Recently I spent a few unplanned months in Mexico owing to Covid travel restrictions. Mexico is a beautiful country with very friendly people – but my grasp of Spanish is very poor.
I had prepared, or so I thought, by using an app on my phone to learn. I was disabused of this notion almost immediately. Listening to a language in a pre-recorded lesson is no substitute for the real thing and I could not understand even the most basic of words and phrases.
Even when I did understand something I would find it almost impossible to respond. I could feel myself getting frustrated because I couldn't get the thoughts out of my head. It seemed like people were frustrated as well because they didn't understand what I needed.
In fact, what was at the heart of this impasse was a common shared feeling of embarrassment as we were both trying to make it easier for each other. Emotions were heightened because we both wanted to be helpful.
In time things improved – in part by learning how to say "Lo siento, mi español es muy malo", or "I'm sorry my Spanish is very bad’ – after which people would laugh with me and try to help. But the experience got me thinking about how hard it can be for students, whose first language is not English, to cope and learn in international schools.
And this in turn has led me to work harder at how I, as a non-language teacher, can help students in my lesson overcome the language barrier than can seem so daunting.
1. Speak slowly, enunciate and clarify
Relatively simple phrases can still be hard to discern. Speaking slowly and pronouncing every syllable can make the difference.
For example saying, "The path of a projectile is its trajectory" is a difficult sentence for any learner let alone one who is not a native speaker, so we have to think about this when planning lessons.
After all, if students can't understand you when you speak, you might as well be talking in Klingon.
2. Provide labelled pictures and diagrams
You can refer to clearly labelled images to help bridge listening, reading and writing skills.
This is not only beneficial for students learning English but also all students who are learning new vocabulary for the first time.
For example, when discussing atoms pictures can be helpful. Consisting of the proton, neutron and electron, these can sound similar enough that for an EAL student there is no difference when hearing them in class for the first time.
By providing a diagram you have given them a clearer idea of what the words relate to and that they are separate pieces of information.
As an extension, you can incorporate EAL practice for everyone in the class explaining how the use of "-on" at the end of each word means particle – eg, Lepton; boson; fermion etc.
3. Provide a glossary
Providing key terms and phrases before a lesson allows a student to prepare and practice with pronunciation and recognition. This helps build confidence and allows them to focus on understanding of concepts rather than solely language acquisition.
It may be tempting to provide a translation of this glossary but EAL students are in your class in part to learn not only English but technical English.
There will be students who need extra help and a translation may be provided. If this is the case, work with your EAL department to determine the needs of individual students.
4. Work with your school's support network
An integrated, collaborative approach whereby you share lesson plans, resources and so on with the EAL team can also help students to understand and build context, so they can then take part in class discussions of ideas.
The EAL team can provide translations, learning strategies and support for the student ahead of the class
5. Understand emotions may be heightened
Most students want to do well but feeling your language skills make understanding or explaining an idea hard if not impossible can be tiring, frustrating and even embarrassing.
As teachers, we must recognise and understand the extra challenges that students face when having to learn a second language – and see it as an opportunity.
An opportunity to widen the experience of your whole class. An opportunity to foster the best in every student. An opportunity to help a child succeed. Isn't that why we got into teaching?
Aaron Greenall is an IB physics teacher at the British International School of Houston. He has taught internationally for seven years