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“Working with multilingual children in the Early Years.” Dr Rose Drury speaking at The Nursery World Show – February 2017.

Dr Drury started her talk by outlining the current context in England. According to The National Association for Language Development in the Curriculum (NALDIC), there are more than 360 languages spoken in UK schools. In 2014 more than a million children aged five to sixteen were multi-lingual and DfE data shows that the percentage of children speaking English as an additional language is now just over 20% in 2016.

When we consider the numbers of languages children may have access to, the concept of simply having English as an additional language starts to feel rather inadequate as a description. Dr Drury gave a useful overview of the terminology we may find more accurate when describing a child’s language experiences:

·         A bilingual person: knows, understands and uses two or more languages

·         A multilingual person: knows, understands and uses three or more languages

·         First language or home language: the language the child learns to speak first and is used at home.    

          Dr Drury also referred to this as “mother tongue”

·         English as an additional language or second language: the language learnt later at school

The definitions are not dependent on language proficiency; a child would not need to be fluent in two or more languages to be defined as bilingual. It is the exposure to and awareness of the languages which matters. The concept of super diversity was also discussed. As families become more transnational then children may have more complex identities defined by different cultures and languages. Children may use several languages with different parts of their families. With the rise of technological ways of staying in touch they will need to maintain their language proficiency, such as when they use Skype to chat with grandparents overseas. I was interested to later compare these definitions with the DfE definition of EAL and found that the child’s exposure to language in their community is also included:

‘A first language, where it is other than English, is recorded where a child was exposed to the language during early development and continues to be exposed to this language in the home or in the community.’ (School Census Guide 2016-2017, DfE, 2016 p63)

Dr Drury argues that it is important for practitioners to find out as much as they can about children’s use of language, if we are to truly understand the super diversity of children in our settings. She gave the example of Leyla, a four year old in a London nursery school. The school records showed Leyla as Albanian with English as an additional language. Her mother’s description showed how much wider Leyla’s linguistic experience was:

“I come from Albania and have been in England for 15 years. Leyla’s father is from Somalia and lived in Finland. Our home languages are Somalian, Finnish, Albanian and some Arabic. Me and my husband use English together, but I want to learn Finnish and a bit of Arabic for reading the Quran.”

This rich language experience at home has been described as “funds of knowledge” (Moll et al). We need to consider the child’s wider “lived” literacy experiences outside of education and recognise that every child has something to bring to the group experience in our settings.

There was a useful reminder of the historical context of how working with multilingual children has developed nationally and as part of the political landscape of education. From the 1950s onwards, as a result of wider post-colonial migration, specialist teachers for what was then defined as English as a Second Language were employed. There was also a developing awareness of the need to support and develop the child’s home language, as much as support and develop English. From the 1990s onwards we have experienced wider migration across Europe and the world. There was an interesting discussion around the status of English when assessing young children, for example within the recent baseline assessments or EYFSP where bilingual children are assessed against the same criteria as English mother tongue children. Dr Drury rightly reminded us that assessment in English, for bilingual children would always be assessment of English. During the discussion I was reminded of the requirements of the statutory framework for the early year’s foundation stage, para 1.7:

“For children whose home language is not English, providers must take reasonable steps to provide opportunities for children to develop and use their home language in play and learning, supporting their language development at home. Providers must also ensure that children have sufficient opportunities to learn and reach a good standard in English language during the EYFS: ensuring children are ready to benefit from the opportunities available to them when they begin Year 1. When assessing communication, language and literacy skills, practitioners must assess children’s skills in English. If a child does not have a strong grasp of English language, practitioners must explore the child’s skills in the home language with parents and /or carers, to establish whether there is cause for concern about language delay.”

Through the discussion it was recognised that although the statutory requirements within the EYFS and the EYFS Profile accommodate the use of home language, it is not always something that is easily achieved. Not every setting has access to multilingual speakers who can support the assessment of children’s learning in their home languages. The importance therefore of practitioners having a good understanding of how children can be supported to acquire English as an additional language and the typical behaviours they may demonstrate, is even more significant if we consider the rising numbers of multilingual children in our settings. Crucially, recognition of “the silent period”, when a child needs time to tune into English and begin to know what is expected is very important; practitioners must know how to include a child and respond to their non-verbal communication just as much as children who are verbal. Equally the importance of continuing to develop proficiency in home languages was emphasised; we must be able to explain to multilingual parents why this is important for children’s global language development, not just the development of English as the language of learning in a setting or school.

Dr Drury then shared her insights into the world of young bilingual learners from her recent publication, ‘Young Bilingual Learning at home and at school’, which examines the experiences of three four year old bilingual children as they begin school in three English nursery classes. She focused on the case study of Nazma who was three and a half and going to nursery for the first time.

Nazma enters nursery holding her sister's hand. Her sister, Yasmin (aged four and a half), moves over to the large carpet where the children sit with the nursery teacher at the beginning of every session. Nazma follows her, chewing her dress, staying close to her sister and watching everything. She had stopped crying during the fifth week at nursery and she now comes every afternoon. The children listen to the teacher talking about caterpillars and many join in the discussion in English. Nazma is silent.” (Drury R. 2007)

The perspective of her teacher was one of a reluctant English speaker who did not want to engage and where her language was taking a long time to come out.

We were then given a picture of Nazma at home – the contrast was stark. She was observed dressing up, helping with the cooking and role playing with her older sister. She talked in Pahari, her mother tongue, with her family and listened to her siblings reading their school books in English. She watched her older siblings prepare for their Qur’anic classes using Arabic and listened to her grandmother telling stories of her childhood. Clearly Nazma had a rich “fund of knowledge” which gave her a linguistic experience on a par with any monolingual child!

Dr Drury explained that here we had an example of a child who was going into an environment where she felt she had nothing to relate to. The key question she posed was how do we show children that they are part of the environment they find themselves in? That they too, have something to offer. Do we as adults use languages in our day to day interactions and give language use a high currency in our settings?  I was reminded of my last school where I would speak Spanish to the newly arrived Colombian community. Despite the fact that my communication was riddled with frankly laughable errors and parents would slow their speech right down as if talking to a rather confused child, the use of Spanish became high status, presumably because if the Deputy Head thought it was important, then the children saw nothing odd with its use in the classroom. As part of her research Dr Drury also found that children often needed a private place where they felt secure so they could communicate – most often she found this was the toilets, where adults were less likely to intrude.

The final part of the seminar focused on the role of bilingual practitioners, sharing videos from a study undertaken in 2014. This aimed to explore the ways that bilingual practitioners supported the learning of nursery age, multilingual children. Both practitioners engaged with the children through the use of home language and English in very different ways. Overall, whilst no single practitioner was being held up as “the” way of supporting young children, and in many hours of filming the children did not use their mother tongue, it was evident that code switching between home languages and English was beneficial for both the children and their parents.

Dr Drury finished with some ways ahead for us to consider:

·         Building on the “funds of knowledge” which multilingual children and their parents bring to our settings

·         Creating more opportunities for bilingual staff to mediate between home and the setting so that

          children’s previous experiences can be built on when they start in a setting

·         Recognise  multilingual children as active learners

·         Understand more effectively the role of “the silent period” in young children’s early English acquisition

·         Explicitly encourage multilingualism in early year’s settings.


This was a very insightful seminar, which prompted much discussion and reflection as Dr Drury shared her insights and expertise. Given the increasing numbers of children who have a super diverse family, developing practitioner confidence in supporting multilingual children is going to be a focus for all of us for a long time to come.

Dr Rose Drury is Senior Lecturer in Early Years at The Open University Faculty of Education and Language Studies, and formerly Senior Lecturer in Early Childhood Education at the University of Worcester and Principal Lecturer in Education at the University of Hertfordshire. She has worked for the Minority Ethnic Curriculum Support Service in Hertfordshire and has extensive experience of teaching bilingual children in the early years.



Drury R. (2007) Young Bilingual Learners at Home and School: Researching Multilingual Voices.

Gonzalez, N. Moll, L and Amanti, C (2006) Funds of Knowledge: Theorizing Practices in households, Communities and Classrooms.

Robertson L, Drury R and Cable C. (2014). Silencing bilingualism: a day in a life of a bilingual practitioner. International Journal of Bilingual Education and Bilingualism, 17(5) pp. 610–623.

Kate Cahill
Kate is a local Authority Adviser with over 30 years’ experience of working in the Early Years Foundation Stage in Inner London, where she specialises in Early Years Assessment. Amongst her many other roles she has been a school lead for Ethnic Minority Achievement and an Early Years Ofsted Inspector.

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