Reader Response Journal

Plurilingual Pedagogical Practices in a Policy-Constrained Context: A Northern Ugandan Case Study by Doris Maandebo Abiria, Margaret Early and Maureen Kendrick

This article examines the ways a group of teachers at a primary school in Northern Uganda used plurilingual and multimodal techniques in their subject-area classes. In Uganda, schools are allowed to use one local language as the medium of instruction until 3rd grade, but then are expected to switch to English in fourth grade (called P4 for primary 4). While the school in the study was in a Lugbara speaking area, it had students from a number of different countries and language backgrounds, making for a very multilingual student body. Uganda is also an exam-driven context, where the students are expected to take high stakes tests in English, which often have very poor results. The school in question is run by the government and has very few resources (P4 initially had over 100 students per class, until they regrouped them into classes of 77). The six teachers in the study said that when the asked students questions in English, they would get blank stares, so they developed alternative pedagogies to reach them, despite these being in opposition to the stated government policies. The primary strategies that the teachers used were translating into the dominant local language, using students as peer tutors to reach those who spoke other languages and using a wide range of semiotic modes to communicate meaning, including dramas, demonstrations, songs, drawings and role plays. As Abiria, one of the researchers, notes, these strategies were effective because they came from the teachers themselves, rather than being imposed by the Ministry. Despite these innovations, the teachers were conflicted. Challenges they faced included breaking the ministry rules in a context where school inspectors have a lot of power, initial training that was focused on theory rather than practice, lack of on-going professional development opportunities, curriculum restraints, including the need to teach very specialized vocabulary, national examinations conducted exclusively in English, lack of time and resources and large class sizes. Nonetheless, the etchers continued to use a range of linguistic and multimodal resources to communicate content effectively to their students, because according to one teacher “they are so excited…they are free” (p. 587). and the alternative is disengagement and students dropping out. The fact that the head teacher and parents saw the importance of these strategies (and the futility of the monolingual alternative) was also an incentive for the teachers to keep using them.

I am always interested in reading about TESOL practice in Africa, and East Africa in particular. I love comparing the situations in these studies to those at my schools in Tanzania. It’s interesting that Ugandan schools do the same sort of switch of the medium of instruction as in Tanzania, they just do it earlier, and in a country without a single dominant language to serve as a lingua franca between different groups, the way Swahili is in Tanzania, they leave the choice of language of instruction for grades 1-3 up to the local schools. It’s also interesting that Northern Uganda is so multiethnic, multilingual and multinational, because my area of Tanzania was almost exclusively populated by students from the same tribe. However, some of the challenges, including the importance of the national examinations, the lack of resources and the fact that ministry decisions seem out of touch with teacher’s on the ground realities are quite similar. Also, the more I read about plurilingual pedagogies, the more practical they seem to me. Despite the fact that I speak Swahili, in Tanzania I taught almost (but not quite) entirely in English. I wonder how I could have used these teachers’ techniques there. I think the integration of the translanguaging methodologies with other communicative modalities is a particularly important idea, and something I’m trying to use in my classes here in Ecuador, where I use Spanish alongside my MI-based approaches in an attempt to reach the students. Like the Ugandan teachers, I’m a bit conflicted about the approaches I’m using here, but I think they’re better than the alternative of students’ blank stares and lack of comprehension.

Abiria, D. M., Early, M. & Kendrick, M. (2013). Plurilingual pedagogical practices in a policy-constrained context: A northern Ugandan case study. TESOL Quarterly, 47(3), 567-590.

Reader Response Journal

Using Local Languages in English Language Classrooms by Ahmar Mahboob and Angel Lin

This chapter examines why local languages are devalued in ELT pedagogy and proposes a model for incorporating local languages into the classroom in a multimodal way. After the Grammar Translation method fell out of fashion, the inner-circle dominated methodological developments, which meant that techniques were being designed with an ESL context, without a dominant language shared by all students, in mind. In this context, focusing on English-only instruction made sense, but the techniques were exported to other countries as the most current and modern approaches, without adapting to local EFL conditions. The result of the global spread of these inner circle approaches has been the perpetuation of the myths that languages are stable, standardized and rule-governed, rather than socially situated and fluid; the language learning is a zero sum game, where using the local language detracts from students’ ability to learn the target language and that language is a commodity that can be bought, sold and internationally marketed, turning teaching into an exchange of goods. In contrast to these harmful approaches, Mahboob and Lin argue for “more inclusive and context dependent models of language” (p. 9). They argue that local languages can be used in class for ideational, textual and interpersonal functions. They analyze an extract from a study Lin did in 1999, where a bilingual teacher in Hong Kong used codeswitching for Intiation-Response-Feedback exchanges. When the exchanges focused on the story (interpersonal function), all three phases were conducted in Cantonese, but when the exchanges were about language (ideational or textual functions), the initiation and response phases were in either language and were repeated until the student response was in English with the feedback in English as well. In this way, she started where the students were comfortable and built them towards the English expressions. They end their chapter by outlining Lin’s Multimodalities/Entextualization Cycle (MEC) as a method for systematically incorporating local languages into the classroom. In the first phase, students’ interest in the topic is raised through multimodalities and the use of familiar language, either LL or TL. In the second phase, students read a target language text and unpack it using everyday language, either LL or TL, along with multimodal representations of the meaning. In the third stage, students entextualize (put the experience in the text) using scaffolded academic target language in the appropriate genres.

The historical context that they give on why English only instruction is so dominant is really useful for thinking about why its ok to challenge the existing paradigm. Essentially, the use of the inner circle strategies in EFL contexts was never consciously chosen as appropriate (and certainly wasn’t based on research showing its effectiveness), but instead was a quirk of the cultural and economic dominance of the inner circle countries, which were uncritically adopted as normative worldwide, rather than being perceived as locally and contextually specific to the countries the techniques were developed in. The balance between local languages in the class is something I’ve been thinking about a lot here in Ecuador, where I use a fair bit of Spanish in my teaching. The MEC approach and the example of the teacher in Hong Kong both seem worthwhile, but they assume the teacher has full (rather than partial) abilities in the local language. I’m interesting in exploring whether there are any resources or studies out there about teachers who are not native speakers of the local language using it as an effective teaching tool in the classroom, and if so, what the best ways to do that are. It’s also interesting to me how strong the discourse of shame around LL in the classroom is too, which is definitely something I feel here at times. It’m thinking back on World Teach’s training, where they didn’t advocate for an English-only classroom, but they did discourage the use of Spanish to teach English content (instead suggesting it only for procedural information, like directions). It’s a step in the right direction, but not far enough yet. In contrast, the Edificar training was super dismissive of any valid role for Spanish inside the English classroom, which is problematic and increasingly out of date. Reading this now has encouraged me to incorporate plutilingual pedagogy into my EcuaTESOL proposal, alongside multiple intelligences and multimodality.

Mahboob, A., & Lin, A. M. Y. (2016). Using local languages in English language classrooms. In Willy A. Renandya and Handoyo P. Widodo (Eds.), English language teaching today: Building a closer link between theory and practice. New York: Springer.