The EAL Made Easy Approach

The Top 5 Things to Think About When Approaching EAL

Welcome to EAL Made Easy! Join our discussion of EAL pedagogy and all the sanity-saving snippets of wisdom, humour and awesome teaching collected in 18 years’ teaching in challenging schools! Read on…

‘What the heck do I do with these new EAL pupils that have just shown up on my register? I am a subject specialist. I don’t know how to teach my content AND English. Surely, that is someone else’s job?’ Well, it IS your job.

The good news? That student represents an opportunity for you to look at your lessons and your planning from a different perspective, one that will help all your students and make you a better teacher. MFL teachers do this automatically. Do you accept the challenge? Of course you do! Read on.

1 Language and Cognition are Connected

If you decided to take an MA at a university in Sweden, and you needed to do an aptitude test in SWEDISH, chances are you would come out on the severely learning disabled end of the IQ spectrum. Why? Because you would not even have the basic 5,000-word vocabulary that any normally developing 5-year-old child has in their native tongue. Your knowledge of language automatically leads to assumptions about your intelligence. Assume your EAL pupils are of normal intelligence and ability, just not able to show it—yet!

2 Don’t Explain! Show!

Language is hung on the hook of a concept. Concepts come first, not language. Your students need to understand a concept before you name it for them. To illustrate: A trip to Brighton led me to learn the word ‘ groyne’, which I had never come across in my native New York City. Had I not seen the beach sign which read, ‘Keep off the groynes!’, it would have taken a lot of patient explanation by my English husband. I learned it instantly because I could clearly see the groyne to which the sign was attached.

Boat? Canoe? Kayak? Gondola? Language is hung on the hook of a concept. Don’t explain. Show!

Your job is not to explain, it is to show and then name.

3 Re-think Your ‘Shared’ Understandings

We tend to use short-hand language with our pupils because we assume that there is a shared understanding about similar school experiences, accepted slang, family experiences, cultural knowledge, holidays. The longer we have been teaching, especially if we teach a majority ethnicity, the worse we are. Do not assume your students know what you mean!

4  Connect Learning and Language 

Ofsted tells us that good teaching builds on what the students already know. Your ability to draw connections to what your students already know and what you need to teach them is absolutely key! So, you need to know about their language background and the features of their language as well as their educational background. Keep the next two things about language in mind.

Past tense, anyone?

For example, if you are a history teacher and you need a Vietnamese pupil to write about events in the past, you are going to be disappointed by your student’s lack of past tense. Well, guess what? There is no past tense in Vietnamese (or Thai or Cambodian)!

That language puts a clever tag on the front or back of a sentence to let the listener know ‘I am now taking in a different tense’. You are going to have to teach some past tense verbs if you have any hope of getting your Vietnamese EAL pupils to describe a person, event or situation in the past tense. That means that YOU need to know about past tenses! Quick to the English department for help!

Or, if you have a Thai student, whose language does not use full stops in the expected way, you will need to model how you expect their sentences to end.

It’s getting sticky!

Many African languages as well as Turkish, Spanish, Hungarian and Basque all agglutinate. That means the words ‘stick together’, literally. For example, ‘I gave it to him’ in all these languages looks like ‘Igaveitohim’. This means that students may not be used to separating and putting in subject and object pronouns as well as ordinary pronouns. In fact, following pronouns through a text and referencing back to whom or what they refer is supremely difficult for many EAL pupils and something that needs to be taught explicitly.

5 Know Your Students

Knowing your students’ background is very important. A Bulgarian traveller child, who has spent time in his community camp helping his family with selling or fixing bicycles and going to school when he feels like it, is different from a Hungarian high school student who has an uninterrupted education and academic training.

Getting the point? Google the grammar of your students’ home language and see where it takes you. When in doubt, ask your EAL lead – or contact me!

One pupil needs teaching and (forgive the term) institutionalising, the other doesn’t. One may not understand why he has to be a certain place at a certain time when a bell sounds. Why should it matter whether his shirt is tucked in or that he sits in a particular chair? To him, it is all rather random and incomprehensible.

Much about education is frankly weird if you have no experience with public sector institutions and no idea about ‘what is done’ in different places (like clapping at performances at a certain point or being quiet in a library). All this is learned behaviour which has been taught in situ. Many of us have collected internalised rules for different situations. You would stick out like a sore thumb at his family camp without experience!

The Bulgarian boy needs experience being in an institution as well as English-language and academic learning. The Hungarian girl needs academic challenge and the ability to show off her cognitive ability and transferable academic skills. Very different! Know your students!