Additive Language Pedagogy: Aligning a Learner-Centered Approach with Student Diversity

Additive Language Pedagogy: Aligning a Learner-Centered Approach with Student Diversity

Anne Holmen (University of Copenhagen, Copenhagen, Denmark)
DOI: 10.4018/IJBIDE.2018010101


One of the strongholds of the philosophy of education in Danish primary schools is to build learning activities on students´ resources and knowledge base. This calls for a differentiated approach to learning in classrooms characterized by increased linguistic and cultural diversity. However, for students with language minority background this general principle is often superseded by a focus on homogenization and silencing of diversity. This article is based on Cummins´ distinction between additive and subtractive bilingualism, and it introduces the concept of additive language pedagogy and discusses how this can be developed as part of the teachers´ instructional practices in plurilingual settings.
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Since the 1990s, the proportion of students with language and ethnic minority background has doubled in Danish schools. Today, they make up around 11% of all students in Danish primary and lower secondary schools and in private as well as public schools. Since the turn of the century, there has been a growing concern for these students´ school achievement based on their performance in school-leaving exams and their participation in and drop-out rates from secondary education (Saarup et al., 2004; Danmarks Evalueringsinstitut, 2007; Nusche et al., 2010; Danmarks Statistik, 2014). Data from the tri-annual Program for International Student Assessment (PISA), which Denmark has taken part in since 2000, and, in particular, data from the exclusively Danish focus on differences in test results between majority and minority students reported as PISA ETHNIC (Christensen et al., 2014) have added to the concern1. As a result, The Danish Ministry of Education has launched a number of initiatives to support minority students´ learning outcomes through preschool activities and in-service training of teachers (reported in Andersen & Rangvid, 2015).

The school discourse across wide parts of the Danish political spectrum refers to school problems connected to students´ minority backgrounds, but also that the Ministry and local municipalities have developed appropriate measures which will eventually produce better school results. However, seen from a more critical perspective, the situation is far more complex than identifying a problem with a matching solution. The concern about minority students´ school achievement is voiced at the same time as a wider agenda of inclusion is introduced into Danish schools. This has closed down not only reception classes and other support programs for newcomers, but also special education in general, and mainstreamed the students, irrespective of their present learning potential. At the same time school hours have been extended, and school schedules have been replaced by student plans with clear objectives. Thus important structural and ideological changes are transforming the concept of schools in Denmark, leaving the responsibility for including different student groups to the teachers´ professional competence.

Many teachers who had specialized in minority students, have been placed in other teaching functions, and there is very little focus on the special language issues connected to teaching and learning of minority students (Kristjansdóttir & Timm, 2007). Compared to ten years ago, Danish as a second language has lost most of its status in schools as well as in teacher training, and extracurricular teaching in the students´ mother tongue has been reduced (Holmen, 2008)2. Issues of multicultural education have been introduced into the guidelines for foreign languages (English, German and French), which have also strengthened their position through an earlier starting age. However, similar issues connected to majority-minority relations have been removed from the school curriculum and are no longer in the focus of school development (Horst, 2017).

Thus, many minority students find themselves in a school setting which does not help them build on their previous knowledge and experience when taking part in learning activities. In the terminology of Jim Cummins (2000), they are placed in a subtractive rather than an additive learning situation. This is a pattern often found with minority students across the globe (Adams & Kirova, 2006). However, seen from a local Danish perspective the subtractive learning situation seems to clash with a widespread ideology of schooling being learner-centered and individualized (De Conick-Smith et al., 2015). This apparent clash is even more remarkable within the teaching of foreign languages because these are generally informed by a resource perspective on students´ linguistic background. The mismatch is the motivation behind the present article, which will first comment on the general student-centeredness of Danish schooling and then develop the theme further by looking specifically at foreign language teaching in Danish schools, including the role which students´ language resources are ascribed here. The article ends by proposing a focus on additive pedagogy for all students.

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