoming place, a safe place for newcomer students.


How can we involve parents in their children's education? How can we explain to parents what schooling is like in Belgium, in Ireland, in Canada or elsewhere? How can we provide resources for parents to help their children learn the school language? How can we communicate to students that their home language is valuable and is something to be maintained? This requires discussion at the school level and it requires leadership from school principals, vice principals to make this happen and involving children themselves, the children who are in the school already in terms of explaining to them that newcomer children are coming in, they're coming from a place called Ukraine, we can look it up on the map, we can see what's happening there and that we want to provide a welcoming environment and what kinds of things can they come up with that might help newcomer students to settle in, to feel welcomed and to start learning and continue their education.


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