Multilingual students need increasingly determined support for honing their Finnish language skills

The Finnish language integrates immigrant pupils to the community. Senior University Lecturer Maria Ahlholm emphasises that teachers and pupils alike should receive stronger support in increasingly multilingual schools.

Since early spring 2022, roughly 6,000 Ukrainian children of preschool and basic education age have arrived at Finnish schools. These new arrivals have increased the number of schoolchildren with Finnish as a second language by more than 10%. The pupils need immediate support for becoming engaged in the school community and, thereby, society. 

The way in which immigrant children embark on their school paths is up to the municipality. Municipalities can first organise preparatory instruction lasting a calendar year, in which context separate preparatory education groups can be established for the pupils. Alternatively, new arrivals can be placed directly in mainstream education classes, with support provided.  

“There are other well-functioning ways between the extremes. In any case, those who have arrived from another country must, during their very first days at school, become part of the Finnish-speaking peer group if we want them to learn everyday language skills quickly. Socialisation does not wait – it starts right away,” emphasises Senior University Lecturer Maria Ahlholm from the Faculty of Educational Sciences, University of Helsinki. 

Models and materials needed for preparatory education 

Teachers of preparatory education classes carry a weighty responsibility. This is not alleviated at all by the fact that such teachers are often people from outside the school community without teacher qualifications.  

“Consequently, their connection to the school often remains tenuous, making it difficult for them to help pupils get attached to the school community,” Ahlholm adds. 

In many places, the duties of teachers providing preparatory instruction include interviewing immigrant pupils before teaching begins. In Sweden, pupils’ language skills and competencies are investigated through a comprehensive harmonised survey, but no similar model is available in Finland. Neither have we produced uniform support material for preparatory instruction.  

In addition, in-depth interviews conducted by Doctoral Researcher Tatsiana Shestunova have shown that it is difficult for preparatory instruction teachers to stick to pedagogy in all matters.  

“The teacher is often the closest point of contact between immigrant families and authorities, which easily results teachers’ work acquiring traits properly belonging to social work. However, teachers providing preparatory instruction, the unqualified ones in particular, do not have the capacity for this,” Ahlholm notes. 

A good linguistic groundwork should be laid already in preparatory instruction 

In an ideal model for preparatory education outlined by Maria Ahlholm, all newcomers of basic education age would start school in mainstream education groups of under 20 pupils.  

“Qualified teachers committed to the school community would always have support from special needs teaching assistants. With the help of these assistants, a great deal of supervised, gamified and informal situations would be added to the school day, providing all pupils with opportunities for safe interaction in Finnish.”  

When pupils consider themselves part of the mainstream education group and the school community, the support provided by teachers would then be gradually increased. This would involve a transition to subject-specific study assignments in accordance with the curriculum. In such assignments, examples provided by peers are not enough. Instead, resource teachers and small-group instruction are needed. Learning difficult concepts would be overseen by professionals. 

“It could also be a good thing if we had at least pedagogical observers or supporters alongside teachers in matters related to multilingualism. I think teachers would welcome this kind of help,” Ahlholm muses. 

Precision in selecting the level of Finnish instruction 

Children and adolescents who have immigrated to Finland study Finnish as a second language. When necessary, this instruction can be provided to pupils born in Finland whose first language is not Finnish, Swedish or Sámi or who come from a multilingual background. 

Initially, the decision to place pupils in instruction in Finnish as a second language may be made on the basis of the first language entered in the population register. However, the recorded first language does not represent the pupil’s proficiency in Finnish, which is why ascribing excessive importance to it can result in erroneous assessments.  

“I’ve come across cases where, for example, an entirely bilingual child of a Finnish-speaking mother and a Moroccan father ended up studying Finnish as a second language throughout primary and lower secondary school because Arabic was recorded as their first language. At worst, basing the decisions on the language in the register will have the Silvia Hosseinis of the future reading books written in simplified language when they should be reading advanced language and developing their personal expression,” Ahlholm notes. 

In practice, teaching in Finnish as a second language often occurs simultaneously in the same space, in accordance with the same themes and under the direction of the same teacher, as teaching in Finnish as a first language. The difference is evident in the selection of assignments and reading content, as well as in assessment. It should also manifest in the amount of supervision provided.  

A qualified Finnish language teacher is able to assess when to encourage pupils to switch from second-language to first-language Finnish tuition. 

“For lower secondary school pupils, it’s not that easily done when you’re looking at longer texts, stricter assessment and lower grades. However, many former pupils who studied Finnish as a second language believe in adulthood that the good Finnish teachers are the demanding ones,” Ahlholm says.