Creating a collaborative approach to children’s language acquisition

by Kate Beith (Dulwich College International)


Kate is the Deputy Director of Schools for Dulwich College International. In June 2016 Kate Beith received her Masters degree from Leicester University in Working with Children and their Families. She studied at Pen Green Research Base, which is a leading centre for early years research in England. Here she uses extracts from her dissertation to show how her research has contributed to the ongoing development of a dual language approach in our schools.

Knowing our children – creating a collaborative approach to children’s language acquisition of English and Mandarin

As the course progressed, the main themes that emerged from my Masters research degree assignments related to the challenge of developing a Dual Language approach and the need to understand the linguistic backgrounds of the children with whom we work. My final dissertation explored this essential questionHow can we develop our support of children’s acquisition of Mandarin and English in a dual language-learning environment? I used the collaborative research model to ensure that we gave a voice to all those supporting the children, whose stories I told using a case study approach.


I. Developing our research approach

This abstract describes the process:

We developed our research question based upon our belief in the importance of transition and partnering with parents, which we explored with the case studies. When learning more about each child’s family context, we focused on the quality of the relationships of the adults involved in the child’s language learning and on individual perceptions of how young children should learn a second or subsequent language.

The analysis gave us deeper insight into the current relationships between parents and teachers and our own knowledge of second language acquisition. On the basis of our findings we have recommended actions to use the information gathered from parents to provide more meaningful learning experiences. We have also recommended further professional learning to develop our knowledge of second language learning and to investigate how English and Mandarin teachers can adopt a cohesive approach.

This research was based upon case studies of three children and their families: Tom, Adam and Ming. They are in a reception class of one of our Colleges where Mandarin and English are taught in a Dual Language approach. We have also included the background of Ying and Niamh, the boys’ teachers in the Dual Language setting, who are an important part of their stories.

The boys’ stories provided valuable knowledge about their home language context. From this, we then considered how we work together as adults and what we can do with that knowledge. Tom is exposed to Mandarin through his Chinese ayi. Through his British father and Canadian mother, he is exposed to English and French, which his parents  speak as first and second languages respectively. Whilst Adam’s family speaks Mandarin at home his parents are bilingual in English and Mandarin. Ming is exposed exclusively to Mandarin at home through his Chinese parents, ayi and grandparents. 

Niamh, from Ireland, speaks English and Gaelic, while Ying, from China, speaks Mandarin and English. The stories of Ying and Niamh reflect the diverse cultural backgrounds of our teaching staff.

This action research was based upon the knowledge that language learning is universal but each child comes from a unique linguistic context that influences second language development. Our community acknowledges that second language acquisition is essential in developing a greater understanding of different cultures and thinking about issues from a different perspective (Soderman & Oshio, 2008).  A range of research and practice, such as the Froebel project (Athey, 2007), the work of Pen Green (Whalley et al 2001) and the Effective Pre-School and Primary Education (EPPE) project (Sylva et al, 2008), support the importance of meaningful relationships between parents and educators. Hu et al (2014) note  “…it is important for educators to have deep knowledge about home language…to inform their decision-making regarding home language use in daily practice” (p.256).

We also believe that greater knowledge of a child’s language context supports a smoother transition into school and, in turn, language learning.

Two factors motivated our research, the first of which was the work by a reception (foundation stage) unit in one of our schools to develop a Dual Language approach suitable for an international school in China. The team focused on creating an environment that supports a high quality of language learning. The second factor was the need, identified in previous research, to gain a deeper understanding of children’s family contexts.

It was important to consider cultural frames outside our own experiences (Bennett, 1993). Tom, Adam and Ming’s families speak English and/or Chinese at home, and all have Chinese ayis at home. Their families have homes in different countries outside China, and they have other significant people, such as grandparents, living either with them or abroad. We tested the notion that the two Chinese parents would share the same attitude towards their child’s second language learning, but learned that their attitudes were informed not by culture but by their individual real-life experiences (Pollock, 2008). Childhood experiences, educational backgrounds, and migration to different parts of the world varied. It has been fascinating to discover the factors that influenced parents in this small sample and that “every individual is multicultural, since he or she exhibits influences from many groups” (Pollock, 2008).  

We knew we could not make generalisations from this small case study, but hoped that results would guide the development of our partnership with parents. We are reconsidering how to collect, apply, share and use this information, focussing upon the role of the key person. We hope to provide each child with the emotional security to develop the confidence to speak both Mandarin and English. 

II. Working with established researchers

I was able to meet with two established researchers from England and China during my research: Dr Peter Elfer and Professor George Xinsheng Zhang.

George Zhang, Professor of Chinese and Director of the Centre for Modern Languages at Richmond University, has published extensively on bilingualism and is working with the school to develop the Dual Language approach to Mandarin. He has researched and published academic papers on language policy, language learning and teaching, teacher training and intercultural communications. Dr Peter Elfer, an expert on the key person approach, is Principal Lecturer in Early Childhood Studies and Convenor of the Masters Programme in Early Childhood Studies at the University of Roehampton. He has researched and published academic papers on the well being of young children.

We communicated with both researchers  throughout the first cycle of research. After an initial visit to meet the team and observe the setting, Professor Zhang (2015) wrote, “I am confident that the research being carried out is of great significance for the future of those attending the school now and in terms of creating an adequate and unique model of dual language education”  (Appendix 13).


III. The Themes

Three distinct themes emerged from the evaluation of our work, as well as the research and conversations with parents and teachers.

  1. Knowing each child: how effectively we gathered and used the knowledge about the language context of each child.
  2. Building relationships: how we collaborated to support each child’s language learning in our Mandarin and English environment.
  3. Defining our Dual Language approach: our need to gain more knowledge of multi-language learning to refine a Dual Language model that relates to the experiential learning that is so important for young children.

We asked our community of action researchers to address these issues.


IV.  The literature review

The literature on how children acquire language helped us to analyse our findings, enhancing our understanding of some key research into language development. A great deal has been published on the theory and history of multilingualism, which we will continue to research as we develop our Dual Language approach. Our literature review reflected the themes of the research. The extract below considers the school’s approach to language learning:

Our children in the Foundation Stage class are encouraged to learn languages experientially through a variety of child-initiated and adult-led activities, such as role-play and cooking activities. Krashen (2008) compares the “Skill-building Hypothesis”, which posits that real language cannot be used until skills are mastered, to the “Comprehension Hypothesis”, which posits that language is acquired once we understand what we hear or read (p.179). In the class we observed, the focus on adult-led phonics sessions (as a tool to develop English reading skills) could be interpreted as a contradiction to the Comprehension Hypothesis. However, children were observed using phonics whilst playing and reading, so there was no evidence to support the concern that “reading is delayed until phonics is mastered” (p.181). But perhaps the skills acquired act as the “monitor” or “editor” referred to by Krashen (p. 180) and children use the phonic rules naturally when applying them to their developing reading and writing.

Our previous monolingual approach to learning, sometimes resulting in Chinese children’s loss of their first or heritage language, is referred to as “subtractive bilingualism” (Lambert 1975). Research indicates that the loss of a child’s first language can have a negative impact upon a child’s cognitive development (Bialystock and Feng, 2011), employment opportunities (Krashen, 1998) and relationships with both the family and the community (Wong-Fillmore, 1991). Sometimes a child may be stronger in one language than the other, but the right language opportunities in an effective immersion programme should ensure that children progress in their first language according to developmental expectations.

Consistent exposure to a language and multiple opportunities to hear and practice it, to understand it and to build meaning and vocabulary, are essential for young children acquiring a second language, whether “simultaneously” or “sequentially” (Genesee, Paradis, & Crago, 2004). Simultaneous acquisition is exposure to two or more languages from birth whilst sequential acquisition is exposure to a second language that begins at or after three years of age. Sequential language learners have gained conceptual knowledge in their first language and can make use of their prior knowledge, skills, and tactics when learning the second language (Ervin-Tripp, 1974). For example, they may already understand that horses and sheep are classified as animals, and do not need to learn the concept again.

Whether multi-language learners are children who are learning two or more languages at once or children who have made significant progress in one language and are learning a second one (Genesee, Paradis, & Crag, 2004), researchers agree that young children’s “receptive” language is far more extensive than their “expressive” language (NICHD, 2000). Receptive language refers to what children understand, while expressive language refers to what children are able to say. Despite widespread concern, exposure to more than one language during the early childhood does not cause confusion. Infants and toddlers who are exposed to two languages from birth attain language milestones. 

V.  Tom’s Story

Once we had framed our essential question we began work on the case studies of Tom, Adam and Ming. Below is the story of Tom told through observations with parents, teachers and Tom himself.

Tom at home and school

Tom is five years old (d.o.b.7.10.10), was born in England and lives in China with his mum Lorna, his dad Peter and his two older brothers Sam, aged 8, and Will, aged 10. He has lived in China for 18 months. Tom’s first language is English (spoken at home) but he is acquiring Mandarin at school and at home with his ayi and brothers. Tom and his brothers have recently started to talk to each other in Mandarin when they don’t want their parents to understand. Lorna commented that she and Peter talk to each other in French if they want to have a private conversation (Appendix 12, p 17).

Tom’s ayi speaks to him in Mandarin. Lorna was born in Canada and has Serbian, Greek and French heritage from her maternal grandparents. Lorna feels that this cultural heritage has “influenced her interest in travel, languages, culture” (Appendix 14). Lorna grew up in Canada, where French was part of the curriculum, and she studied French at university. When she taught at a bilingual school in Switzerland she realised “my speaking skills were weak compared to listening, reading and writing and it wasn’t until I was in situ that I could improve my ability to speak French” (Appendix 14). Peter’s family has lived in the Middle East and South Africa, which “has influenced his love of travel, culture and ease at living overseas. Peter studied for a French/business degree and spent time in Paris and Reims in his final year” (Appendix 14).

Lorna had clear expectations of this research:  “To develop an understanding of the influence of language acquisition by engaging families and teachers together” (Appendix 14).

Tom started at nursery class in August 2014, joining reception in August 2015 on a full time basis. Tom enjoys playing with Adam and Ming.

Before Tom started school Ying and Niamh visited Tom and Lorna at home. Lorna was impressed that Ying only spoke in Mandarin to Tom from his first day in reception, despite his usual reluctance to speak in this language. Lorna soon observed that he understood Mandarin in small ways. Lorna was clear that she wanted Tom to acquire Mandarin “through social contexts, through scaffolding of teachers, through stories and songs” (Appendix 14).

Tom using English and Mandarin

From November to February Tom’s mum and teachers documented some of his use of Mandarin and English. They noted Tom’s increased confidence in Mandarin through his:

  1. interest in numbers and phonics
  2. ability to engage in Mandarin through routines
  3. spontaneous use of Mandarin
  4. relationships at home and school

Tom’s interest in numbers and phonics

Tom is most comfortable using Mandarin when he is using numbers and phonics. In the November meeting Lorna notes, “he genuinely loves numbers”. Ying referred to a game of Simon Says in Mandarin, when Tom answered quickly when numbers were used. Ying notes that his understanding is good. She will say “one” in Mandarin and he will shout “two” and so on (Appendix 12. p.12). Ying and Niamh agreed that he is making progress, using Mandarin through his enjoyment of numbers and words (Appendix 12. p.2, p.12.).

In November evidence from two videos of child-initiated play showed Tom using Mandarin through numbers and phonics.

Counting to 10

The boys are talking with Niamh who is standing nearby, whilst Ming and Tom are playing a counting game. “…Ying asks Ming to count to ten and Tom looks up and quickly counts to ten in Mandarin. They then both count in English” (Appendix, VM1).

Duck, Duck Goose

Ming, Tom and Adam are switching from Mandarin to English whilst playing Duck, Duck, Goose. They use the names in Mandarin and English (Appendix 8. VM14).

By February there is more evidence of Tom using his Mandarin and English in child-initiated and adult-guided learning. Two observations show Tom’s progression and Tom as the “teacher”.

Tom writes “zip”

Tom appears with “zip” that he has written on a piece of paper whilst listening to Niamh helping some of his friends with this sound (VT15).

“Bing qi ling”

Tom and Adam are playing a picture game and Tom takes on the role of the teacher with Niamh when she asks him to choose a picture for her. Tom tells her that her ice cream is “bing qi ling” in Mandarin (Appendix 8, VA1).

Tom engaging in Mandarin through routines

In November Lorna notes that Tom still says “I don’t know” if she asks him to do something simple in Mandarin. Ying reassures her that “his routine language is well absorbed now” (Appendix 12, p.13).

In February Niamh noted that Tom understands routine language with ease, such as tidy up, have a drink, children line up, have lunch, pack bags. He talks to his ayi in Chinese when she comes to school (Appendix 8,VT5). Lorna notes how special Tom’s relationship is with ayi now that he can speak more to her in Mandarin. Lorna realises the importance of language in relationships (Appendix 8, V11).

Tom’s spontaneous use of Mandarin

Tom made a video himself in November after a cycle trip through a migrant town where he had talked to some of the local people from the back of his mum’s bike. Before this he was very reluctant to speak Mandarin outside school and they were unaware of his progress.

Talking on the phone

Tom seized his mum’s phone and started to talk continuously in Mandarin. He used made up language spotted with words such as “Mum”, “Dad”, and “must go”, and he used the right tones (Appendix 8. VT 10.)        

Tom spontaneously used spoken Mandarin many times during activities (Appendix 8, pp. VT9, VM1, VM14). In January, Lorna noticed a change in Tom’s confidence and that he was more enthusiastic about Mandarin.

Tom’s relationships at home and in the setting

A range of evidence shows Tom engaging in playful activities in Mandarin and English with his friends, and in number of phonics activities (Appendix 8, pp. VT6, VT9, VT11, VM1, VT6, VM14, VM15). He also likes to take the lead in activities and become the “teacher” (Appendix 12, p.17), in indoors and outdoors play (Appendix 8,VT7).

Counting to 100

When Tom counts to 100 in Mandarin, sitting on his mum’s knee at home, he occasionally looks to his ayi for support and she helps him. When he reaches the number 12 his ayi is delighted (Appendix 8, VT11).

One evening in February he talks in Mandarin at bath time. Lorna makes an audio recording on her phone.

Heads, Shoulders, Knees and Toes

Tom starts the conversation with “ni hao  [hello] and says “I am gege [older brother]”, “I am didi [younger brother]”, “I am Baba [Dad]”, “I am Mama [Mum]”. He says “I am washing head, washing hair” in Mandarin. Tom starts singing Head Shoulders, Knees and Toes in Mandarin, splashing water to make a rhythm (Appendix 8, A).

Tom’s voice

In January we recorded Tom’s voice in conversations with his mum, Ying and Niamh. Ying and Niamh also recorded conversations with the PE, IT and music teachers (Appendix 8, V). The first audio recording in January (at bath time) was about how and when he speaks Mandarin.


Tom keeps using the word “persevere” saying it means, “don’t quit”. When his mum asks him if he has to persevere in Mandarin he says it is “a hard job ‘cos some people don’t really know any Chinese”. He says he speaks Chinese and English. His mum says he uses it “... when school starts for ‘fruit’ and ‘packing’ his bags… he also switches to Mandarin and says, ‘wash your hands’, ‘get your water’, ‘no, not that’ in Mandarin then English (Appendix 8, A1). He says ‘nihao’ to Ying every morning and says he can say anything to his ayi in Chinese, ‘Shui’ or ‘water’. He says he never talks English to his friends who can’t” (Appendix 8,VT4).

In February, Ying and Tom were in a relaxed space. Ying translated the conversation into Mandarin with Tom on the video.

Tom talking to Ying in Mandarin

“He is able to understand all the questions, but not able to speak yet. He says he enjoys playing physical games in Chinese more than listening to a story. He does try to talk to his ayi in Chinese” (Appendix 8,VT5).

Ying spoke to Bob (Scottish), Sofia (French) and Pip (Chinese) who teach the boys P.E, music and P.E respectively. All the lessons have Mandarin and English speaking teachers in them.

 Bob notes, “You can speak to him in Mandarin and English. He would obviously prefer to speak in English and I would struggle to speak to him in Mandarin. I have learnt the colours from them [the children], especially Tom” (Appendix 8, V PE). Sofia uses English but also sings in Chinese and says she “loves” the boys (Appendix 8,VMu). Pip says Tom speaks in English and is very confident, solving problems and following instructions (Appendix 8,VIT).

Knowing Tom

Tom’s story demonstrates the diversity of children’s cultural contexts. His context appeared simple, as English is mainly spoken in his home. However, we soon discovered Tom’s cultural influences and experiences were varied and included his mother’s Serbian, Greek and French heritage and his parents’ conversations in French (Rogoff, 2012). Tom is also acquiring Mandarin in China, and can understand his ayi, friends and teachers. Collier (1995) notes the importance of everyday social and cultural processes. Tom’s interactions with his ayi, friends and teachers contribute to the richness of his exposure to Mandarin. Tom’s speaking in a stream of Mandarin after a visit to a migrant area demonstrated the influence and importance of learning in context.

The information about Tom has helped us to understand his needs as a Mandarin speaker and the importance of communicating his progress with the adults in his life. He can already apply the skills he has learned in his acquisition of Mandarin. Certain relationships are key for him; he feels confidant when talking to his mum about using Mandarin at their special bath time and when sitting on her knee counting to 100. Tom and his mum recognised that his relationship with his ayi was developing as he acquired more Mandarin. Tom was observed in a variety of contexts playing with Ming and Adam using Mandarin and English more frequently.

Tom is developing his own codes and switching languages according to whomever he is speaking to. He speaks Mandarin to Ying and his ayi, and English to his friends who cannot speak Mandarin (Genesee et al 2004). Tom inserted English words into his conversation during bath time that, according to McLaughlin (1995), helps children using two languages to resolve ambiguities and clarify statements.

Tom’s confidence in Mandarin has developed through using numbers and phonics. He has entered what Tabors (1997) describes as “going public”, using individual words and phrases in Mandarin (p.39). Tom has to continue to learn vocabulary and conceptual skills in English to learn Mandarin. Vygotsky (1962) stressed the importance of the learning environment, which in Tom’s case supports his learning. A number of spontaneous learning opportunities, both indoors and outdoors enabled him to follow his interest in numbers and phonics with both Ying and Niamh scaffolding his learning. It would have been good to see evidence of more experiential activities to see how Tom uses his Mandarin in a wider range of child-initiated learning.

Lorna’s relationship with Ying and Niamh is key in discovering how much Mandarin Tom is using at school, as previously he told his parents he knew “nothing”. Ying reassured Lorna in November that he was using routine language and by February she observed that he talked to his ayi at the end of the day. The importance of Ying, Niamh and Lorna sharing their “knowing” of Tom is referred to by Vygotsky (1978) as “making meaning”. 


VI.  Knowing Ying and Niamh

Talking to Ying and Niamh also helped to build a picture of the three boys’ use of their second language and highlighted the importance of the relationship between practitioners.

Ying’s and Niamh’s cultural backgrounds are as diverse as Tom, Adam and Ming’s; in fact the Irish Gaelscoileanna that Niamh experienced is a model referred to by Cummins (1978). Whilst they have a remit to speak their own language to the children, they have a respect of each other’s first language. Ying speaks English, using it with the children when needed, whilst Niamh is learning Mandarin, often asking the children to help her. Both have a shared approach to Dual Language in that it should be meaningful for the children. Ruiz (1984) views this linguistic diversity as an advantage. Their relationship is strong and they work together to plan for the children on a weekly and daily basis. The well-constructed and developmentally appropriate activities that they plan demonstrate values that should be promoted (Soderman, 2010). Their seamless approach was apparent when they led circle time in Mandarin and English. They differed in their approach to home visits. For Ying, home visits gave her a better understanding of each child whilst Niamh thought that sharing video clips at school would be more beneficial. They agreed that carrying out the visits cemented their relationship. The research has developed their approach to partnering with parents and sharing their knowledge of the children though the video clips and ongoing dialogue. They are creating the supportive environment that Vygotsky (1962) believed is essential for effective language development.


VII. Unexpected outcomes

The most important outcome of this research has been the knowledge we have gathered that relationships are key to a child’s language development.

We understood the importance of relationships but previously focused on how Mandarin was taught. George Zhang’s visit (Appendix 11) has highlighted the importance of relationships and stressed that English speaking and Mandarin-speaking teachers must develop an understanding each other’s cultures and try speaking each other’s languages.

His message was strong; “Dual language education will only succeed if colleagues concerned believe in it, at least sympathetic, and ideally practicing bilingualism (not necessarily fluent)” (Appendix 11). This was certainly evident in Ying and Niamh’s relationship.

Our dialogue with Peter Elfer has helped to place how we develop relationships between the teachers at the forefront of our next piece of research (Appendix 15).


VIII.  The Last Word

I would like to develop ways of including the child in our research, as hearing Tom, Adam and Ming’s voices gave depth to our findings. Children’s reactions are honest and from this we can build our knowledge. The last words from my dissertation belong to Tom.

Last week Tom taught me how to say “bananas” in Mandarin after he had been to the market to buy some and was chopping them up. Yesterday his mum, Lorna, asked him if he liked the story I wrote about him, (meaning “Tom’s Story” in this piece of action research). Tom paused: “She doesn’t speak Mandarin, I would teach her how to, but I already tried to teach her.” Tom has identified that I sadly don’t speak Mandarin but his comment signifies how his own understanding of Mandarin has developed and the journey we have been privileged to witness of Tom, Adam and Ming as such confident, young Mandarin and English learners.

My Masters is complete and the certificate already gathering dust but the second cycle of this important piece of action research continues in our quest for a quality Dual Language model.


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