English Language Acquisition: Giving Students’ Keys to the World

Although not the most spoken language in the world, English is an official language in 53 countries and is spoken as a first language by more than 400 million people worldwide. It is also the most common second language in the world; with the British Council estimating that there are currently about two billion people in the world studying English. With many of our students setting their sights on future places at universities from across the English-speaking world, how do we at Dulwich College Shanghai Puxi help our students ‘build bridges to the world’ with our English curriculum, and how do we promote language acquisition from the Early Years through to our IB students in Senior School?


At Dulwich College Shanghai Puxi, we aim to develop global citizens who can learn, work and flourish anywhere in the world. With English being known as the language of science, aviation and computers, it is vital that we support our students to develop their proficiency in English, so that they are able to compete and succeed in a global economy; and truly Live Worldwise. Below, I will be outlining the key components that make English language instruction at our College so effective.


Curriculum and our Approach to Assessment


At Dulwich College Shanghai Puxi we follow the English National Curriculum, a rigorous curriculum that defines the knowledge, skills and understanding required in each subject and the level of ability pupils are expected to achieve in each subject. Within this curriculum, high standards of language and literacy are supported by equipping pupils with a strong command of the spoken and written language and developing their love of literature through widespread reading for enjoyment. In this way, the national curriculum for English aims to ensure that all pupils:

  • ‘read easily, fluently and with good understanding’
  • ‘develop the habit of reading widely and often, for both pleasure and information’
  • ‘acquire a wide vocabulary, an understanding of grammar and knowledge of linguistic conventions for reading, writing and spoken language’
  • ‘write clearly, accurately and coherently, adapting their language and style in and for a range of contexts, purposes and audiences’
  • ‘use discussion in order to learn; they should be able to elaborate and explain clearly their understanding and ideas’
  • ‘are competent in the arts of speaking and listening, making formal presentations, demonstrating to others and participating in debate’

As part of the curriculum at Dulwich College Shanghai Puxi, every term the teaching is focused on either a genre unit (non-fiction reading/writing skills) or on a text-based unit, using rich texts to inspire the students, model high level prose and stylistic language. These units set the term’s basis for teaching and learning. By taking this approach the students are exposed to different text types and linguistic devices each term, meaning that they can then apply these concepts and skills and use them across a range of subjects, linking their learning in English to other areas of the curriculum. This rigorous approach to teaching and learning means that these concepts can become embedded over time, enabling our children to write a non-chronological report as adeptly as they can an engaging narrative.


At Dulwich College Shanghai Puxi, we also use rigorous assessment practices to support and develop our English language programme. Every year, students complete standardised assessments which identify individual students’ recognition of the complex grammar and vocabulary usage of the English language. Through the NGRT reading assessments, students’ close analysis of how texts are composed and how authors stylistically create atmosphere and mood of a piece of writing is tracked, aiding students further in their mastery of the English language in reading, composing and performing English. Class teachers then use this data to target teaching and learning for the year, focusing on skills the students most need to improve, incorporating these into SPaG (spelling, punctuation and grammar) lessons and completing genre and text-based units that model for the students the best ways in which to use these skills purposefully and with an audience in mind. This bespoke approach to curriculum and assessment practices means that our teachers enable students to achieve oustanding progress data in speaking, reading and writing in English.

Our Approach to Vocabulary


Wittgenstein, in his famous works of Tractatus Logico Philosophicus, wrote that ‘the limits of my language are the limits of my mind. All I know is what I have words for.’ With research demonstrating that children who receive explicit vocabulary instruction improve three times more than those who do not (Elleman et. al, 2009), it is easy to see why vocabulary teaching has such a strong and important emphasis in teaching at the College.


At Dulwich College Shanghai Puxi, our experienced teachers understand that our children come with multiple vocabularies and indeed often multiple languages. Through teaching and learning, we understand that word learning is incremental and that our learners develop their vocabularies best when they are engaged with words and immersed in a language-rich environment. Not only do we appreciate that children will learn new words incidentally, from the contextual experiences they encounter, but children here also learn words intentionally, from effective instruction. From this, our pupils gain a confidence in themselves as learners and just as talented artists may paint beautiful pictures with a paintbrush, our children can weave wonderful stories and engage in thoughtful, nuanced discussion through their words.


One key aspect of our vocabulary approach is the role of translanguaging in our pedagogy and practice. Translanguaging pedagogy embraces and builds upon ‘the ways in which multilingual students and teachers engage in complex and fluid discursive practices that include the home languages of students in order to ‘make sense’ of teaching and learning, to communicate and appropriate subject knowledge, and to develop academic language practices.’ (Garcia, 2014). This approach is about empowering students, allowing and encouraging them to make use of all linguistic resources at their disposal to transform their learning space into a pedagogy of possibility. In this way, children are encouraged to use their linguistic repertoire to translanguage and substitute in key vocabulary and phrases that aren’t known in one language but can be described in another. Peers and teachers can then help to assist students to fill the gap and introduce new vocabulary in those situations, or, even better, introduce more nuanced vocabulary options. Through doing this we give our students the tools to build a rich vocabulary when creating dialogues, speeches and debates that go beyond the ordinary, subject-related vocabulary.


At Dulwich College Shanghai Puxi, we also follow a tiered vocabulary model, whereby ambitious vocabulary in each of the subject areas is explicitly taught to children, not only enhancing their vocabularies, but improving their knowledge and applying their learning beyond the classroom walls. Diversity is an integral part of a Dulwich education, and diversity in vocabulary not only gives children more confidence, it also gives others more confidence in them. By explicitly teaching vocabulary we give our students the tools to understand the world and express themselves about their place within it.


As David Crystal puts it, ‘Education is the process of preparing us for the big world, and the big world has big words. The more big words I know, the better I will survive in it. Because there are hundreds of thousands of big words in English, I cannot learn them all. But this doesn’t mean that I shouldn’t try to learn some.

The Importance of Oracy


One vital element of the English curriculum is our oracy programme at Dulwich College Shanghai Puxi. Oracy is a process whereby children learn to talk, and through talk, develop their understanding through dialogue with their teachers and peers. This extends from the use of sentence stems when discussing English stories in the Early Years, through to the debating and presentation skills practised in upper Key Stage 2 of Primary. Being able to articulate oneself in English, as well as instigate, build upon and respectfully challenge the ideas of others, are all part of building confident individuals who can flourish in any future career. With how successfully we communicate being a primary judgement of our effectiveness in any future field of work or study, it is easy to see why oracy is such a huge focus for the students at our school.


From the minute children enter the gates, they are greeted in English and encouraged and supported to greet the adults around them, answering questions in full sentences and engaging in their environment. With our Dual Language approach in DUCKs, the Native English-speaking teacher and Dual Language teacher (fluent in both Mandarin and English) work closely together to develop a language plan for every child, taking into account their current ability and stage of language acquisition, using differentiated sentence stems and tiered vocabulary to support their spoken English. In the English national curriculum it states that our pupils must be able to ‘use spoken language to develop understanding through speculating, hypothesising, imagining and exploring ideas’ as well as learning to ‘consider and evaluate different viewpoints, attending to and building on the contributions of others.’ This global mindset is a key part of what it means to Live Worldwise, and is the reason why it is such a huge focus in our curriculum, classrooms and assessment processes.


At Dulwich College Shanghai Puxi, not only do we promote oracy through our curriculum, but we provide speaking opportunities through our partnership with the English Speaking Board (EBS) who provide our pupils with qualifications in Speech, designed to develop learners’ speaking, reading, listening and responding skills. As a result, we can be proud of our exemplary track record in oracy. In January 2021 we achieved the following outstanding results in our Primary school (Years 2 to 6 inclusive):

100% Good Pass or above
95% Merit or above
1 in 4 pupils achieved a Distinction grade 
(the highest ESB accolade)

Not only that, but with our conceptual curriculum building in opportunities for children to transfer their learning across contexts, there are numerous opportunities for our pupils to debate, present, discuss and collaborate – all key skills that will be necessary for our students in their future studies and careers.




For many of our students at Dulwich College Shanghai Puxi, language learning and competency in English (which sits alongside our strong Mandarin programme) is closely linked to many of our students’ future career and study aspirations. With a robust, evidence-based approach to language acquisition, and classroom practices which best support students in oracy, translanguaging and effective reading programmes, our team is committed to creating an efficient, active and positive learning environment for all students, regardless of their starting point in English acquisition. By giving our students a global perspective, and competency in two major global languages (English and Mandarin), we know that our students will be well placed to be the next generation of world leaders, regardless of where their futures may take them.



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Department for Education (2014). The national curriculum in England: complete framework for Key Stages 1 to 4. Available at: https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/national-curriculum-in-england-framework-for-key-stages-1-to-4 (Accessed: 20 September 2021).
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