A new school can be daunting enough for any pupil, but for EAL students who have to navigate their new environment in a second or even third language, it can be especially tough.
For example, I work at an international school in Taiwan where the majority of children enter my class with English as either a second or third language, and most speak Mandarin.
This can be hard on an emotional level for children – and this matters because research has shown that before a child can learn they must feel secure and comfortable in their environment (Bullard, 2017).
EYFS: How to help EAL pupils feel secure in early years
So how can we best support EAL children socially and emotionally to help them succeed academically? Here are five pieces of advice:
1. Help children feel they are entering a ‘safe’ space
To create a welcoming, safe environment, it must have a sense of familiarity for the child. One way we do this is, prior to the start of term, asking parents what their child’s interests are so we can help to encourage "belonging" within the new environment of school.
We then make our first theme for the term "About me". We also ask children to bring in pictures of their family in an attempt to connect the child’s worlds of home and school.
We display these along with pictures or actual significant items for them, such as toys, and talk about them.
As an English teacher, I will be part of that conversation to show that I share the interest.
2. Help children to understand that their native language is valued
We encourage children to use their native language in addition to English.
We respond by giving vocabulary in English for a word they use in Mandarin, such as "water bottle". We reply to a question in Mandarin using some English.
The children often play and explore using Mandarin and we support this, as we know their first language must develop well before they can excel in a second.
When we teach within circle times, we bridge more challenging vocabulary in both English and Mandarin, as well as showing images to support understanding. It is evident that this system works for us, as the children show little stress within the environment.
3. Build an accepting culture of the diversity within the class
I am extremely mindful of protecting the children’s feelings if they struggle to articulate English and I am dedicated practitioner of PSE (personal and social education). In our circle times we discuss our respect for one another and how everyone has the right not to contribute, should they not feel comfortable to do so.
I often use myself as an example or a puppet and illustrate incorrect Mandarin pronunciation. The children may laugh, then we relate it back to feelings and how this is upsetting so they come to understand not to laugh if someone makes a mistake while speaking another language.
4. Scaffold to support English
Children develop best when they experience secure, consistent relationships with interested adults and positive relationships with peers (Copple and Bredekamp, 2009).
Therefore, educators must be very sensitive to the feelings of EAL children when it comes to question/answer times in adult-led tasks and offer a natural way to move from being depending on their first language to being comfortable in English.
For example, I differentiate by requesting that children who struggle with English speaking to the greatest extent work with a Mandarin-speaking colleague who can "bridge" between English and Mandarin.
Then, as the child’s English improves, I work with them in a small group. In this group, I will model answers first, then request the most confident children to answer.
As each child answers, I will release them from the group. I then finish with the least confident speakers and EAL children, so I can work one-to-one with them, ascertaining if they understand the language used.
If they do not, they are provided with further support, using their drawings and a phrase they can repeat with me.
5. Form an attachment with the child
Educators must make every effort to get to know the child and their interests. Joining in (when accepted) or playing alongside them, endeavouring to find that perfect resource to excite them or extend their learning, will all help to build a bond.
As language is the issue, it is even more important to make time to connect with them in non-verbal ways. You can narrate what you are doing in a basic way as you play, to help support some exploration of vocabulary.
I have found that all children love picture books – this is another method I have used to connect with children with very little English.