Academic journal article Babel

The Place of Learners' Languages in Literacy Programs: Bringing Learners' Home Languages in through the School Gate

Academic journal article Babel

The Place of Learners' Languages in Literacy Programs: Bringing Learners' Home Languages in through the School Gate

Article excerpt


In Australia, 21 per cent of the population (Australian Bureau of Statistics, 2016) identifies that they speak a language other than English at home. This tells us that a large number of students within our schools speak languages other than English. Despite this, the diversity of learners' languages is often not visible at school and is usually not considered in classroom practice. It is important that the languages of our students are recognised at school, especially in literacy programs, because the language skills and experiences that students have are literacy skills and experiences. Sadly, however, these languages are often 'left at the school gate' and are not recognised or celebrated at school.

Ignoring the languages that learners bring to school is ignoring their prior know ledge and experiences in literacy, simply because they are not in English. Learners' linguistic capabilities and experiences across languages provide a fuller picture of their literacy skills and are valuable resources from which to draw or on which the learner can build literacy skills. Article 30 of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child declares that 'Children have the right to learn and use the language and customs of their families...' (UNICEF, 1996). The Australian Curriculum in its entirety, and in the Languages key learning area, specifically, also declares the right for learners to be able to use their languages and culture(s) and to identify with these. In order to support this right, learners' languages should be encouraged, embraced and celebrated at school and be present across all areas of the school curriculum.

Background literature

The linguistic capabilities of many Australian school students are not being recognised or provided for in the current school system. There are a number of contributing factors that have continued to influence the lack of recognition of languages at school. One of those factors is that literacy in schools is commonly viewed, and expressed, as English literacy. Michael Clyne identified a prevailing 'monolingual mindset' in Australia, in which there is the view that monolingualism is the norm and that 'English only' is enough (2005; Hajek & Slaughter, 2015; Lo Bianco & Slaughter, 2009). Schools need to work towards including and supporting additional languages so that English is not the only valued language. The contribution that all the languages of learners make to literacy development needs to be more fully realised and reflected in school programs.

Another contributing factor that has influenced an English-dominant school culture is the concern over students' English literacy standards, which was particularly the case during the late 1990s, but which continues to be evident in popular media and government rhetoric today. The complaints about poor English literacy standards in schools in the 1990s worked to undermine the learning of additional languages (as taking up time that could be dedicated to 'literacy learning'), and the acceptance and nomenclature of 'other' or even 'foreign' languages in classrooms (in terms such as 'Languages Other Than English'-LOTE) so that English could be prioritised. This reflects a narrow definition of literacy as only referring to English literacy and demonstrates a poor knowledge of the benefits of languages to support English literacy development (Lo Bianco, 2001).

Further compounding the issue has been a long-held belief evident in Australian education policy and some of Australian society that community languages contribute to 'deficit' skills in English (Lo Bianco, 2000). And that retaining home languages will reduce students' capabilities in English at school, despite there being no literature to support such a view, and contrary to experiences in multilingual nations around the world (Morgan, 2016). As a result, the diverse linguistic skills of learners with rich language experiences are often ignored, or, even worse, actively excluded from classrooms and school learning. …

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