English for everyone

11th March 2005 at 00:00
The strategies used to teach second language learners can improve the way you teach native speakers, writes Paul Blum

No order is too tall in teaching. How would you cater for the needs of a refugee who had just arrived in the country, escaping from the Taliban in Afghanistan, or a pupil who had seen his family killed in political repression in Kurdistan?

If you start teaching in most urban areas in Britain, such scenarios are a real possibility. Some inner city boroughs have a huge proportion of pupils who have a mother tongue other than English. The quicker you find out everything you can about them, the better. They will have come to England in differing circumstances and for a variety of reasons. Some already have high levels of literacy in their own language, and are likely to make rapid progress in English. However, others come from backgrounds with little experience of reading or writing. The way you handle these pupils will be very different.

Those you work with usually have a significant amount of emotional difficulty to deal with. At one end of the scale are young people on their own who have seen acts of unspeakable violence perpetrated against their family and communities. Then there are others who have come with their extended families for economic reasons, to begin a new life, or have joined their families who are settled here already. They are often disorientated by having to contend with life in a new country.

As their teacher, you need to be a vitally reassuring and positive influence in their lives. To that end, you should work on the principle that most strategies to help such pupils will have the added benefit of being good for teaching all of your pupils better.

Start by looking at the reading material you are using. Does it include language and cultural concepts that your new pupils will find hard to understand? Technically, how are the sentences and the paragraphs constructed? Pupils with English as a second language (ESL) often find it hard to deal with linking words such as "therefore" and "however". They also find sentences that begin with pronouns referring back to an earlier noun very hard to follow. If you find the texts you are using have a lot of such challenges, then you should make the reading material more accessible.

A recent arrival could be put next to a more established pupil of the same cultural background so that they could converse in their mother tongue to make sense of the work. If that pupil has been through similar emotional experiences to the newcomer, then even better.

Working with ESL pupils can be deceptive. Within a short time they may be communicating fluently in everyday English, but they are far from fluent in more complex forms of oral and written English - especially the formal and abstract use of language that underpins higher order literacy skills.

As a classroom teacher you will have an important role in creating a language-rich environment to help them make progress. To start with, you can help them develop their oracy by setting up discussions within small groups before writing. Oral work involving the rehearsal of key words and concepts, with plenty of reinforcement and repetition, is a vital activity.

You should also "model" types of writing in different genres so that pupils get used to the written conventions of their new language. Too many teachers assume that pupils will pick up these skills by instinct; it's unlikely to be that easy. A science teacher will need to show them how to write up experiments, in particular how to write in the passive voice:

"The test tube was placed over the Bunsen burner" rather than "I put the test tube in the Bunsen burner". A history teacher needs to show pupils how to write discursively and analytically rather than in stories.

All of these strategies make good teaching sense to second language pupils.

But they will also help open up the curriculum to special needs pupils and help the vast majority of pupils who need explicit teaching of literacy skills. The strategies that help ESL pupils are completely in step with the intentions of the national literacy strategy for all pupils.

Paul Blum is on the senior management team at Islington Green school in London and author of Improving Low Reading Ages in the Secondary School (RoutledgeFalmer pound;16.99)

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