Sunday, 2 October 2011

A response to Gao and Shum: Investigating the role of bilingual teaching assistants in Hong Kong

This study was a qualitative account of the roles of two bilingual teaching assistants in a school in Hong Kong. Despite the niche subject matter, I was interested in reading this article, mainly because I teach in a school where 85% of the children do have English as their first language. Within my class, I have children who are Polish, Turkish, Urdu, Punjabi, Spanish, Portuguese and Somali. The majority of these children are not competent in their own language which produces a significant issue when teaching literacy in my classroom. It would  require at least seven different teaching assistants or a teaching assistant who was multi-lingual to support all of these languages. I, myself do not speak any languages apart from English, something I am not proud of and have spent years promising that I will remedy.

A prominent discovery came from the discussion about cultural tourism and the importance of the relationships between the teaching assistants and the learners. Within the environment of my class, I attempt to incorporate all the languages in to my everyday teaching practice. This may be by asking the children to answer the register in their own language and trying to repeat their greetings or by asking the children to lead explanations about cultural or religious events that are taking place to the class. The suggestions that this could be seen as a superficial act leading to cultural tourism brings up the question of how to immerse my class in the seven cultures whilst still teaching the institution's culture. I feel I being less discriminatory by treating all the cultures and minorities as equally important. How do you make the coverage of different cultures more than a tourist activity if it is not based on natural experiences? I have a duty to socialise children in to the cultural, social, and linguistic norms of the British culture and feel I can do this without speaking the learner's language.The article speaks of the bilingual TA and the learners relationship being necessary for the child to maintain high self-esteem, which I, as teacher, feel ostracised by. One of the aspects of developing relations with my learners is aiding the social development and I would rather do this alongside the teaching assistant rather than via a teaching assistant. For me, the article evoked an image of conflict between teachers and the learners.

During whole-class discussions, I encourage my learners to buddy up with same language speakers;  I believe this has a huge effect in social development. It enables them to maintain the cultural identity that this article talks about learners needing while at the same time providing a partner to share the experiences of learning a new language and culture with. The study uses an example of children not understanding idioms as an example of the challenges faced by South Asian children in a Hong Kong school, however, I often have to explain British idioms to English-speaking pupils who have not been to exposed to them before. Idioms are often more philosophical and moralistic so I find that this explanation makes space for cultural discussion . They can be explained in a simplistic manner linguistically and taught as set phrases, without necessarily going into the grammatical structures or historical derivation of the phrase in question.

I found it interesting that a study that was exploring the effectiveness of the role of teaching assistants would not use the data collected from the learners. All data collected was done so via the teaching assistants and the teachers, resulting in only presenting their perceptions. I feel that this restricts the scope of this study, as they could never fully explore their research questions without it. How do we truly know that the teaching assistants are developing the learners' self-esteem without talking with the learners?

A question that is raised from my reading of this article is whether schools should look into creating a separate learning identity that all learners (and teachers) all must adapt to fit into.  I also wonder whether I am doing this already.


Gao, F. and Shum, M. (2010) ‘Investigating the role of bilingual teaching assistants in Hong Kong: an exploratory study’, Educational Research, vol. 52, no. 4, pp. 445–56