Language development of children with English as a second language

About a million school-aged children in England speak English as a second language. This number is growing: Within about a decade it is estimated that they will amount to a quarter of all school pupils. However, there is substantial gap in our understanding of how their language and literacy skills develop.

Dr Selma Babayiğit of the University of the West of England's Department of Health and Social Sciences has sought to shed light on this. In research supported by an Early Career Researcher Award from the University, she has tested a large number of 10-year old children with English as a second language and compared them with their peers who speak English as their first language.

Highlighting the issues

She found that the word-reading and spelling skills of the two groups of children were very similar. However, the vocabulary skills of non-native English-speaking children tended to lag behind even when they had been at school in England for at least five years. This was found to be the key factor that undermined their literacy skills, such as reading comprehension, even when the delays in vocabulary development were not obvious.

The findings from this study highlighted issues that need further investigation and have particular implications for the development of educational practices to address the needs of children from diverse language backgrounds.

On-going collaboration

Dr Babayiğit has been able to share her findings with teachers and practitioners in Bristol. More widely, she has been invited to speak at a meeting in Edinburgh on addressing the needs of pupils with English as an additional language, and has presented at a number of prestigious international conferences, such as that of the Society for the Scientific Study of Reading held in Montreal, Canada. She has also published a related study in the Journal of Research in Reading, a leading journal in the field.

As a result, she has gone on to establish research collaborations with colleagues at Aston University and the University of York, and is extending her studies on second-language learners by focusing on specific language groups, such as Hindi, Urdu, and Panjabi speakers. This collaborative work has informed several research proposals and a large-scale study, which is already underway.

The Early Career award

"The Early Career award provided me with a wonderful opportunity to conduct a substantial study that would not have been possible otherwise," says Dr Babayiğit. "This has led to further research projects and professional collaborations and so has been a catalyst for my professional development."

Building on this support, she and her collaborators have now also successfully attracted substantial funding from the Leverhulme Trust for research into 'Executive control, working memory, and literacy skills in bilingual children'.

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