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How to teach when you’re not understood

October 31st| Maria Georgiou

How to Teach When You’re Not Understood

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As an international teacher teaching in schools where the majority of children are ESL (English as an Additional Language) for the last five years, I can tell you that it is NEVER easy to teach when you’re not understood. International schools usually have a plethora of nationalities in each class with a hugely diverse range of English from the absolute zero to the super fluent English speaker. The ability gap is even bigger in this environment!  

On top of the lack of understanding, imagine the emotional turmoil that these children are going through. Not being able to understand you and not being understood themselves. It is a frightening situation for all involved.

So how do you teach when nobody understands you? Follow the guidelines below!

Step 1 – Acceptance

In my first year of international teaching, I was very precious about making sure every child in my class understood every single word I said. The result? I got nothing done! By the time I finished explaining myself, there was no time for the actual learning. Now I know this goes against every fibre of a teacher’s being, however, it is okay for some of the children to not actually get everything you say. As long as the EAL children are safe, and learning, they don’t need to know that the verbs are coloured in red and the nouns are coloured in green – blue and pink will do too! The children are sponges with languages at this age, they will soon be able to follow instruction very easily. Accept that in the beginning, they probably won’t understand you 90% of the time. And that’s okay too. They’ll get there.

Step 2 – Enunciate, Differentiate, Appreciate

Sounds harder than it is! Speak clearly and slowly so that the EAL learners can hear exactly what you’re saying and have time to process it. Ensure that time is given before an instruction needs to be followed. Back up with actions or visuals where possible.

The differentiation is slightly trickier. Use visual aids wherever possible during your lessons. Differentiate activities where possible. But remember, you might have absolute whiz kids that are held back by their lack of understanding of the English language. These are not usually SEND children (they can be though). It is very easy to give EAL children the easiest work to do, however they could be completely gifted in their own language. The clearest subject to see this in is Maths. I have found that when these children are faced purely with numbers, they are very, very able. When the language gets involved, for example mathematical word problems, their understanding becomes hazy. Do not let the children’s lack of knowledge of the English language stop you from giving them challenges – particularly in Maths!

Finally appreciate everything they produce in English. This is alien to them – they have tried very hard to produce that work. Appreciate it. Whatever it is.

Step 3 – Translation is nice, but it isn’t always necessary

Again probably a bit of a shocker, but I found that children learn much faster when they are thrown in at the deep end, so to speak. I will always have lots of visuals in the beginning for things like ‘I need the bathroom’ or ‘I’m ill’. Verbal instruction backed up with gestures is hugely important for children learning the basics very quickly. When children are reliant on translators, they don’t pay attention to what you’re saying in English, but rather waiting for someone to tell them what to do in their own language. This makes the learning process slow. Instead of asking for translation, encourage the child/ children to speak to you. Question them. Take extra interest in their personal lives. Correct their grammar where necessary without embarrassing them. Praise them for every word spoken in English. Praise them for every attempt at communication with you or with somebody who doesn’t speak their language. Praise, praise and more praise!

Step 4 – Go Easy

Go easy on them and go easy on yourself.  It will probably take the children a little longer to learn the rules. They will probably take longer to complete an activity. They might not tidy away when you ask them. There are days when I evaluate what my zero-English kids have learned that day and in all honesty, its not always a huge amount! But as long as it is something. Big or small. Something learned is a successful day. Some days I congratulate myself on an EAL learner getting through the day without tears. Have a little more patience, with them and with yourself!

View all posts by: Maria Georgiou
Categories: Classroom Environment, Teaching Ideas

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