Prevent walls being built in our classrooms by embracing children's first language

Ciaran Gallagher
23rd March 2017 at 14:00

English as an additional language

This constant quest for progress might be fuelling teachers' reluctance to embrace EAL children’s first language

The world is appearing to become more insular. From walls to bans, it seems that everybody wants to keep people out.

As teachers it is our duty that we don’t turn our classrooms into rooms of isolation, but environments where all children, regardless of their differences, are embraced as part of the community. One way of achieving that is by acknowledging the importance of their first language.

Recently, I heard of a case of a child being reprimanded by a teacher outside during playtime at their school. At first, I thought it would have been for hitting another child or misusing a piece of play equipment. Unfortunately, it wasn’t, but what? What was this child’s “crime”? 

I soon learnt that this young child was being told to sit out for two minutes on a bench because he was chatting to one of his friend’s in his native language, rather than in English.

All he did was want to devise a game with his friend from another class, but because he did not use English he had to watch as other children were running care-free around him.

Playtime, a brief respite from the constraints of a school desk, was a time when this child was being made to feel isolated because his first language was being denied. When the teacher was later asked why the child was being punished for not using English, she pointed out that if she allowed a child to use their native language, they wouldn’t learn as fast and wouldn’t make progress.

Progress. Progress. Progress. Again, it seems that this constant quest for progress might be fuelling teacher’s reluctance to embrace EAL children’s first language.

I have heard on many occasions that children will surely learn quicker if they are forced to speak English because they won’t have a choice and will have to pick it up from the other students. But maybe, this myth should be debunked.

The National Subject Association for English as an Additional Language (NALDIC) highlights the need for EAL children to be free to use their first language.

It suggests that if we want our children to understand, ask questions and explain their reasoning, they need to utilise their knowledge and understanding, which for many EAL children has been gained in their first language. If children are to therefore make progress in their understanding, they need to have the chance to use their first language.

By closing the door on the children’s first language, we are basically closing the door on their wealth of knowledge and understanding which they have gained outside the classroom, and in turn closing the door on them truly understanding what is being taught.

Currently, I am very fortunate to be teaching a class of children who have started their first year at school. For the majority, this is their first year learning English, but not their first year of learning.

Since the day they were born, they have been developing an understanding of the world around them in their first language. Who am I to devalue all of this learning and experience by placing a ban on their use of a different language?

While I teach all my lessons in English and provide opportunities and support for them to use this language, I will take advantage of their proficency in their native language. Often in my class, you will hear me say “You can talk to your partner in Chinese”.

Currently, we are devising maps to help direct each other to various locations in the school and the children have been working brilliantly, thinking about how they might represent the journey on a piece of a paper. I have seen children swapping maps and trying to guide each other to the final destination, offering suggestions for amendments, asking questions for clarification and most of this has been conducted in the children’s first language – Chinese.

Now, if I had taken the stance of insisting on only using English, the children might have been able to draw a map and give some simple directions, but they wouldn’t have engaged in the high-level thinking that I observed in the classroom.

But whilst I am fortunate enough to have a large majority of the class sharing the same mother tongue, I know in many schools they may have EAL children who do not share the same language with someone else so how can their first language be truly embraced in the classroom?

Firstly, teachers need to utilise technology. If you know you are going to be teaching a difficult concept, why not allow the children to watch a video about the subject matter in their own language as part of early morning work.

Secondly, many devices are able to recognise speech and translate so why not allow the children to explain their understanding of a concept in their own language. After their explanation has been translated, you as a teacher can model explaining the concept using English with visuals.

Thirdly, even if EAL children in your class do not share the same language with another student, why not see this as an opportunity for your students to teach others in their own language.

Children’s languages should be embraced and I have seen great strategies being implemented from “Language of the Month” displays to EAL children using their language skills as ambassadors.

By acknowledging children’s first language, we can prevent walls from being built in our classrooms.


Ciaran Gallagher is an early years teacher in China. He tweets at @ciarang_1