How to teach EAL: from sandwiches to sucking eggs

Including English idioms and cultural asides in lessons can be helpful for English as an additional language students
4th November 2020, 2:00pm
Chantille Rayman-Bacchus

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How to teach EAL: from sandwiches to sucking eggs

https://www.tes.com/magazine/archive/how-teach-eal-sandwiches-sucking-eggs
English As An Additional Language: Sometimes It Helps To Give Eal Students Cultural Context - Such As An Explanation About Sandwiches

Trying to get second-language learners through an exam in English can leave you feeling like Sisyphus.

It's a big challenge, especially if they only ever speak English at school and every summer break seems to take you back to square one.

But English is a big incentive for many parents to send their children to an international school, not just to learn the language, but to become fluent; a tall order for teachers working in places where the only English spoken is within the confines of the school itself.

EAL learning: Immersion is key

This is why the overall stance I take is that boosting EAL learning is done best with immersion, immersion, immersion. 

I do this, in part, by plastering my classrooms walls with illustrated idioms, puns, articles, quotes and jokes. Equally important are the articles about the increase of pyjama-clad shoppers in Tesco or residents protesting against a new suspension bridge.

This helps to build students' vocabulary and bring in the culture of English. It's about ensuring that they understand everyday elements of English life that are often a mystery to them. For example, I discovered that the students didn't know what a squirrel was or found the idea of a sandwich for lunch ludicrous ("Really, Miss? Every day?!"). 

International exams are still thick with British cultural references. Which can mean a sticky situation if you didn't grow up feeding ducks in the park or playing choo-choo trains, and not everybody knows that Myrtle is a girl's name and not some kind of lizard. 

And actually, it wasn't Myrtle, it was Beryl and she was a parrot belonging to Harrold, who worked in a pet shop emporium, that caused so much consternation for my GCSE students a few years ago. 

These are the obstacles that teachers in international schools have to help their students to get over, and plenty of reading is the best way around that.

By setting reading homework and research projects, you can expose students to stories, articles and biographies that allow them to experience things that you haven't got time to teach. These also help to clear up grammatical inaccuracies and expand their vocabularies.

And the occasional pop culture reference will, in time, serve them well, too.

All teachers are English teachers

International or not, all teachers find themselves pointing out the importance of spelling, punctuation and grammar.

But when teaching overseas, there is an even bigger language barrier to be overcome before you can even think of delivering your curriculum content. 

A natural reaction to this is to exercise a bit of verbal hygiene and keep your English clean of idioms, expressions and turns of phrase that pepper our language. Easier said than done, as often without realising it, colloquialisms will slip out. 

And in some ways, those idiomatic expressions are exactly what the schools are looking for when they employ native speakers. It's up to you to strike the right balance between too much and not enough.

Perhaps holding an egg-sucking competition to see which team could work out the meaning of "teaching your grandma to suck eggs" was a bit much - but it was fun nonetheless.

By all means, though, do use idioms because they are educationally and culturally valuable, but just be aware that too many can be confusing and distract from your lesson objectives.

Get it right, though, and in two shakes of a lamb's tail they'll be right as rain.

Chantille Rayman-Bacchus is a secondary English teacher who has been working in British international schools in Spain for 15 years

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