22nd Sept – I Promised

Gao, F. and Shum, M. (2010) Investigating the role of bilingual teaching assistants in Hong Kong: an
exploratory study

My thoughts… Well, first of all this study is a qualitative account of the roles of two bilingual teaching assistants in a school in Hong Kong. The justification of this study was interesting to read, particularly as I work as a teaching assistant in a couple of different kinds of ESOL framework courses. I am not bilingual, but I do have a solid understanding of English and speak Japanese to a high intermediate level (admittedly a bit rusty at the moment) so I’m familiar with the kinds of challenges language learners face in a total immersion environment. Thus I have a slightly different take on the needs of the language learner.

One of the environments I work in is a standard ESOL class made up of students from all over the world, if I had to put an average class makeup on this I would guess 60% Afghani, 20% Pakistani and 20% everyone else. Sometimes my role is to explain British cultural norms in a culturally, religiously, linguistically simple, sensitive way. I do not feel that I need to speak the learners’ own language to do this. By the time we hit subjects of sufficient complexity to need to explain cultural positions, the learners have a strong enough vocabulary to understand this in English. Idioms can be explained in a linguistically simplistic manner and taught as set phrases, without necessarily going into the grammatical structures or historical derivation of the phrase in question.

I’m also skeptical of the claim that bilingual teaching assistants are required to control learners’ use of their first languages in the classroom. Even if we can assume that the learners all speak the same first language, which is unlikely given the composition of the school investigated, one of the first words they will have learned in an immersion environment of the target language is the equivalent of “shhh”. Another of the ESOL environments I work in is a community class of Pre-Entry ESOL learners, all of whom’s first language is Punjabi. I do not speak a word of Punjabi, and yet I manage rather well to keep the chatter under control.

One aspect of that classroom I cannot manage, and neither can the teacher who also speaks no Punjabi, is complex messages that need to be passed on and understood fully by the learners on occasion. This situation is mitigated by two factors. The first is the mixed level of listening and speaking ability within the group, there are a couple who are very able in this respect and can act as interpreters. The second is the school’s … I forget her job title… she arranges classes for parents and keeps them up to date with their children’s progress. Anyway, she is a Punjabi speaker so, when available, can give necessary messages.

Another issue is that it is not mentioned whether the teaching assistant had the same first language as the students. The study mentioned the demographics of Hong Kong as a whole and of the school but did not talk about the demographics of the individual classrooms.

It strikes me that the study didn’t talk to learners at all, surely the most important perceptions to note are the students’ own perceptions? They are, after all, the ones the bilingual teaching assistants are supposed to be helping.

Siraj-Blatchford, I. (2010) Learning in the home and at school: how working class children ‘succeed against the odds British Educational Research Journal; Jun2010, Vol. 36 Issue 3, p463-482

I read this study a few days ago while randomly looking through the journal for interesting studies. Just for the sake of practice, I’m going to use the questions in the study guide to look at this paper.

So, the article looks at the differences between children who succeed despite their odds of success being low in light of traditional measures, such as ethnicity, household income and social class. You may have noticed that the educational enquiry reader makes a big fuss about these factors as having been the basis of most research over the past couple of decades.

The point of this study was to find why some children seem to succeed in education despite apparently having the whole world against them, we know they do, of course, but it is unknown how a good HLE helps the child. The author is clearly in favour of educational equality. He values students as individuals and also their parents as potential informal tutors.

The study used an existing database (EPPE) to choose participants who had a low socio-economic status, a high or moderate HLE and high achievement. Some of those identified were selected for interview, as well as a control group of low SES/low HLE. This is a small scale qualitative study focussing on the qualities successful parents and children believe are important to academic achievement.

This study uses previous research heavily, indeed it is built upon the results of a large scale, quantitative longitudinal survey so can be taken as an attempt to clarify this survey’s results. Another positive is that the researchers used worldwide rather than local data in some instances.

The research produced evidence which elaborated on the quantitative results of the EPPE. It used the successful children and their families to explain why some children do well despite socio-economic factors and to evaluate perceptions of attitudes and interventions and their effectiveness both objectively and subjectively.

I think the study did effectively answer the “how” question and, at least in terms of perceptions, the “why”. The effect this will have on my own theories and practice is that I will pay more attention to the aspects of my work which aim to raise parental involvement in their children’s educations and will frame my advice in terms of effort rather than ability a little bit more emphatically.

The scope of the research was limited due to the low number of participants and their location in Britain only. It was, however, a well conducted study with useful application in that it shows the strengths of educational policy at the time of writing as well as informing practice.

Tomorrow, I will be mostly trying to work out who this Stenhouse fellow is.

Comments and criticisms always welcome.

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