Interviewing ESL children

Last week I met with the teachers at the Language School to make plans for my research project that I will be starting this term. I want to film some music classes and interview three students over a series of weeks, and to do this I need formal consent from their parents.

Setting up the research – ethics and informed consent

That is no simple matter in an ESL context, with the most appropriate means of communicating with parents differing between cultural groups, and families. As is usual with University-based research projects that require ethics approval, I have prepared Plain Language Statements that outline the research project, what it entails, issues of confidentiality etc, and Consent forms that parents and children need to sign in order for me to be able to proceed.

I have written these in very simple English. For those of you who have seen sample Plain Language Statements, you will know that they are fairly detailed documents because there is quite a lot of information they need to cover. Even when the language is simple, there is a lot to take. Mine are waaaayyy simpler than any I have ever seen before!

In communicating with parents, teachers at the Language School use a number of different means, depending on the parent they are contacting and the nature of the information. These include:

  • Sending home a notice in English (often in a particular colour if there are many notices going out at the same time that need to be signed and returned);
  • Explaining the content of a note in English prior to sending it home;
  • Using school interpreters (where available) to explain the content of the notice to the children in their own language, before sending the notice home;
  • Calling parents in English (teacher, principal) or in their own language (Multicultural Education Aide/interpreter) to talk through content of the notice;
  • Translating notices into the appropriate written language and sending these home.

The last option – translating notices into another written language – is not appropriate for everyone. Some languages are primarily oral languages, and rarely written down. It may be that one language is used for speaking (eg. Somali) and another for writing (eg. Arabic). Or vice versa. The parent may not in fact be literate.

Then again, sometimes there is a parent at home who speaks and reads English so there is no need to translate documents.

I need to send out two sets of Plain Language Statements and consent forms. The first set is for all the children in the class in which the music lessons will be filmed. In this class there are children from Somalia, Sudan (Dinka), Vietnam, Thailand, and China.

I learned that the Somali children each have a family member at home who speaks good English, so they do not need letters translated. It isn’t appropriate to translate the letters for the Sudanese children as their families do not read their language. Therefore, the letter will be preceded by a phone call home, between me, the school’s Sudanese MEA, and the parent, explaining the content of the letter in detail. The Thai student has a parent who is a native English speaker. The Vietnamese student has parents who speak some English – the notice will go home, and be discussed during the upcoming parent-teacher interviews with the class teacher, before they sign it. The group of Chinese children is the largest in the class, and this letter will be translated into Chinese and sent home.

For the three children who will take part in the interviews, the Plain Language Statements will not be translated. Instead, the school MEAs will arrange a time with the parents to discuss the project with them in detail and ensure they understand it in full before giving consent.

Interview content

I have designed the interviews to engage the students in different ways, and to elicit their responses using visual and other means, as well as conversation. Overall, I want to discover what sense they make of the music activities we do, and what they feel they learn in music. Do they like what we do? If they enjoy it, is it the social aspect of music that they most enjoy? or the hands-on experiences of playing instruments in an ensemble?

A challenging aspect is that I am their music teacher! I don’t want them to leave out information that is obvious, just because they know that I know it. To try to counteract this, I will ask them to pretend I know nothing about music, and nothing about learning music. I’m not even sure what music is. Therefore they should try to tell me everything that comes to mind.

I don’t know if this will work – it could be a difficult concept to get across to them.

I’ll have the assistance of an interpreter in each of the interviews. If the school timetable allows, two of these will be from the school’s MEA staff. One will need to be hired from an agency, as there is no speaker of that language in the school. (We discussed asking the student’s mother to take part in the interviews as interpreter, but decided against this pretty quickly, as it raised too many unknowns for us, such as potential parental expectations affecting the student’s answers, or the risk of comments being interpreted into English in a less objective way. Of course, every time an interpretation is used – even from English to English – there is the potential for bias and subjectivity to creep in. However, I feel that using a ‘neutral’ person in this role is best. Where then, does this position the MEAs? Can they also be considered ‘neutral’?)

Interview 1:

  • Child draws a picture (or comic strip, or a series of disconnected images, or, if they wish, writes a description) of a music class. The picture will form the basis of discussion of the kinds of things the students feel they do in music class. I am interested to see what their images will highlight, and what they will recall.
  • To assist the discussion I will prepare a list of the different projects the student has been involved in – songs we have written, music we have composed in response to books, topics and themes we have used. Again, these can be used as a discussing point to discover the main elements of the lessons that stand out for the children.

Interview 2

  • Student takes photos of activities in their class that they feel show different ways of ‘learning’. Looking at these photos, I will ask them to nominate which ways of learning are also present in the music class. I am interested to see what they see as ‘learning’ in general in the school, and if this has a cultural context. By starting with school in general, I get to find out what they are aware of in the broadest sense, and then ask them to narrow it down to the music class, to see what they think is taking place.
  • We will then continue this conversation by watching some footage of a recent music class, to see if any other ‘ways of learning’ are observed by the student, and to note what comments are made. What sort of interactions can they observe?

Interview 3

  • The first 2 interviews have focused on fairly concrete information, identifying what takes place in a music lesson, from their point of view. In the third interview, I want to start finding out more about their person opinions.
  • To find out what they like best in music, and what they note about how the lesson tends to run, I shall ask them to design their ‘best-ever’ music lesson, using the instruments and other equipment as they choose.
  • From here, I will ask about what they would change in the music lessons.
  • Working with images of facial expressions, I will ask them how they feel in music. I anticipate that this topic may not be an easy one for them to converse in, even with the help of an interpreter, so it may not be very detailed.
  • Lastly, my most abstract question – asking them why they think children in this school do music. Again, how will their different cultural backgrounds influence the way they answer this question?

I hope that for the participating students, taking part in these interviews will be interesting, and they will start to reflect on both their music lessons, and their time in the school, and the kinds of things they are learning and discovering. The three students I hope to work with are all every engaged in music, and for different reasons, each will appreciate being singled out to take part in the research interviews. I think they will be very thoughtful contributors.


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