This January the Swedish government will introduce stricter requirements for the reception and education of newly arrived pupils. In preparation, employees at the National Centre for Swedish as a Second Language (NC) at Stockholm University will put the final touches this fall on the materials from the National School Agency to support teachers, school leaders and municipalities to meet these requirements in practice.

Since 1997, the resource centre at Stockholm University has worked to improve competency in second-language development and other opportunities for multilingual students learning in different subjects. The centre’s work is aimed at both teachers in Swedish as a second language and teachers of other subjects, as well as school leaders.

Karin Sandwall. Photo: Eva Dalin
Karin Sandwall. Photo: Eva Dalin

Today, about a fifth of the students in primary schools have a mother tongue other than Swedish. One difficulty they might have is that everyday language is different from "academic language", the language used for learning in different subjects. One example is the phrase "it rained a lot this summer," which may be said in the cafeteria, compared to the phrase "summer average precipitation in Sweden was high" said in a lesson, explains Karin Sandwall, director of the NC.

"Words can mean different things in different subjects, such as "volume", which means one thing in physics, another in mathematics. Additionally teachers often explain subject-specific vocabulary but not all the small important in-between words around concepts, such as "high" ".

Using synonyms or explanatory illustrations can support students' understanding. Students also better understand the subject they are studying and learn the language better if they can use "academic language" mixed with their mother tongue in conversations in Swedish in the classroom.

These examples illustrate a supportive approach to language and cognitive development that contribute to increased learning for multilingual as well as monolingual Swedish students, according to Karin Sandwall:

"But it requires a broad teacher competence, in both teaching Swedish and to teach subjects in Swedish, in order to know what support should be initiated at the right time and for each student. Teachers therefore need to have knowledge of both their subjects and the language of their subjects", says Karin Sandwall.

According to the Swedish Education Act, teachers must adapt their teaching to each student's needs, but not all teacher education programs include courses with a multilingual perspective on learning and basic knowledge of second-language development. That means that many teachers do not have sufficient knowledge to support multilingual students' learning – they lack "language glasses", or in other words, the ability to identify the language specific to their subjects and how it relates to language and cognitive development.

"The world has changed, but many teacher education programs have not kept up with this perspective".

The twelve experienced teachers at NC keep themselves up to date on relevant research and practical experience, and communicate that knowledge to schools as well as politicians and other decision makers. The network that the centre manages via Facebook also involves over 10,000 teachers, who ask questions and give each other advice on how to deal with challenges in the classroom.

NC also conducts extensive training in schools and municipalities throughout the country, mainly around linguistic and cognitive development approaches. The knowledge it provides regarding practice and on-the-ground conditions strengthens the centre’s discussions with the Department of Education and the National Schools Agency, including on the new measures for newly arrived pupils.

One change is that a school must clearly identify newcomers' skills and resources. This should make it easier to place students in the right grade, adapted to their needs, skills and proficiency in Swedish, explains Karin Sandwall.

"That teachers realize how they can make their subject more accessible and that decision makers provide resources for new approaches can make a big difference, immediately for the individual's language and knowledge development, and in the longer term for opportunities to participate in social and working life, and thus integration in Sweden".

Text: Naomi Lubick