Making sense of a changing world.  An ethnographic study of a class of young emergent bilingual children.

MacDougall, Isobel. 2020. Making sense of a changing world.  An ethnographic study of a class of young emergent bilingual children.. Doctoral thesis, Goldsmiths, University of London [Thesis]

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Abstract or Description

This small-scale ethnographic study examines three young emergent bilingual children from minority ethnic communities aged two years as they start in a nursery. The aim of the study, based on a sociocultural view of learning, is to consider how these children become enculturated into the new linguistic and cultural context within a busy Children’s Centre. This required an inquiry into the culture of the nursery class that the children joined. A review of literature includes recent historical perspectives of early years education and care in the UK, studies of bilingual children, and notions of power relations. Using an ethnographic methodology, this study aims to listen to the voices of the practitioners and understand the children’s many forms of communication. Data was collected through observations, interviews, and field notes, and reading documentation within the Children’s Centre. A sociocultural framework was applied to the analysis of data. A model of concentric layers illustrates the complex impact of change from external and internal forces on the perceived roles of the practitioners as they found ways of entering the new world of nursery. Using ‘communities of practice’ as the theoretical framework and ‘legitimate peripheral participation’ as the lens for analysing observations of each child, the children’s agency was notable in supporting their trajectories and their individual approaches to becoming participants in the class. The study reveals the tensions within the Children’s Centre, as continuous external change to early years education and care and internal institutional change created hierarchical power relations. The findings suggest firstly, although as active agents, very young emergent bilingual children adopt strategies that enable them to make sense of their new environment, they benefit from the support of practitioners who are knowledgeable about linguistic and cultural diversity and the role of the first language in providing support for the children entering a new world. Secondly, that too much change with little opportunity to understand the changes is disempowering for practitioners and this may impact on their practice in their work with young emergent bilingual children from minority ethnic communities. The study concludes with implications for policy and practice when working with children under three.

Item Type:

Thesis (Doctoral)

Identification Number (DOI):


multilingual, ‘communities of practice’, ‘legitimate peripheral participation’, agency, culture, enculturation

Departments, Centres and Research Units:

Educational Studies


30 June 2020

Item ID:


Date Deposited:

08 Jun 2021 15:25

Last Modified:

08 Sep 2022 14:43


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