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How to Support EAL Students in the Classroom

19% of students in the UK are students who are learning English as and Additional Language (EAL). Given the recent influx of refugees from the Ukraine, nearly every school is now having to ramp up their understanding of how to support children whose first language isn't English, and often where teaching staff do not speak the native language. These students need to be communicated with in a slightly different way, and are likely to communicate differently themselves. It is important for teachers and support staff to be aware of this, as well as to understand the difficulties the students face, and which teaching strategies could help. Luckily, there are some easy tips you can use to help create a linguistically inclusive classroom.

EAL Classroom Tips

1. Visual Learning

For EAL students who are struggling to process spoken language, visual learning can be extremely helpful. Use labelled images and videos to illustrate your lessons, so that when you introduce new concepts, everyone understands what you’re referring to. Print these images out for students to stick into their books and refer back to. You could also label everyday items in the classroom, such as scissors, protractors, and other equipment.

Other ways to use visual learning are to write all instructions for the lesson on the board, and to use gestures and facial expressions to engage and aid your students. This has the additional advantage of benefitting non-EAL students too, especially children with autism or ADHD.

I also like incorporating games with EAL learning - conversation dice, Sight Bingo or Conversation Cards.

2. Consider Your Seating Plan

So that your EAL students can better hear and see during the lesson, sit them near the front of the classroom. You could also consider who they are sitting next to. A native English speaker who can use a wide variety of vocabulary and complex sentences will be a good language role model for those learning English.

3. As Much Group Work As Possible

Group work increases students’ engagement, and gives EAL pupils a chance to practise speaking in a less intimidating context. They may not be confident speaking out in front of the whole class, but might feel able to contribute to a small group discussion. Group work will also help to facilitate friendships, giving the students further opportunities to develop their language outside the classroom.

4. Adapt Your Speech

To enhance students’ understanding of lessons, speak slowly and pronounce every syllable in every word. When you ask a question, give EAL pupils an extra three to five seconds to think before you call on them. They need this time to translate the question into their first language, think of the answer, and translate back – and it could help them to build up their courage. It might also be helpful to repeat instructions several times, and frequently check that your students understand the topic and what they need to do.

Be aware of phrases that might be particularly different for those trying to learn the language. Idioms (such as ‘that’s the last straw’ or ‘I’ll let you off the hook’) as well as slang and words that are specific to English-speaking cultures (think of ‘brolly’, ‘wellies’, or a ‘Sunday roast’) might need an explanation.

You should see yourself as a language teacher; think of ways that you could help your students to increase their progress. For example, you could have a ‘word of the day’ that could boost your students’ vocabulary, or regularly use synonyms in your teaching (e.g. ‘the climate – the weather – is very warm’). Also try some specific EAL workbooks.

Finally, use sentence frames to scaffold your students’ responses. Frames such as ‘I disagree with what ­­___ said, because…’ show students how to structure formal, academic sentences. Display your sentence frames on the wall of the classroom, and ask all students to use them regularly in their discussions and writing.

5. Allow Native Language Use

It is become increasingly accepted that you don’t need to separate a learner’s languages to encourage fluency. In fact, their first language is a useful foundation to build on – it gives them an opportunity to compare words and sentence structures, and understand more quickly. In the early days of language-learning, the classroom can be extremely intimidating. Allowing EAL students with the same first language to speak it together can help them to relax, and engage with concepts at a higher level.

Additionally, if a student is struggling with the language, and unable to complete a written task that you have given the class, let them to try it in their first language. This makes them feel included and less self-conscious. There is some evidence that this strategy helps them to produce higher quality work in their additional language later on. This might be because it stops them restricting themselves to words that they know; instead, they try to express what they really want to say.

6. DuoLingo

This isn't an ad, promise! DuoLingo has been a great app to use in the classroom as Teaching Assistants can sit 1:1 or in small groups with students who are EAL and, providing they all speak the same native language, work though some of the DuoLingo activities together with them. This can help build relationships with adults in the classroom, but it can also support quicker English learning with activities being in their native language which negates the need for teaching staff to be able to speak the native language.

7. Don't Force Them to Talk

It is important to understand that language learners go through several stages on the path to fluency. They can often comprehend language – through listening and reading – before they can produce it themselves, through speaking and writing. Some teachers may see that a child is able to understand and try to make them speak; however, this puts on too much pressure. Accept that it is normal for EAL students to go through a silent period, and let them speak when they feel confident to.

8. Learn About Their Culture

Make an effort to get EAL students’ names right, and encourage your students to do so too. This shows them that you respect their language and identity, and helps them to feel accepted. Similarly, learn exactly where they come from, and research the religion and culture in that area. This will help you to accommodate for your students’ needs. For example, in Japanese culture it is preferential not to express your opinions in public. Japanese students might, as a result, feel uncomfortable participating in debates and discussions. Additionally, in many East Asian and Middle Eastern cultures, eye contact is disrespectful. Don’t force all your students to look you in the eye, and be aware of other cultural differences.

9. Feedback is Key

Providing feedback, both positive and corrective, is extremely important. It shows the learner what they are doing right, building on their self-esteem, and gives them models for what they should improve. Strategies for giving feedback on spoken language include:

  • Repeating what the student has said, but with the correct sentence structure or pronunciation.

  • Asking for clarification if you don’t understand what they have said.

  • Questioning whether they think the sentence is well-formed or not – for example, ‘is that the right word order?’. Let them rephrase it themselves.

  • Talking about how to structure similar sentences to the one the student said, without directly correcting them. This could help to preserve their self-esteem in front of the class.

  • Praising them for good attempts at difficult structures, or trying something new, even if it isn’t quite right. Don’t feel the need to correct every error.

Strategies for giving feedback on written language include:

  • Acknowledging their effort and what they have done well.

  • Giving marks for good content, even if there are grammar, punctuation or spelling errors.

  • Pointing out their use of correct sentences in the wrong context. Try to explain which contexts you would use this structure in. For example, when you’re writing instructions in a recipe, you would use command words. You would not tend to use them in a formal letter.

  • Writing clear examples of structures that the learner is struggling with so that they can practise

10. There May be Challenging Behaviour

It can be tiring, frustrating, and sometimes embarrassing to feel that you are unable to communicate or understand what is going on in the classroom. As a result, EAL students might display challenging behaviour. By empathising with the challenges they are facing, recognising how well they are doing, and using effective techniques to deal with the behaviour, you can encourage them to keep trying.

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