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Drawing on linguistic and cultural capital to create positive learning cultures for EAL learners



An overview of creating positive learning environments for children who use English as an additional language in UK schools.
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Drawing on linguistic
and cultural capital
to create positive
learning cultures for
EAL learners
proportion of
students in schools
in the UK use
English as an
additional language (EAL). Latest
figures show that EAL learners in
England account for approximately
one in five of the student
population (DfE, 2018). Developing
a learning culture that takes into
account the specific characteristics
and educational needs of this
sizeable group is, therefore,
unequivocally part of everyday
practice for most teachers. e
term EAL captures an extremely
diverse group of learners, from
students who have grown up in
the UK in bilingual households
with high levels of proficiency in
two or more languages, to newly
arrived students who may have
little to no experience in learning
English. All, however, have
experiences of multilingualism,
many of which are closely tied to
their cultural identities, and which
have important implications for
supporting their learning.
EAL students, or perhaps more
usefully ‘multilingual learners’,
bring learning experiences and
linguistic skills to the classroom
that form the foundation upon
which new learning is built.
Specifically, multilingual learners
have knowledge of, and skills
in, their home languages; many
have experienced schooling in
other countries; and many view
the world through the lens of
their cultural background. ese
skills and experiences can be
drawn on to contextualise and
enhance learning if schools move
beyond a ‘monolingual habitus’
(Gogolin, 1997), where the only
language that is heard, used and
valued for learning is English.
While many schools adopt
inclusive approaches to culture,
and celebrate their cultural
milieus, this inclusive attitude
is often not extended to the
linguistic capital that multilingual
students possess. Perversely,
as the profession demonstrates
its positive disposition towards
multilingualism by introducing
modern foreign languages at
ever earlier ages, many schools
fail to apply the same attitude to
the languages that EAL students
already possess. Jim Cummins,
an influential figure in research
on the importance of multilingual
learners’ home languages, wryly
captures this cognitive dissonance:
We are faced with the bizarre
scenario of schools successfully
transforming fluent speakers
of foreign languages into
monolingual English speakers,
at the same time as they struggle,
largely unsuccessfully, to
transform English monolingual
students into foreign language
speakers (Cummins, 2005,
p. 586).
Valuing the existing skills of
students is surely a fundamental
component in developing a
positive learning culture. ere
are many reasons to draw on
students’ home languages, prior
school experiences and cultural
capital. In this article we provide
an overview of what we believe to
be the most compelling reasons.
In creating an inclusive
learning culture, we need to start
from what the students bring
to the school with them. ere
is a tendency to characterise
EAL learners from a position of
deficiency rather than asset – that
is, a preoccupation with students’
lack of English, while failing to
recognise and value the skills and
experiences they have developed
through their home language.
Much has been theorised about
how the brain handles more than
one language, and arguments
have been made that multilingual
learners build competence in
one language on the foundations
laid by the other. Observational
research has provided support
for this theory, revealing
positive relationships between
students’ home language and
the language of the school. We
know, for example, that students
who are good readers in their
home language are more likely
to be good readers in English
(Chuang et al., 2011). As well as
correlational evidence, we have
some evidence from experiments
that helps illuminate causal
relationships between home
language and English proficiency.
For example, research on bilingual
education tells us that students
from linguistic minorities who
go to bilingual schools (at which
teaching is conducted in their
home language and English) tend
to do better linguistically and
academically than their peers who
go to monolingual English schools
(Reljić et al., 2015; Krashen and
McField, 2005).
e potential pedagogic role
for the home language is also
informed by research examining
how multilingual pupils use it in
class. When working in same-
language pairs to discuss and carry
out writing tasks, for example,
multilingual learners use it in
ways that seem likely to support
their learning. is includes
using it for planning, reviewing
and keeping focused and
productive (Duarte, 2016). Using
home languages to handle the
mechanics of an activity is argued
to free up cognitive resources to
be directed at the principle aim
of the activity. Such aims may be
directly language-related, but
are as – if not more – likely to be
focused on academic content.
is brings us to the educational
experiences that multilingual
learners have gained outside of the
UK. A student who has attended
school in their home country
has built rich understanding of
academic content through their
home language. ey have learned
skills relevant to all learning.
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42 43Impact    |     |    Impact
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ey have learned how to read
and write, they understand
the number system, they have
hypothesised, summarised,
synthesised, reported and all of
the other transferable skills
intrinsic to learning. ey have
also learned specific curriculum
content: plate tectonics, properties
of materials, the treaty of
Versailles, health and safety in
the design technology room,
et cetera, ad infinitum.
e importance of activating
prior knowledge when
introducing new knowledge is
well understood by teachers –
that’s why we often begin a new
lesson by asking, ‘So, what did
we learn last time?’ According to
schema theory, new knowledge is
categorised in relation to existing
knowledge (for example, see
McVee et al., 2005). us, our
existing – or prior – knowledge is
the foundation upon which new
knowledge is built. Taking away
those foundations by wilfully or
unintentionally denying direct
access via the home language
may be counterproductive. At the
very least, policies that prevent
or complicate access to prior
learning, by prohibiting use of the
home language, cannot be said to
be fostering a learning culture for
multilingual learners.
Intervention research to
clarify any causal relationships
between teaching approaches that
explicitly use EAL students’ home
languages and their academic
development is thin on the ground
(Chalmers, 2017), and there
remains considerable uncertainty
over what works in this regard.
Nonetheless, schools are starting
to explore ways of operationalising
home language, in the belief that it
does improve academic outcomes.
e International School of e
Hague is currently piloting an
approach that takes advantage of
Google’s oral translation feature.
Here, students speak into the
app in their home language. e
app then plays back an English
translation, providing the teacher
with a window on the students’
thinking and learning (Martin
and McCracken, 2018). e
International School of London
takes a more embedded, strategic
approach to the home languages
of its students by providing daily
‘mother-tongue’ lessons for all
of its multilingual learners. With
25 mother tongues and counting,
this is a clear articulation by the
school that it values an inclusive,
asset-oriented learning culture for
its multilingual students.
In addition to the purely
academic affordances associated
with using students’ home
languages, research into the
relationships between home
language use and wellbeing
indicates that opportunities to use
the home language positively affect
students’ school experiences (e.g.
Parke et al., 2002). For example,
students of Bangladeshi heritage,
whose teachers used Bangla
poems to teach about idioms,
reported feeling valued for their
bicultural identities (Kenner et
al., 2008). Moreover, anchoring
classroom experiences in the lived
experiences of children who do not
routinely inhabit the monolingual
habitus of most classrooms makes
learning relevant for them,
fostering a sense of connection
between all learning, formal
and informal, school-based and
home-based. An asset-oriented
view of multilingual learners can
also help to reduce anxiety in the
classroom. Needing to perform
in a language that one has yet to
master can cause anxiety, which
can negatively affect learning.
Allowing multilingual learners
to use their own languages to
communicate their needs when
necessary is one way to mitigate
ere is also evidence that a
learning culture that values the
assets of multilingual learners
can be developed through good
home–school relationships. For
a variety of reasons, minority
language parents tend to be less
engaged with school and less
involved in supporting school
learning. Schools that explicitly
value and validate students’ home
languages can promote a rise in
cultural capital for minority and
immigrant families and allow them
to feel connected and supported
(Duarte, 2011).
A recently published study by
the EEF assessed the effects on
Reception-aged EAL learners’
literacy and learning of a ‘family
skills’ programme designed to
support parents and caregivers.
One of the focuses of the
programme was ‘making the most
of multilingualism’ (Husain et
al., 2018, p. 4). e study found
evidence of a positive impact on
children’s literacy development,
and parents reported feeling
more confident to support their
children’s learning at home.
Following a similar approach, a
school in North London that had
identified many of its Turkish
heritage students as at risk of
underachievement sought to
address their concerns through a
community engagement initiative
(Gazzard, 2018). e school set
up parent coffee mornings to
discuss supporting learning in the
home, and offered a homework
club that brought the Turkish
children together in a purposeful
learning-oriented community.
Responding to the parents’ desire
for their children to maintain and
develop their Turkish literacy and
knowledge of Turkish culture, the
school now runs Turkish language
and culture lessons in partnership
with the Turkish embassy. e
whole community became
enriched, with parents and
families enthusiastically involved
with their children’s learning in
all respects, not just as it relates to
ere is much that schools
can do to create, maintain
and develop positive learning
cultures for their EAL students.
We have summarised a small
proportion of what we believe
are appropriate approaches to
doing this. Again, research that
would provide much needed
evidence for the educative effects
of pedagogical and community-
based initiatives to support EAL
students is lacking, especially in
the UK (Murphy and Unthiah,
2015; Oxley and de Cat, in press).
We must hope that researchers
work with teachers to seize
on the enthusiasm evident in
schools like the ones discussed
in this article, and robustly
assess the effects of promising
approaches to developing strong
learning cultures for multilingual
e importance of activating prior
knowledge when introducing new
knowledge is well understood by
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Cummins J (2005) A proposal for action: Strategies
for recognizing heritage language competence as a
learning resource within the mainstream classroom.
The Modern Language Journal 80(4): 585–592.
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... The self-perceptions of practitioners, according to UNICEF & DBE (2010), include observing the children in their charge and organizing and providing activities that will support the children's developmental learning requirements and interests. Every child and family who enrolls in a setting will have their unique knowledge and experiences that are connected to their culture and extended family, according to Chalmers and Crisfield (2019). Therefore, knowledge gleaned from the children's home environment is included in their capital and cultural knowledge. ...
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