Practical Case Studies Series #2 – SEN or Semilingual EAL?

Student E and the Mystery of Semilingualism


Student E was present during my first interview lesson when I wanted to work in London schools. He had his head on the desk, in the small, hot EAL classroom and seemed generally unwell. I remember stopping the lesson and saying, ‘I might not get the job, but something is not right with this child. Should he go to medical?’ Perhaps it was prophetic. I did get the job, but something wasn’t right with this student.

In the next two years, he continued to cause concern, not just for his inability to progress at all, either linguistically or academically, but for his increasingly erratic and socially risky behaviour in and out of school.

Student E was primarily in ESOL lessons where he was unable to acquire even the simplest of high frequency words. He seemed constantly tired, stressed and often angry. He could not seem to acquire C-V-C words with pictures (dog, cat, hat, etc.) no matter how much over-teaching (i.e., repetitive revision of the same material in different, often kinaesthetic ways) was done . The usual visually led strategy just did not work.

Was he SEN? It appeared so. But how would we know? What information was needed to evaluate him?

Our approach would be important because we might need to build ‘history of need’ evidence for applying for a statement of special educational needs (now called an EHCP – Education Health Care Plan – with the change in 2014 SEND legislation). To apply for statutory evaluation, we had to prove to the Educational Psychology service that we had effectively implemented appropriate EAL pedagogical approaches with no positive impact on his progress. So, what was the approach to take?

Using Hypothesis Testing

Frederickson and Cline – get the book.

As mentioned in my Practical Case Study 1, Frederickson and Cline (2015) suggest a comprehensive framework of information gathering when assessing whether an EAL student is experiencing curriculum difficulties due to cognitive deficiency or to a need for linguistic and socio-cultural adjustment. This is where possible variables contributing to the educational difficulty are considered and eliminated as part of the assessment of possible SEN in an EAL child. We will look at each one in Student E’s case.

Chris Pim – get the book

These include:

  • Background: gaining a full picture of the child’s previous educational experience;
  • Language: conducting a first-language assessment to ascertain whether the child is working at an age-appropriate level in their own language;
  • Communication Skills: observations of pupil interaction in classroom and play contexts, as well as gathering observational information from community language or religious schools as part of a multi-cultural approach;
  • Differentiation: checking that appropriate classroom provision for EAL language learning need is effectively used;
  • Affective Filters: investigating emotional and psychological factors affecting achievement such as past trauma, racist bullying or other environmental stresses; (Frederickson and Cline 1991, Pim 2010)
  • Testing: considering raw data on national standardised tests but as a minimal part of the whole picture.


Student E was born in Lithuania. He had not found a school place for almost a year after entering the UK and was home alone when his mother was working.  E spoke Polish, Russian and a little Lithuanian but no English. Since we were lucky enough to have a Polish-speaking member of our team, who also had Russian, we found out that he had no real literacy in any of his languages. During his assessment, he could only write his first name and add simple numbers up to 20. Our Polish team member found out from his Lithuanian mother that E had a special needs assessment in Lithuania. She attempted to get that recognised by the reticent educational psychology service to no avail.

Language assessment:

A first-language assessment was difficult. With a multi-lingual child, we needed to decide which home language was strongest. The research of Skutnabb-Kangas (1988) is useful here. First language or home language can be classified in a number of ways, as she points out in her definitions of ‘mother tongue’.

  • Origin: the language one learned first
  • Competence: the language one knows best
  • Function: the language one uses most
  • Identification: a. internal—the language one identifies with; b. external—the language of which one is identified as a native speaker by others. (Skutnabb-Kangas, 1988, p16)
Skutnabb-Kangas – get the book.

Immigrant or migrant children can have many ‘mother tongues’ by these definitions. The point of a first-language assessment to is find the language most closely associated with cognition in the child, because such assessment is being used in the context of discovering cognitive deficiency or socio-cultural affective issues (i.e., is it a learning difficulty or culture shock).

Socio-linguistic considerations also come into play here. Why would a Lithuanian child know Russian and Polish? Under what conditions was each language learned? Here one needs to do some research, both in terms of googling socio-political background on some language areas and in terms of finding the language in which it was most appropriate to interview the child for the background information.

For Student E, his most used language was Polish. We found this out quickly through trial and error use of the language skills on our team. That enabled us to start building a picture of which language to use for emotional communication (talking about background and the trauma of moving) and which to potentially use for cognitive assessment. Most importantly, we began to glimpse what language we might use for building future academic progress.

We interviewed him in Polish and found out that he spoke very little Lithuanian in spite of being native because he had been raised by his Polish-speaking grandmother, not by his mother. In fact, his mother had always worked abroad. Joining his mother in the UK was intensely traumatising, not, as one might assume, a wonderful reuniting of child and mother. This was our first clue to his affective state and lack of progress. As stated in Practical Case Study 1, affective trauma can be as powerful a block on learning as a special need.

Next, Russian seemed to be the only language in which he had some alphabet recognition. However, Russian was an imposed language in the old Soviet Block countries, associated with both an oppressive regime and discrimination against the native language and culture. This made him shy to use it.

Which language is best for academic acquisition in multilingual students?

To summarise, his mother tongue of ‘origin’ was Lithuanian, but his ‘competence’ was in Polish. Russian was then the ‘function’ language for building literacy even though it was not his culturally preferred language.

Communication Skills:

From early on, Student E presented as troubled and unhappy. His communication with other students was limited within class, but better in unstructured times. As his preferred activities were football and video games, we encouraged the social use of these activities. For most EAL new arrivals, social interaction would start to push language acquisition. Usually students would quickly acquire basic communicative phrases and start attempting to interact within a social activity.  New friends would be the springboard for acquiring academic language in class using the basic social communicative skills they had developed. Student E did not follow this pattern.


Appropriate differentiation should bring recognisable progress in cognitively normal pupils. Visually led verb and noun learning, orchestrating short heuristic (fulfilling practical task) activities and bilingual introduction of abstract concepts are usually effective. None of this worked with Student E.

We had to try something different.

Exploring Semilingualism:

Semilingualism was a linguistic concept from the 1960s which came out of research describing the difficulties Finnish immigrant children had experienced in Sweden. (Hansegard, 1968 as cited in Skutnabb-Kangas, 1988) Hansegard described it as ‘half-knowledge’ of the first language combined with ‘half-knowledge’ of the second language. Essentially, it described children who did not have enough literacy in their home language to transfer that skill towards learning a second language.

The term was criticised in the 1980s by other researchers, notably Jim Cummins, because it implied a value judgement on bilingualism itself and gave creedance to the conservative notion that the brain could only handle one language fully. This is incorrect. Through the circumstances of their immigration, these children did not have the opportunity to fully develop their own language. Then, due to the isolated socio-economic position they found themselves in Sweden, they did not have appropriate, differentiated access to Swedish-language education. As a result, their ability to process abstract academic concepts was limited, making them appear, at best deficient, at worst, learning disabled.

A strategy discovered

The research around semilingualism did suggest one strategy. If, as Silvia Luchinni (2009) suggests, that semilingualism was a clash between primarily oral bilingualisms which were not anchored to the written language, a solution might be to teach literacy in one of the home languages first. In this way, mapping sound to symbol would provide a comparative basis for building further literacies, including in English.

We started to teach Student E to read and write in Polish. This was initially successful and he began to make some progress, albeit in simple Polish. He was still nowhere near working independently or accessing the mainstream curriculum.

Affective Filters

Now in Year 9, Student E was in GCSE exam subjects. He chose practical subjects that interested him.  BTEC Physical Education (PE) was a particular favourite which many other EAL pupils had chosen; we sensed an opportunity.

Student E suddenly wanted to learn and wanted to be in class. BTEC PE had a long glossary of concrete terms to learn. We decided to do a trilingual visual glossary: a picture, then the word in Polish,  Russian and finally English. We set up a grid, researched and inserted the pictures into an electronic word document. He was then able to use google translate to independently find the words to put into the grid on the document. We could then create flashcards for over teaching and writing simple sentences. (This/It is a….)


Once Student E had built the rudiments of literacy, he could be tested for special educational needs. By this time, we realised that he probably did have processing difficulties behind his semilingual and affective difficulties. The combination meant he could not be diagnosed fully using the normative  materials of the educational psychology service. They would not give him a statement (now EHCP) of SEN. But we had built enough of a history of need through the hypothesis testing approach to get him some support. Plus we had built his confidence in a learning process he knew he could use.

Google Translate has the option of reading the translated word. This was very helpful in linking his oracy and literacy. He also had our Polish member of staff check the Polish and Russian translations for him and so was able to slowly build a knowledge of curriculum-related English words…at least in one subject.

Finally, he was able to learn academic terms for a GCSE-level course. His self-esteem rose and he appeared a fraction happier and more engaged.


In spite of his improvement, Student E remained unhappy at school. He began to skip school and totted up sizable absences. Unfortunately, during one of these days, Student E became the victim of a traumatic, violent crime which set him back significantly. He stopped being able to function academically at all. Polish became the only language he could use to express his explosive emotions about the incident and his general family situation. Mercifully, his grandmother came to the UK after the incident and he began to see her more often.

A happy ending?

At that time, there was money in the secondary school system to secure a college place for him in a course for car mechanics, which we did, rather than exclude him for his behaviour and truancy. We liaised with a local college to put in place an ESOL for Mechanics literacy course and made sure he had access arrangements for any exams he needed. Fundamentally, Student E needed a course of practical experience which would enable him to fit new language to it. He finally had a way forward, a method for learning new language and a desire to do so.


The use of hypothesis-testing had enabled us to construct an effective strategy and a relatively good outcome for this challenged student. Was he SEN? Most likely, considering the above journey took 3 years. However, our job was not to diagnose Student E but to create clear diagnostic sign-posting for those who could. Most importantly, our research-based pedagogical approach worked for Student E and gave him the ability to learn what he needed to when he was finally ready.


Frederickson, N. and Cline, T. (2015) Special Educational Needs, Inclusion and Diversity. Second Edition. New York/Open University Press McGraw-Hill

Luchinni, S. , (2009): ‘Semilingualism: A concept to be revived for a new linguistic policy? Linguistic Identities, language shift and language policy in Europe. Orbis / Supplementa. Leuven – Paris.

Pim, Chris (2010) How to Support Children Learning English as an Additional Language. Hyde/LDA-Findel Publishing

Skutnabb-Kangas, T. (1988) Minority Education: From Shame to Struggle. Clevedon: Multilingual Matters