7 ways to help EAL pupils transition into secondary

Transition between primary and secondary school is particularly tough for EAL students, explains Katie Tomlinson

Katie Tomlinson

How to help EAL pupils transition from primary to secondary school

While the markers of effective learning and good teaching are the same at primary and secondary level, differences in teacher delivery and presentation style within lessons can make the "feel" and experience for a pupil transitioning very different.  

The impact of even subtle differences between primary and secondary lessons can have a huge impact on learning achievement and engagement – and perhaps even more so in international schools, where language challenges can make it especially hard.

As a parent of teenagers, and a primary specialist myself, I have seen this first-hand.

Smoothing the transition from primary to secondary school for EAL pupils

Here are some ideas that secondary teachers may want to consider in order to reduce stress, improve cognition and engage working memory for new joiners:

1. Keep fonts simple

Stick to two font styles maximum within one presentation.

The font is best kept simple (suggest Times New Roman, Comic Sans, Arial or Calibri). Stay away from swirly and intricate fonts that are more difficult to process, especially for EAL learners.

2. Visual guides

Use icons and symbols for visual clues, to support learning behaviours, promote understanding and aid recall. For instance, across the school from Year 1 to Year 13 at Sri KDU International, all presentation slides include an icon that represents a learning behaviour in the corner of the lesson slides.

This reminds the pupils which learning power they are using within the lesson (curiosity, imagination, perseverance). The language of the learning power is communicated at other times (eg, assemblies and PHSLE sessions) so in the lesson all that is needed is the icon as a reminder – no verbal language clutter needed.

A lot of white space between concepts and information also helps to ensure that any slides do not become cluttered and so are easier to read.

3. Provide clear guidance

You can reduce cognitive load and the pressure on working memory by sharing a WAGOLL example (what a good one looks like).

At Sri KDU International Primary, teachers use WAGOLLS to show the pupils what they are aiming for as an end product.

This immediately takes the pressure off them to "remember" and shows them immediately what the teacher expects. It also gives them something to refer back to when completing tasks and is a learning prompt that can be stored on the classroom learning wall.

4. Discuss vocabulary

Ensure that specialist language is highlighted and explained fully. Schools could consider creating a dictionary of terms specific to subjects. "High-frequency word lists" are used when teaching reading comprehension and spelling at primary level.

Secondary heads of department could create a list of subject-specific high-frequency words for their curriculum. Within the forthcoming EAL enrichment centre at Sri KDU International School, the curriculum will offer this resource as a strategy to support students as they move into the mainstream classroom.

5. Avoid linguistic confusion

Following on from this, make sure you are aware of polysemy – where words have two meanings – which can be particularly challenging for EAL students, as well as those coming from Year 6 into secondary. To understand fully in context, imagine the challenge of the word "once" in both these sentences for an EAL learner:

Boil the solution once with salt and once with sugar.

Once Germany had surrendered, the Soviets were free to enter the conflict against Japan

Researchers in the School for Education at Leeds University are currently looking into the linguistic challenges of transition by exploring the range of academic language encountered by students at secondary school, with a focus on how this differs from academic language in primary. The aim of the project is to produce a glossary of polysemous vocabulary from different subject areas.

This is something that is not out of reach for teachers and heads of department to investigate and implement themselves, given the time, inclination and cross phase input required. These glossaries could be shared in transition meetings with parents, too.

6. Check word knowledge as you go

Do not underestimate the impact of language gaps, and ensure there is dedicated time assigned to vocabulary checks – five minutes a day would be little in time but big in impact.

At Sri KDU International, we also have a "word of the week" that is shared across all departments and used as a strategy to build up a wider vocabulary base and understanding for students.

Subject departments could even consider creating subject dictionaries for students, paying particular attention to those words that are highly specialised or would be outside of a child’s experience due to culture and experience. For instance, the word "decanter" is likely to be relatively unknown in a country and culture where alcohol is not consumed.

7. Check for understanding as you go

At any transition point, especially when dealing with EAL students and those coming from other countries, checking for understanding is the most important tool for teachers to apply and build into their lessons. Checking can be in the form of verbal questions or written samples.

You can use whole written exercises or quick collection aids like mini-whiteboards, exit passes or Jamboard type applications.

Do not presume that a child understands because they have said they do – especially when language translations and semantics could get in the way of true understanding.

Katie Tomlinson is the head of primary at a Sri KDU International School in Malaysia. She tweets @TheLShipCoach

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