School Leaders, Teachers

Overcoming language barriers for EAL pupils

In her recent Primary Leaders article, interventions teacher Elizabeth Monaghan suggests ways to support new pupils who have English as an additional language (EAL).

Picture a child in your classroom who is new to English, brimming with ideas, ready to learn and desperate to join in, yet lacking the words they need to fully engage with their learning. This child and many others like them may have joined your class halfway through the year, and now it’s your job to unlock their potential and give them a flying start to their learning journey.

It’s a challenging scenario, and one faced by schools up and down the country. So what can you do to make a positive difference to EAL pupils whether they stay for six months or six years?

  1. Lay the foundations

Our corner of Southampton is home to many eastern European families. Some decide to settle in the area, while others only stay a short time before moving to different parts of the country. And when the children arrive, the information we have about their education can be patchy.

Some pupils might not have had early years provision, others may have been educated at home, and then there is the language barrier which makes it difficult for schools to communicate effectively with pupils and parents.

Tackling this challenge can mean going back to square one with a programme of targeted interventions that start on the child’s entry to the school.

For one of our Year 2 pupils who was new to English, we had three teachers working on interventions at the same time to help him secure an understanding of phonics, sounds and basic English vocabulary. We reinforced this with matching pictures and the opportunity to practice saying and using these words in a safe environment free of judgement.

He now takes part in lessons with his classmates and is rapidly closing the gap between himself and some of his native English speaker classmates.

  1. Encourage interaction

Seeing a child who is struggling socially due to a lack of language skills brings home how isolating those early days can be for a new joiner, especially when the term is in full swing.

Creating dual language displays of day-to-day items around the classroom can be a good ice-breaker as well as providing practical help for a child who is new to English. Visual support is key, we often use a system which provides pictorial representations of words and sentences to support them in their understanding of the vocabulary they are being expected to understand and use in their work.

Our school runs a nurture group for more vulnerable pupils which promotes wellbeing and builds resilience. Although not exclusively for EAL pupils, these children benefit from focussed time in a smaller group where it’s easier to interact in a non-threatening and supportive environment.

Similarly, our forest school, which all pupils enjoy, gives EAL children the chance to communicate through outdoor play. Building dens, whittling wood and cooking on an open fire in our forest school area creates a language of its own and builds friendships with other children.

  1. Keep close track of progress

Evidence of EAL pupils’ progress in maths can be easier to come by because two plus two is the same in any language. But reading poses more of a challenge. How do you identify an able reader in their home language who has joined the school with little or no English?

Having an unbiased way to assess children’s reading ability can help. Once the foundations of reading in English are in place, we use a tool called Lexplore which tracks a child’s eye movement to see how quickly they move forwards or backwards across a series of words.

This helps us identify which pupils find reading difficult regardless of their fluency in English. And importantly, we are now able to spot possible underlying reading issues which could be masked by a lack of language knowledge.

Assessments that are less reliant on fluency in English give us a more accurate picture of pupils’ reading attainment which we can continue to measure during their time with us.

  1. Focus on the individual

Southampton has been welcoming settlers from around the world ever since the Huguenots sought refuge here in the 17th century, and this ethos is alive and well in our school today.

Getting to know each child as an individual helps them settle more quickly into a new country and a new school. By encouraging staff and pupils to find out what interests a child, and what makes them tick, you start to overcome the language barrier and smooth the path for learning.

A focus on the individual informs the way we monitor progress too, especially when the child has joined part of the way through the year. Some EAL children need more time to adjust, while others surprise us and hit the ground running.

That’s where a teacher’s professional judgement comes into play. There’s no one size fits all with EAL pupils, or with any pupils for that matter. But with a combination of targeted interventions, close monitoring and an inclusive approach, new EAL pupils will quickly feel at home in the classroom at whatever point they join a school.

Elizabeth Monaghan is interventions teacher at Freemantle C of E Community Academy.

You can also find out more about encouraging reluctant readers, EAL students and those with specific literacy difficulties to develop a more positive relationship with books by watching our recent webinar with Dr Anne Margaret Smith, a leading expert in the field of supporting EAL learners. A recorded version of the broadcast can be purchased from our online shop. Customers, remember you can access all recordings for FREE in the Support Corner of your Results Portal.

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