Schools offer non-Finnish-speakers adequate help, counsellor says

For a child who has just relocated to Finland, adapting to the country’s school system is a challenge that teachers are now trying to alleviate. But in high school applications, aspiring students with low Finnish competence often run into severe obstacles. The National Board of Education says that Finland’s language teaching resources are well placed, while a professor from Jyväskylä wants the myth of difficulty surrounding Finnish to be broken.

In the primary school at Savikanta in Imatra, Northern Karelia, preparatory education for children entering the Finnish school system from abroad is a big deal. Prep group teacher Pirjo Pänkäläinen says she does her utmost to ease non-Finnish-speaking children into the swing of Finnish school life by teaching them the basics of the Finnish language. Her groups include students of different ages and from different backgrounds.

Pänkäläinen designs her lessons to be as inclusive as possible, so that no student finds the course too hard, or too easy. She speaks Russian, and because of the proximity of the eastern border, Russian tends to be the language of highest concern at Savikanta.

”I try to speak in Finnish as much as I can,” says Pänkäläinen. “When something just doesn’t seem to go through, I sometimes resort to using Russian to help the students along. And then, letting a child ask questions in their native language can be a relief.”

Pänkäläinen considers the old model of tossing children headfirst into fully monolingual Finnish groups to learn the language to be outdated.

”I was the one to suggest this mixed group to our principal,” she says, “and I feel that the best way for a child to learn a language is along with other children. Language acquisition comes from numerous sources outside of school, too, and all children have that whole world as part of their linguistic education. They interact with children from around the world and that helps them see the world in a new light.”

Statistics Finland has the mean proportion of non-Finnish-speaking students in primary schools in 2012 at around 4 percent, and there are strong local fluctuations – less than 2 percent of primary school students are non-Finnish-speakers in Northern Finland, while the figure is at 7 percent in the south. This constitutes tens of thousands of children and students.

Prep education also needed at secondary level

Starting this autumn, preparatory language education has also been available to people seeking to study in Finnish high schools.

”This has been a priority for us because high schools have a smaller proportion of foreign students than in vocational schools,” says Counsellor of Education Leena Nissilä from the National Board of Education

Nissilä says that the language skills of those foreigners applying to get into high schools or vocational schools depend greatly on the age at which they have begun their studies in Finnish primary schools.

”Learning a language takes about 5—7 years of study,” Nissilä claims. “Those who do not enter Finnish basic education until secondary school age are in a tougher position, as they do not have enough time to acquire the necessary skills in Finnish.”

“According to international research,” she continues, “language aid provided in the learner’s own mother tongue accelerates learning in the first stages of immigration. The aid does not interfere with learning the Finnish language.”

In Finland it is possible to supplement later language needs with free adult education, in folk high schools or community colleges.

”The same international research also shows that extra time usually solves the problem of language proficiency, and a spot in a secondary school can then be acquired,” Nissilä says.

Professor: ”Finnish language not difficult to learn”

Finnish is often said to be one of the hardest languages in the world for foreign speakers to learn. Professor Maisa Martin from the University of Hyväskylä, however, says that Finnish is no harder than any other language.

“Finns like to think that their own language is an especially tough nut to crack, that they must be somehow smarter than the rest of the world,” she says. “The idea has no scientific basis.”

Martin has taught Finnish as a second language and as a foreign language for nearly 40 years, and is an expert in language teaching. She says she knows through practice which things are hard to learn in Finnish and which things are not. There is also an explanation for the myth of difficulty surrounding the language, she claims.

”Most people who set out to learn Finnish speak a mother tongue that is very different from Finnish or not related to it at all,” she says.

“The distance between the languages makes Finnish hard for these people to learn. Finnish isn’t a hard language for Estonian-speakers, after all,” she says.

Martin goes on to say that Finns are usually bad at teaching languages. Immigrants are not spoken to in Finnish willingly, unless they are perceived to be proficient already, she says.

”If a Finn knows even a touch of English, that is what they will use. If English is out, then so is all conversation,” she describes her view.

Using a language is a primary prerequisite to learning any new language.

”Languages are not learned through rules, dictionaries and grammars,” Martin says. “Current theories say that languages are acquired in chunks. Entire expressions, words or idioms are learned for specific situations. Gradually, these start to compose a system that can be described using rules. Rules are the end result, not the starting point for productive learning.”

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Teacher Training and Professional Capacity – Stakeholder meeting report

Participants of workshop for migrant teachers

On Thursday, 5th June 2014, Migration Policy Group hosted a SIRIUS stakeholder meeting on the topic of teacher training and professional capacity. This meeting followed on from a 1 ½ day meeting of migrant teachers where they discussed both important skill sets and policy recommendations on how to better equip teachers for diverse classrooms.

The stakeholder meeting brought together these teachers with a migration background, other educational practitioners and school leaders as well as researchers, policy makers and civil society organisations to discuss skills that teachers need in culturally and linguistically diverse classrooms. In addition, a focus was put on how teachers are prepared in teacher training institutions and supported during their career.

The meeting was opened by Sarah Cooke O’Dowd from the Migration Policy Group welcoming a group of about 30 participants. Eva Degler, also from the Migration Policy Group, continued by giving a short overview about the contents of capacity training, best practices and the role of the EU in enhancing teacher training (See Presentation).

Sabine Severiens

Sabine Severiens from the Erasmus University Rotterdam then presented recommendations from her research on professional capacities and areas of expertise together with the migrant teachers who shared their successful strategies and gave insights into their professional experiences (See Presentation). The SIRIUS Report on Building Professional Capacity concerning the educational position of migrant children had originally identified five main areas of expertise necessary for the professional capacity of teachers in diverse classrooms (language diversity, didactics, social psychology and identity development, parental involvement and school-community relationships). During the teacher meeting, they had also identified the need for additional space in the curriculum, training/familiarity with the development of migration history, diagnostic tests and the effectively utilising school surroundings as additional desired expertise.  It was striking that hardly any of the teachers present had received initial training. Moreover, it was left to their own initiative to attend in-service training and bring up issues of inclusive education in their schools.

Piet van Avermaet from the University of Ghent and the Centre for Diversity and Learning then spoke about how to respond to diversity in education, focussing on the role of multilingualism, teachers’ expectations of immigrant pupils and the challenge of rendering diversity a core issue for policy making in education (See Presentation).

DSCN4350The last hour of the meeting was spent discussing parental and community involvement, different strategies for second language learning and the positive impact of collaborative and open-minded school leadership. Centres of expertise should be developed in schools that include interdisciplinary teams which support each other and thus increase the capacity of the whole school. These centres would include teachers, psychologists, guidance councillors etc. This would supply vital support to teachers who agreed that, at present, they are largely left alone in responding to the needs of diverse learners. Making second language learning and intercultural education an integral part of teacher training curricula was also considered crucial. At present, universities across Europe do not or only sporadically offer such training modules. Ideally, such training should become a transversal issue that is woven through all levels of teacher training. In addition, more in-service training programmes should be offered and school leaders should strongly encourage professional development in this field. Lastly, a number of participants remarked that many projects are still incidental and very rarely evaluated, which renders impact assessment and informed policy-making difficult. Furthermore, their funding often means that they have support for only a limited period of time. Structural support for good practices is necessary to make them sustainable.

Meeting Report, Programme and Participants

Background Teacher training and professional capacity

Supporting second language learning – most German teachers do not feel prepared

Via Mercator Institut
Via Mercator Institut

Knowledge about learning German as a second language is an increasingly important skill for aspiring teachers. Yet, as a study by the German Mercator Stiftung recently found out, only about half of them encounter these topics during their teacher training at university. Due to the federal structure of Germany, there are no comprehensive policies on how to include language learning in the teaching curriculum. Furthermore, teacher training also depends on which school track students are prepared for. Whereas preparation for primary school teachers is relatively advanced, only one third of the future teachers in lower and vocational secondary education receive training on language acquisition. The study warns that this piecemeal approach is a major obstacle to promote educational equality in German schools. Furthermore, it reports that two thirds of the students surveyed do not feel prepared to adequately support children whose first language is not German.

Via Mercator Institut 

Via Mercator Institut


Poland: Insufficient knowledge of Polish hinders migrant pupils from succeeding in school

Office of the Polish Children's Ombudsman
Office of the Polish Children’s Ombudsman

According to the conclusions of the report of the Polish Ombudsman, pupils from a migrant background are struggling in overcoming the language barrier. The resulting problems in school were confirmed by teachers in Poland. They argue that children with insufficient knowledge of Polish should be given the chance to become fluent in Polish before moving on to other classes with their native peers.

Via The European Website of Integration