Beyond vocabulary - oral language and communication skills in children learning English as an additional language

Beyond vocabulary - oral language and communication skills in children learning English as an additional language

First Author: Claudine Bowyer-Crane -- University of York
Additional authors/chairs: 
Dea Nielsen; Cecile de Cat; Natalie Smith; Silke Fricke DISCUSSANT
Keywords: EAL, Language, Comprehension
Abstract / Summary: 

Approximately 20% of children in UK primary schools do not speak English as their first language. These children face the dual challenge of accessing the same curriculum as their English speaking peers whilst simultaneously developing proficiency in the language of instruction. Research has shown that children learning to read in English as an additional language typically show average to above average performance on measures of word and non-word reading but struggle with reading comprehension. These specific comprehension difficulties have been largely attributed to limited English vocabulary knowledge. Children learning EAL show weaker receptive and expressive vocabulary than their English speaking peers, on measures of both single word and multi-word phrases. Moreover, vocabulary has been identified as a significant predictor of reading comprehension in this group of children, as in monolingual readers. However, reading comprehension is a multi-dimensional construct, and vocabulary is just one element of oral language that might influence a reader's understanding of text. This symposium will explore the broader language skills and general language proficiency of children learning English as an additional language and the relationship these skills have to reading comprehension. Our discussant will draw together the findings of the four papers and lead a discussion on the implications of these findings for future research and educational practice.

Symposium Papers: 

Morphological awareness in children learning English as an additional language

First Author/Chair:Natalie Smith -- University of York

Children learning English as an additional language (EAL) typically have lower levels of reading comprehension than their monolingual English-speaking (EL1) peers. Reading comprehension is determined by a range of skills, including the ability to analyse and manipulate the morphemic structure of words, known as morphological awareness (MA). MA is a metalinguistic skill that is underexplored among children learning EAL; this study examines the MA of EAL children and EL1 children within Year 3 and Year 5.
Children completed individually administered MA tests which included two measures of derivational morphology (one judgement task and one production task) and one measure of inflectional morphology (production task only). In total data were collected from forty-seven Y3 pupils (twenty-five EAL) and fifty-seven Y5 pupils (thirty-two EAL). ANOVAs were carried out to examine between-group and within-group differences for language group status (EAL/EL1) and year group status (Y3/Y5). The results show that EAL children in Y3 and Y5 have lower levels of inflectional and derivational MA compared to their EL1 peers when examined using a productive measure. Results of the judgement task, however, revealed only a year group difference, with a Y5 advantage. Of the three tasks, EAL and EL1 children in both year groups found the derivation production task the most challenging. When examined by real words and nonsense-words, a statistically significant EL1 advantage emerged for the real words on the derivation production task and for the non-words on the inflection production task. The findings suggest that MA is an area of weakness for EAL children, though this is dependent upon task demands. Given that MA is associated with reading comprehension, these findings indicate the need for increased attention to the MA among EAL learners.

Narrative development in young children with EAL and their monolingual peers; similarities and differences.

First Author/Chair:Dea Nielsen -- University of York
Additional authors/chairs: 
Silke Fricke; Chris Dixon

Understanding and producing a narrative has been argued to be a fundamental skill for young children, and one that predicts both disordered language development and later reading comprehension skills. Research also suggests that narrative may be a particularly useful way of assessing bilingual children’s language development, as it provides a comprehensive measure of language in a context that could mitigate issues of cultural bias associated with some standardised assessments. This paper considers the development of narrative skills, including microstructure, macrostructure, and comprehension, in a group of children with English as an Additional Language (EAL) and their monolingual peers. EAL children’s microstructure development was measured from nursery (3;7 years) to Year 2 (7;0 years), and EAL and monolingual children's microstructure, macrostructure, and comprehension development from Year 1 (5;8 years) to Year 2. Results suggest that although all aspects of narrative skill show improvements over time, differences between EAL children and their monolingual peers exist even in Year 2. However, EAL children in this study showed faster comprehension development compared to their monolingual peers, suggesting that there may be different trajectories of learning in this skill for L1 and L2 learners in early education. While previous literature has found L1 and L2 learner group differences in terms of microstructural elements, findings have tended to conclude that macrostructure and comprehension skills are less sensitive to these differences and more similar across L1 and L2 learners. The current results suggest that this may not always be true, and that skills in both retelling and understanding a narrative may be weaker in young L2 learners. Given the important role of narrative skills independently and for later literacy, these results suggest that this area of language development should not be overlooked in EAL children.

Language proficiency of children learning English as an additional language

First Author/Chair:Cecile De Cat -- University of Leeds

The language proficiency of children who are exposed to two languages over the course of their childhood varies considerably, and understanding what predicts this variability has been the focus of much recent research. In particular, there is increasing recognition that capturing bilingualism as a discrete variable is inadequate (Luk, 2015), that output is a significant factor in predicting proficiency (Bohman et al., 2010), and that cumulative exposure is a significant predictor of proficiency (Unsworth, 2013). In this study, we investigate the predictors of proficiency in the language of schooling (i.e. English) in a highly heterogeneous group of 87 bilingual children between the ages of 5 and 7. These children were characterised by different ages of bilingualism onset, different language experience in terms of amount of input and output, different language combinations (28 in total), and different socio-economic backgrounds. Children were given tests of sentence repetition, sentence comprehension, and sub-tests from the Diagnostic Evaluation of Language Variation (DELV, Seymour et al, 2005). We demonstrate that in this age group, who are in the first two years of formal education, the amount of home language experience predicts various aspects of proficiency in the language of schooling: sentence repetition (1), sentence comprehension (2), lexical semantics and discourse semantics (3). We use a continuous, composite measure of language experience (the Bilingual Profile Index) that objectively captures any discrepancy between (cumulative measures of) language exposure and language use. Through a novel threshold analysis method, we identify practically relevant cut-off points in bilingual language experience to determine the amount of home language experience below which the performance of bilingual children is on a par with that of monolingual children

Communication skills in children learning English as an additional language

First Author/Chair:Claudine Bowyer-Crane

Children learning English as an additional language typically demonstrate poor reading comprehension skills. However, there are individual differences and these differences are likely to be related to early English language proficiency. It is vital therefore that teachers have the tools available to identify children who may struggle with literacy development. However, objective measures of language i.e. expressive and receptive vocabulary tests, are often not available to teachers, and more importantly require time intensive individual testing which may not be feasible in busy classrooms. Moreover, there are few tests available for multi-language learners. This paper explores the relationship between a brief teacher completed measure of communication skills and objective measures of language, as well the value of the communication checklist in predicting reading comprehension. Two longitudinal samples are described in this study. In the first sample 160 children (80 EAL and 80 monolingual English speakers (EL1)) were tested first aged 4 years 7 months and again aged 6 years 7 months. In the second sample, 104 children (51 EAL and 53 EL1) were tested first aged 6 years 1 month and again aged 7 years. In both samples, time 1 testing included measures of vocabulary and grammar as well as the Children's Communication Checklist - Short (CCC-S). At time 2 children were given the York Assessment of Reading for Comprehension. Results indicated that a) scores on the teacher completed CCC-S were significantly related to the measures of vocabulary and grammar, and b) time 1 CCC-S scores signficantly predicted time 2 comprehension after controlling for concurrent reading ability and time 1 vocabulary and grammar. These results indicate that teachers make accurate judgements regarding the language skills of EAL and EL1 learners. Moreover, these results suggest that teacher assessment of communication skills may identify children at risk of literacy difficulties


First Author/Chair:Silke Fricke -- University of Sheffield

In this final paper, the discussant will draw together the findings presented and lead a discussion on the research and educational implications of these results.