Different characters versus illiteracy


Jian is ten years old. He and his parents moved from China to the Netherlands 7 months ago and he has been going to school in the Netherlands for 5 months. Jian can do math at grade 6 level. In addition he has been getting good results in the spoken Dutch track and he sometimes joins for math lessons in the regular grade 6 class. Still, his teacher does not think he should go to the regular class any time soon. His spelling and reading skills are far behind his maths skills. In addition, Jian does not dare to say much in class and does not often talk to his classmates.

The teacher quickly caught onto the fact that Jian is good at math. His lessons with the regular class do not only allow him to make progress with his maths skills, but also expose him to a lot of relevant language input and social possibilities (Harklau, 1994).

Jian is certainly not the first pupil to struggle with reading and writing in the target language after migration. The representation of sound through letters is more straightforward in some languages (such as Spanish and Italian) than it is in others (such as English). In addition, older pupils already have a sound-letter connection in their own language that may be different from that in the school’s language. Because of this, spelling/reading is not straightforward (right away). For some pupils, such as Jian, things are extra complicated due to the fact that their languages are expressed using characters that are different from the ones used in the school’s language. Dutch, for instance, uses Latin-based characters, whereas for example Slavic languages, Greek and Arabic use different characters, and Chinese characters do not represent sounds but the meaning of the word.

Please note that it is important to realize that there is a difference between pupils who do not know or use Latin characters in their own languages and pupils who are illiterate and did not receive education in their home country: for them, the transition is not only more difficult with regard to academic skills, but also due to a lack of knowledge about school rules and possible different norms and values. These aspects, combined with a lack of positive interaction between pupil and teachers, may lead to a disinterest in reading, lack of motivation and behavioral issues (Birman & Tran, 2015; Suarez et al., 2008). Therefore, these two types of students cannot be lumped together: it is likely that there are large differences in the processes of development and socialization they went through while growing up: make sure to keep this in mind when working on the student file as well as during the transition. (see Languages)

Different scripts versus illiteracy

How often do you come across a pupil who can only read and write using different characters? What do you do when this is the case: what methods does your school apply? Are there separate methods/approaches for illiterate pupils than there are for pupils who have been educated differently when it comes to reading and writing?

Family resources

“It is one thing to identify resources but quite another to use them fruitfully in classrooms” (Moll & González 1994: 441). How do you acknowledge the (language) resources of students and their families?

No education in the home country

What do you do if a pupil never attended school in their home country? Imagine you are the pupil: if you were a child or teenager and you had to live and work together with people in a country with rules that are unfamiliar and, to you, illogical, what would that feel like? Why might the pupil show some resistance against your approach?