Helping English as an additional language (EAL) learners is a key part of international school life – especially as increasing numbers of local pupils study in these settings.
At my school, for example, the Taipei European School, we have a high quota of first-language Mandarin speakers and we have spent a lot of time working out how best to help them balance EAL demands with the curriculum and their own language development.
In fact, when I began in this year group, it was the first year of a dual English/Mandarin programme, which was taught with both English teachers and a Mandarin-speaking teacher, Ms Chou.
The programme didn’t come out of thin air, though – we worked with Eowyn Crisfield, a senior lecturer in TESOL at Oxford Brookes University, to help understand what we needed to do to give pupils the best mix of language development.
International schools: Combining EAL with first-language development
From this, here are some top tips for language enrichment:
1. Focus on developing the first language of the students
It may seem counter-intuitive but focusing on native language development is crucial.
We encourage Mandarin to be spoken and developed at home, both in everyday discussions but also with home-readers, so the children come to know both academic and conversational Mandarin.
This can require educating parents that this is the key to their children's later academic success. As such, through our discussions with parents, we ensure they understand that to be bilingual their child will need to be a proficient speaker of their first language.
After all, if their academic language is limited to English, they will have gaps in their native language, therefore they will not be truly bilingual.
2. Teach both languages at once
Another key development is that young children are not taken out of their learning environment to discreet, standalone Mandarin lessons.
Instead, we have implemented co-teaching in context, with the language teacher as a valuable member of the classroom staff.
For example, twice per week the class teacher delivers whole-class teaching in English and Ms Chou will support small groups in Mandarin and joins in play throughout the morning.
Ms Chou also leads class input once per week, cementing the English learning and teaching the academic language to the children in their mother tongue. We are moving toward teaching alongside one another in activities.
When Ms Chou teaches stories in Mandarin, native English speakers and speakers of other languages have dedicated time with an early years enrichment teacher sharing an English story within the class.
3. Bridge the gaps
Bridging languages is about introducing any new vocabulary in both languages. New vocabulary should be modelled by actions, objects, images, pictures and experiences in context in both English and Mandarin.
This constant crossover of the two languages also ensures that the children recognise that their teachers value their primary language. In my classroom, I show enthusiasm to learn Mandarin from the children and also learn what I can to demonstrate that I am engaged in learning another language, too.
The children, in turn, now offer translations and support one another in both languages, as the adults have modelled to them.
Quiet children or those with very little English-speaking ability feel they can partake in sessions as they are comfortable that their native language is highly valued.
4. Be repetitive
In addition to reading more developed stories, we use simple, repetitive texts to enhance the children's knowledge of the English language.
The language structures repeat within one scheme of books that we use and always start in the same way, such as "One (weather type) day...". The children look closely at the window in the text (a picture cue) and can tell me, ‘One sunny day!’ or ‘One windy day!’
Also, use the same language in different contexts. We use "dough gym", which has an action of "squeeze". This week, when this word was mentioned in a Peppa Pig shared story, I modelled the other context (dough gym) we knew the word from.
In my classroom, this has developed toward role playing the stories that we share together to further enhance engagement and understanding.
The children act the events in the story and as the language structures are simple and repeat, they can confidently access the speech required.
5. Use real-life examples to practise
Placing language in real life makes it easier for children to actively use new vocabulary in a meaningful way. As such, we have weekly "weekend recaps" to discuss activities in the past tense and then, as the year progresses, we will move to the future tense; for example "What will we do at the weekend?" or "What will we do during the holiday?"
Sensory experiences (tasting food, touching textures and smell) can also be great for this and help pupils to fully understand the new vocabulary they are taught.
Moving forward, we will implement Greg Bottrill's Drawing Club, which will further stimulate discussion, higher-level thinking and conversation in our classes, with pupils not only hearing about new ideas but seeing them being drawn.
For example, when I explained that a witch would turn green, I coloured her green. I feel that EAL children can not just "hear" what to do, they need to see it also.
Our language enrichment programme is far from perfect, but it is organic, reactionary and growing in strength. Working with a highly reflective team, within which we have the fantastic guidance from MsChou, has enabled us to develop and learn from our mistakes and refine our successes.
Jess Gosling is a Reception teacher for the British section at Taipei European School. She tweets @JessGosling2