5 Things you should be doing if you teach EAL students

Fewer than 50% of NQTs surveyed last year (NCTL) said that they felt well prepared to teach EAL students and with over 1.1 million students learning English as an Additional Language in the UK today, it’s definitely worth addressing.

Here are five key tips to be thinking about if you teach EAL students

Make it visual

Why? Visuals allow you to provide context for your learners. By representing subject content in a visual way, you are reducing the language demands but maintaining the cognitive demands of your lesson.

How? When introducing new ideas or concepts, ensure that you support understanding by using visuals. Design matching activities that use images rather than text, sequencing activities that use images or play a categories game with photos. Ask students to draw concepts rather than explaining them in English.

EAL students will arrive with different knowledge and experience of language. Visuals are useful to help teach new information but they are also useful to encourage students to express themselves. Using visuals allows students to express their experience in a different mode of representation when written language might be daunting.

Drawing symbols or sketches is also an excellent way of representing a deep understanding of new vocabulary. For example, if a GCSE class is looking at the different level descriptors on the mark scheme, how would they represent ‘evaluate’ in a drawing? How would they represent ‘justify?’

Make it concrete

Why? Often in class, we deal in abstracts. By using graphic organisers you can help your students make abstract information more concrete. They allow a student to organise their thoughts (in whichever language they choose) before going on to form their ideas in the target language.

How? Tables, bar charts, flow diagrams, Venn diagrams, concept maps…to name but a few. Graphic organisers take many forms. One strategy that has worked well for many of my colleagues is the Ishikawa chart or the ‘fishbone’ which is designed to show links between causes and effect.

These graphic organisers are a great way of enabling students to distil the key facts, make links between different bits of information and to see topics as a whole, without overwhelming them with a heap of new language.

Once students have understood the key factors in a new topic, then they need to learn how to join up their ideas. One of the best ways to ensure their success here and make sure they feel confident is to model the process yourself.

Model it

Why? Modelling involves providing students with a written or oral version of the text you would like them to produce. The students at this point might have the key vocabulary they need; modelling shows them clearly the grammatical structures they will need to link the information. It may also be a curriculum demand. For example, some specifications require students to be able to compare or contrast or to show the cause and effect of certain processes.

How? Sentence starters and writing frames provide the structure a student might need, but you can go further than this. Sit down with students and ‘talk through’ your writing. Explain at each stage what you’re doing and what job each word does. They can then use your model to have a go on their own.

One colleague encouraged the students themselves to produce models for each genre of writing. So for example, if the class needed to write a comparative essay and some students needed support, they would pull out the model that they had previously made for that style of writing. It was an inclusive way of providing extra support.

Talk!

Why? Before anyone starts writing anything though, encourage students to talk through their ideas. Committing thought to paper is a high stakes scenario if you’re struggling with your confidence.

How? Provide students with the time and structures to be able to practice expressing their ideas before they commit anything to paper. At first, students may need written sentence starters or visuals to help them structure their ideas but feedback from you or from other L1 speakers will help them to amend their ideas. If you’re in a multilingual classroom, hearing first language speakers model the process is also invaluable.

Value the first language

Why? Jim Cummins, an expert in language acquisition and bilingual education, suggests that all language learners have a ‘Common Underlying Proficiency’ (CUP), which essentially means that the skills and knowledge we developed when learning our first language can be drawn upon when learning an additional language. It also follows that any development that takes place in our first language will have a beneficial effect on our second (or third etc) language. Whilst many schools with large proportions of EAL students insist on English being spoken at all times, Cummins and other notable linguists suggest that valuing the first language is a vital component in the successful teaching of EAL students.

How? Think about your classroom environment. Which languages are ‘legitimate’ in that space? Professor Ofelia García of the Graduate Center of the City University of New York argues that ‘translanguaging’ enables students of all languages to process and express their ideas at any stage of their learning – they are not forced to wait until they can speak with a ‘legitimate’ voice. With translanguaging, no student is prevented from collaborating with peers or discussing content. If you have a dominant second language in your school, this is an invaluable string to your bow. If you have many students speaking many different languages, students can still be encouraged to express their ideas in writing or in speech with whatever linguistic resources they may have.

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