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Removing Barriers to Learning for EAL Children

Having a diverse school can bring some wonderful benefits, but it can be a challenge to ensure that pupils from all backgrounds have the specialist support and resources they need. These challenges can stem from the lack of guidance and funding from the government, which results in the extra added pressure on schools to not only adjust the national curriculum to better suit the needs of EAL children but to help learners acquire both colloquial and academic English. This post will go through some of the challenges that teachers have told us they face when providing the best care and learning for EAL students and most simple ways to overcome them.

Creating an Inclusive Atmosphere for Newly-Arrived EAL Children

As educators, we should be concerned with breaking down any potential barriers to learning. With a pupil who is experiencing their first encounter with a British school, there are many obstacles to successful integration, above and beyond simply learning a new language. There can be the desire to make new friends, misunderstandings about behavioural or cultural norms, being overwhelmed by unfamiliar settings, and in some cases there may be past traumas that contribute to behavioural issues.

How to overcome these challenges

  • It is fundamental to keep EAL pupils in a class with non-EAL students as much as you can. Targeted interventions with learners are fine, however, this should be kept to a minimum.
  • Playing games at the beginning of lessons to allow pupils to interact at a social level with non-EAL children is a great way to foster friendships amongst all students.
  • Start the lessons with a fun discussion to generate conversation amongst EAL learners and non-EAL learners. Dee Malouf (Teacher) suggest that “Instead of making it look like a lesson, start off by asking questions and getting others to ask each other questions. Pretend it’s just a conversation and it should get the kids to speak naturally. Allow children to pick their own relevant topic so that they are excited to speak about it”
  • Give EAL pupils responsibilities in the lessons/classroom so that they can take the lead.
  • Janey Simmons (Teacher) puts forward the idea of encouraging more lunchtime activities. “I have done rock painting and other chilled design stuff to just get them in and chat. Also, card and board games.”
  • To ensure that learners are not overwhelmed by a new school environment, it’s important that learners gain a sense of authority and routine.
  • Demonstrate good behaviour and classroom rules, through visual picture cards/posters. Be aware that some behavioural requirements may not always be common in other cultures. Therefore, always confirm with learners that they have understood what is expected of them.
  • It is vital to assess the current and past home life of each EAL pupil as this could influence their interaction skills. For example, EAL children from a refugee background may have experienced a certain level of trauma over the years which would heavily impact their confidence and social interaction. You can learn more about supporting newly arrived refugee learners with their confidence on our blog.

The confidence and comfortability of each EAL child will vary! Some learners will integrate swiftly while others may need that extra push. Nonetheless, crafting a welcoming environment that celebrates all cultures and diversity should be a top priority as a teacher. The rest will follow with time.

Encouraging Independent Writing Among EAL Children

Independent writing enables teachers to provide differentiated tasks for students while raising awareness of each individual students progress and limitations. With EAL pupils, this can sometimes be more demanding for teachers. When a new arrival starts school, they may be provided (rightly so!) with constant support and targeted intervention. Many pupils will start to process this as their daily school routine, so introducing the concept of independent writing into their routine can be unsettling for pupils. With the many academic and social benefits that independent writing can bring, it’s important that teachers push through this challenge.

How to overcome these challenges

  • Encourage students to write from their own perspective. Rather than asking learners to write an essay on a subject, make the task more personal to them. Anything from asking pupils to write a letter to their parents to writing something to hang on the wall would work quite well. Gradually challenge pupils to write in a more formal register once they have gained more confidence.
  • Sometimes all a child needs is a little bit of inspiration! Instead of going straight into a writing task, get pupils to talk about their experience and act it out (this would make a great roleplay task). They could even sketch out their story or experience and label it with keywords which they could later use to aide them with their writing. AJ Mac (Teacher) gives us an example of how well this method worked with her EAL children: “The task was to draw a treasure map and write instructions. So the next day, I hid treasure in the school and they had to follow the instructions to get the treasure. They loved it and came back and enthusiastically wrote. The group really responded to acting out before writing. We often did things like the act of a story before writing a retell etc.”
  • It will be useful to keep a vocabulary mat consisting of visuals and keywords. This will be a good reference point for pupils in order to help aid learning and independence.
  • Sentence stems/starters are a great way to encourage independent writing as it provides a frame for pupils to express their thoughts. This also provides scaffolding to help learners get comfortable with speaking and writing.

To find out more about how you can help EAL children develop writing skills, read our informative and detailed guides on useful strategies to aide writing.

The Teaching of Different Sounds

15% of the English Language isn’t pronounced as it’s written or written as it’s pronounced. Often this makes it very difficult for EAL children to grasp the concept of new letter sounds and understanding the principles of phonics.

Don’t let the reputation of the English language scare you! Remember that there’s still 85% of the letters we use in English that do represent the sounds we make when speaking.

How to overcome these challenges

  • Ensure that you are teaching basic letter and sound combinations from day one! This is crucial in order to avoid confusion later down the line.
  • Teaching minimal pairs is a good strategy to help pupils identify and compare sounds. Minimal pairs are words that vary by just a single sound. For example- sleep and sip; wet and wait; not and note and etc.
  • Target the sounds that your pupils need to focus on by keeping an eye on pronunciation. Support further learning without discourage pupils efforts to attempt new vocabulary.
  • It would be worth identifying words/sounds that students are having difficulties with and matching it to a similar word in English but with one different sound.
  • Working on pronunciation and sounds can often bring upon anxiety. This can be reduced by incorporating relevant games into lessons so that students can have an enjoyable experience whilst improving their pronunciation. Click here for ideas and pronunciation games, click here.

Introducing the Mainstream Classroom 

EAL learners may want to distance themselves from the class due to differences or may choose not to participate because they are afraid of saying the wrong thing. Whilst this is completely normal, it is a teacher’s responsibility to try and combat this and make an extra effort to integrate the leaners into the class. This way, they can begin to understand some concepts from a variety of curriculum subjects to help provide a more rounded education beyond language learning.

How to overcome these challenges

  • Include more group work into lessons. This way, EAL children would be able to practice their pronunciation in a low-risk setting so that if mistakes are made, they aren’t discouraged from contributing.
  • Do not be alarmed if EAL children appear to be quiet. This is a normal stage in the English learning process; many English learners want to make as few mistakes as possible when speaking, so this quiet period may mean they are not yet ready.
  • Try to make learning more visual; EAL children can find it difficult to process spoken language. This could include things like writing instructions on the board after being read aloud to the class. This way, EAL children will still be able to understand what they are being told to do without needing to be extra attentive to speech.
  • Try to pre-teach EAL children. This means that if a topic is going to be covered next week, then give them materials a week before so that they have time to prepare and are able to feedback to the class on the day. This will give them a confidence boost and motivate them to want to participate in future lessons.
  • Allow EAL children to speak or write in their native language. These students may find it hard to verbalise or write down sentences in English because they are afraid to make a mistake. Therefore, allowing them to speak or write in their native language will enable them to express themselves and focus on the topic being taught. Once the student has settled in and feels part of the class, then they will feel confident enough to begin speaking and writing in English.

Specialist Vocabulary for Different Subjects

Each subject has its own specialist vocabulary or curriculum-specific English. For compulsory subjects such as Science and Maths, it is essential that students understand the terminology that is used. Some EAL children may excel in Maths when taught in their first language (L1) and may be able to transfer this over or they may struggle to learn new content due to a language barrier. Also, with Maths there can be complicated vocabulary for EAL children to pick up, for example, words such as ‘addition’ or ‘subtraction’ even though the functions of these words will be the same universally.

There is also the problem of having more than one term for the same mathematical operation; for example ‘add’ or ‘the sum of’ or ‘plus’ all mean the same thing, but could get confusing to keep track of for an EAL child. In addition to this, there are also words in the English language that are phonetically similar (they sound the same) but are spelt differently and have different meanings. For example, ‘sum’ in a maths lesson could be mistaken for the word ‘some’ by an EAL child, both having completely different meanings. Therefore, it is crucial that EAL children are supported in order to avoid this confusion.

How to overcome these challenges

  • Use visual aids in lessons to help EAL Learners grasp the concepts being talked about. For example, if you are talking about an addition question, include the ‘+’ symbol somewhere on the board so that the students can link terminology with that function.
  • Invite students to interact with questions during class discussion. This gives them the opportunity to practice their language, becoming familiar with specialist terminology which can aid development in maths.
  • Give EAL children extra materials and resources as homework so that they can prepare themselves for the next lessons, becoming more familiar with the content and ultimately catching up with their peers.

What are your biggest challenges in providing the best experience for children with EAL? Are there any strategies you use to overcome barriers to learning?

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