Effective schools and classrooms for bilingual students

Notes from Foundations of Bilingual Education and Bilingualism by Colin Baker (2006).

Bilingual education is unique and effective in language acquisition in that it uses languages in an aunthentic way. Students are not learning language through classes on the language structures but rather are using the structures in content classes. This is an important distinction to make: teaching a language versus teaching through a language.

All areas of the curriculum will help develop students' language proficiency, and students "achievement in a particular curriculum area is partly dependent on proficiency in the language of that area" (Baker, 2006, p 293).

Bilingual schools widen the use of the minority students beyond just speaking and listening. They gain reading and writing skills, learn more vocabulary, learn standard uses and syntax patterns. The use of the minority language gives it status, esteem and market value.

Many mainstream classrooms assume students are a homogenous population which is reflected in delivering a standardized curriculum that focuses on individual competition and uses standardized tests. These do not completely support the needs of minority language students.

Cooperative learning that uses teamwork, interdependence, and social interaction is a good approach to use when working with diverse backgrounds. The use of active learning by participating in projects and completing different tasks with other students is important.

Building students first language (L1) skills will facilitate learning a second language (L2). They can transfer knowledge, language abilities and learning processes to the L2. "The most significant variable in becoming proficient in the L2 is the amount of formal schooling students have received in their L1" (Baker, 2006, p 300).

Codeswitching - switching between L1/L2 in class

Teachers and students alike may switch between the two languages during a class, maybe without even realizing it. The reasons may vary as well, such as defaulting to the L1 for classroom management purposes, or to clarify things with younger children. Even if it is discouraged, students may switch privately when not being monitored.

Using whichever language wanted or is preferred will result in problems because this will typically result in the underdevelopment of one of the languages. Therefore, strategic classroom language planning is necessary.

One strategy used is translanguaging where the input (reading or listening) is in one language and the output (speaking or writing) is done in the other language. Then this is systematically varied. This approach has four potential advantages: achieves fuller understanding of the content, develops literacy in their weaker language leading to full bilingualism and biliteracy, facilitates home-school cooperation (by allowing students to communicate with their parents on the content of their work in the parents language no matter what the content is), and develops their second language ability concurrently with content learning.

Cultural Awareness

Knowing a language facilitates knowing another culture but does not always result in being bicultural. Thus, it is necessary to foster cultural awareness alongside language teaching. Reflecting on the whole range of historical, social, economic, cultural, political and environmental influences that have shaped their contemporary societies can give students a sense of place, distinctiveness and heritage, of belonging to the local and a wider community with its own traditions (Baker, 2006, p 298).

Key effective topics

Numerical balance of native speakers and learners of minority language is important. Small-group composition of students needs care and consideration by teachers to increase the use of the minority language in the classroom by well-designed activities and reward systems.

A foundational ingredient in bilingual schools is the characteristics and language proficiency of the teachers and other support staff, their own biculturalism, attitudes to minority languages and minority students, and their professional and personal identity. School staff need to be committed to the empowerment of language minority students through education and is not just realized through the classroom but also in staff involvement in extra-curricular activities, participation in community events, interest in developing their pedagogic skills, and even cooperation in the political process of improving the lot of language minority students. Consistency across staff in the treatment of language minority students, and effectice collaboration across staff is highly important.

"A subject curriculum needs to provide intellectually challenging, active and meaningful lessons that have coherence, balance, breadth, relevance, progression and continuity" (Baker, 2006, p 315).

High expectations should be clearly communicated and conveyed "by providing opportunities for student-directed activities, involving students in decisions and building their competences, trust and self-esteem, with positive and regular feedback based on careful monitoring" (Baker, 2006, p 316).

Parent involvement is a major dimension of school effectiveness. Meeting with parents, being in contact, and considering parents and students as stakeholders whose satisfaction is valued should be maintained.