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Promoting Multilingualism in School

Promoting Multilingualism in School

In December 2021, Schools of Sanctuary spoke alongside Dr. Sabine Little from the Lost Wor(l)ds project at a seminar series hosted by the University of Sheffield’s Migration Research Group about the importance of promoting multilingualism in school as a social justice issue.

Dr. Little outlined the falling prioritisation of multilingualism in education policy across the UK over past decades despite the growing evidence proving the importance of recognising multilingualism in schools for both multilingual and monolingual children.

Megan Greenwood, from Schools of Sanctuary, drew on case studies from across the network, including from St Mary the Virgin Primary School in Cardiff to highlight good practice and explained how the promotion of multilingualism in school is as a way of embedding an ethos of welcome and inclusion, one of the minimum criteria for being recognised as a School of Sanctuary.

Event Summary

What is the context of multilingualism in schools today?

  • Approximately 20% of students are first- or second-generation immigrants (UNESCO, 2018), with numbers on the increase. Over 1 in 5 pupils are registered as EAL (DfE, 2020)
  • Language predominantly treated as deficit model in education across policy documentation (Little, 2019)
  • Curriculum pressures often dictate focus on learning English, not ‘full linguistic repertoire’
  • Formal qualifications in heritage languages being cut
  • Most heritage language education taking place in community schools
  • Lots of amazing work at classroom, school, council, and organisation level (NALDIC, Bell Foundation, etc.), but not recognised in formal, national policy

In this context, students in many schools experience a lack of recognition of their multilingual skills or, at best, enjoy ‘moments of multilingualism’ where their skills are recognised during irregular one-off activities or solely in one display in school.

For students and parents, activities around language and literacy can often overlook the extent of students’ skills, knowledges and experiences – devaluing their efforts, home learning and multilingual abilities.

“I’m in Year 6. Nobody at school knows that I speak Hungarian.”

“I read all the Harry Potter books in Bengali. But why do you want to know about that? Nobody wants to know about that.”

“It would never occur to me to write what we read in Slovak into [my daughter’s] reading diary.”

Why is multilingualism in schools important?

According to Dr. Sabine Little, promoting multilingualism:

  • illustrates all aspects of the child are welcome.
  • presents school as multicultural *beyond* multilingual welcome signs.
  • gives children tools to learn with *all* their skills, rather than forcing them to do so with one hand tied behind their back.
  • Is in line with promoting “British Values.”

In a UK-wide context in which speaking languages other than English is often treated with distrust or criticism, normalising multlingualism and making sure all students are  exposed to languages with which they might not be familiar are important practices to help students become more welcoming to people who are newly arrived to the UK or speak more than one language.

How can schools embed the recognition and promotion of multilingualism in school?

  • Encourage children to bring all their languages to their work (repertoire approach) when learning new vocabulary, concepts, or about different topics. This can be done by making sure students have a “Working out” box or sheet for scribbles and notes across all languages.
  • Depending on the child, the home language *or* English might be stronger, but either can be used to showcase knowledge and understanding.
  • Dictionary skills (and/or parental/peer support) can be used to “puzzle out” missing words, and develop literacy skills across all languages

Schools can become better familiarised with these practices through the free activities and resources on the Lost Wor(l)ds website. These activities are linked to nature, conservation, and sustainability but include techniques that are universally adaptable across the curriculum.


Putting Multilingualism into Policy and School Practice

Short-Term Goals for Schools

  • Facilitate inclusion of books in home languages into ‘read at home’ diaries.
  • Ask children to share their language knowledge as part of formal education.
  • Embed multilingualism into teaching, storytelling, and shared reading (“how would you say X in your language/s”).
  • Encourage children to use their full linguistic repertoire to work things out.
  • Integrate multilingualism into praise


Medium Term Goals

  • Start a multilingual section in the library (with reading rewards/multilingual storytelling if ambitious) (sneaky link: )Create
  • Create a display board about non-English books
  • Integrate multilingualism into award systems
  • Communicate commitment to multilingualism to parents
  • Enable staff training / parent information sessions about the value in multilingualism and techniques in how to promote multilingualism.
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Case Studies from the Network

St Mary the Virgin Primary School, Cardiff

St Mary the Virgin Primary School in Butetown, Cardiff is a diverse Christian faith school community. Within the student body, there are 18 languages with 83% of students speaking English as an Additional Language.

The school has made great efforts to recognise, value and upskill students’ multilingualism as part of everyday school practice.

Recognising multilingualism is seen as a constant and ongoing element of the school routine. In addition to the multilingual welcome display in the foyer and those in each classroom recognising students’ links to the wider world, weekly whole-school assemblies include the entire school community, both staff and students, saying welcome in every language (18!) spoken in the school community. In doing so, every person within school is able to say a word of greeting to every other person in their first language. Within each assembly, the school also shares a prayer – initially started as a Christian prayer in English, but over recent years, this has grown for students from different faith communities to share a prayer from their religion in their own language with the wider school.

Multilingualism is also brought into the practical elements of school life in a diverse community. The school has made efforts to recruit and hire staff from the majority communities of many of the students, who speak some of the languages of the students and their families. Whilst all schools communications are translated into multiple languages, during the schools closures of 2019 and 2020, videos share with families also had optional voice overs in Arabic and Somali.

Having understood that many students attend heritage language schools at the weekend or in the evenings, the school has also worked to recognise students’ learning outside the school setting through their participation in the Children’s University. The Children’s University encourages schools to recognise and value the learning that children do outside school. In the case of heritage language schools, this means that children can receive points or credits for their participation in these forms of learning.

Hearing from students themselves is the best way to understand the value in promoting multilingualism in school, watch this video to listen to the thoughts of students at SMTV:

Does your school have excellent practice around promoting and enabling multilingualism? Get in touch at [email protected] to share you efforts. 

With special thanks to Dr. Sabine Little for inviting us to contribute to the event and then sharing her presentation with us, from which much of this post was developed. Many thanks also to Becci Baston at St Mary the Virgin Primary School for her contribution to the accompanying case study and for bringing together the video of students’ voices.