To explain what a transition is and its effect on the school trajectory of students, it is important to first understand what the goals of schooling are. One of the major goals of education is the development of a high level of literacy. How do we define literacy? According to the definition of UNESCO used in Alidou and Glanz ‘s most recent report (Alidou and Glanz (2015) i),

“[…] literacy is the ability to identify, understand, interpret, create, communicate and compute, using printed and written materials associated with varying contexts. Literacy learning is a continuum, enabling individuals to achieve their goals, develop their knowledge and potential, and participate fully in the community and wider society.” (UNESCO, 2003: 21 i)

In other words, literacy development depends on continuity. In language learning education, the goal of continuity is cumulative language development throughout the biography so that gains are not diminished or lost by changes in institutions or responsible actors. There are three important types of continuity (see Herzog, Le Pichon and Siarova (2017) i):

  1. biographical continuity, deals with the collaboration between educational institutions, but also the different educational environments, formal and informal, wherein children participate, such as youth associations, family life, and social structures;
  2. thematic continuity, revolves around a consistent and appropriate level of study material for the pupils;
  3. plurilingual continuity, ensures that students’ multilingual skills and competencies are taken into account and used for the improvement of their academic skills and register.

However, continuity in education is interrupted by transitions, such as the transition from primary to secondary education in a different location, with different teachers, courses, rules, and expectations. It does not matter how different the educational systems of different institutions are entering the system of formal schooling can significantly tax the adaptability of a child and his or her family (Griebel (2006) i). Such an educational transition is not necessarily bad; it can be compared to a different type of transition, namely moving to a new house. The latter process is not always disadvantageous to a child but can come with certain difficulties and can be experienced as stressful. It is important to note that newly arrived migrant pupils move incredibly often: between once or twice a year (Country Report Flanders; Country Report Finland) and 5 to 7 times a year (LOWAN, personal communication) depending on the country of residence.

Transitions are distinguishing transformation processes of children and their families, stimulated by the dealings with discontinuities on different social and cultural levels. They result in the biographical experience of a changing identity (Griebel & Niesel (2003) i; (Niesel & Griebel (2007) i). There are different kinds of transitions, namely horizontal and vertical transitions:

  • Horizontal transitions concern changes in the environment within the course of one day (cf. Johansson (2007) i);
  • Vertical transitions concern upward changes within segmented educational institutions (Griebel & Sassu, (2013: 324) i).

A vertical educational transition, such as the commute between the family as the primary developmental context and the school environment as the secondary developmental context, requires adaptation and causes changes in identity, relations and roles (Griebel & Sassu, (2013: 324) i). For example, the transition between primary school to secondary school causes a child to develop new aspects of identity and grow both emotionally and socially: it is far different to be a primary schooler than it is to be a secondary school student (Griebel & Sassu, (2013) i).

Further information on possible difficulties of transitions can be found in Yeboah’s (2002i) article. Yeboah cites prior research that speaks of a successful transition if the child moves from one educational phase to the next without much difficulty (Yeboah (2002: 52)). To do so, the child should be ready on an emotional, psychological, physical and intellectual level.

This article further investigates the various factors that have previously been examined such as socioeconomic status (Kontos et al., 1997 i; Elliot, 1998 i), ethnicity and linguistic background (Kontos et al., 1997 i; Smith, 1992 i, for New Zealand; Glover, 1994 i, for Australia), and parental participation (Wolbers, 1997 i; Watson, 1979 i), to see what role they play in a successful transition. Many of these factors need to be given extra attention in the case of (multilingual) students to ensure a successful transition. For example, a student struggling with his/her home situation is very vulnerable. This can be an important issue for pupils arriving in a new country, especially if the migration is due to unfortunate reasons, such as political or religious persecution or war.

Newly arrived migrant children compared to other school pupils

At school, a child has to deal with a certain amount of transitions: from home to school, preschool to primary school, primary education to secondary education, and the yearly transition to a different classroom within schools. These are considered vertical transitions. On top of that, newly arrived migrant pupils might have to deal with an enormous amount of additional consecutive transitions: from their home country to another country, which may not even be their final destination; from a place of arrival to a designated shelter; possible relocation to a different shelter; from shelter to school, where they do not speak the language and are not familiar with the culture. These pupils, even after they arrive in the welcoming country, can be hyper-mobile on various levels. This is very important since it represents an intrinsic brake to the necessary continuum that literacy implies. The population is thus, horizontally hyper-mobile (from country to country, from school to school) but, because of these disruptions and of the declined literacy that possibly follows, blocked upwards, that is to reach their true socioeconomic potential (Le Pichon, 2016 i).

Thus the questions at hand are:

  1. how can the school ensure continuity for pupils involved in multiple transitions?;
  2. how can school teachers support a holistic view of the literacy of multilingual pupils, taking into account complex histories of migration?

In some instances, new pupils can directly partake in a classroom, as it is the case in Finland (Country Report Finland) and sometimes in the Netherlands (Country Report Nederland). Often, however, the new children are set apart in a reception classroom, as in other cases in the Netherlands (Country Report Nederland) or a part-time reception classroom as in Belgium (Country Report Flanders Rapport de Belgique francophone - version française). By being kept apart from other children, the new pupils will have to deal with an additional transition: from the reception classroom to the regular classroom. Thus, there is a great need to ensure that the transition processes go as smoothly as possible to guarantee vertical continuity.

There are not many studies in which both classroom integration methods are compared. The most recent study by Harklau (1994) i compared differences between pupils who went straight to a regular class and pupils who went to a separate language class first for 3,5 years. She compared:

  • Language acquisition;
  • How the new language (in this case English) was offered;
  • And the social-emotional consequences of each approach.

The study took place at one school, which had separate classes for pupils with a migrant background. The results showed that pupils who went straight to the regular class had the advantage of receiving a lot of authentic and relevant spoken and written linguistic input. Pupils in the language classes received less of this type of input. However, for the pupils in the other classes, there was less time for interaction, feedback, and additional instruction. In addition, it was difficult for the new pupils to make social contacts. The conclusion was that neither option was ideal since education focuses too much on monolingual speakers. Therefore, each system has to take into account the advantages and inconveniences of each.

In order to create a constructive, smooth transition, and to guarantee vertical continuity, collaborative planning between institutions is required, as well as cooperation between and support from all parties involved: parents (or relatives), teachers, school heads and boards, and the students themselves. These parties need to be actively engaged in the child’s education, regular contact is required between the stakeholders and there should be an active school community.