Wissenschaftlicher Sammelband, herausgegeben von Thomas Tinnefeld - unter Mitarbeit von Christoph Bürgel, Ines-Andrea Busch-Lauer, Frank Kostrzewa, Michael Langner, Heinz-Helmut Lüger, Dirk Siepmann. Saarbrücken: htw saar 2014. ISBN 978-3-942949-05-7.
School Language and the Role of Multilingualism in Class

Mariska Kistemaker & Peter Broeder (both Tilburg, The Netherlands)

Abstract (English)
It is a recurrent observation that a source of problems with the linguistic diversity in multicultural classrooms often lies in the differences between the language the students use at home and the school language they are required to speak at school. A better insight into the characteristics of school language can yield important information for multilingual classroom practice. In the first part of this article, we present a theoretical framework that specifies different aspects of five domains of skills: language, literacy, interaction, learning, and presentation. Subsequently, results are presented from two studies. In the first top-down study, six experts from different European countries were interviewed. In the second bottom-up study, 58 teachers from general secondary schools in 30 cities in North-Rhine Westphalia (Germany) participated in an online survey. Finally, the practical relevance of the school language framework and new opportunities for teacher training are discussed.
Key words: school language, skills, multilingualism, teaching practice

Abstract (Deutsch)
Eine immer wiederkehrende Beobachtung ist, dass die Ursache von Problemen mit der sprachlichen Vielfalt in multikulturellen Klassenzimmern oft in den Unterschieden zwischen der Sprache, die mehrsprachige Schüler zu Hause sprechen, und der Schulsprache, die in der Schule vorausgesetzt wird, liegt. Mehr Klarheit über die Besonderheiten der Schulsprache kann wichtige Informationen für die Unterrichtspraxis aufdecken. Im ersten Teil stellen wir ein Schulsprachenmodell vor, das verschiedene Aspekte von fünf Fertigkeitsbereichen auflistet: Sprache, Lese- und Schreibfertigkeit, Interaktion, Lernen und Präsentation. Im Anschluss werden Ergebnisse von zwei Studien vorgestellt. In der ersten Top-down-Studie wurden sechs Experten aus verschiedenen europäischen Ländern interviewt. In der zweiten Bottom-up-Studie nahmen 58 Hauptschullehrkräfte in 30 verschiedenen Städten Nordrhein-Westfalens an einer Online-Umfrage teil. In einer abschließenden Zusammenschau werden die praktische Relevanz des Schulsprachenmodells und Anregungen für die Lehreraus- und fortbildung diskutiert.
Stichwörter: Schulsprache, Fähigkeiten, Mehrsprachigkeit, Unterrichtspraxis

1 Introduction

For many students, problems arise with the linguistic demands at school. A common observation is that challenges for multilingual students are bigger than for monolingual students (e.g. Cummins 1981, Laghzaoui 2011, Thomas & Collier 2002). School success, rather than being determined largely by cognitive (dis-)abilities, is instead strongly influenced by the gap between the characteristics of the home language and those of the so-called school language (or academic language). A better insight into the characteristics of school language yields important information for the development of practical measures to substantially diminish the problems encountered. This paper investigates the kind of school language competences students need in order to be successful at school. In addition, the focus is on the impact of students’ multilingual backgrounds on these competences and consequently on students’ school success. In the first part of this article different theoretical perspectives on the language habits of schooling are discussed. Five domains including different types of activities and tasks

that students are asked to carry out at school are identified. Subsequently, the out-comes of two studies are presented: a qualitative study based on interviews with European experts and a quantitative survey held among general secondary school teachers in Germany (North-Rhine Westphalia).

2 A Framework for School Language

The language habits of schooling have been investigated frequently. A distinction can be made between socio-cognitive-oriented approaches and functional-linguistic ones. Studies that center on a socio-cognitive understanding (e.g. Cummins 1981, 2000, 2008, Cummins & Swain 1986) draw educators’ attention to the cognitive challenges second language learners encounter if the relevant linguistic features are not “automatized” (Cummins & Swain 1986: 154) yet. Even if students appear to be fluent in spoken informal interactions, their language proficiency may not be sufficient for the school context. There is less “contextual support” there than in other contexts and, consequently, a higher dependence on linguistic means as well as a higher “cognitive involvement” (Cummins & Swain 1986: 154).

A functional-linguistic approach is based on the idea that language always has a function according to the social context in which it is used (Halliday & Hasan 1985). In this approach, a school language register is described which comprises the linguistic features and meanings that are typically used within the school context. Such a register needs to be mastered by students (e.g. Aarts, Demir & Vallen 2011, Gibbons 2003, Mohan & Beckett 2003, and Schleppegrell 2004). The mastery of the register depends on the input of parents and teachers rather than on contextual support.

In both approaches, students’ school success depends on their mastery of linguistic means. If their mastery of these linguistic means is not sufficient (cf. socio-cognitive focus) or if they do not master relevant school-specific features (cf. functional-linguistic focus), students are likely to perform at a lower level than their (monolingual) peers. Snow & Uccelli (2009) call into question the practical relevance of these approaches for school language. A description of linguistic features results in a “lengthy list” (Snow & Uccelli 2009: 121), but it does not enable us to make any statements about the hierarchy or frequency of the different components. According to the authors, a practically relevant framework should “direct less attention to the description of linguistic features per se and more to the skills required in the process of mastering [school] language” (Snow & Uccelli 2009: 112).

Based on a competence model by Byram (1997) and a framework developed by Thürmann & Vollmer (2011), which is currently applied in North Rhine-Westphalia (Germany), we identified the following domains of school language: language-internal aspects (e.g. mastery of vocabulary, grammar), literacy (reading and writing skills), interaction (interpersonal communication skills), learning (content-related organizational and studying skills), and presentation (explanatory skills). Each domain specifies competences as well as different types of activities and tasks that students need to be able to carry out and respond to at school (Appendix I). While skills have a practical ring to them, basically referring to performance abilities, and competences are associated with a more abstract level, the two terms will be used indiscriminately. The descriptions of what is needed in terms of language proficiency in each of the domains speak for themselves.

2.1 The Language Domain

The language skills in this domain refer to school-relevant vocabulary and range from the mastery of basic content words to that of conjunctions, modalizing words, and abbreviations. This vocabulary is used respecting specific rules, such as, for example, the avoidance of informal or personal expressions (Thürmann & Vollmer 2011, Kistemaker 2013: 8).

2.2 The Literacy Domain

The domain of literacy comprises the skills that are needed in order to read and write texts on different cognitive levels. The basic element of reading literacy is a repertoire of words as has been specified in the first domain (language). At a high level of reading literacy, students need analytical skills. Thus, they should be able to uncover the intention of a text and to evaluate the text critically. With regard to the production of texts, the spectrum ranges from the author's ability to use accurate words to the ability to avoid presuppositions (Thürmann & Vollmer 2011, Kistemaker 2013: 8).

2.3 The Interaction Domain

Interaction skills are here defined as the ability to engage towards attentive and responsive behavior in class towards peer students as well as towards the teacher. These skills become explicit in different activities, from simply listening and asking relevant questions to giving feedback or counter-arguing (Thürmann & Vollmer 2011, Kistemaker 2013: 8).

2.4 The Learning Domain

Learning is defined as a process that is driven by active learning skills (Byram 1977: 22). Organizational learning skills comprise the ability to organize one’s own written notes or to organize work procedures. Research learning skills range from the ability to find out the meaning of unknown words to the ability to conduct and analyze surveys (Thürmann & Vollmer 2011, Kistemaker 2013: 9).

2.5 The Presentation Domain

Within the presentation domain, the notion of skills refers to the content (what) and the way of communicating this content (how) at different cognitive levels. At school, different action verbs (e.g. summarize, explain, analyze) indicate at which level students are able to handle and to present a given message. The way in which the message is communicated requires strategic choices that make the message attractive to the audience. These choices include stylistic devices, audio-visual material as well as the ability to take the interest of the audience, i.e. fellow-students and the teacher, into account (Thürmann & Vollmer 2011, Kistemaker 2013: 9).

The framework was explored in two studies. In the first study, which focussed on the theoretical value of the framework, six experts from different European countries and disciplines were interviewed. In the second study, in which the experiences and opinions of practitioners are investigated, 58 teachers from general secondary schools in Germany (North-Rhine Westphalia) participated in a quantitative survey.

3 Interviews with Experts

In our first study, six experts from four different European countries (Austria, Britain, The Netherlands, Poland, and Germany) were interviewed. These experts were Rian Aarts (e.g. Aarts, Demir & Vallen 2011), Mike Byram (e.g. Byram 1997), Joana Duarte (e.g. Roth et al. 2010), Waldemar Martyniuk (e.g. Martyniuk 2007, McPake et al. 2007), Eike Thürmann, and Helmut Vollmer (e.g. Thürmann and Vollmer 2011). All these experts are involved in research and / or in (developing) policy on school language, at a national as well as a European level.

For the expert interviews, a semi-structured questionnaire with qualitative open-ended questions was developed. The starting point of the questionnaire was the framework for school language that we developed. The experts were provided with a summarizing definition of each domain and were asked to discuss its importance for the school success of students. Besides, they were asked to describe the extent to which problems with school language are bigger for multilingual students than for their monolingual peers. The interviews (30 - 90 minutes in length) were conducted between May and June 2013. For each domain of school language distinguished in our model, we will present a synthesis of the expert interviews (cf. Kistemaker (2013) for a more detailed report of the interviews).

3.1 The Language Domain

All the experts considered adequate language skills as an important precondition for the school success of students. However, in the interviews, the experts emphasized that mastering the systematic linguistic features of school language does not constitute the only precondition for success. Knowing how to do things is also essential. Education should be encouraging and show students the know-how they need for being successful at school: first, the actions that are carried out in the school context should be clarified and then, the linguistic features that are characteristic of these different kinds of actions should be specified.

As far as multilingual students are concerned, it is important to appreciate the meta-linguistic competences that these students might have acquired at home. To concentrate strictly on mastering language features means to take a deficit-oriented perspective, considering solely what students lack rather than taking into account what they already bring to school.

3.2 The Literacy Domain

The experts interviewed considered the domain of literacy to be the key to the acquisition of a successful educational language register. In many respects, school language is similar to written language. This similarity makes reading and writing activities in class particularly useful for the acquisition of school-language features. According to our experts, it is important to make a clear distinction between reception and production, i.e. between understanding subject-specific materials on the one hand, and responding to them in writing or speaking on the other. Our experts also stressed that school language features are learnt best through the production of texts. Text production should therefore receive more attention in subject instruction because it gives teachers a realistic idea of their students’ actual language level and allows them to give them adequate feedback. However, teachers should not force students to a high degree of formality, unless this can be justified by the purpose of the writing exercise. This means that informal writing performances should be part of the daily teaching practice.

The experts interviewed mentioned a number of aspects of literacy that have, to some extent, been disregarded in the past or that are new to the literacy domain. One such addition is the Internet, which needs specific attention because it involves new aspects of literacy that children need to be taught about. For instance, students should be taught how to process the huge amount of information they get from the Internet in a critical way. This also requires a high level of visual literacy, as the Internet does not only provide textual information. More visual input in class could contribute to students' visual literacy. Besides, visual input could contribute to the understanding of course content and might help students to overcome language problems during the learning process.

3.3 The Interaction Domain

All experts considered interaction skills as important for school success. Language obviously is an important element in the acquisition of interaction skills. However, what exactly the language features are that are required in interaction processes, is still unclear. It is also unclear which type of language performance is needed for the development of interaction competences.

The experts interviewed emphasized the gate-keeping function of interaction skills at school and in society. If students fail to master specific norms of interaction, they will score lower grades at school. Likewise, interaction skills are essential for students to be able to participate and function adequately in society. Finally, interaction with others is crucial to the learning process. It is in interaction that students learn, explore, and become aware of their own positions and their own thinking (i.e. social-constructivist orientation).

3.4 The Learning Domain

According to our experts, learning skills need to be taught actively. Mastering a foreign language and active learning are intricately linked. Most of the learning in schools is verbal learning, takes place through texts, through what students hear, through instruction, through writing, talking, and giving presentations. Therefore, language learning skills are of special importance for the learning domain. Students need special strategies and the know-how to improve their language skills. In their internal learning processes, students should have a range of abilities, such as the ability to categorize, to remember, to retrieve information, and to reflect on the entire learning process.

3.5 The Presentation Domain

The experts interviewed considered presentation skills as important for school success. It was emphasized that while non-verbal presentation skills are quite important, language skills are an essential precondition for any successful presentation. Regardless of how nice a (Power Point) presentation may look, this will be of little use if a student is not able to adequately express him- or herself verbally. The presentation is then bound to be a failure. Students need to be able to make clear what they know. In this respect, the experts interviewed pointed out that presentation skills are important because they have a relatively strong influence on the teachers’ grading behavior. However, this domain should not only refer to the presentation of results, but also to students’ reflection on the learning process, hence, the individual steps that lead to the results.

3.6 Multilingualism and School Language Problems

The experts interviewed emphasized that, in fact, there are huge school language problems, which are not restricted to minority groups or immigrant groups. There are other factors besides those typical of minority or immigrant groups, such as a lower socio-economic background, a lower educational background of parents, less input from parents, and (local) dialects that may influence the gap between home language and school language. The problems surrounding school language were first brought to the forefront as a result of the problems encountered with migrant children. However, now that these problems are being addressed, all students whose academic challenges can be traced to issues of language competence can benefit from the results achieved.

Multilingualism can also work to students' advantage if the language used at home is similar in register to that used at school. The more support there is from home, the better students will adopt the school language, and the more likely they will be to outperform native (first) language speakers from underdeveloped or difficult environments.

4 Surveys among Teachers

In all, 58 teachers participated in our survey, which was carried out in May and June 2013. The teachers worked at general secondary schools in 30 different cities in North-Rhine Westphalia (Germany). Most of the schools were located within the Rhine-Ruhr metropolitan region, but some teachers also worked at schools in rather rural areas beyond the urban agglomeration. 21 (36%) of the 58 teachers were male and 37 (64%) of them were female. An overview of the age and working experiences of the teachers is given in table 1.

Most of the participants were teachers of German (35%), 19% taught mathematics and 10% were teachers of English. The second subjects taught by these teachers were biology, physical education, physics, arts, history, and geography, respectively.

Teachers’ age and their years of experience in Means (M) and Standard Deviations (SD) (n=58)

General working experience as a teacher
Experience of teaching in multilingual classes
Table 1: Age and working experiences of the teachers

The teachers filled out an online questionnaire consisting of quantitative questions. After having provided some background information on their age, gender, work place, experience, and the school subjects taught, the teachers estimated to what extent their class could be considered as being ‘multilingual’, and they specified their students’ language backgrounds. Subsequently, they were asked to indicate on a five-point scale the importance of four typical aspects of each of the domains distinguished, i.e. the aspects considered to be the least and the most cognitively demanding ones of each sub-domain (= the first and the last aspect listed in the tables in Appendix I). Based on these examples, the teachers were asked about the general performance of their students in the five domains. Finally, they were asked to indicate on a five-point scale whether they had the impresson that monolingual students perform better than multilingual students.

4.1 Multilingualism in Class

On average, the 58 teachers who participated in our survey indicated that 41% of their students had a multilingual background (SD = 25.61). Their estimates ranged from 0 to 90 percent. Only one teacher reported having no multilingual students in class.

Besides, teachers named up to three languages that their multilingual students spoke at home instead of or in addition to German. One teacher reported no other languages besides German. One teacher named one other language, 14 teachers named two, and 42 teachers named three other home languages. In all, 25 different home languages were reported. An overview of the three most frequently mentioned languages is given in Table 2:

Top three of the languages mentioned by 58 teachers
Absolute number
Table 2: Top three languages

The most frequently reported home language was Turkish (n=47; 27%), followed by Russian (n=25; 14%) and Polish (n=18; 10%). The other languages included Albanian (9%), Kurdish (3%), and Arabic (3%).

4.2 Importance of the Five School Language Domains for Students’ School Success

Whereas the experts interviewed reflected on the overall importance of each of the school language domains distinguished, the teachers were asked to give their opinion on the importance of four typical aspects of each domain. In general, they estimated all these aspects as being important for students to be successful in their course. The average (dis)agreement on all aspects presented is illustrated in Table 3. Within each domain, the aspects are listed in order of importance, starting with the most important one:

Importance of school language skills estimated by 54 teachers in Means and Standard Deviations (Mean on a 5-point scale, 1 = min – 5 = max)

Knowing course-relevant vocabulary

Knowing how to indicate a location in detail

Knowing how to remain impersonal by
using passive forms

Knowing idiomatic expressions

Understanding the words in written texts

Using accurate words while writing texts

Avoiding presuppositions while writing texts

Knowing how to review written texts

Listening carefully in class

Answering appropriately

Asking relevant questions


Organizing work procedures

Finding out the meaning of unknown words

Organizing written notes

Analyzing the results of surveys


Naming objects

Taking a stance

Taking the audience into account

Using pauses during a presentation
Table 3: Importance of school language skills

The aspects that were considered as most important by the 54 teachers correspond to the least cognitively demanding and most basic skill of each domain. The only exception to this result was to be found in the domain of learning. Teachers considered the organization of work procedures as slightly more important than the organization of students' own written notes.

4.3 Differences between the Performance of Multi- and Monolingual Students

Before being asked about differences between the school language performance of mono- and multilingual students, teachers indicated whether students generally managed to master the aspects that were relevant in their respective courses. The average estimates on students’ school language performance in class, ordered from the domain mastered least to that mastered best are illustrated in Table 4:

General performance in class estimated by 54 teachers in Means and Standard Deviations (Mean on a 5-point scale, 1 = min – 5 = max)
Table 4: General performance in class

As shown in Table 4, our teachers were dissatisfied with their students' school language skills in all the domains, all average estimates being at the lower end of the five-point scale. Students' performance in literacy skills was estimated the lowest, closely followed by their performance in presentation skills.

When teachers were asked whether monolingual students performed better than their multilingual peers, they agreed with respect to the domains of language and literacy only. The average (dis)agreement on these differences, ordered from the domain with the highest agreement to that with the lowest agreement on differences between the performances of mono- and multilingual students, is illustrated in Table 5:

Differences between mono- and multilingual students estimated by 54 teachers in Means and Standard Deviations (Mean on a 5-point scale, 1 = min – 5 = max)
Table 5: Differences between mono- and multilingual students

5 Conclusions

The findings presented in this article suggest that the adequate mastery of language skills alone does not make a successful student. An approach to school language that goes beyond the limits of linguistic understanding allows us to take other competences into account that might also be required in the school context. Both informant groups, experts and teachers alike, considered all domains to be highly important and the distinction in these domains as meaningful. The teachers interviewed considered the most basic aspects of each domain as being the most important ones, i.e. knowing course-relevant vocabulary, understanding the words in written texts, listening carefully in class, organizing work procedures, and naming objects. Among the experts interviewed, literacy appeared to represent the core domain of the framework. Due to the considerable number of features that written language and school language share, literacy plays a central role in the acquisition of school language. Aspects that were emphasized here were visual literacy, Internet literacy and, notably, written production.

In all the five domains, teachers’ estimates of their students’ performance were relatively low. With regard to the importance that has been attributed to student literacy, it was in this domain in particular that teachers were not content with their students' performance.

This study shows that multilingualism cannot be the only explanation for students' low performance. In the domain of language and literacy, multilingual students performed less well than their monolingual peers. This is in line with one of the findings reported by Broeder & Stokmans (2011) in the Netherlands: teachers perceive considerable problems in teaching literacy, especially in multilingual classrooms. However, in the domains of interaction, learning and presentation, the students’ multilingual background cannot be held responsible for the problems encountered, since they persisted for the entire class.

The experts interviewed criticized the bipolar distinction in mono- and multilingual students that is often implemented in studies and policy measurements. They did not deny that challenges with regard to school language can be bigger if students speak other languages at home, but they underlined that the explanations for the problems encountered are much more complex than that. In fact, multilingualism can even present advantages, if the home language is spoken and used in school-similar registers.

To conclude, we can state that schools can no longer expect all students to come to class with the same kind of preparation and the same preconditions applying to them. This result has consequences for school curricula development and teaching practice. Schools need to include the explicit teaching of language features and competences that are specific for the school context across all subjects. The present study therefore supports the idea of Inclusive Academic Language Teaching (IALT) which has been established in the framework of the EUCIM-TE project (Roth et al. 2010). This approach implies that teachers of all subjects are not only responsible for teaching the content of their subject, but also the subject-relevant language features and competences. This approach is often referred to as language across the curriculum.

6 Discussion

The view that the problems involved in language use at school are restricted to multilingual students fails to capture the complexity of the problems encountered. There is a lack of studies on other factors besides multilingualism that may cause problems with school language, which include factors like a lower educational background or parents, restricted input from parents, socio-economic constraints, and dialects spoken at home. Future discourse on school language should therefore not just focus on the problems and the challenges involved in multilingualism in the classroom, but also pay attention to the positive effects of multilingualism.

The present study has revealed the strong need for the integration of the relevant aspects of school language in subject teaching. An important precondition for the implementation of school-language related aspects in the daily teaching practice is a certain awareness of the problem among subject teachers that goes beyond the basic aspects of school language. The lack of awareness in practice calls for the development of appropriate modules in teacher education at university, in pre-service training after university and in in-service training (Roth et al. 2010). In the framework of the EUCIM-TE project, a Core Curriculum for Inclusive Academic Language Teaching has been developed. It defines core competences of teachers and serves as a guideline for the implementation in the different national educational systems in Europe (Roth et al. 2010).

In this study, several aspects were identified that could and should be paid attention to in teacher training. The domain of literacy has been established as a core domain of school language and could be a starting point for practical implementation. However, the focus on reading literacy as it is established in the PIRLS framework (Mullis et al. 2009) needs to shift to the written production of texts. Especially in subject instruction, there is a need for more writing practice. A bigger number of writing tasks in class would allow teachers to gain a deeper insight into the actual school language performance of their students, make it possible for them to give explicit feedback and to make their own expectations clear. In the meantime, students could practice their school language skills and become more aware of the function of school language.

Appendix: Detailed Description of the Five Domains1



Course-relevant vocabulary
Indicating a location in detail
Indicating time by using the correct verb forms and adverbs
Making comparisons
Modalizing words and expressions
Common abbreviations
Highlighting ways and means
Abstract words
Decoding new words
Loan words from Greek or Latin
Avoiding subordinate clauses

Avoiding informal expressions
Idiomatic expressions

Retaining the impersonal nature of statements through the use of the pas-sive

Understanding the words in written texts
Using accurate words while writing texts
Identifying the main points in written texts
Differentiating between basic text types
Extracting relevant information from documents or media
Applying basic rules of sentence construction
Understanding diagrams, tables, draw-ings and charts
Using right spelling and punctuation
Recognizing the structure and function of documents
Producing simple handwritten texts
Understanding the outline of complex texts
Reporting and summarizing
Taking into account the context of a text
Using diagrams, tables, drawings and charts
Making links between different texts

Guiding the reader
Revealing intentions, arguments and outlook of a text

Paying attention to the consistency of the text
Reviewing written work

Avoiding presuppositions while writing texts

Listening carefully in class
Answering appropriately
Clarifying tasks
Reacting appropriately to statements in class
Asking relevant questions
Giving feedback to the teacher or peers


Research for information
Organizing own written notes
Finding out the meaning of unknown words
Organizing work procedures
Doing literature research in libraries and the Internet

Preparing interviews and surveys

Conducting interviews and surveys

Analyzing the results of interviews and surveys

Audience- orientation
Naming and defining objects
Using pauses during a presentation
Summarizing and structuring information
Drawing the attention to following statements
Keeping a (chrono-)logical order
Making use of stylistic devices: intona-tion, volume, rhythm, pauses, non-verbal communication
Describing, portraying, reporting, and narrating
Making use of audio-visual material
Explaining and clarifying
Taking the audience into account
Assessing and judging

Arguing and taking up a stance

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1 These points were retrieved from Thürmann and Vollmer (2011: 9) and adapted to our purposes.