The boys arrived in Year 9 with new pencil cases, a willingness to learn and not a word of English between them. With little notice of their arrival and no time to organise any support, Sarah Bridgewater of Colmers Farm Secondary School in Birmingham had to think on her feet.
"It was difficult at first," she says, "but the boys (from the United Arab Emirates) shared their experiences, and their enthusiasm for education was contagious. The benefits they brought to the class outweighed any initial problems."
Many teachers are finding themselves in a similar situation, but not always with such a happy ending. As we are increasingly pressed for time, it is unfair to expect teachers to have to write new resources for pupils who are learning English as an additional language (EAL). How can we help them without making lots more work for ourselves? And how can we make history lessons engaging for pupils who don't share our common past?
The key stage 3 national strategy paper, Access and Engagement in History, is enormously useful with lots of practical ideas for the classroom. The authors suggest taking a few moments to evaluate pupils' needs before planning. Points to bear in mind include pupils' previous experience of learning English, the composition of the class (will there be other pupils who share their first language?), how much schooling pupils have had, and the availability of classroom support. This should help teachers form a clearer idea of their starting point, enabling them to have higher expectations but at an appropriate level.
Sarah found it helpful to make changes to existing worksheets that could be used alongside the rest of the class rather than creating whole new resources. "To begin with," she says, "I find it useful to have an ArabicEnglish dictionary to hand so I can point out key words. As their language skills improve, I like to make sure that the content remains the same but accessible through vocabulary lists and additional visual material." Vocabulary lists can be invaluable. Pupils can look up important words in a bilingual dictionary and then fill in the blanks in a writing frame, which can be altered to reflect individuals' language skills.
There is an excellent example on the website of Naldic (National Association for Language Development in the Curriculum). It provides a vignette of a superb Year 9 lesson about the causes of the First World War, where EAL pupils are helped by use of their own language (when critical thinking is needed) and use of cartoon as a visual stimulus.
Many teachers are wary of allowing pupils to communicate through their first language for fear that they are off task. The use of English is expected, unless you suggest otherwise for a clearly defined purpose. We should not be afraid to let pupils use their first language to come to conclusions, and then express them in English. Reflection and problem-solving are difficult even for those working in their first language. It is also useful for pupils to discuss things with peers in a supportive group.
Stephen Fessey of Park View City Learning Centre in Alum Rock, Birmingham, is a great believer in listening frames. "I've used writing frames extensively in the past to develop written skills and find listening frames invaluable too. I can pair a pupil with EAL with a fluent English speaker and together they can watch a video with a directed purpose. It's an easy way for me to assess how much they've understood," he says.
Stephen is also a keen proponent of music and drama in history: "Pupils feel more engaged in reading if they can express what they've learnt. Year 9 pupils were studying slavery and after reading sources about the slave ship Zong they acted scenes from the text. They thoroughly enjoyed it and it provided a purpose for their reading. Also, Kar2ouche, a software program which enables you to create cartoon strips with speech bubbles and sounds, offers a visual way into a topic. Pupils can write the captions in their first language and worry about translating it into English later.
Pupils can often tell what is being portrayed in a scene by the characters'
stance and context."
Many pupils learning EAL can develop their spoken language relatively quickly and their fluency can mislead teachers into not supporting written tasks sufficiently. Many teachers find writing frames and card-sort activities extremely useful as these can be tweaked to provide differentiation in a common class task.
Sarah's class in Year 7 were writing a piece about causes of the Black Death and sorting cards into long and short-term causes. She gave the EAL pupil in the class a vocabulary card with key phrases in her first language and an example of the essay for her to look at. With this extra guidance, the pupil was able to achieve a level 4 in knowledge and understanding despite having very limited English.
It is important that we look beyond the linguistic to the knowledge itself.
As the DfES comments, "There is considerable evidence that once proficiency in English was achieved, the progress for pupils with EAL across the curriculum was rapid and their attainment on a par with or higher than their monolingual peers."
Another aspect of teaching EAL pupils is the worry about how relevant our curriculum is to them. For example, many teachers would feel uneasy teaching the Holocaust to pupils who have seen horrors at first hand. This is an issue we have to consider sensitively and it is important that staff have relevant information about new pupils and their backgrounds. Such pupil experiences can also enrich their learning and that of others. I remember a discussion about women's rights in Victorian England which was livened up immensely by the contributions of a boy from Dubai who compared the different changes in women's lives.
We are lucky as historians that such a wide range of the topics we study would interest pupils from other cultures. From "Islamic civilisations" through "Native peoples of the Americas" we learn about and celebrate the diversity of people through time as well as in our classrooms.
Becky Hewlitt teaches history at Perryfields High School, Oldbury, West Midlands