A couple of years ago, one of our bilingual students created this little story book about herself and her pet rabbit. Her pictures were beautiful and her written message was appropriate considering she’d been in an English school for one year. She was in grade one at the time and her teacher was concerned that her oral language seemed to be developing but her writing was much ‘weaker’ and had more ‘errors.’
This child came into our after-school literacy intervention group so she could get more access to reading and writing. When it came time to write each day, she was enthusiastic but did need additional time to think and record her thoughts. She was always happy to share her work once finished. We immediately noticed patterns in her writing and her ‘errors’ gave us clues as to how she was thinking and processing language. These “errors” signaled something deeper than simple mistakes that needed to be corrected.
In the example above, “I want to go at my slap room” was her way of expressing, “I want to go to my bedroom.”
In the Dutch language (which was her mother-tongue), the word for “bedroom” is called “slaapkamer.” Our student wasn’t able to recall the whole word, “bedroom” in English so she began to pull from her first language and combined it with what she could remember in English. In this way, she tried in the best way she could to come up with a meaningful message. Since Francesca had some knowledge of Dutch, we were able to put two-and-two together to make sense of her story and what was going on in her head.
This is a brilliant example of what often happens to BMLs when they’re learning English. These students often use their own mother-tongue (MT) or other language to think in. They rely on this language to support them when they do not have enough vocabulary in English to start “thinking” in it. Often, they try to apply the grammatical rules from their own language to English since that comes naturally to them; or they might even try to use vocabulary from their own language to “fill-in-the-blanks” when they don’t know a word in English. It is important to encourage our BMLs to do this if they need to, so that it can help to bridge their gaps. It will also allow them to gain confidence in expressing themselves. Sometimes BMLs become afraid to write if they worry that their work is “incorrect” or might be marked wrong.
Teachers can support BMLs at every stage of their development by allowing them to use their MT or other language to support their English. Try to understand your BMLs and why they might have made a particular kind of “error” in their writing.Get to know a little about their home language and maybe even a little about its structure. If you have a staff or adult around who speaks the same language, let them take a look at the work and give you some insights about what the child might have been thinking.
Even just knowing that it’s perfectly okay for your student to think in or use their mother-tongue (or other language) to support their growing English can give you confidence as a teacher. It can also help you explain to parents why they shouldn’t worry if their child is making these kinds of mistakes. When parents see that you have the answers and can reassure them that their child’s development is normal, they’ll trust you. Then as your BMLs gain greater proficiency and knowledge of English, you are likely to see less of these kinds of “errors.”