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Can it be as simple as reading a bilingual book?

The 2016 year had started. I was getting to know my class at Parramatta East Public School, a Year 1 and Year 2 composite class of students of many different linguistic and cultural backgrounds. The class consisted of 26 students, with 24 who spoke (or had parents who spoke) a language other than English. Of those 24 students, only two spoke the same language.

We did the usual 'getting to know you' discussions and activities, but what I was initially focused on was students' academic ability, and specifically their levels of reading and comprehension. I didn't think that knowing what country they came from or what language they spoke at home was vital at this stage, except that some students would need more support than others.

After assessing the academic levels of individual students, I used a targeted teaching approach in both English and Mathematics to plan learning sequences to differentiate activities and experiences for my students. Under Standard 1 of the Australian Professional Standards for Teachers, Know Students and How They Learn, teachers are required to utilise or build on diverse linguistic, cultural, religious and socioeconomic backgrounds (Standard 1.3) to plan appropriate learning sequences (Australian Institute for Teaching and School Leadership, 2014).

How was I to do this? The answer seemed elusive.

In the next few weeks, I was asked to participate in a NSW Department of Education funded research study called Enhancing English learning: Building on linguistic and cultural repertoires, which was being implemented across three school settings with Dr D'warte of the University of Western Sydney. I was excited to join, as I thought this might give me some ideas on how to address this Standard in a practical way.

At the start of the project, although I had been given a list of the students' first languages from our EAL/D teacher, I was unaware if the students could speak, read or write these languages fluently, or if they used their first language outside of school. When asked, the students themselves found it difficult to verbalise their ideas about when they used their first language. The students and I both regarded their first language as being separate to school. It was an activity for home.

The research started with discussions and interviews with students, about where and how we might use a first language. We asked students to consider if speaking another language was important. We asked them to write a response to the question: 'Why is speaking another language important?' This question was revisited at the end of the project.

Most students demonstrated a basic understanding of the terms language and first language. As a class, we involved the students in the interviewing process and then collated information from our interviews. We plotted student languages on a world map and represented the information in tables and graphs.

The class discovered that 22 students speak another language, with 21 languages or dialects represented. There were four students who only spoke English.

Dr D'warte introduced the students to bilingual texts, leading a discussion on future literacy work involving their parents reading these texts. Students were excited to talk about themselves and their language. Their parents were involved at home through various homework activities centred around the origin of their name, where their language is spoken around the world and how their written language is the same as, or different from written English.

After more class discussion about communication, the students created individual mind maps or language maps about language (D'warte, 2014), clarifying how, when and where they used it. There appeared to be a growing understanding about how they used language, as shown in the maps in Figures 1 and 2.

In pairs, students compared their mind maps using a Venn diagram, as illustrated in Figure 3. They continued discussions using charts and post-it notes (Figure 4) as well as participating in an online forum where they could post comments or questions.

After these activities, we included a bilingual reading process in our classroom and organised parents to participate in bilingual text reading and discussions. The procedure for these sessions was taken from Dr Rahat Naqvi's Dual Language Books Project (n.d.). The three texts we used were Wibbly Wobbly Tooth (Mills, 2002), Augustus and His Smile (Rayner, 2011) and The Little Red Hen and the Giants of Wheat (Hen, 2005).

The bilingual reading sessions focused on one text, three times a week. In each session, a parent would read in their language and a teacher or student would read in English. Students compared selected written words in each language, learnt to say particular words and had the opportunity to ask questions or make comments or comparisons. Where appropriate, students talked about cultural contexts, such as in the book The Wibbly, Wobbly Tooth, where students discussed how different cultures deal with baby teeth that fall out.

During the first week of bilingual reading, we directed students' thinking with questions such as: 'What do you notice about the way the words sound/look? How do they compare with English?' Students had the opportunity to offer explanations of their own language and compare it with the bilingual readings. This enabled them to go beyond making comparisons with English. Figure 4 is a sample of the language discussion after several bilingual literary sessions.

By the end of the first week's sessions, students showed marked improvements in their questioning and commenting skills. Subsequent sessions built on their knowledge, and they continued to expand on the variety of questions posed.

Some of the questions the students devised included:

* How many letters are in your alphabet?

* Are there any other languages that are similar?

* Does each word have a vowel?

* Is the punctuation the same?

* Do you write from left to right?

* Was it hard to learn English?

* Do you put adjectives before or after the noun?

* Do you have alliteration?

Of the 26 students in my class, 12 parents, two grandparents and a staff member, participated in the bilingual reading sessions. Their enthusiasm when reading and speaking to the students was equalled by the delight of the students at hearing stories in their own and other languages. Students themselves volunteered to read chosen bilingual texts in their first language, with a classmate reading the English. They took texts home to practice with their parents and were keen to teach their peers some words in their first language.

Through the bilingual literacy work I noticed:

* High levels of student engagement and enthusiasm

* Students' developing interest in discussing their language and traditions with each other

* Students making connections with English and their first language, evidenced in their discussions

* An improvement in students' ability to formulate questions, listen actively, ask why, and make comparisons to what they already knew

* Students devising their own increasingly complex questions

* Students' keen interest to do further research on their family's country of origin

* A high level of involvement from parents, in the classroom and with homework tasks

* Students' increased ability to express their ideas in writing as shown by revisiting the question: 'Why is speaking another language important?' Figure 5 demonstrates the growth in the development of writing skills for one particular student.

Is it as simple as talking about languages other than English and reading a bilingual book, to understand and utilise the cultural and linguistic backgrounds of the children you are teaching? Incorporating the students' first languages creates an authentic platform where relevance and personal engagement increase the likelihood of students improving their written and oral expression. The students and their parents become the source of the content and enrich the learning of others. 'All students, including EAL/D students, have cultural resources that give them alternative perspectives on issues and phenomena, as well as experiences and knowledge. These are resources to be drawn upon to add to the learning and experiences of all students in the classroom' (ACARA, 2014, p. 21).

This research helped me to not only acknowledge and build on my students' cultural and linguistic resources, knowledge and experiences, but also helped me to acknowledge, value and utilise the linguistic diversity of parents and the wider school community. At the conclusion of this research study, my students and I now look on their first language as being a valued and necessary part of school and learning.


ACARA Australian Curriculum, Assessment and Reporting Authority. (2014). English as an additional language teacher resource: EAL/D learning progression Foundation to Year 10. Retrieved from http://www.acara.

Australian Institute for Teaching and School Leadership. (2014). Australian Professional Standards for Teachers. Retrieved from

D'warte, J. (2013). Pilot Project Report: Reconceptualising English learners' language and literacy skills, practices and experiences. UWS, Penrith. Retrieved from http://www. Project_Jacqueline_Dwarte.pdf

D'warte, J. (2014). Exploring linguistic repertoires: Multiple language use and multimodal activity in five classrooms. Australian Journal of Language and Literacy, 37(1), 21-30.

Hen, L.R. (2005). The Little Red Hen and the Giants of Wheat. London: Mantra Lingua.

Mills, D. (2002). Wibbly Wobbly Tooth. London: Mantra Lingua.

Naqvi, R. (n.d.). Dual language books project. Retrieved from

Rayner, C. (2011). Augustus and His Smile. London: Mantra Lingua.

Paula Daniel has been teaching for over 25 years but still considers she Is refining her teaching practices, recently joining with Dr D'warte from the University of Western Sydney in a research project: Enhancing English Learning. A project funded by the NSW Department of Education. Email:

Caption: Table 1. Languages spoken by the students

Caption: Figure 1. Language map 1

Caption: Figure 2. Language map 2

Caption: Figure 3. Venn diagram comparing mind maps

Caption: Figure 4. Language discussion

Caption: Figure 5. Writing sample showing improvement
Table 2. Who the students speak with

We Speak Our Languages Other than English With
These People

Mum               21
Dad               16
Grandparents      16
Aunties, Uncles   3
Other Family      3
Other Relatives   3
Friends           2
At the shops      1
Teacher           1
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Author:Daniel, Paula
Publication:Practical Literacy
Article Type:Essay
Geographic Code:8AUST
Date:Jun 1, 2017
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