English as an Additional Language: Handy Strategies for Primary Classrooms
There are now more than one million learners in UK schools who speak English as an additional language.
This valuable skill can lead to fantastic opportunities in adulthood; but bilingualism is not without its classroom challenges.
Whether they arrive in the country as a migrant or are born and raised in the UK with parents who speak another language, EAL learners come from a wealth of different backgrounds; with a wide spectrum of challenges to match.
As a teacher, you’re tasked with guiding these pupils as they navigate a new social and educational landscape. Whether this is a relatively new situation for your school, or you’ve been working with EAL children for years, there’s a necessity to become an on-the-job expert.
The many challenges that EAL learners (and in turn, you) could be tackling include new intonation patterns, sound-symbol relationships and even a new alphabet; which then expand to an overarching struggle to express personal feelings in a new language.
With all of these elements considered, it can be pretty overwhelming when an EAL child joins a bustling class.
And not just for the pupil, either!
Adapting your teaching methods to reach every child in the room can be tricky – but it’s also old hat, for the most part. No teacher walks into the classroom and expects complete homogeneity amongst their students; but working with EAL children will undoubtedly add to the challenge. Coincidentally, it’s also the area of work that many newly qualified teachers feel least equipped for.
Non-specialist teachers need to become so – and fast.
It’s intimidating, but ultimately, your role is straightforward; you must help your EAL pupils feel safe, comfortable and relaxed, so they gain essential communication skills at school and beyond.
Here’s six top tips to help you both on your way.
1. Maximise your visuals.
In EYFS and KS1 classrooms, visual aids are an everyday part of the toolbox. If you can’t read a storybook while simultaneously holding it in front of your face to reveal the pictures, the kids will soon set you straight.
However, where EAL learners are concerned, images to scaffold your teaching will become all the more essential. Many simply won’t know enough English to understand what’s happening in the room; so, graphics to complement your everyday language will help to open those initial doors.
New vocabulary with an image to match will give essential context, at a time when classroom life is a whirlwind.
2. Try a buddy system.
How this pans out will depend on the children already under your wing.
If you have an existing EAL learner who is both fairly proficient and has the same native language as your new pupil, it’s obvious that they can help to translate. Given that some classrooms are saturated with pupils who speak overseas languages, this may be simple for you to arrange; but there’s a catch.
If the pair become good friends, they may choose to spend most of the day chatting in their first language. Although comforting for the children, it can hinder their second language development – as well as potentially creating some integration issues.
So, forget what you know about ‘three’s a crowd’; bringing in a third buddy (a native English speaker) to support your new EAL pupil will ensure that interaction remains balanced.
If your classroom isn’t awash with EAL learners in order to facilitate this, having one English-speaking buddy who can help to ensure that the new pupil is happy is extremely valuable.
Unhappy children aren’t likely to learn very much and, in a class of 30, you could be forgiven for not picking up every cue yourself.
3. Give recognition to your EAL learner’s culture.
Great for a class project, learning about a new pupil’s country and culture can help to raise their status, giving them that little bit of extra confidence (as well as earning compassion from their classmates).
The family may be happy to contribute to a display, which showcases information and images; all of which will aid natural conversation surrounding similarities and differences.
Can the class solidify their learning by writing a story which takes place in that country?
4. Keep activities short and sweet.
Being immersed in a new language is not only complex for young EAL learners, but it can be physically tiring, too.
There’s a lot of information for children to absorb in a short space in time. So, don’t expect them to sit and listen for too long. Give regular, short breaks to aid concentration, as well as allowing extra thinking time.
Short tasks, which centre around what an EAL pupil can do, will help to keep their focus.
5. Follow up written activities with purposeful talk.
As your EAL learner develops, they may appear that they’re starting to hold their own with literacy tasks; but do they actually understand what’s being written?
Some children may be able to read and write, but not really comprehend the subject. Structured discussion after writing tasks can help to make sure the meaning is absorbed; after all, they may be able to transcribe a sentence about a ladybird, but could they point one out in the playground? This is all essential context.
Similarly, don’t be alarmed if some EAL pupils are unusually vocal during written tasks. In some cultures, children are taught writing as a mostly oral activity, and will automatically read aloud; similarly, previous classroom experience may have taught them that reading aloud is how one memorises information. They will gradually absorb your classroom’s practices, in time.
6. Don’t be anxious. Your time-honoured teaching methods are still great!
EAL pupils need you to help them pick up new language skills, sure; but it’s just as important to keep them safe and comfortable in the classroom, especially in the early years. Just like anyone else, a child who is happy and looked after will learn far better than one who is sad.
Many overseas pupils have a silent period, which can last for months; but don’t panic. As long as they’re navigating their way around the school and understanding its practices, they’re still picking up a lot of valuable knowledge.
A study from Warwick University revealed that children need to learn just 100 words and 61 phonics skills to read the English language; so condensed, quality learning time is perfectly sufficient to begin with.
As long as you provide an excellent learning environment for the child (as you do with your entire class), you’re doing a great job!
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