Academic journal article Literacy Learning: The Middle Years

Home Language: A Stigma or a Vehicle to Literacy?

Academic journal article Literacy Learning: The Middle Years

Home Language: A Stigma or a Vehicle to Literacy?

Article excerpt

In Australia, the academic needs of children from a language background other than English (LBOTE) are often overlooked because teachers are unaware of their linguistic talents and home literacy practices. This may result in the children's resistance to literacy learning in the classroom. This paper demonstrates how these children perform better academically when their language and home literacy practices are valued within the classroom and proposes a wider application of a culturally responsive pedagogy to better meet the needs of LBOTE children.


The education of 'other people's children' (Delpit, 2006) continues to challenge western educational institutions, such as the Australian primary school that is investigated in this paper. The school has a population of students from culturally and linguistically diverse backgrounds (see Table 1).

Though the majority of the children who attend this school are from non-English speaking backgrounds, these children remain as 'minority children' (Skutnabb-Kangas, 1999) in Australian society where English remains the only language of instruction at the school, engendering daily incidents such as the following:

   One Amharic speaking mother refused to reveal her home language
   during the annual ESL needs census until she was convinced that the
   census was for the benefit of children like hers. Her home language
   was not recorded in her children's school enrolment forms as
   requested, one of many parents who failed to do so ...

   A Sudanese father claimed that he only spoke English to his
   children because 'In Australia, you speak English only,' though he
   himself was on an English intensive course for newly arrived
   immigrants at the time .

   A Chinese mother complained that she found it very hard to help her
   children with their homework because they did not understand enough
   Mandarin, her native tongue ...

   A boy was suspended of his school captaincy for swearing at a
   teacher on playground duty in Arabic, his home language.

These stories tell the plight of students' home languages. However, the important role of home language in supporting the language users' English and literacy acquisition in schools is evidenced in research (Baker, 2000; Cummins, 2000; McKay, Davies, Devlin, Clayton, Oliver, & Zammitt, 1997) and recognised by some Australian education policies. For example, in a discussion paper which aims to promote talking and listening outcomes in primary schools (New South Wales Department of Education and Training, 2003) the maintenance of home language is first recognised and then considered to be beneficial to English and literacy acquisition and development for children from language backgrounds other than English (LBOTE) as in the following statement:

   We recognise the benefits of maintaining the home language for
   students for whom English is a second dialect or language. This
   includes languages other than English and Aboriginal English. (p.

And again,

   It is important to recognise the value of home language as a means
   of improving students' acquisition of concepts and content. (p. 43)

In reality, as the stories above begin to give insight, home language is in the process of degradation and disintegration. For some it has become a stigma, a label for ESL (English as a Second Language), evocative of an image of someone 'who lacks something, in this case sufficient knowledge of English to participate academically' (Cummins, Bismilla, Cohen, Giampapa & Leoni, 2005, p. 25). For these people, such as the Amharic speakers discussed here, home language is to be confined within the boundaries of the home, having somewhat of a closet status. For others, it weighs heavily like a burden at the beginning of a long journey to literacy, as in the case of the Sudanese and the Chinese parents discussed above. …

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