The newspapers tell us that we are in the grip of a migration crisis, using euphemistic metaphors to describe people seeking refuge from the worst humanitarian crisis of this century. English as an additional language (EAL) specialists and subject teachers are on the front line: welcoming young people as they arrive, collecting information, assessing prior learning and planning support to enable them to access the mainstream curriculum.
It’s often a challenging job, as young people can arrive in school at any point in the year, with any kind of academic background and with any level of English. You might have the support of an expert EAL team or have to make decisions by yourself, but there are some very straightforward techniques that will help you get the best from these students, and to provide the best for them.
Language is crucial, but it can be absent as part of the response to a new environment. It’s unusual for a young person to be at their communicative best on their first day in school, and they might not be speaking much at all. This is especially true of younger children and those who have experienced difficult migrations. Their true language skills will emerge over time and only as they settle in.
It’s also hugely important to give children sufficiently challenging work from the outset. There’s a common misconception that if you put a child down a group, they’ll have the support to work their way back up. They won’t. They’ll quickly realise that their teachers have low expectations of them, and live up to them. It takes an extraordinarily robust young person to challenge that mindset.
So with those in mind, here are some quick tips for supporting very new arrivals.
New arrivals may take some time to settle in, but they are constantly watching and learning. They will be paying close attention to you even if the language is a challenge, and will quickly recognise if they’re invisible to the teacher. A few words of their language, plenty of eye contact, a place near the front or with the high achievers; it doesn’t take much to demonstrate that you are ambitious for them.
How many languages do your students speak? Do they go to supplementary schools, play football, love being outdoors? In primary especially, there are lots of opportunities for learning that can bolster their language repertoire. Buddying students with similar interests can be a good way to develop fluency quickly.
Welcome other languages
Speaking English is often treated as synonymous with working hard, but letting children and young people use all their languages means letting them use all their resources to support their learning. If you can muster at least a few sentences of another language, do. If you have a new arrival from Syria, say, then opening the lesson in Syrian Arabic makes a statement that your classroom is a place where children from every background learn.
Use phrases and visuals
From experience, we know that the most effective way to support pupils’ English language development in those crucial early stages is to focus on making the meaning clear. Keep the general language simple but give plenty of models of the academic language that the student will need to use. Translation will help in the short term but the children need experience with academic language to progress. You could embed the key words in a phrase (“In this experiment we have demonstrated…” rather than just “experiment”) or use a cartoon to demonstrate a process, with speech bubbles or captions to introduce key language and phrases to build on what they already know.
Things change quickly in the early days. Over time, the students’ abilities and needs will become more clear, and the breadth of their language skills and any gaps in their prior learning will emerge. Make all judgements provisional for six months, and – wherever possible – ask the child what they’ve done before and where they want help.
Get the parents involved
Parents are often reluctant to come into school, but are usually very keen for their children to do well (it’s often a major reason for migrating in the first place). Do you know about local groups or refugee organisations, complementary schools, youth clubs or faith groups? Could your school offer to host one? These can be great places to meet parents on their own ground, and bridge the gap between home and the classroom.
Think carefully about whether to place new arrivals in an EAL-only programme. It may help in the short term, but excluding children from the mainstream risks marginalising them. The only way for young people to succeed in the long term is for them to have access to the curriculum and the qualifications it leads to. This can be very challenging for young people arriving in key stage 4, with very little time left before they leave at 16 or 18, so it is absolutely crucial to set new arrivals on that path from their first day in school.
Robert Sharples edits the EAL Journal, a magazine of practice, research and activism published three times a year by Naldic (the subject association for EAL) @EAL_Journal