Multilingual Story time: An event for Reading parents and children

multlingual storytime

We had a wonderful time at the Multilingual Story time event run by Bilingualism Matters at Reading as part of the ESRC Festival of Social Science in November at Reading Central Library Story tellers read stories to pre-school children and their families in eight of the most commonly spoken languages in Reading: Portuguese, Arabic, Bangla, Hindi, Chinese, French, German and Polish. We had a wonderful response and local families could enjoy hearing stories in their home language as well as meeting other local families who share their home language.  University of Reading academics Holly Joseph and Naomi Flynn answered questions to any parents interested in the benefits of reading to a child in their home language. Hopefully this will be the first of many similar events that involve the local community and promote multilingualism.



New literacy and language journal club

We are excited to have a new journal club at the IoE, University of Reading, dedicated to language and literacy development and difficulties. Once a month, we’ll read a recent journal article and discuss it over coffee (and hopefully doughnuts). Members of our journal club will be IoE academic staff and postgraduate research students interested in this area. Our first meeting was in November 2018 and we hope to post summaries of our discussions here. Watch this space!

a book cup of coffee and flavoured donut on square white ceramic bowl
Research article, coffee and a doughnut – what could be better?

Papers we have read so-far:

Puglisi, M. L., Hulme, C., Hamilton, L. G., & Snowling, M. J. (2017). The home literacy environment is a correlate, but perhaps not a cause, of variations in children’s language and literacy development. Scientific Studies of Reading21(6), 498-514.

Wright, T. S., & Cervetti, G. N. (2017). A systematic review of the research on vocabulary instruction that impacts text comprehension. Reading Research Quarterly52(2), 203-226.

Yamashita, J., & Shiotsu, T. (2015). Comprehension and knowledge components that predict L2 reading: A latent-trait approach. Applied linguistics38(1), 43-67.

Pagan, A., Bird, M., Hsiao, Y., & Nation, K. (2019). Both semantic diversity and frequency influence children’s sentence reading.

van Bergen, E., Snowling, M. J., de Zeeuw, E. L., van Beijsterveldt, C. E., Dolan, C. V., & Boomsma, D. I. (2018). Why do children read more? The influence of reading ability on voluntary reading practices. Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry, 59(11), 1205-1214.

Mini paper review: Teaching Novel Grammatical Forms to Children With Developmental Language Disorder

Helen Norris, PhD student, Institute of Education, University of Reading

boy child childhood happiness
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I found this paper when considering the use of novel grammatical forms in my own research investigating the benefits of explicit formal grammatical teaching in primary school to monolingual speakers.

What does the study involve?

This study compares explicit versus implicit training of novel grammatical forms. A common characteristic of Developmental Language Disorder (DLD) is a weakness in the use of grammatical forms such as the regular past tense- ed ending. Interventions to improve the ability to use grammatical inflections are an important aspect of treatment to support these children. Twenty five children aged 5-8 years old with DLD took part in a study where the effectiveness of an implicit training approach (where children are exposed to several exemplars of a linguistic rule), was contrasted with an explicit instruction approach (where learners are made consciously aware of a particular linguistic pattern or rule). Explicit instruction is thought to draw on learners’ metalinguistic abilities.

Three novel grammatical rules were created:-

  • Gender marker
    • “When it is a boy, you have to add x to the end. When it is a girl, you don’t add anything to the end.”
    • Example: John can swim + novel marking. Ashley can read.
  • Habitual aspect marker, similar to an English tense marker
    • “When the animal is always do/ing the action, you have to add x to the end. When the animal has been do/ing the action for a short amount of time, you don’t add anything to the end.”
    • Example: See the horse sleep + novel marking. See the sheep jump
  • First-person marker reflective of the third-person singular marker in English
    • “When the creature talks about herself or if you talk about yourself, you have to add x to the end. When you or the creature talk/s about someone else, you don’t add anything to the end.”
    • Example: Now I drive + novel marking. Now you skate.

A single consonant was used to mark each of the novel grammatical inflections.

Participants were told that they were going to learn a new alien language. They listened to training sentences featuring the novel forms while viewing images related to the sentences on a computer screen and had to orally complete either trained or untrained sentences correctly. Grammatical forms were trained one at a time and training sessions were rerepeated up to a maximum of five. The difference between the two experimental groups was that the explicit group also heard an explanation of the rule. A follow up test took place a week after training was completed on each rule.

What were the results?

Learning was not equal across the three novel forms,(the gender marker was learnt best), but when the scores are collapsed across the three forms the explicit- implicit group learnt better than the implicit only. The maintenance of what they learnt was also better. Importantly, this group were also better at generalising their learning to complete sentences using untrained vocabulary.

mother and three child near table with mud
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And what are the implications?

While this was a USA-based study, the finding that explicit teaching of grammar can be beneficial compared to implicit only exposure makes a relevant contribution to the current SPaG debate in the UK.

This study has potential use for clarifying the role explicit training may have in supporting the grammar learning of children who would not meet diagnostic criteria for DLD, but who have weak syntactic awareness which impacts their reading comprehension and writing. Scores on a standardised test of listening comprehension in the study ranged from well below to well above average, so while this was an investigation of the effectiveness of an intervention for children with DLD, the results have potential to be relevant for a wider population.

However in this study the explicit teaching only used rule-based explanations, with no formal grammatical terminology. This is in contrast with the current UK National Curriculum where students are taught to identify and label parts of speech such as’ fronted adverbials’, or ‘subordinating conjunctions.’ In addition, while this study focuses on grammatical inflections, (morphosyntactic awareness), it is important to remember that mastery of English grammar is not limited to this: understanding of the role of different word classes such as prepositions, adjectives or conjunctions play in sentences is important too. A better understanding of how well these structures can be learnt with explicit teaching compared to implicit exposure and whether learning formal grammatical terminology for these helps or hinders would be extremely useful for teaching practice.

Further, this study trained the children orally; they were not exposed to the written forms of the novel grammatical forms. During middle childhood exposure to written language increases rapidly. So for older children than those in this study who are developing readers, one question is how explicit teaching via reading can be beneficial for grammar learning. Do we see a similar pattern to the Finestack study? Or are there important differences?

Finally, it would be useful to reflect on the use of the term ‘implicit’ teaching in this study and in the wider field of grammar learning. Interpretations range from simply the absence of an explicit explanation of a rule, to experimental paradigms designed to facilitate unintentional learning or entirely unconscious learning. Here it is defined as teaching minus an explicit explanation; the children were told that they were learning a new language, they were given examples of a particular form and given feedback on their attempts to complete sentences using the novel forms. Some researchers consider that any form of intentional learning, (which must certainly be the case here), brought about by teaching cannot truly be termed implicit. See Rieder, 2003 for a discussion of this issue. Perhaps it is more helpful to talk about comparing explicit rule-based teaching with incidental learning via exposure to selected exemplars? The important point is whether it is more beneficial for children to deduce the pattern or rule for themselves or for them to receive an explicit explanation, with or without formal grammatical terminology.


Full reference: Finestack, L. H. (2018). Evaluation of an Explicit Intervention to Teach Novel Grammatical Forms to Children With Developmental Language Disorder. Journal of Speech, Language, and Hearing Research, 1-14.

Mini paper review: Experience, aptitude and individual differences in native language ultimate attainment

Welcome to our new series of blogposts, each providing a brief and accessible review of a recently published academic paper relating to language and literacy development. For our first review, Helen Norris, PhD student at the Institute of Education reviews a recent paper on grammar learning in native speakers.

homework paper pen person
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I recently came across this fascinating article while reading around the context of the vexed question of whether formal grammar teaching is necessary to support the literacy development of native speakers of English at primary school, (for a review see Myhill, 2018).

Second language learning research has often focused on learners’ ability to understand, acquire and gain mastery of the grammatical rules of a language.

But the question of whether people vary in their ability to learn grammatical rules of their native language has largely remained unconsidered for native speakers.

To some extent, Dabrowska points out, this depends on whether you favour a ‘universal grammar’ explanation of language acquisition: the idea that there is one coherent body of grammatical knowledge that all humans possess innately. This theory would predict that there would be little difference between humans in their grammatical knowledge and ability to use it.

Dabrowska, on the other hand, leans towards a usage-based theory of language, which says that our knowledge is shaped by the input we receive and the experiences we have with language.

What did the study involve?

90 adult native speakers of English took part in the study. They were measured on their non-verbal IQ using a block pattern test and their language aptitude, specifically their ability to infer linguistic rules from the input. Here a novel language test was used where learners had to infer novel grammatical rules. Notably, this is a test commonly used to explore second language learning ability.

Two input factors were also measured: their print exposure, measured by author recognition test, and their education level. Finally, in addition to measures of vocabulary and collocations knowledge, their

grammar knowledge was measured using a picture and sentence test: participants were shown a series of pictures and had to match the correct sentence. The sentences included basic grammatical constructions that are commonly found in speech, (eg simple locative: ‘The spoon is in the cup.’) and more complex constructions, (eg passive: ‘The girl was fed by the man.’)

What were the findings?

Dabrowska found that there were significant individual differences in how well participants knew the constructions in the grammar tests, which provides some evidence that incomplete grammar acquisition exists. How much they had read predicted some of the variance in how they performed in the grammar test. There was a relationship between the language aptitude test and the grammar test, which is interesting because this was a test used to research second language learning ability and performance!

What can we conclude?

That native speakers differ in how well they know and use the basic grammatical constructions of their native language. These differences are related to both the input the speakers receive and their cognitive abilities.

And what are the wider implications of this?

We know that children differ in reading and writing ability and vocabulary knowledge. But how much do we know about how children differ in their grammatical knowledge and their ability to learn grammatical rules? The answer is very little. This study looked at grammatical knowledge in adults, using constructions that are commonly found in speech. Had the study included more constructions that are more commonly found in written text, the author speculates that she would have found even greater individual differences. Would she have found the same pattern of results if she had looked at children’s grammatical knowledge? These questions are all the more relevant right now because of the amount of complex formal grammar that children are being taught at primary school in preparation for the Spelling Punctuation and Grammar (SPaG) Test. Who benefits most and how does their mastery of grammar relate to their reading ability and experience?

Full reference: Dąbrowska, E. (2018). Experience, aptitude and individual differences in native language ultimate attainment. Cognition178, 222-235.

What does good EAL teaching look like?

Naomi Flynn, Associate Professor of Primary English Education, University of Reading

woman in white dress shirt holding blue permanent marker
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We know from research, and from our practical experiences, that children with EAL need vocabulary-rich classrooms and opportunities to speak in their new language. But that can be hard with our assessment-driven curriculum and it’s not always obvious how to make our lessons talk-based in ways that suit children with differing levels of English proficiency. A recent trip to the US has given me some insights into how things might work.

My current research activity involves a pilot project in which a group of us interested in teacher education and the teaching of children with EAL have been observing good teaching in the US, the UK, Germany and Finland. Using a tried and tested observation rubric we have had the great privilege of sitting in classrooms where teachers are doing wonderful things.

Analysis is still in its early stages, but I tell everyone I meet about two particular US primary school teachers whose lessons were vibrant with rich discussion and high expectations of English language learners.

Teacher 1 had a class of 26 5th grade (Year 6) children of whom 19 had EAL. As we walked in the children were totally engaged in active, small group discussion of novels they were reading together. The lesson – based on Literature Circles – demanded: that children spoke using the features of Socratic dialogue; that they came to their group having read a chapter in which they had used sticky notes to make annotations about interesting vocabulary and raise questions; that they taught each other something new; and that they set homework for next steps together. Teacher intervention was restricted to reminding one boisterous group to keep interaction respectful and the level of discourse between the children, some of whom were still developing proficiency in English, made our jaws drop.

Teacher 2 had a mixed mono and multilingual class of 25 2nd grade children (Year 3) and we loved her use of the ‘fishbowl technique’ to get her young learners to reflect on their lesson. Using multiple sentence starters and other ‘listening behaviours’ that were brightly displayed, and which they had been trained to adopt, children sat in a circle with three ‘fish’ at the centre. The fish pursued an independently managed conversation around what they learned and what they had found difficult which had them building sentences and making meaning together in ways we would be happy to see in much older children.

Seeing these two teachers made me reflect on how liberating life might be without the phonics screener, SATs and SPaG. However, these teachers also had strict state-imposed assessment criteria to meet and the children’s targets were focussed around the sorts of things we see in England’s grammar curriculum. They had just made a choice to do things differently, and in doing so were maximising their pupils’ prospects before our eyes. So good EAL teaching is about a vocabulary-rich classroom but it’s also about having the confidence to give children time to talk in ways that are genuinely life-enhancing.

Teaching formal grammar at KS2. What do we know?

Helen Norris, PhD student, Institute of Education, University of Reading


Ever since the revised National Curriculum and the Spelling Punctuation and Grammar, (SPaG), tests were introduced five years ago debate has raged over the wisdom of teaching formal grammar, (for example: ‘subordinating conjunctions’ and ‘relative clauses’) to native speakers.

A central question has been whether teaching formal grammar benefits writing, (see Myhill, 2018 for a helpful review).

But is this even the only question to ask? Does teaching grammar benefit reading comprehension? Does the impact depend on a child’s reading ability and experience? And how…?

What can the research literature tell us about these questions?

Well, very little in fact.

We have a fragmented research base with a limited number of intervention studies looking at grammar teaching and its impact on children’s writing. Often the grammar teaching is a subset of a broader writing intervention and what is meant by ‘grammar’ is variously defined. There are no studies specifically investigating the benefits of teaching formal, SPaG-style grammar for native speakers’ literacy. Two large randomised controlled trials (Myhill et al., 2012, 2013) taught functional grammar, an approach which focuses on how constructions make meaning with limited emphasis on formal grammatical terminology. One found that there is a small benefit to more able students’ writing at KS3, but as teachers in the comparison group devised their own writing programmes we can’t be sure that no grammar was taught. The Educational Endowment Foundation reviewed the other study and concluded that it is unclear whether the benefit to the students’ writing was driven by the grammar intervention itself or the small teaching groups in which it was delivered. Problems of control are inevitable in long term intervention studies.

I have been wondering whether there is a different way to approach the question.

First of all, would it be helpful to see whether explicit teaching of grammar has any additional benefit over incidental exposure? Incidental learning is the term generally used when vocabulary or grammatical constructions are acquired through encountering them as a by-product of reading. Is it more beneficial to have the constructions explicitly taught, even if that involves complex formal grammatical terminology or metalanguage? Or is that only useful if you have high reading ability? Or perhaps, the reverse is true, and explicit teaching can help those with weak awareness of how constructions work?

I am proposing a series of experiments to provide clarity on these questions.

Firstly, I want to do what has not been done before and conduct a tightly controlled experiment with native speakers of English, where I control their previous exposure to a novel grammatical construction and look at whether explicit or incidental exposure achieves better learning. Does it make a difference if you’re a skilled reader? Does it make a difference to your understanding of how a construction works or how accurately you are able to use it if you are able to name the construction? Do the children who have had the rule explained do better? Or is there no difference?

But how does that relate to learning the names for the actual constructions that SPaG requires, you may ask?

Well, it’s only a part of the picture.

pexels-photo-301926.jpegA key way in which our first language differs from second language is the degree of exposure, both to oral and written language.

The children who are being taught the SPaG curriculum are developing readers. Both their reading ability and the degree of print exposure will influence how they process complex grammatical constructions.

We know that written language differs greatly from spoken language in terms of the complexity of sentence constructions. Is it the case that better readers have no need of explicit teaching of formal grammatical constructions? They may not be able to give you the formal grammatical terminology or define the grammatical rule, but they may have perfect control over the construction. They may well be able to process it fully in text and can produce it correctly in writing.

A second phase will require me to look at the constructions that children of different ages are typically exposed to as part of their reading experience and then use these in grammar learning studies.

Is there a difference in learning between explicit and incidental exposure? Is it the case that for skilled readers, there is no additional benefit of explicit teaching? Do they already have active control? Or is there perhaps a benefit to struggling readers, provided they can cope with the complex formal grammatical terminology?

The point is that we don’t really know the answers to these questions and so many more around the role grammar might play in literacy. Teachers and children are spending so much time on this, it’s about time we started trying to find out.

Does using a special font help children with dyslexia to read more fluently?

Holly Joseph and Daisy Powell, Associate Professors at University of Reading


Who wouldn’t love a miracle cure for dyslexia and other learning difficulties faced by thousands of children everyday? In recent years, a number of specialist fonts have been developed which claim to help people with dyslexia to read more easily and fluently. The main idea is that by increasing space between letters and designing letters that are distinctive in terms of their height and shape, letters will be less confusable (for example letters such as b and d which are identical when reversed) and therefore reading can progress more easily. Sounds plausible, doesn’t it?


Well, perhaps not. Many researchers argue that focusing on letter form is missing the point. There is now a large body of research that supports the view that for most people with dyslexia, their core difficulty lies in their phonological skills, and in learning the relationships between letters and the sounds they represent. This can prevent young readers learning to alphabetically decode, or “sound out” words, a skill essential for independent reading. This means that the most effective form of remediation for those with dyslexia lies in a targeted phonics-based intervention. This is not an easy answer, and as many people with dyslexia and those supporting them will testify, such interventions are hard work, often frustrating, and take time. It is tempting to think that changing a font, or using coloured overlays, can provide immediate relief but sadly it is usually not that simple.

A number of studies have shown that while increasing spacing between letters can help some people with dyslexia to read more quickly, the font itself is not important (see recent TES article for a comprehensive and accessible summary), and so it is not worthwhile investing in an expensive specialist font when it is easy to increase spacing in any standard font. We know that resources are more stretched than ever in schools at the moment, so using existing evidence-based phonics interventions is a sensible first step. Fonts may be appealing but the evidence shows that they are not the answer if we want to do our best by struggling readers.