Home-Learning and Multilingualism in the Early Years: beyond the carpet
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Home-Learning and Multilingualism in the Early Years: beyond the carpet

At the end of this week, the ISUtrecht community will have completed a six-week teaching period online. This article talks about what new discoveries we have made in the domain of home languages and multilingualism as parents invited us into their homes, and their worlds and their words…

By Helen Absalom, classroom teacher KGW and English Language Acquisition specialist

But let us first step back a little and return to a time when we were all regularly turning up to school in the morning five days a week… What did an Early Years (EY) multilingual classroom look like in ISUtrecht at that time?

Well, the day would begin with time on the carpet together to check-in and say, ‘good morning’. But we would not only say, ‘good morning’, we would also say, ‘dzień dobry’, ‘bore da’, ‘günaydın’, ‘shubh prabhat’ and over thirty more different languages across the nine EY classes. As we left the carpet and the day progressed, wherever possible, we would extend our inquiry beyond the dominant curriculum language, English, to include, not only the host country language, Dutch, but also all other languages represented in our class.

Language extension

This language extension would constitute simple vocabulary items, phrases, sentences or paragraphs depending on the exposure that a child had had to their home language and whether they were in Kindergarten or Grade 1. Naturally, as teachers we did not have the richness of all the languages in the class at our fingertips; so for home language inquiry, we would rely on the children themselves, or a quick question to a parent in the morning, a secondary student who visited to help out, or a member of staff who spoke that language, or indeed, the more regular option, technology and devices. In this way, we could ensure that even though we did not speak a particular language, we could do a lot to promote the speaking of that language. Thus we planned to move through the school year on our multilingual ISUtrecht journey.

But then we all went home…

Overnight we took to our screens and made videos and Zoomed and Loomed and Teamed and streamed… and Seesawed our way through Central Ideas and lines of inquiry. Of course there were challenges and we acknowledge these but there was also a languages story unfolding before us: as we placed the multilingual lens upon the home learning, we saw and heard the magic of home languages in context. As teachers, we were no longer relying on ‘ad hoc’ language help from the community, we were now working directly with and through the funds of home language knowledge: the family.

Let’s take a look through that lens now and watch some language stories:


  • When discussing the use of plants while describing her snack box contents in English, a Kindergarten child’s brother asks her if she can remember any of the words in French. She replies, ‘pomme’. She then writes the words down bilingually with sibling help.
  • Talking into the camera about what she would do if she had a dinosaur, a Kindergarten child stops mid-sentence and her mother, who is making the film, gives her a whole-sentence cue in Tamil which the child then seamlessly interprets into English and carries on.

Building their learning through one language and transferring it to the other is a powerful cognitive strategy and in the process these Kindergarteners are improving their academic skills in both languages. This has been made possible because they are working with siblings and parents.

The stories above are incidental language stories as they were not planned.

Now let’s take a look at planned engagements:

Grade 1: listening to a language we do not speak

The grade 1 team of teachers set up a provocation by reading in a language unknown to the children (Welsh). The children were asked to simply listen with their parents and see if they heard any words which they thought were familiar. Children who had never heard Welsh before, were able to hear cognates (words which are the same or similar across languages). They also said they heard words which they thought were cognates but in fact which turned out to be what we call ‘false friends’ or words which are the same or similar in sound across languages but which have a completely different meaning… being able to talk about the concept of ‘false friends’ and cognates opens up a whole lexical set to children when they see that just by changing the ending of a word, they can build on what they already know to extend all their languages. Cognates draw students’ attention to language families.

New words and challenging pronuciations

This crosslinguistic engagement did not stop there, however. The provocation led the children to take the inquiry further and make footage of themselves reading in their home languages. Again, we saw parental support with new words and challenging pronunciations supporting the child. The children then posed the same questions to their peers who, in turn, made observations about connections across languages regarding cognates.

Grade 1: bilingual recounting and translation

In another grade 1 learning engagement, teachers asked the children to write a recount of their day. Again, in the footage, we heard parents providing language scaffolds in their home languages to ensure that their child got to the next stage by asking questions to move their thinking along. The child spoke and wrote in both English and the home language. We saw a child write in Spanish then directly provide an oral interpretation of the text in English without writing or reading the English… just translating orally on the spot.

Many of us will remember the translation method from our own second language-learning experiences which had little or no context and was not engaging. However, if we do as the student above did, and use translation to bring all our languages together, languages can feed off each other.

Grade 1: the rainbow- different structures to say the same thing

Another grade 1 activity was the rainbow craft where children drew rainbows for their windows. As a sign of connection and a message of hope, the children wrote ‘Everything will be alright’ on their rainbows. With parental help, children wrote the phrase bilingually and multilingually.

Dual or multilingual texts

These examples from grade 1 show that creating dual or multilingual texts is inspirational and whether the texts are phrases like the rainbow activity or paragraphs like the recount activity, they show that when we say things in this language we do not say them the same in another and that we actually sometimes need a completely different structure. This raises children’s awareness about language and facilitates their understanding of how languages work, in turn making new languages more accessible and supporting cognitive development as they think through language.

These Kindergarten and grade 1 examples are just a few of many that we saw and heard as you invited us into your homes off our school carpet onto yours. We also saw many types of bilingual and multilingualism: we heard first-language English speakers using their Dutch with parents who are also learning Dutch. We saw children who have a heritage language which is spoken by a parent or grandparent now have this language rekindled and start to use some key vocabulary and phrases in that language. We saw two languages other than English at home where children produced trilingual texts. We saw children using a previous host country language to which they still feel connected. We saw children use a ‘favourite’ other language for some key vocabulary in certain activities. The multilingual stories were many and multifaceted.

Family and family language

However they are all connected by one element: the family and family language knowledge and expertise. Through this expertise, we have been able to see languages working in collaboration. This could not have happened without parents in the context of home learning.

At ISUtrecht we pride ourselves on the fact that multilingualism is a defining feature of school life; so it has been a privilege to have been able to look through the multilingualism lens and see children and their families work bilingually and multilingually at home. We look forward to developing our multilingual learning and teaching further with you as we prepare to move ourselves beyond the ‘good mornings’ of the carpet.