Nord Anglia Education
Nord Anglia
28 September, 2022

Acquiring English as a Second Language

Shanghai Dutch School - Acquiring English as a Second Languag

There is a famous Chinese proverb that reads ‘To learn a language is to have one more window from which to look at the world.’ A mellifluous statement to anybody’s ears of course, but, for ambitious young students of varying backgrounds and cultures attending a large international school such as BISS Puxi it perhaps resonates truer than anybody. After all, for a school like BISS Puxi, harmoniously balancing a Western curriculum in a culturally rich yet hugely international Chinese city such as Shanghai, language is always going to be the key that unlocks all manner of possibilities and future prospects for our children. Language transcends countries, cultures and backgrounds, and can make the world feel much more accessible for those who have truly embraced and grasped their own native language, as well as delving into other languages, throughout their educational journey.

For students in our Reception unit, many of whom speak Mandarin as their native language, acquiring English effectively and rapidly is crucial to their prospects of accessing the English National Curriculum successfully when they move up into Year One. Fortunately, for these children, the Reception curriculum has been developed to provide a systematic approach to tackling this exact challenge, providing the children with every element they need to effectively acquire and develop their English language over the course of the year. But, to explain this exact process, we first need to understand how, exactly, second languages, such as English to a native Mandarin speaker, are acquired.

Prevailing research, first popularised by esteemed linguist Dr. Stephen Krashen in the 1970’s, concluded, quite emphatically, that languages are acquired in one way and one way only – when we understand the messages that we hear and read.

This concept became known, quite simply, as ‘comprehensible input’.

By this theory, children hearing or reading anything that is too far above their current level in a particular language is actually quite ineffective at helping them to develop in that particular language. So, based on this prevailing research, to help children acquire language effectively in our Reception unit, we focus on two core elements: 1) Providing as many opportunities as possible for children to listen to, and read, comprehensible input in their learning. 2) Providing the tools required to make the input that they receive as comprehensible as possible.

The first element, providing comprehensible input, is achieved through the delivery of our ‘Talk for Writing’ Literacy program, along with our reading schemes. The second element, providing the tools to make input comprehensible, is achieved by our systematic units of Phonics lessons. After this, it’s purely about providing abundant opportunities for children to apply and practise these language skills in a range of play-based environments and contexts.

But let’s delve deeper into the details, and significance, of each of these two aforementioned elements that create such a rich language learning curriculum in our Reception unit…

Talk for Writing – comprehensible input, and creating long-lasting language structures

Talk for Writing is a popular, well-established Literacy scheme used widely in England. It is based on the theory that children first need to develop their knowledge of stories and story language - including story structures, sentence structures, characters, settings and sequencing of events - before they can apply this knowledge to actually writing stories, and to other forms of writing. Within their first week of a new ‘Talk for Writing’ unit, the Reception children are given the opportunity to ‘immerse’ themselves in their new story. This includes listening to both the original and Talk for Writing versions of the stories, retelling the story with actions using a story map, and engaging in provision linked to the focus story. This helps the children to ‘internalise’ the story (commit it to memory), and acquire the key vocabulary and sentence structures. Once committed to memory, such sentence structures, including accompanying key vocabulary, can be used effectively by a child in different contexts, modifying the words within the structure for different purposes. For example, if a child becomes familiar enough with the sentence “Unfortunately, Cinderella lost her glass slipper on the way home from the palace.”, then they can manipulate the words within this same sentence structure to create, “Unfortunately, my brother lost his bag on the way home from school!”

This approach of creating strong, long-lasting sentence structures that can be manipulated and used in different contexts is known as ‘sentence mining’, a popular and effective technique often used even by adults who are learning an additional language. And, of course, following such ‘taught’ sessions, our Reception children get an abundance of independent learning time in which they can freely engage in imaginative play alongside their peers, applying and practising all of the key vocabulary and language structures that they have been developing throughout their ‘taught’ sessions. These types of play-based experiences, particularly those that trigger emotional responses, including happiness, joy, and excitement, are particularly effective in ensuring that such language becomes engrained within a child’s long-term memory.

Phonics – systematically providing the tools that make language comprehensible

It is widely accepted that there are 44 different sounds that make up all of the sounds that we actually use to create words in the English language. The majority of English words can actually be read simply by blending together the letters that represent these different sounds (e.g. c…a…t…cat)! And for those ‘irregular’ words that do not follow the standard rules of English, well, these are also accounted for in our Phonics scheme of work, and committed to memory, over time, in a spaced-repetition style of rote-learning! But why is Phonics crucial to a child’s English language development? Well, by developing a knowledge of these different phonetical components of English words, children can gain a deeper understanding of the very system that underpins everything they read and hear, making the world they live in, and the language that surrounds it, increasingly comprehensible to them!

In Reception, daily Phonics lessons are an integral part of our curriculum, and complement our Literacy scheme, and our one-to-one reading sessions, to develop children’s proficiency in reading and writing, preparing them fully for Year One and the different challenges that they will face there in these subjects. The Reception team have used their experience to develop a customised Phonics scheme that combines elements of ‘Letters and Sounds’, Read, Write, Inc.’ and ‘Jolly Phonics’, all of which are reputable schemes of work used by schools in England. Phonics is designed to be a systematic subject, and for each letter, digraph, or trigraph that is taught, we follow a similar structure, that teaches the children to: - Identify the letter in both its normal and pre-cursive form. - Say the letter name, as well as the sound that the letter makes. - Identify words that do and do not begin with this letter.

- Blend and read CVC words that contain this letter. - Segment and write CVC words that contains this letter. - Write the letter accurately, with good pen control, in both its normal and pre-cursive form. And so, to conclude, by combining an effective ‘Talk for Writing’ program with systematic Phonics, and adding-in regular 1:1 reading sessions and plenty of opportunity to put it all into practice during play-based independent learning time, we essentially have a language blueprint, supported by both research and experience, that ensures we are able to provide a Reception curriculum, and learning environment, conducive to children acquiring English as quickly and as effectively as possible! However, as we say in England, the proof is in the pudding, and year-after-year we have the pleasure of witnessing children enter our Reception unit without any real awareness of the letters and sounds that form this complex and vast English language, but leave – with Year One firmly in their sights – with the ability to write full sentences for different purposes, introduce creative narratives into their imaginative play, and interact with their teachers and peers confidently in, what is for many, their second language of English!

It would, of course, still be naive to say that the language journey that creates this ‘one more window from which to look at the world’ is short or simple in any way; it will, in fact, always be a journey that continues to progress throughout their educational lives, and accompany them wherever they go. However, here in Reception at BISS Puxi, we will always rest assured knowing that, by providing such a solid foundation so early on, the language learning journey for these children will always be a much smoother ride