By Professor Naomi Flynn (Institute of Education)

Around 20% of school pupils in England have home languages other than English, yet their teachers feel under-prepared to meet their learning needs. Multilingualism is an asset, but the effort of needing to learn English at the same time as understanding the curriculum in English means that these pupils do not always do as well in school as their monolingual peers. Moreover, funding for teacher development for teaching multilingual pupils is very limited and the National Curriculum in England does not account for multilingual pupils in its guidance.

Research from the US proposes a promising solution to these challenges. Bringing this research from the US to the UK has been the focus of my work with PhD student Aniqa Leena and Professor Suzanne Graham in our Talk Rich Teaching project.

The Benefits of Talk Rich Teaching
Research identifies that when teaching involves genuine dialogue, and relates to pupils’ lives in school and at home, it can improve the language and literacy outcomes of multilingual pupils. My colleague, the US academic and teacher educator Professor Annela Teemant, has developed a teacher professional learning programme called The Enduring Principles of Learning (EPL), that supports this dialogic and culturally sustaining approach. Allowing time for talk means that pupils are better equipped to develop literacy in their new language.  We got to thinking about how this US approach might look in the UK during classroom observations in both our countries, reported here.

In a precursor to the Talk Rich Teaching project, we observed how schools in Indiana, USA make sense of Teemant’s summer-school professional learning workshops when they get back to class. We identified that teachers invest time in developing small group conversations where pupils engage in extended dialogue about, for example, their reading or their maths learning. This collaborative, supportive approach to meaning-making allows pupils time to think about what they want to say and opportunities to hear new vocabulary in context. Moreover, it ensures that multilingual pupils grow in confidence as English language users and are set up to make better progress in reading and writing as a result.

The Talk Rich Teaching Project
In bringing this US-designed teaching approach to the UK we worked with an established partner school, Mount Pleasant Junior School in Southampton, and other schools in the same community. All these schools have very high numbers of multilingual pupils, and they were keen to explore how a more talk-based approach to teaching might improve results.

I designed and led professional development meetings for staff in three project schools, and I worked with individual teachers in a rolling programme of observations and coaching feedback over six months. Concurrently our PhD student Aniqa Leena and co-supervisor Suzanne Graham designed and administered bespoke pupil tests to explore whether pupils made progress in speaking, listening, reading and writing as a result of changes to their teachers’ practice. A control school was included for comparison.

Teachers’ developing use of a talk-rich approach was measured through structured classroom observations, a scoring rubric and project interviews. Outcomes indicated that teachers designed classroom activities which better reflected the context of pupils’ experiences, and they incorporated more opportunities for talk where previously they might have moved more quickly to reading or writing. They found the shift to small group teaching quite challenging because of their whole-class teaching norm, but they did appreciate the value of group teaching and incorporated it where practicable. Importantly, teachers understood the value of talk-based activity and were prepared to reject pressure to move too quickly to written outcomes so that their multilingual pupils had time to develop stronger spoken English. Crucially, pupil test results showed that pupils in the experimental schools made more progress in speaking, listening, and reading comprehension than those in the control school.

Our combined findings show much promise for the Enduring Principles of Learning as a low-cost, school-driven intervention that can support improvement in teaching for multilingual pupils. Next steps are to work alongside more schools and practitioners at local authority level to develop a toolkit that can drive locally driven school-led improvement.

Naomi Flynn is Professor of Multilingual Education at Reading’s Institute of Education, and her project ‘Bringing successful teaching for multilingual learners from the US to the UK’ was runner up in the University of Reading 2023 Research Awards category for External Collaboration and Partnerships.