Learning a new language is always daunting and when you are five and start school as a pupil with English as an Additional Language (EAL), this can be even harder.
New environment, new people around, and new challenges – and, all of a sudden, you are expected to handle this all in a language that you still cannot speak well enough. Being a mother to a 6,5-year-old bilingual boy, from the first moment I heard I’d have a baby, I was concerned about his language skills. No wonder. As a family, we speak Polish at home and I knew that before my son started school, he wouldn’t be exposed to the community language enough to become a proficient English speaker right from the beginning. I was wondering, how he would comprehend English in school if he didn’t speak the language right from the start and how his teachers would teach him. Our situation was not unique.
In primary education in the UK, there are more than a million boys and girls with English as an Additional Language. All these children speak a language other than English at home and at the beginning of education the level of their second language is strictly dependent on their family environment. If parents can speak English, it is more likely that the children will hear and interact in this language more often and thus, they will be more familiar with the community language. For this reason, some children are bilingual (i.e. they can speak both English and their heritage language in the same proportion), some are considerably familiar with English, and some do not speak English at all. Not surprisingly, children from homes where they have had less exposure to English, during the first years (five up to seven, according to researchers) have difficulties in comprehending English, which affects their academic success. Then, it’s the school’s role to teach the language and support its development.
I’ve been trying to imagine what it’s like to teach at school where 90% of all pupils speak English as an Additional Language. Among other schools, that’s the reality for Drove Primary in Swindon, which I visited to see how a school evaluated by Ofsted as outstanding copes with teaching such a diverse group of young students. They come from different cultural backgrounds, different is their spoken English but also their literacy in both their heritage language and English, their schooling experiences, faith, social backgrounds and life experiences.
Ways to succeed with EAL learners
At Drove Primary, children are surrounded by big, colourful displays where at every step they are being reminded how awesome it is to speak different languages. Each month, a new language out of 36 (thirty-six!) languages spoken at school, is celebrated as Language of the Month. The school is doing a great job by showing the children how valuable their native language skills are and, I’m sure, this helps enormously in improving their self-confidence and self-esteem. I also took an opportunity to see how the children are learning with a new solution that is offered to schools with EAL learners (most, if not all schools in the UK then). A few months ago I first saw how the I Say You Say device works but only now do I fully realise that no amount of testing as an adult or even watching tuition videos, regardless of how helpful they might be, can compete with real-life experience. If something has been made for kids, no adult will ever fully appreciate the variety of ways it can work, take my word for it.
The device is so easy to work with that a child can operate it without any support, which not only allows them to work independently but also offers the child the ability to work at their own pace. With all the recent school cuts (and even more reductions in funding planned), this seems like the perfect solution for schools where there are not enough bilingual teaching assistants (the device alone can “speak” and display words in 22 languages).
Learning through play
When I first saw the I Say You Say dibba-talk, I imagined a child sitting somewhere in a quiet corner and practising their language skills away from the rest of the class. Not a bit of it! Perhaps, it’s because all the children were speaking English as an Additional Language and therefore, all of them were interested, but they just couldn’t leave the device alone! I watched, amazed, at how they were testing the new words by scanning the magnets with pretty, hand-drawn images and repeating what they heard. New words, new phrases, and even more new words. You should have seen the sparks in their eyes! Quite surprising when you think that it’s just a learning device but this proves how children can thrive if given the chance (and if approached in the right way). Learning through play is one of the most effective practices and it allows seamless language acquisition. It is crucial in early-years and primary education and is especially beneficial for children from disadvantaged backgrounds who begin school with fewer academic skills.
I’m watching a Polish girl who is scanning some words in her heritage language. At one point, a Bengali boy comes closer and starts reading with her. I overhear “wąż” (snake) and then “koń” (horse) spoken first by the girl and then repeated by the boy. She smoothly corrects his pronunciation and together they continue to scan different words and phrases, copying the perfect accent of the pre-recorded voice. First in Polish, and then in English. That’s not something I would envisage and I’m wondering if the producer of I Say You Say had planned that their device not only could help in making a smoother transition from a foreign language (22 languages!) to English but in addition it could encourage children to take an interest in learning other languages.
I also cannot help but wonder how much time it would take for my 6-year-old son to pick up Chinese from these 160 magic magnets. He’s been learning Mandarin for only half a year, so we’re still at the beginner level and I’m curious as to the effect a device like this can have on an early language learner. Being able to reach for the device when you feel like playing with a new toy and learning the language along the way. Sounds good to me and seems like an easy yet effective option for a school, where children can learn even without the teachers being involved.
With the Reception children, I Say You Say works perfectly. They still cannot read well but they are able to hear the words and learn their meaning from the context. With the words or objects, it’s fairly uncomplicated. They look at the image of a cat and can hear “cat” – first in their native language, and then in English. With other, more abstract phrases, it must be difficult for the little non-native English speakers to express themselves and I’m sure images saying “I’m hungry”, “I feel left out”, or other magnets from the “Feelings and Situations” board make it easier to communicate with teachers and interact with their peers. Visualising texts is critical for young learners like them.
Not only can the dibba-talk “speak” but it also displays the words you are scanning. It seems like a natural step that after initially being focused on listening and repeating, the children start to copy the words onto the board. I’m watching a boy who is duplicating, with great attention to detail, a Hindi script. For someone like me, who doesn’t speak Hindi, this looks just all too difficult. The 8-year-old doesn’t seem to share my concerns, though, and enjoys writing yet another word. “Wow, you’re really good at writing”, I tell him. The young man just looks at me with apparent pride and gets back to his task, this time one by one adding English translations to his Hindi descriptions. At one point, he checks his dibba-talk (the “scanner”), then the board, compares the words and corrects his pronunciation. It looks like he doesn’t even have to be supervised.
But just then, the teacher arrives. Apart from the two boys who decided to try learning French with another dibba-talk, everybody gathers around their educator. Now it looks more like a typical lesson, where a teacher is using the device as a resource to visualise what they are learning. The pupils are trying to guess what they can see in the image and then they can scan the magnets to check if they were correct. It looks more like a word game and the children are apparently enjoying it. I wonder if anyone knows at all that they are learning.
According to NALDIC (National Association for Language Development in the Curriculum) “play and its various multifaceted and multifunctional forms are widely understood as the most effective vehicle for young children’s learning.” At Drove Primary, learning through play seems an integral part of teaching their diverse group of pupils and I think, the I Say You Say device is an easy way to make it work.
How to make teaching EAL children effective?
Certain principles can help to teach a child who doesn’t speak English as a first language and these strategies have proven to be one the most effective methods:
1. It’s easiest for children to learn languages when they are contextualised. Teachers can use more pictures, photos and audio to help make sense of new information.
2. Enable socialising and collaborating with peers. Oral language development allows to develop literacy and numeracy skills but also it helps to make friends, negotiate, disagree and be part of a group.
3. Teach important words before reading, not after, preferably using flashcards (or magnets) with pictures and words in the first language. Give your learners time to read the words, write and check their definitions in their first language.
4. Add games, especially the ones where a word or a phrase is repeated.
5. Get pupils to work in small groups or in pairs and help use the language for a specific purpose. Effective learning often involves peer interaction, which helps the development of language.
6. Engage pupils to use new words orally and in writing. Make sure they are not embarrassed to pronounce them.
7. Support your pupils in reading in their second language. Sit with them and show your interest.
8. Provide opportunities to learn through play and help to make learning a language fun.
9. Allow native language use. At the initial phase of acquiring the new language, for these children who have a stronger foundation of their first language it will be easier to learn English if they can translate the words from and to their native language.
10. Do not discourage children from working individually. Instead, create a platform where the pupils can build up their independence.
11. Involve families in their child’s early school experience by providing opportunities for them to share their language skills. Parents play a powerful role in the development of English language education in their children and can significantly help them acquire and support English if they partner with teachers.
There are many ways to teach and support development of English for pupils with EAL. There is no doubt that a good teacher is good regardless of whether they teach monolingual or bilingual children. It is crucial, however, to use the right EAL teaching resources and make sure that children with English as an Additional Language are given opportunities to develop their skills and feel involved in school life.
First published on I SAY YOU SAY