Language diversity in schools is a resource

Psychologist Jasmin Decristan heads the unit School Intervention Research on Special Educational Needs at the Institute of Educational Research

There are 2750 public primary schools in North Rhine-Westphalia. At more than one in ten schools, more than half of the children rarely or never speak German at home. Many see this as problematic. But does it have to be this way? Since 2017, the Institute of Educational Research at the University of Wuppertal has had a research unit on school-based intervention research for special needs, headed by psychologist Prof. Dr. Jasmin Decristan. In one of her projects, the researcher is working on "Promoting German Literacy through Multilingual Sensitive Reciprocal Teaching in the Primary Classroom", or meRLe in short. A project with a "rather unwieldy title", she bluntly admits. The project's promotion works with two essential building blocks that we link together. "Reciprocal teaching and a multilingual sensitivity. Reciprocal teaching is a teaching-learning method in which students work togetheron in small groups reading German texts and supporting each other under structured guidelines," she explains. "They do this by cooperatively reading sections in different roles, but also by using so-called reading strategies together. The children learn to make sense of a text by asking questions about it and summarising it. "These strategies are often neglected in regular classes," Decristan explains, "but they are very important for reading. And if the children can use these strategies well, they can use them in secondary school in very different subjects." Reciprocal in this context means working mutually, applying strategies together or getting corrective feedback from learning partners. "And we, innovatively, combine reciprocal teaching with the building block of multilingual sensitivity," she continues, because "when we go into the school classes in NRW, we see that the children bring many different languages with them. There is a diversity of languages. And that is not limited to one hot spot. It is the norm!"

Every language can be a resource

Decristan wants to use this language diversity, whether it is English, Turkish, Farsi or Russian. "Our approach is that languages can also have a positive influence on each other," the educational researcher explains. "If I can do something in one language, I can possibly build a bridge for the other language. We also know that people switch between languages and mix them: If you are sitting on the bus and someone is talking on the phone in another language, you will hear German words in between. But can a positive correlation also be empirically proven? We want to investigate this question and say: It is not important whether it is French or English, but every language can be a resource." To do this, however, the many languages of the children in a class must first be made visible. In the project, this is done by children creating language portraits of themselves and asking themselves very simple questions: "Which languages do I speak? Where in my body would I locate a particular language, in my head, stomach, legs or hands? And why?", Decristan explains. During the reading itself, tip cards that are translated into more than 30 languages are used to help the respective children apply the reading strategies. "And for the children who cannot read the written language of their heritage language, we also have a language learning pen. You press on it and then the tip on the tip card is read aloud in the other language." Through language partners, which there are in almost all classes, the children can support each other, reciprocally, in their learning. And it is precisely this "recourse to the entire language repertoire", Decristan says, "that could improve German reading. So to speak, pupils are each other's resources." The positive synergy effect is that making the languages visible, learning together and helping each other is fun for the children and also makes them proud.

What is good teaching?

The addressees of her research are all teachers as well who ensure good teaching. But what is actually good teaching? Decristan explains: "Good teaching must always be compatible with and embedded in our social, cultural ideas and norms and values of teaching. What we consider good teaching here, for example, may not be good teaching in Asia." The researcher adds that if good teaching also demonstrably fulfils important goals of school, such as promoting learning and motivation, then one can speak of quality teaching. At this point, Decristan refers to empirical research that suggests that teaching quality is not linked to a specific method. The methods are tools," she explains, "and it is primarily a question of what one wants to achieve with these tools, how one applies them and uses them in the classroom, for example, to stimulate deeper reflection in the students. This reflection is not achieved by simply practising and working through task packages, but by posing problems with different ways of solving them or by linking the lessons to previous knowledge. Equally important are appreciative, respectful interaction with each other and sufficient learning time through class management techniques. These three basic design principles, i.e. cognitive activation, appreciation and class management, have been proven to promote learning and motivate.

Teacher professionalisation

A prospective teacher usually enters the classroom after six years of study and teacher training. "However, professionalisation of teachers is not a process that starts at the beginning of studies and is completed at the end," Decristan makes clear, "because learning is a lifelong process. I too learn something new every day. The point is that we have to take social developments, the need for new measures and methods into account, and research is also evolving," the Lower Saxony-born explains. Accordingly, it is important to continuously professionalise what we do. And no one has to do it alone. "We have to get away from this lone wolf approach," she demands, "there are also experienced people in the teaching staff where you can get help and exchange ideas. They can do this in the context of joint lesson preparation or also by exchanging materials," Decristan suggests. "You can also invite your colleagues into your own classroom and get a second perspective on your teaching. Maybe I did not recognize something? What new things can I try out? Of course, this presupposes a certain openness," the experienced researcher knows. The demand for teacher professionalisation is, of course, also borne by the schools. In addition to offers for further training, there are also regular so-called pedagogical days at the schools, where selected contents are presented and deepened in the entire teaching staff. Decristan also advocates getting the learners on board. "Why not also consult the pupils and get their opinion? Even primary school children can give quite differentiated information about lessons. But here, too, the rule is: obligation is not the way to go, it has to happen on a voluntary basis," advises the psychologist. Individual support does not necessarily mean the support of single people. One of Decristan's main areas of work at the Institute of Educational Research is "individual support". But what does that mean? Imagine a teacher in a 25-member primary school class with two children with behavioural problems and other children who either hardly speak German or have difficulties in reading or doing arithmetic. How can individual support succeed in this situation? First of all, individual support starts with a basic pedagogical approach, i.e. "the basic idea that pupils are different. Every child has different learning paths, approaches and strategies that he or she brings with him or her. Nevertheless, this attitude is not reflected in the way we teach." Differentiation, Decristan explains, is not the norm. The idea that the teacher then offers each child individual learning opportunities is a setting that is often associated with individual support," she says, but studies show that this makes little sense in a class of 25 children, because "the teachers are then essentially busy managing the many parallel tasks." Fruitful dialogue and learning together are then very limited. The psychologist prefers a different approach. "In the preparation phase, you should think about which class and which learners am I actually dealing with? Where do they stand and how can I support them best?" Through smaller, prepared task settings, the learning level can be specifically diagnosed and this information, which is important for the learning process, comes from the students during the lesson and not traditionally as a test result at the end of a lesson series. Teachers can then continue to work with this information and, for example, adjust the pace and difficulty in a targeted way. A targeted composition of small groups, which then work together, is also in line with the idea of individual support.

Language is the key to education

Language is the key to education. If children cannot fully develop their language potential, they are likely to be disadvantaged in school and professional life. "Successful educational processes always need people who motivate," says the Freiburg sociologist Albert Scherr. It is the task of universities to train these people, to prepare them for their tasks in the school service and to further professionalise them within the framework of society. Prof. Dr. Jasmin Decristan at the Institute of Educational Research at the University of Wuppertal is continuously working on the ever-changing challenges.

Uwe Blass (Interview on February 12, 2020)


Prof. Dr. Jasmin Decristan studied Psychology in Göttingen and received her doctorate in 2008. Until 2016 she worked at the German Institute of International Educational Research in Frankfurt a.M., then as an academic councillor at the Goethe University Frankfurt. Since 2017, she has headed the department of "School-based Intervention Research for Special Educational Needs" at the Institute of Educational Research in the School of Education at the University of Wuppertal.

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