Speaking in tongues

27th October 2000 at 01:00
You're a new teacher facing a new class. Half of them don't speak English. What do you do next? Carolyn O'Grady offers some advice

You enter your new school for the first time, perhaps for the interview, and the first thing you notice is that no one is speaking English. Most pupils may be speaking in one other language, or it may be a symphony of different tongues - 70 languages in one school is not unheard of in some inner city areas.

When you talk to the children, some respond in perfect English. Others look at you uncomprehendingly. Pupils may speak two or three languages, but English, or at least, fluent English, is not yet one of them. How will you cope? How will they cope?

It can come as a shock to teachers new to children with English as an additional language to find that developing these children's English is their responsibility. Though some schools withdraw complete beginners for English tuition for a few periods, or even a number of weeks, the policy is usually to integrate them into the classroom as soon as possible.

In Refugee Children in the Classroom, Rachel Warner of the Minority Rights Group says: "It gives them access to the curriculum and increases motivation. In the classroom, EAL (English as an additional language) children learn English for a purpose - to learn the subject being taught, not English for its own sake." Unfortunately, this fact has gone largely unrecognised in teacher training colleges, though this summer the Teacher Training Agency will publish guidance and resource materials for initial teacher training on raising minority ethnic pupils' attainment, including strategies to help pupils with little or no English. The good news for the newly qualified teacher is that there is sometimes support from bilingual assistants andor EAL support teachers. The bad news is that this support can be severely limited and that EAL services are being cut in many parts of the country.

Carrie Cable, an Open University lecturer who has taken a special interest in EAL teaching, says: "There are indications that in some authorities the Ethnic Minority Achievement Grant, which is largely meant to be used to provide EAL support, including EAL teachers and bilingual assistants, is instead being used to provide teaching assistants with no specialist training. Moreover, as the grant is allocated according to the number of ethnic minority pupils in an LEA, a school with few EAL pupils often won't be allocated any support funding". Schools that fall into this category can still receive visits by EAL staff employed by their LEA. Some authorities produce very helpful publications and resources (see box). Seek help.

Where EAL teachers are provided, they usually work closely with the classroom teacher. "Most important is to plan together in order to encourage EAL children to participate," says Janet Manley, EAL co-ordinator at Hallfields Infants School, Bayswater, in the City of Westminster. At first, that participation might be very small. When two new Kosovan pupils came to Hallfields with no English, they were given a picture of a gingerbread man to raise every time they heard the words in a story - which kept them listening and involved.

Primary pupils, in particular, can learn to speak English very quickly. But it may be many months, even years before they can read text and produce good written work. "You can easily be misled into thinking that because a child is speaking well but their work isn't so good, they have special educational needs," says Jill Lord, headteacher at Deeplish Primary School, Rochdale, where most reception pupils speak little or no English on arrival.

A lack of English does not mean a lack of ability. Sometimes able EAL children are put in bottom sets because their English language skills prevent them from producing work to the standard of which they are capable. Demoralisation and frustration can set in quickly. It is also easy to forget that the schooling experiences and lifestyles of EAL pupils vary considerably. The DfEE National Literacy Strategy guidelines state: "It is important that teachers have information on pupils' educational history and literacy skills in another language as this may be a significant factor in their success at learning English."

Some children have had their schooling severely disrupted. Apart from having no English, they may also lack literacy skills in their first language.

Reading and writing work pose real problems, particularly in humanities and English lessons, where such skills dominate. Research exists on how to help EAL children organise their work, including using writing frames and concept mapping. A particularly useful publication is Take a Look at Scaffolding Learning in the Multi-lingual Classroom, from Enfield's Language and Curriculum Access Services. Writing visual prompts, key words and vocabulary on the board are useful. Pictures, diagrams, charts, time lines and maps all help children understand and organise information.

Teachers should not be afraid of pupils' native language. "Try and encourage children to speak, read and write in their first or strongest language if they are able to do so," says Carrie Cable. Research shows that pupils do better and maintain self-esteem when their first language is developed and valued. After all, we spend a lot of time trying to teach languages - and these children already have at least one. If possible, provide dual language books, tapes and bilingual dictionaries.

Helen Abji, Luton adviser for English as an additional language says: "Try to make the process of language learning fairly explicit. If a child speaks with a non-standard structure, feed back with the correct version. Think about the language you use and repeat language that is necessary to a particular module."

In primary schools, the literacy hour can help pupils make rapid progress in their language development - but don't be in too much of a rush. Sometimes EAL children need time to settle down. They may have experienced traumatic events and, even if this is not the case, getting used to a new culture, learning a new language and trying to make friends is tough enough.

"Give them time to be silent, to watch and observe," says Jill Lord. "Don't pressure them to speak and, perhaps, link them with a 'buddy', who could be someone who speaks their language, who can interpret and help them find their way around."

Other ways of making a child feel safe and, therefore, more receptive include saying the child's name correctly and learning a few other words in his or her language. "Smiles and non-verbal gestures can also make the children feel welcome and help them understand," says Carrie Cable.

Remember, classroom rules and routines won't always make sense to a new child. It is often good to have a consistent repertoire of visual signals to convey when something is about to happen. At Hallfields, for example, a teacher stands up and says "show me five" to signal that an instruction is about to be given. It's a fun way of attracting attention.

Don't iron out every wrinkle. Jill Lord loves her EAL pupils' imaginative use of language. "Children use creative metaphor, simile and circumlocution to make meanings clear in English in the early stages," she says. "They combine this with tone, gesture and facial expression. My favourites are 'Jumping snow in your hair' for dandruff and 'This wet clothesies thing go roundy roundy an' dry dry' for a spin dryer.

"We spend ages at key stage 2 trying to teach children to use and refine such language effects and here are our beginners doing it from the start!"


Collaborative Learning Activities in the Classroom - Designing Inclusive Materials for Learning and Language Development, by Steve Cooke. pound;5.75 incl pamp;p. Resource Centre for Multicultural Education, Forest Lodge Educational Centre, Charnor Road, Leicester LE3 6LH. Tel: 0116 231 3399.Learning to Learn in a Second Language, by Pauline Gibbons. A practical book recommended by many in EAL. Published by the Australian Primary English Association. Scaffolding Learning in the Multi-lingual Classroom, by the Language and Curriculum Access Service for the London Borough of Enfield. pound;7.50 incl pamp;p. Tile Kiln Lane, Palmers Green, London N13 6BY. Tel: 020 8803 4460. Aimed particularly at the humanities teacher.

Addresses Hounslow Language Service, Hounslow Education Centre, Martindale Road, Hounslow, Middlesex TW4 7HE. Tel: 020 8570 2390, has a range of publications including books on supporting EAL students. Refugee Council, 3 Bondway, London SW8 ISJ. Tel: 020 7820 3000. Publishes a wide range of leaflets and books including "Refugee Children in the Classroom" by Jill Rutter.The National Association for Language Development in the Curriculum, South West Herts LCSC, Hollywell School Site, Tolpits Lane, Watford WD1 8NT. Tel: 01923 248584. Publishes some very useful working papers.

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