By Sarah Smith
Sarah: It is such a privilege to have you as our plenary speaker for TESOL Greece’s 44th International Annual Convention on March 11th and 12th 2023. Although you need no introduction to many people in the EFL industry, could you tell us a little about yourself?
Dr. Ibrahim: Yes, of course. Thank you very much for inviting me. I’m Nayr Ibrahim. I work in Nord University in a place called Bodø in Norway, which is in the Arctic Circle way up in the cold. I’m an Associate Professor at the university, and I work in Teacher Education in the English Department. I work with trainee teachers who will be working in schools with students aged 6 to 15 years old. Even though my background has been and continues to be in English language teaching, I’m also interested in multilingualism, in learning to learn, and children’s literature.
Sarah: You’ve also published many essays and resource books. One of my favourites is Teaching Children How to Learn, which you co-authored with Gail Ellis, and which deals a lot with metacognition. In your plenary talk entitled The Power of Voice and Visual: Listening to the Linguistic Child, you will be drawing on this topic together with multilingualism.
Dr Ibrahim: Yes, we are going to be exploring both multilingualism and metacognition in terms of getting children to reflect on their learning, the languages they know, being multilingual, and how all of this can help the learning process.
Sarah: When I was initially training to be an English language teacher quite some time ago, I remember that there was a lot of anti-L1 (first language) sentiment. My trainers at the time told me to completely avoid the L1 in the classroom, but I believe that this perception is starting to change now. Why do you think that this is happening?
Dr Ibrahim: Well, I’ve come from the same tradition. I remember very clearly that when I was training to become an English language teacher, the L1 was something you didn’t do or include in the classroom. It was perceived as hindering the language learning process, and I think we all, as young teachers I suppose, bought into that opinion. We forgot that when we come into a second or third language learning context, we already bring with us so much language knowledge, and it doesn’t make sense to leave this knowledge outside the English language learning classroom.
I think that over the years there has been more of a move to include the L1 and to deepen our understanding of the role that the L1 plays. We do need to remember that our main objective is to teach English, but at the same time, we need to ask ourselves what role the L1 can play in learning an additional language. This doesn’t necessarily mean we need to teach an additional language through the L1 or start to translate everything. Rather, it’s a matter of understanding the positive role that the L1 plays in the language learning process. I’m not convinced that we’ve got to a point where we, as educators, are comfortable with using children’s other languages, and a lot more training is needed in this regard. Teacher training urgently needs to include a focus on how the other languages that children speak can positively impact the learning process. There is not enough of this in teacher training yet.
Sarah: I completely agree with you. I rarely see the topic of multilingualism included in pre- or in-service teacher training courses, and if it is present, it’s usually dealt with in an ad hoc fashion. Usually, we comment on multilingualism and the use of the L1 in the classroom in response to teachers’ questions on the topic rather than a dedicated module or dedicated input session on it. This can lead to us making unhelpful assumptions around children’s language learning abilities and their ability to reflect on the process. Something I hear a lot as a teacher trainer and something I used to believe is that children are too young and not cognitively mature enough to reflect on and talk about their experiences with languages, including their L1. Why do you think we teachers believe children can’t reflect, and what can be done to change this perception?
Dr Ibrahim: I think sometimes our perceptions are quite contradictory because on the one hand, we think children are amazing in how they pick up languages so quickly. We compare young children to little sponges in the sense that the language soaks in. On the other hand, we believe children are incapable of reflecting on the learning process. We need to somehow meet in the middle here. Children are capable of reflecting on the learning process. They are capable of observing what goes on in the classroom and talking about it. They may not have the sophisticated language that we have in terms of expressing their reflections on metacognition and learning to learn strategies, but they are able to identify strategies or activities that their teacher brought into the classroom and talk about them using language they know. We can also get children to reflect on and express their experiences of learning through other means which do not require language, for example using drawing or mime. In the plenary, I’ll be sharing some of these examples which were used with very young children who are reflecting on their learning and who can express opinions on what is going on in their classroom.
Sarah: I like the idea of encouraging very young learners to reflect without using language. Drawing and mime is another form of expression and communication, so we are excited to explore this more with you at the conference. As educators, then, we need to accept that children are linguistic geniuses and can reflect and that educators should explore the myriad ways in which we can encourage very young learners to do this.
If we consider slightly older learners (in upper Primary school or Secondary school) in the local Greek context, there is a very strong emphasis on passing language exams. Whether teachers like it or not, in an exams-oriented culture, we find ourselves teaching to the exam. In a context where most of the teaching revolves around that exam, the misconception is that there is no time or need for reflection on the language learning experience. How do we persuade teachers, learners, and parents that reflection is important?
Dr Ibrahim: Well, once again, when do teachers first come into contact with the concept of reflection? Is it in their pre-service training, or is it once they start working, and they come across something interesting that they want to implement? Maybe they don’t come across it at all. I believe this comes down to how we are training our teachers. If teacher educators encourage teachers-in-training to experience the whole reflection process themselves as they learn to become teachers, and if teachers see how reflection can be integrated into their lesson plan, then it becomes much easier to implement with children.
Learning to learn techniques and reflection is something that teachers should be adding to their lesson plans. So, for example, once a teacher has decided what language they will teach, the resource they will use, and the tasks they will ask their children to do, they should then decide on the reflection technique/activity they will do at the end of the lesson. Reflection needs to be integrated into the normal teaching and learning process, and once this happens, it will become automatic. Teachers will automatically allow the ten or fifteen minutes necessary for reflection at the end of the lesson.
However, when you don’t see it happen, when you don’t experience it yourself, and when you are not used to working in this way, reflection becomes an add-on, yet another thing that I have to do as an extremely busy teacher.
Yet, research over the decades has shown us that while the ‘doing’ is absolutely imperative – we learn by doing – you have to go beyond this and reflect on what you have done in order for learning to stick and to be able to retrieve what we have learnt when we need to use it again. So, reflection is an indispensable part of the learning process.
Sarah: It is very important, then, to stop thinking about reflection as an optional extra in our lessons. It’s like when we set up an activity with children, so they know what they need to do and what is expected of them – we never leave that out of the plan as it has got to be done.
To then close that task cycle, we must allow children the opportunity to reflect on the process and outcomes of learning, otherwise, we can’t move on to the next stage of the lesson. It should be very much part of our task cycle or lesson framework.
I do have a final and perhaps more personal question. How did you become interested in multilingualism and metacognition? Why did you choose to pursue this area of study that you’ve dedicated so much time and effort to?
Dr Ibrahim: Well, it’s sometimes who you meet along the way in your career, or it could be something you discover in your practice, and you see that it works. In terms of learning to learn, my interest was piqued in my work with Gail Ellis in Paris. Gail had already been working in this area, and I discovered, through her, the concept of learning to learn. I had never come across this in my teacher education or my teaching previously. So, I tried it out with the children in my classes and saw how it worked so wonderfully well. I saw how engaged the children were and how receptive they were to the concept of thinking about the learning process. It worked amazingly, and I’ve integrated it into my teaching ever since. I do it with the teachers I train, so they are constantly reflecting on their learning and development. We do this in an integrated way so that it becomes a normal part of the process and not a surprise or a chore, and from there, the teachers integrate it into their own classrooms in a cascade fashion.
As for multilingualism, I was brought up in South Africa, and by the time I finished school, I knew four languages. In South Africa, this wasn’t really a big deal as it was a normal way of being, a fact of life. It was more of a big deal in Europe, and even though Europe is a wonderfully multilingual continent, there was still such a strong focus on the L1, the national language, to the point where multilingualism did become a big deal. Then, I was working with bilingual children in Paris, and I was bringing up my son as multilingual. The whole concept of multilingualism became an area that I wanted to focus on and study. I found it fascinating how multilingual individuals use our languages, and how we draw on our language skills and competencies in different domains. I decided to continue my studies and did a PhD in Multilingualism. I integrate multilingualism into my teaching and in Norway, it’s part of the national curriculum in Norway. Here, we are so open to multilingualism and to linguistic diversity, but the question remains from the teachers on the ground – how do you do it? I enjoy the fact that I can explore this and try and answer this question with the teachers that I work with.
Sarah: Thank you so much for sharing your experiences, Nayr. We are very much looking forward to your plenary talk with us and thank you for taking the time to discuss some key perceptions and ideas around multilingualism and metacognition.
Dr Ibrahim: Thank you so much, and I’m so looking forward to seeing you all in Greece.
1. Ellis, G. and Ibrahim, N. (2015) Teaching Children how to Learn. Delta Publishing Teacher Development series.