The Association for Reading and Writing Asia (ARWA) Conference 2019 was held in India, Goa from 28th February to 1st March 2019. Most of the presentations centred around research related to the linguistics of bilingual learners in Asia. Many high-quality and thought-provoking research papers were presented by presenters from many parts of the world, such as America, Hong Kong, India, Sri Lanka, Iran, Finland, England, Taiwan as well as Singapore.
The first keynote of the conference was presented by Pooja Reddy Nakamura, whose PhD is in language acquisition. Pooja emphasised on the effects of the Global Learning Crisis with a focus in Asia. Her case study revolved around the level of illiteracy in India where many of the Indian students were not able to read despite being in school for at least 4 years. This shows that the quality of learning goes beyond just attending school regularly. Some of the reasons she shared included not just the poverty situation in India but rather the fact that majority of the students there speak different languages including dialects which may have attributed to the lack of or slow progress in their academic work. The question about ‘When to introduce English as a medium of language when a child does not speak English’ resonated with us because although students in Singapore were introduced to the English Language as the mode of instruction from as young as 3 years old in pre-nursery, students from the ESL (English as a second language) background may still find it hard to cope with the English Language. Thus, what more than for the Indian students given that they are only exposed to the English Language at a much later age? By establishing an understanding that learners learn to read in the language that they speak and write in, she addressed the gap in research on what would be the best time to start intervention for students who do not speak in the English language, especially in Asia. It was a session that got us thinking about our students at the DAS because apart from their learning differences, some of them are ESL learners and therefore, their learning challenges are further compounded when it comes to the acquisition of the English language.
Many presentations shed light on how writing systems can be classified and after listening to many of such sessions, we were able to better understand those classifications. The first main form of the writing system is morpho-syllabic, which maps the morphemes, such as Chinese and Kanji Japanese. The second main form of classification is the syllabic way, which is evident in Japanese Katakana and Cherokee. The third and final form of classification is the alphabetic way, which maps the phonemes, such as the English Language, Korean and Spanish. While the presentations delved more into the technical aspects of the writing systems, it got us thinking of the ways that language is taught to learners in the DAS MLP programme, especially the ESL learners as they may sometimes display difficulties in not just acquiring the English vocabulary but also applying the correct grammatical rules to their spoken and written works due to the tendencies to translate directly from their second language say Chinese to English.
The second keynote speaker, Julie Washington, a speech pathologist is a renowned researcher and practitioner. Her topic ‘The impact of community dialects on reading acquisition in children growing up in poverty’ was not only inspiring but also enriching given her wealth of experience and expertise in the education field.
Her research suggests that students who come from low-income families tend to lack far behind their peers who come from well-to-do families at entry level due to the lack of access to resources and educational opportunities. She calls this gap ‘the opportunity gap’ which makes a lot of sense because this window of ‘opportunity’ helps a child develop his/her language proficiency and developmental milestones. She also shared about how the development of strong language skills is highly influenced by opportunities to practise talking. Therefore, it brings back to the point about ESL learners and their lack of or slow progress because they may not have the home environment to facilitate and promote the use of English to communicate. Another interesting finding that she shared was how strong reading skills can encourage spontaneous code-switching. In other words, a person may be exposed to more than one language but if they are strong readers, they should be able to code-switch to the different languages they know quite comfortably and proficiently. However, one area that perhaps was not highlighted during the presentation was whether the ability to code-switch also includes proficiency in writing or just proficiency in oral communication and reading? Additionally, when we look at the profiles of our DAS students, some of them may be high-functioning dyslexics who are proficient in their reading but may not always be proficient in their second language especially the Chinese students where most of them have opted for exemption. Thus, this could be an area for further research to see whether languages that follow the alphabetic writing system such as English, Korean, Malay, Spanish tend to be much easier to learn and acquire than languages that follow the morpho-syllabic writing system such as Chinese because exception in Mother Tongue (MT) tends to be higher for the Chinese Language than Malay or Tamil Languages, at least at the DAS.
All in all, the learning experience at ARWA had been both enriching and fulfilling! Apart from the DAS presentations which were more applied and practical, most if not all the other presentations were largely research-driven. Therefore, it would be great if ARWA can include more instructional related presentations for practitioners like us to share and learn more from one another on areas such as curriculum development, pedagogical practices etc for their future conferences.
About the authors
Soofrina Mubarak, EdTech Coordinator & Senior Educational Therapist
Serena Tan Abdullah, Assistant Director (Curriculum), English Language and Literacy Division, Lead Educational Therapist, Main Literacy Programme