The world on our doorstep: Teaching English as an additional language

27th October 2000 at 01:00
In April this year, Nelson Mandela came to Holland Park school, west London - an event which the children still talk about with awe. From his perspective, it must have been rather like talking to the United Nations for, at Holland Park, more than 100 different nationalities are represented. More than 70 languages are spoken and 60 per cent of pupils have English as an additional language, with a considerable number arriving throughout the year with no English at all.

Class 9 in Year 9 is a fairly typical class for Barry Taylor, a humanities teacher specialising in geography. A lively and very mixed-ability class, it contains seven young people who recently arrived with little or no English. Three are from Somalia, two from Iraq and there is one each from Vietnam and Kurdistan.

Sometimes, there is EAL support in the classroom. "When the EAL teacher is present, it's wonderful," says Barry. "They focus on the EAL students and help out generally. We can plan and create worksheets together."

But more often than not there isn't any support. "It can be extremely difficult," he admits. "The really tough stage is when the student has no or very little English. They often sit quietly at the back of the class. They must be terrified, especially those who come from a very different culture or have had very little schooling.

"I tend to put them with someone who speaks their language. If there isn't anyone, you have to ensure they are in a supportive environment. Group work can be very good for these students, if you can make sure they are in a supportive group that provides good models of work and English.

"What you can do initially is encourage them to copy - it can give you an idea of their skills and helps them practise writing. Also, if they have a dictionary, they can start looking up words."

Allowing beginners to write something i their own language first gives them a sense of participation and control, and enables them to reflect and organise their thoughts, ready to write in English soon after. The work can go into the pupil's folder to be translated or referred to later.

"Once EAL students have acquired some English, you can start giving them worksheets. Often, these are lower ability children, but you must be careful not to stereotype them. Within four months, they will have picked up enough English for you to be able to assess their real ability and you can start giving them more appropriate work.

"They can't be expected to digest a whole wodge of text," he emphasises.

To give them access to the text and help them organise their work, Barry will write questions on the board. Or he runs a gap-fill exercise, writing key vocabulary on the board which pupils then look up or he explains.

Visuals are particularly important andor a framework which they can complete, without having to write complicated essays. Also useful are examples of expected outcomes. Barry admits to feeling inadequate often and wishes that an option on getting the best out of EAL children had been included in his teacher training.

But never underestimate these children, he cautions. Speaking of a Vietnamese pupil who arrived in September with no English, he said:

"Already, he can follow anything. He'll probably come up with some very good GCSEs in a couple of years".

A 15-year-old Romanian girl arrived at the same time without any English. "Once she'd got the language sorted, it became obvious she had a good knowledge of geography. She's now doing a geography GCSE."

These children had experience of literacy teaching in their own language, but Barry is convinced that "even children with no experience of literacy in secondary schools can catch up, with help".

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