Steph Stringer currently works at Ark Boulton Academy in Birmingham as a Lead Practitioner specialising in geography. Steph is a 2012 Teach First Ambassador and has worked as an Associate Tutor at the annual Summer Institute for three years.
It’s a situation common to classrooms throughout the country: a new student arrives with limited understanding of the English language. This can be daunting for even the most experienced teacher, let alone a trainee. But inevitably the person who is feeling the most daunted is most likely going to be the student stood in front of you.
I recently delivered a number of talks and workshops at the Teach First annual Summer Institute on supporting students with English as an additional language (EAL). The trainees commented that this was one of their most pressing concerns – second only to behaviour management. So here are some of my top tips for teaching EAL students.
1. Establish clear routines and hand gestures
Close to the hearts of all Teach First participants and Ark network colleagues are Doug Lemov’s Teach Like a Champion techniques. It is important to consider that so many of these strategies are universal to all students – irrespective of the language that they speak.
By establishing clear routines and using the same hand gestures to reinforce this, teachers are able to ensure EAL learners are on an even playing field to the rest of the class. Don’t underestimate the effectiveness of non-verbal communication in creating a safe, happy learning environment for all learners. Nothing calms first day nerves better than a big smile and a thumbs up.
2. Use dual-coding to give visual prompts
When planning for EAL students in lessons, dual-coding is a key strategy for trainee teachers to implement. This is used by primary colleagues on a daily basis and provides a visual prompt for a key word (consider children’s books, where you may see a photograph of an apple next to the text form). This can either be printed out and given to the EAL learner upfront, or displayed for the whole class to see on the board.
As a geography specialist, I find that dual coding helps to reinforce new concepts to the rest of the class too, such as the classic geographical feature of an oxbow lake. Just as with the aforementioned non-verbal techniques, dual-coding requires no additional planning for the teacher. In fact, both these strategies really are just ‘good teaching’.
3. Provide key word glossaries
Another useful strategy for supporting EAL learners is to provide key word glossaries. If feasible, find translations for each word into the students’ first languages. This will help the learners to make their own connections between their own world knowledge and the new language they are acquiring.
Just be careful to ensure you check your translations first, ideally with a colleague that speaks the same language. I failed to do this in my first year of teaching, leaving a Somalian student in my year 10 class more confused than he was beforehand! Not all words directly translate into English: a lesson I swiftly learned.
4. Think about your seating plan
Many trainee teachers have concerns about the most impactful location in a seating plan for an EAL learner. This is open to debate, but I think there are great advantages to sitting students with the same first language near to each other so that they are able to offer support. However, it is important that their interaction is monitored carefully by the teacher and any additional adults in the room so that the supportive friend does not become a teacher, missing out on their own learning.
5. Celebrate diversity!
Where there is an opportunity to do so, celebrate the diversity that is within your classroom. I remember teaching about the Belo Monte Dam in Brazil to a year 11 group in south London. When I started introducing the case study to the class, one of the students said, ‘Miss, that’s by the village where I grew up’. It’s moments like these that provide us with such an exciting learning opportunity for all students in our class. Celebrate the backgrounds of all students and if you can learn ‘hello’ in a student’s first language, do so. International migration has provided us with an incredible chance to break down barriers and broaden minds.
6. Don’t underestimate your students
Finally and most importantly, do not underestimate the capabilities of EAL learners in your classroom. If you cannot speak the language, it does not mean that you are lacking in intelligence. You could put many of us teachers in the middle of Shanghai and we would not be able to communicate in Mandarin. It doesn’t mean we would never be able to learn and be able to express ourselves coherently eventually.
In fact, in my experience, it is frequently the students who have the smallest command of the English language who end up making the greatest amount of progress in our classrooms. They deserve nothing other than our highest expectations, just like everyone else in the class.
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