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Breaking the language barrier

October 1st 2019| Fiona Drever

Breaking the language barrier

A few tips on working with EAL students in mainstream classrooms

Did you know that there are currently more than 1 million EAL (English as an additional language) students studying in UK schools? That’s a little over 15% of all students!

If you are a teacher, or work in education, chances are you are already acutely aware of this fact and the challenges it can bring.

Please don’t misunderstand me. This is not an article bemoaning the impact the needs of these students put on our, let’s face it, already overstretched education system. Instead, I hope to offer a few simple tips that teachers could use to improve communication with EAL students and which might also benefit the rest of their class (hopefully without adding to their workload!)

Speak slowly and clearly

This might sound obvious, but it’s worth bearing in mind! Make sure all instructions are clear and modelled either physically or on the board before each activity. You’d be amazed at the impact this can have!

Visual materials are your friend

Regardless of age, any student with a low level of English is likely to struggle (at least initially) when thrown into a class where nobody speaks their language. One way to combat this is to make use of a wide range of visual resources around the classroom such as a daily weather chart/calendar, key topic words with pictures, communication fans and visual timetables.

Such resources are often used in the lower levels of primary, but can be great for EAL students of all ages as a simple means of communication.

Managing Behaviour

From personal experience, attempting to manage the behaviour of students who simply do not understand what you are saying can be very challenging. As an English teacher working in Spain, this is a problem I used to encounter daily. Telling students off in a language they don’t understand doesn’t get you anywhere, believe me!

 A good solution I have found is using non-verbal praise and reward systems. These can be used either as a whole class or on an individual basis and could include strategies such as sticker charts, marbles in a jar and traffic light systems. 

For me, positive reinforcement strategies always prove to be much more effective than the negative, E.g. ‘losing’ something for bad behaviour (golden time, points etc). However, in more extreme situations something more individualised may be necessary, which brings us nicely to…

Communicating with parents

This is hard and can be intimidating for both teachers and parents. While using a translator for more formal meetings is sometimes an option, in my opinion, maintaining regular communication between home and school is absolutely key to children’s learning and development. This may be something as simple as a ‘Thumbs-up’ to Mum at the end of the day, topic vocabulary homework activities to complete with a member of their family, or a home-school daily communication sheet, with ‘happy face/ sad face’ awarded to the student for a range of factors such as behaviour in class, participation, trying to speak English, and playing with friends.

As you’ve probably noticed, a lot of the strategies I have mentioned above are ones already commonly used in pre-school and the early stages of primary, but why leave them there? Just because a student is beyond the age where he/she ‘should’ be able to read, write and communicate effectively, this is not always the case. Clear instructions, visuals and simple home-school communication are things that benefit all students, not only those with English as an additional language.

Put yourself in their shoes (not literally, they might be a bit small!) and imagine how you would feel in their situation. Learning a new language is hard, but with the right support you’ll be surprised how quickly they pick it up.

View all posts by: Fiona Drever
Categories: Classroom Environment
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Jan Hardwick

I work in a British school in Spain, after 13 years in a 50+% EAL primary in Crewe, England. I find the experience in Crewe has helped a lot and knowing some Spanish to overcome words the children are unsure of really helps too. We teach through immersion so no Spanish inside school. It works. Making things fun and interesting, plenty of pictures and examples and always remember, if they are EAL their life is probably also very different; don’t assume they have the same food, toys, lifestyle etc that a British person would, so accommodate their differences. And celebrate them too!

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