We teachers want to teach everyone. We accept that all our students reflect the normal wide range of needs, be they language-based, emotional and social, physical and cognitive. In fact, for many of us, teaching the most needy is what motivated us to train to be teachers in the first place.
However, in practice, trying to deliver intensely packed national or international curricula to overly large classes with radically different requirements, with neither enough time nor enough support, is tremendously challenging. Naturally, we need support and help. We need other highly trained professionals to assist us in reaching our students’ needs, which in this article will focus on students for whom English is an additional language (EAL). Here then lies the great debate.
Providing Language Support
Schools have a variety of different Language or Literacy Policies that outline their EAL provision. In the schools I have worked at this has varied dramatically from the teaching of EAL students entirely outside the classroom in parallel programs (which is often referred to as ‘pull-out’), to fully immersed and support within the classroom setting (which is often referred to ‘push-in’); to best-fit compromises between the two poles.
To complicate matters, schools also vary in the quality of provision required in terms of training and expertise. In my experience, this has varied from having highly qualified experts on language acquisition, to totally untrained though enthusiastic second language adults.
Add to this the fact that your education training, while undoubtedly have featured a lot of literacy theory, may have involved little if any explicit EAL pedagogy. You yourself may not feel equipped to teach EAL students.
The EAL Anxiety
No wonder then that many of my colleagues and, up to quite recently, myself included, feel anxious about teaching EAL students, and so rely on the support structures provided by schools. As a result, most of the schools I have worked veer on the side of pull-out: teaching them outside the classroom, sometimes with colleagues not specifically qualified in this area but overseen by a manager who is.
But what causes this teacher anxiety? High expectations of students to achieve? A lack of awareness and understanding about the process of language acquisition? A lack of knowledge about how to create differentiation for EAL? Three years ago, I felt all of these, but equally I felt that sending my students out of the classroom went against my educational philosophy. I pride myself on being fully inclusive of all needs and had demonstrated this in terms of special education needs, so why not language needs?
Changing Policy and Habits
It’s hard for one classroom teacher to change a school practice. Colleagues may be unwilling or unable to change their time-tables or habits. The only real way to change school practice is to become in charge of it. So that’s what I did. Over two years ago my wife and moved to an international school in China and we became the joint Literacy Coordinators. My wife has certification and experience with EAL students, so she immediately challenged me to be fully inclusive in line with my educational philosophy.
For the first time, I was able to make the necessary decisions, adjust time tables and model a new approach. I was fortunate to have a skilled, flexible EAL Support Teacher who enjoyed working in the classroom and a supportive principal who shared my ‘push-in’ vision. I had a number of students totally new to English and an entire school waiting to see the results. It was time to be more inclusive.
There are no Fairy Tale Endings
Fast forward two and a half years and I am a changed teacher. I had proven that not only can EAL students be fully taught in the classroom, but also immersed in the curriculum and make progress, motivated by making achievements in a language rich environment with their peers. It was not always an easy journey though.
In the second year I had to effectively train my new EAL support teacher, a young but keen local woman studying education at a Masters level in her spare time. With the support of our administration, we were able to change the Literacy Policy to be, in theory, inclusive. However, we were not able to change the engrained habits and outlooks of many of our colleagues who continued sending their EAL students out of the classroom to work with staff who varied greatly in their skills and training. We won battles but not the war, but at least my own classroom was more inclusive.
All About the Students
My EAL students in the first year inspired me to stick with my new practice in the second year, and now have the same debates in my current school. I have reflected on the changes I made to my teaching and will outline them below as suggestions for what you can do in your classroom. I have incorporated the ideas of my experienced wife who works in Grade 1 and specializes with English acquisition and reading. She has inspired me and taught me a lot. But also the following students are heroes to me.
One Japanese boy went from starting with no English, to teaching whole classes on his own in English and is now the House Captain. He has ambitions to go to a university in England and I totally believe he will achieve it. A German girl who overcame a great resistance to learn, fuelled by transition stress and culture shock. The turning point was the fact she loved writing stories. A Swiss boy took great pride in answering questions, and used his exceptional mathematical and inquiry skills to build his confidence. Several Korean students I taught were utterly determined to learn as quickly as they could and actually rejected help. One German girl was a phenomenally creative and lateral thinker. The list goes on.
The following strategies worked with all of the above students. I will start with recommendations for how to change the physicality of your classroom before the students even begin.
- Start With the Classroom
I set up my tables not in groups but in one big lower-case ‘n’ or a horseshoe shape. This way every student can see every other student, which for EAL students means they are included, can easily observe the routines of the classroom, better judge body language signals, etc. I can also see every student and better assess his or her attention. I am often asked: how do students work in groups? Easily. They move their chairs, it on the carpet, move the tables, etc.
- A Bursting Book Corner
Your Book Corner needs to a) exist (which it doesn’t in many classrooms) and b) be bursting full of interesting books, ranging from wordless picture books to chapter books. In short, your Book Corner needs to inspire every reader and include easily accessible sets of texts for EAL students.
- Wordless Books
With my EAL students knew to the class (and often the city or country), I have them label wordless books using post-in notes, writing down vocabulary in their Mother Tongue and English. Of course, you can do the same thing with picture books but wordless or near wordless books (such as The Arrival and The Red Tree by Shaun Tan) can be graphically and thematically sophisticated, matching the innate intellect and thinking skills of older students.
- Labeling the Classroom
Rather than spend your time making labels in the classroom in English, have your student do it as an activity for the first week. This was great advice from my current SEN Coordinator who also works in my classroom helping with language acquisition. When you make the labels, the student’ learning is passive; when they make it, it is active.
- Have Technology Nearby
Having an ipad or computer within easy reach can be reassuring for our EAL students. For those many moments when they are stumped for a word or phrase and there is not another student to help (and you don’t want the student to overly rely on their peers), having an ipad nearby with the google translate app built in can be very helpful.
“Research suggests that the effective integration of technology can improve academic achievement, promote English and native fluency, and foster higher-level thinking skills.” – Chishlom & Becket >>Continue
Small Ways to Change Your Practice
There is nothing radical or new in what I am about to suggest. But I hope I mention something below that reminds you of a strategy or philosophy you once used and forgot, or heard about from another source. All of the suggestions below are good strategies for every student, not just your EAL students.
1. Be Visual
Most teaching students have had lectures on the need for VAK teaching: visual, auditory and kinesthetic. Then when students become busy, hurrying teachers they find themselves working too much in the auditory. It will not take much explanation to remind you of the need to show visuals for what you are speaking about so that every student can make connections. This is something I constantly have to remind myself.
2. Be Kinesthetic
At the same time, don’t leave out the kinesthetic. Young students especially learn through associating language and concepts through their bodies, moving their bodies, tactile experiences. Lecturers about psychology and neurology will tell you about all the great benefits of ‘brain training’ movements that help all your students. My point errs more on the creative side. For example, if you are teaching students to write about the autumn wind, show pictures, having them move their bodies and make sound effects. This will stimulate different centres in the brain and better imbed long term memory.
3. Repeat and Repeat again
When your use new or complex words, have the entire class say it out loud after you. Experts in brain development will tell you this oral repetition is important for triggering the chemical memory process. On a more basic level, you have to practice saying words, pronouncing phonemes accurately, to use language. By having every child say it, you won’t isolate your EAL student. Also, new vocabulary should be new to most of your students.
4. Auditory sound effects
Of course you will need to talk a lot. You’re a teacher, after all. But also be prepared to use and encourage your student to use sound effects to presents vocabulary and concepts, use music and rhythm; try to vary your voice to model expression, energy and enthusiasm. Be silly, have fun with language, play with words. Model language as a tool for enjoyment, not something strict and formal and full of frightening and incomprehensible rules.
5. Storytelling and Drama
I have written other articles that relate the many benefits of using storytelling and drama for supporting language acquisition, development and confidence. It has been at the core of my success in the last few years as my EAL students in China all used English for the first time in the context of writing, telling and acting out stories. Storytelling is a universal language and norm, arguably one of the few truly universals across our many cultures and societies. Younger students are also commonly keen to perform, act, entertain, dress up and explore in this way.
6. Encourage Mother Tongue Writing
When your EAL students arrive at your class, they of course cannot write stories and non-fiction texts in English or at length. Often, these students are immediately taught to construct simple English sentences. Allow your EAL students to take part in writing lessons by writing in their Mother Tongue. This will help you will establish a relationship with your student who already is a writer, not someone struggling to write in English. This distinction is important in seeing your students as arriving to your class with many existing skills, as it is so easy to see them as needing help.
7. Be Patient
Students knew to English are commonly in a ‘listening phase’ for anything from a few months to over a year. So much is dependent on the student’s existing personality, confidence, family support, perseverance, etc. We teachers are often impatience creatures, driven by the need to race through lesson content, assess, mark, etc. But EAL students need to be allowed to sit and listen. This can only be achieved by being at the heart of your classroom. There will be many times when the student seems to day-dreaming, looking elsewhere, bored and distracted. The truth is, they are doing all of those things just as you would thrown into a classroom and culture that is utterly foreign to you.
8. Give Praise, Lots of It
Our students WANT to make progress. They want to understand. They want to put up their hand and answer a question. They want you to read their writing. They want to read the books. So when they take that great risk for the first time of trying English, be enthusiastic and specific with the praise. Invite the rest of your class to join in and be just as encouraging. Time and time again I am impressed by how supportive students are towards each other, either spontaneously or when asked, but as long as the teacher models it. There is a fine balance to be struck between giving praise and giving too much to the point of it becoming patronising. When a student begins using a few words, you want this to quickly become the norm. The praise should now shift for the first full sentence.
9. Useful Tools
Talking of other students, having Buddies is a common tool but not one to underestimate. Having a Buddy to help the student find the toilet, the playground, the canteen, etc, can help build the social English interactions that many schools feel they need to teach children outside of the classroom. Another useful tool is an electronic translator and dictionary. I have found my Japanese students are especially keen on translators. They become independent and confident users of English because they can link to their Mother Tongue knowledge.
The Blocks and Problems
Even if you do all of the above, teaching your EAL students will need you to reflect and adjust your work. Not every strategy works for every student and so much depends on their development before they arrive in your school. Older students can be compromised by greater awareness and feelings of insecurity, coupled with a reluctance to take risks in front of people. Different cultures also add to this. With many of the Asian students I have taught, I have had to battle cultures of perfectionism and parental expectations that only correctly spelt words should be written.
It takes effort and persistence to break down these barriers; to educate families that an over-emphasis on handwriting and spelling inhibits creativity in any student regardless of their language level. Equally, some students and families need support to develop organisation, self-management and punctuality skills. In short, every student is inhibited in their learning by not being ready for school, by not getting enough sleep, or eating a decent breakfast, not having the books and materials they need, by not being taught to be responsible and accountable.
One of the big complicating factors for determining language acquisition and progress can be the presence of a special educational need, such as dyslexia. Commonly, school policy in this area is to focus on EAL support work for a period of time and then assess. If there is a significant lack of progress, then other investigations might start. I have written several other articles about dyslexia, which might help you appreciate the nature of these complications; though I am still myself learning about how I can, as a classroom teacher, untangle these often heavily intertwined needs.
The only meaningful point I can make for this would be that if you have any concerns or suspicions that something is inhibiting your student’s progress, ask for a second opinion. I am fortunate that my current SEN Coordinator frequently does this in a classroom context. Give your student time to settle in and allow for them to just be ‘listening’ for many months. But trust yourself and be prepared to try a new approach or work in a different way if your normal strategies aren’t sufficient.
The Same But Different
In conclusion, there are many little changes your can make to your daily teaching which will make for a more inclusive, encouraging environment. Even if you can’t affect your school policies, influence stubborn colleagues, change staid institutional habits, your classroom can be a better place for EAL students. Every change you make for those students will benefit every other student. By creating a more inclusive classroom, you will improve your entire practice and the experience every student has with you. What better reason can you have for trying something new tomorrow?