Bengali, Tower Hamlets LA - full case study

Smithy Street Primary School, Tower Hamlets Local Authority

Children learning BengaliWhy was Bengali chosen?

Smithy Street Primary School is a multicultural state school in Tower Hamlets in East London. 95% of children come from the Indian sub-continent, particularly Bangladesh. 99% of these children speak Sylheti, a dialect of Bengali/Bangla. Whilst the majority of these children are 2nd or 3rd generation British, some were born in Bangladesh and their first language is Sylheti. Another 4% of children are Somali speakers and there are some Chinese and Urdu speakers within the remaining 1%.

There has been support for community language learning for some years through provision of after-school classes in collaboration with local supplementary schools, as well as occasional after-school clubs in languages such as French, German or Spanish.

The school also holds an annual World Languages Day which brings parents into the school to take part in a programme of multicultural activities.

In September 2007, the school introduced a foreign language into the curriculum for the first time in preparation for the primary languages entitlement. Bengali was the language chosen for all children to learn.

Whilst Sylheti and Bengali are closely linked, the spoken languages have significant differences and Sylheti has no written form. Bengali is the language used in the professions, such as law, medicine and the civil service and, of course, provides a writing system for educational, business, social and family purposes.

It is a language used every day on the streets of Tower Hamlets, therefore of immediate practical use by all children, whatever their linguistic background.

The study of Bengali enables all children to develop language learning skills, knowledge about language and oracy and literacy skills, as well as intercultural understanding, through comparison of Bengali conventions with English, Sylheti and other languages spoken by the children.

It is also anticipated that study of Bengali will support the development of literacy in English, as a result raising achievement across the board. Parents have been kept fully informed of plans throughout and the response has been enthusiastic on all sides. After-school classes in other languages spoken by children in the school are also made available, largely through cooperation with local supplementary schools.

Child learning BengaliHow does the curriculum model work?

The teacher leading this pilot project is Rakib Ahmed, who has been a class teacher at Smithy Street since 1993. Rakib is a native speaker of Bengali but his degree is in Economics and he trained as a primary generalist.

With the support of Tower Hamlets Local Authority and resources such as the Training Zone on the Primary Languages website and the Tower Hamlets Scheme of Work for Bengali, he has been developing his understanding of language teaching methodology.

He first started to teach an after-school Bengali class, which enabled him to develop and practise skills, as well as produce some teaching materials. He no longer works as a class teacher and has taken on responsibility for teaching Bengali across the school.

He is developing work with Years 1 and 2 and teaches a lesson of 45-60 minutes with each class in Years 3-6.

In the Bengali lessons, Rakib adapts his teaching to the needs of children from other language backgrounds and these children are learning Bengali very successfully.

The class teacher stays in the classroom to learn along with the children and, where possible, finds opportunities within the school week to practise elements of language in small ways.

Through the bilingual learning research project mentioned below, class teachers are bringing all the languages of their children into cross-curricular work, such as that on International Primary Curriculum topics.

The schemes of work that Rakib is developing for use with Smithy Street children link in well with the KS2 Framework for languages which will be referenced throughout. In Years 3 and 4 he is focusing particularly on developing speaking and listening skills, but literacy skills are also being developed.

He is using a Romanised form of Bengali, whilst also familiarising children with the Bengali script at word and phrase level. An additional benefit of using Romanised script is that non-Bengali speaking class teachers can access materials and recall sounds. From these words and phrases, children are building up knowledge of the alphabet and how letter shapes change when linked together in words.

In this second year of the pilot, Rakib’s next challenge is to develop this strategy further to ensure that children are taught the Literacy objectives for Years 5 and 6, aiming to reach National Curriculum Level 4 at the end of Key Stage 2 when using Bengali script. He will also develop teaching of the intercultural understanding strand and intends to explore setting up international links.


On the whole Rakib has had to create his own resources, using software such as MS PowerPoint. It is possible to type in a non-Roman script in English environment Word and PowerPoint by making simple adjustments to operating system settings.

Rakib has taken traditional stories familiar in English, for example, and created illustrated slides to tell the story, displaying both Romanised and Bengali script, as well as inserting audio files. He has created similar resources around songs, taught with gestures to reflect meaning, which teachers can practise easily on their own with their class.

There are some bilingual books and some web resources available for Bengali, such as on the Around the world section of the BBC CBeebies website, but these are limited. Tower Hamlets LA is looking at ways in which it can help develop a bank of resources, for Rakib and other local teachers to contribute to and use.

Where next?

There are opportunities for children to continue their learning of Bengali into secondary school. All Tower Hamlets secondary schools offer Bengali GCSE, with some offering early GCSE entry in Key Stage 3, often in collaboration with local supplementary schools and with the support of the LA.

Children also get the opportunity to start a second foreign language, such as French, German or Spanish. Rakib is currently developing language profiling for Years 3-6, both to track learner progress and provide information to secondary schools. Tower Hamlets LA has well-developed materials for first language assessment which Rakib is able to adapt and the Languages Ladder provides a basis for informal assessment also. He is also exploring the possibility of external assessment through Asset Languages, which is likely to be popular with parents.

Smithy Street is not working in isolation on this initiative. Innovative work began at the start of the school year with Goldsmiths, University of London, on the latest phase of the Bilingual Learning Research Project. This involves a number of class teachers at both Smithy Street and Hermitage primary schools working closely with local supplementary schools and parents and grandparents to develop bilingual learning in both settings.

Many children attend after-school Bengali classes and the project is exploring the opportunities for designing lesson content to complement what is happening during curriculum time. After-school classes are provided for other languages spoken by children in the school, as mentioned earlier.


May 2009

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