A traditional principle of language teaching is that it proceeds from the here and now. That is, a language teacher in introducing new vocabulary or language features builds on what the learners can see, feel and hear in the immediacy of the classroom to make the language being used comprehensible. In contrast, history almost by definition deals with the ‘there and then’ of past events and circumstances in different parts of the world. In addition to this, the language of history often involves the understanding and use of a range of abstract and general nouns and verbs which communicate a variety of concepts. These abstract nouns may involve:
- roles: leader, monarch, emperor, minister, factory worker, servant
- structures: government, monarchy, republic. empire, army
- processes: invasion, conquest, discovery, colonisation, reform
- actions: rule, migrate, prevent, deportation, passed (a law)
Another feature of historical discourse is the need to generalise about groups of people, significant individuals, trends in society, developments in technology and industry and so on. This necessitates the use of a variety of determiners, nouns, verb forms and adverbs which express the notion of making a generalisation. For example,
- By the early 1960s, many families had a washing machine. (few, some, most)
- The poor lived in wooden shelters. (the rich, the wealthy, the nobility)
- People in London tended to take shelter from the bombing in underground stations. (would, used to, were in the habit of taking)
- Children often worked in factories for up to sixteen hours a day. (usually, sometimes, hardly ever)
A third key feature of historical language is the need to understand and use language which communicates the notion of cause and effect. Therefore, pupils need to develop their ability to understand and use words or phrases such as: because, therefore, due to, caused, led to, resulted in etc.
Pupils also need to be able to make inferences from artefacts, pictures, DVD material and texts and in turn express inferences and relate them to ‘evidence’.
I think that …, This means that .., This suggests that .., This indicates that ..
Finally, the language relating to time and place is at the centre of the ‘there and then’ of history. Time may involve:
- Time when (more specific): forty years ago, twenty years later, a few months earlier.
- Time when (less specific): in the 19th century, in the 1960s, in the early years of the 16th century.
- Duration: for twenty years, over the next ten years, since 1850, from 1948.
It is also useful to remember that the nature of the current KS1 and KS2 History curriculum and its organisation into units does not follow a continuous chronological path. Consequently, it may be unclear to many pupils what the connection is between different topics. Part of this lack of clarity will often be the when and where of each unit in relation to other units. In particular, it may be assumed that the chronological sequence and differences in time between, for example, the Victorian Age, Tudor Times and Roman Britain are obvious. It is worth remembering to contextualise each new unit in terms of its place on a timeline relative to previous and also forthcoming topics. The location(s) of the unit can also be identified with the help of maps. Furthermore, other significant events, eras and locations which are not included in the National Curriculum ( the construction of the Great Wall of China, the development of Great Zimbabwe, the Mayan culture etc.) can be plotted and thereby further inform pupils’ sense of the past and of the links with world cultures and histories. This can also provide opportunities to draw on children and their parents’ knowledge of historical events in Britain and elsewhere in the world.
All of these features of the language of history present considerable challenges to users of EAL as they learn to understand and use the more formal academic register of the classroom. However, these features of historical discourse do not necessarily mean that history as a subject is inaccessible to learners of English as an additional language. Instead the task is to find ways to make the language needed to explore, understand and talk and write about the past comprehensible and usable.
The learning of historical information and concepts and the acquisition of the language needed to explore the meaning and express understanding of them is not always easy for children. However, an approach to the subject which emphasises the use of visual support, activities which promote small group interaction and discussion, the movement from the specific to the general and the exploitation of Key Visuals can go a long way to making the subject accessible, enjoyable and a source of valuable language learning for users of EAL.
The resources on this page provide pointers which teachers may find helpful as they develop their practice. The resources cover issues such as: key visuals; vocabulary development; and language planning strategies.