BECOME A MEMBER! Sign up for TIE services now and start your international school career


Navigating the Linguistic Labyrinth: From Elevated Cognition to Lofty Language

By Saqib Rasib
Navigating the Linguistic Labyrinth: From Elevated Cognition to Lofty Language

Although bilingual students are more likely to outperform monolingual students cognitively[1], they may not necessarily possess highly sophisticated levels of proficiency in each language they speak. Given the evidence[2] that there is a direct correlation between language proficiency and academic performance in multilingual contexts, it is imperative for bilingual schools to simultaneously bolster language support and cognitive skill development to ensure the full realization of each student's academic potential.

Leadership and Language

At Misk Schools in Saudi Arabia, we have recognized and are addressing this requirement – and not only with a focus on academic achievement. The school’s vision is to enable our students to serve their nation, and the wider world, through the development of leadership skills categorized into three key areas: leadership of self, leadership of others, and leadership in one’s field of work or study.

Research has shown that key traits of successful leadership include a host of attributes including integrity, adaptability, and empathy; and that effective communication through the successful use of language is a common feature among great leaders[3]. Language mastery is, therefore, an important focus for us.

Our admissions process is selective, with data from Cognitive Abilities Tests Fourth Edition (CAT4) revealing strong cognitive potential among the majority of our students. However, this does not always correlate with high levels of proficiency in both English and Arabic. Occasionally, students require support to fully grasp complex concepts, especially if not communicated in their favored language.

As a result, we have adopted an approach that actively supports language development in order that students’ innate cognitive potential is not hampered by language deficits. 

Measure, Monitor, Intervene

As a high-performance learning school, we believe that every student has the potential to achieve at high levels. Any learners struggling with language skills are catered for in a bespoke manner starting with CAT4 test data, which provides a springboard for the delivery of targeted and meaningful support.

The verbal reasoning element of the CAT4 test measures the ability to comprehend language, intuit linguistic relationships, and deduce meaning from language. Alongside CAT4 data, students’ written and verbal contributions to lessons are considered, whilst teachers’ perspectives also play a key role in gaining a deeper understanding of student needs.

This iterative triangulation of test data, classroom contribution, and professional judgement allows us to identify learners in need of additional support and provides insights to build personalized development plans.

Build Layers of Vocabulary

A prerequisite to mastering language is the robust acquisition and command over an extensive vocabulary. The three-tier vocabulary framework, established by Beck, McKeown, and Kucan[4], aims to categorize words based on frequency of use.

Tier 1 (basic vocabulary), Tier 2 (universally applied), and Tier 3 (subject-specific terminology) categories are beneficial for teachers to be aware of when assisting students. For example, in the context of the International General Certificate of Secondary Education English, the words book, pen, and write would be categorized as Tier 1 words. Tier 2 words include analyze, interpret, and infer. Tier 3 words include palindrome, metaphor, and oxymoron.

Generally speaking, students are comfortable with Tier 1 words through repeated usage in discussions. Tier 3 vocabulary is subject-specific terminology which can be effectively taught through quality first teaching. However, Tier 2 words are often neglected and under-taught. These words fall within a grey area between frequent usage (Tier 1) and technical terms (Tier 3).

As Tier 2 vocabulary is universally applicable, provides depth of knowledge, and aids comprehension, there needs to be more emphasis in teaching this vocabulary. For example, in the context of English, students are expected to analyze characters’ motives in a novel, which deepens their understanding of the reasons behind a character’s thoughts and behaviors, enriching the reader’s overall appreciation and comprehension of the text. Analyzing in science could better equip students at examining the composition of a substance to identify its chemical properties and reactions. Furthermore, in mathematics, analyzing is also applicable when inspecting a data set to find the mean, median, and mode. This universality and adaptability to different contexts make “analyzing” a quintessential example of Tier 2 vocabulary, useful and important across multiple academic disciplines.

Synchronize Languages

In international schools, where most students are bilingual and need to focus on studying multiple languages, there is added complexity in their learning journeys. One way to overcome this is through the unification of teaching literacy across different subjects.

For example, if a class is being taught to summarize in Arabic during a reading lesson, their English teacher mirrors this to ensure students are also being exposed to the skill of summarizing in their additional language (during the same period). This aims to improve retention through familiarization and repetition.

Another tactic is to translate support materials into both languages, empowering students to bridge the gap between their primary and secondary language whenever necessary. An example of this was observed in an Arabic lesson, whereby sentence stems were translated to English, supplying the same content in a more favorable language (for certain students). By placing the onus upon students, this approach enabled learners to take responsibility for further developing, consolidating, and embedding elements of their learning. A more recent example was evident when an English teacher, whilst exploring creativity and symmetry, referenced the Quran to provide an Arabic example of a palindrome enabling some students to gain a deeper understanding of the concept. In order for this kind of cross-subject teaching to be effective, a high degree of collaboration amongst staff is required.

Through collaboration, educators can create classroom environments where students develop their language proficiency, supporting the full realization of their academic potential.

The Learning Support team at Misk Schools would be interested in connecting with other international schools to exchange ideas and experiences on how bilingual language support can enhance academic success and contribute to the cultivation of essential leadership traits.


[1] Adesope, O. O., Lavin, T., Thompson, T., & Ungerleider, C. (2010). A systematic review and meta-analysis of the cognitive correlates of bilingualism. Review of Educational Research, 80(2), 207-245.

[2] Cummins, J. (2000). Language, Power, and Pedagogy: Bilingual Children in the Crossfire. Multilingual Matters.

[3] LeBlanc, L.J., 2015. The Language of Great Leadership. Great Place To Work® [Online]. Available here. And Lowenhaupt, R., 2021. The Structure of Leadership Language: Rhetorical and Linguistic Methods for Studying School Improvement. Accountability and Educational Improvement [Online]. Cham: Springer International Publishing, pp.137–153. Available here.

[4] Beck, I.L., McKeown, M.G. and Kucan, L., 2013. Bringing Words to Life: Robust Vocabulary Instruction [Online]. Guilford Press.


Saqib Rasib is the Head of Learning Support (Boys) at Misk Schools, Riyadh.

LinkedIn: Saqib Rasib
Email: [email protected]

Please fill out the form below if you would like to post a comment on this article:


There are currently no comments posted. Please post one via the form above.