Magazine article NATE Classroom

EAL Advice 'Off the Peg'

Magazine article NATE Classroom

EAL Advice 'Off the Peg'

Article excerpt

Are there pupils in your class who 'have EAL'? Described like this it sounds a bit painful--like impetigo or athlete's foot. Something that needs to be cured? Something that requires an expert to deal with? Certainly when I started working with pupils new to English in the 70s in London, I was given a broom cupboard (still containing some brooms and mops and a bucket!) and a timetable where pupils were supposed to come to me in twos and threes for me to pour my English into them. In the rest of their classes they were sitting often isolated from other pupils 'listening in' to the curriculum language of their teachers, and the lively bubble of London English buzzing around most of their classrooms.

Up to that time I had mainly worked with adults; teaching English to university students in other European countries and organising the teaching of Chinese, Arabic and Japanese in the U.S. to students who wanted to acquire these languages rapidly. I knew that to learn a language intensely in isolation was very painful and required enormous commitment and dedication, plus being able to tolerate ridiculous repetition of little bits of language out of context. I had learnt my Spanish this way and can still remember having to say 'My father has put the monkey in the well' over and over again to improve my Spanish pronunciation.

I knew that the pupils visiting my broom cupboard were not going to thrive with a watered down version of adult language learning. They were picking up their conversational English in the playground. Or, to be accurate, only some of them were because some wanted to make friends and find space and opportunity to interact. Others remained silent and alone and learned enough swear words to build barriers around themselves. Those pupils who already had some knowledge of the culture of school made good progress in lessons where they could engage with the learning. For instance a group of Kosovan pupils knew their Shakespeare well and turned out to be brilliant at hot seating. As the teacher in the school designated as 'EAL expert', I had a straightforward task. I had to discover exactly how each EAL pupil could best achieve, and I knew that they were all going to present different backgrounds, strengths and weaknesses. I also had to discover how every other teacher in the school was going to be able to help me because I was not going to be able to succeed alone. I was out of the broom cupboard in a week but I am still working on the straightforward task.

How about theory and research? Most of the long term research on EAL has not been carried out in this country--most of our research involving minorities has been short term and/or politically motivated. So many thanks to our colleagues in other English speaking countries! In brief the research shows that provided children are able to learn in an EAL friendly, language conscious environment, they can catch up with children born of English parents. In fact there are lots of indications that being bilingual helps you to think better: you can hold the ideas in one language up as a mirror in front of the ideas in the other. The research also shows that if you can learn some of the time in your first language and use it for thinking then your progress in English is more rapid.

So here is the off-the-peg advice. First, ways to create the EAL friendly classroom:

* Read to your pupils regularly; make the sessions short but keep them frequent. They need to listen to good role models.

* You might want to use colleagues to help you and, if you have the chance of a colleague working with you regularly, set up formal and not so formal dialogues again to provide models of language in action.

* Try dictagloss (see www.collaborative learning.org/howearthwasformed.pdf).

* Increase the opportunities for talk between pupils; not in big time lumps, but little and often, five minutes here and ten minutes there. …

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