If you teach EAL students, here's 5 things you should be doing

By Nathaniel Woo

06 Apr 2022

Students around a table reading a book.

In a survey held by the NCTL, less than 50% of NQTs stated that they felt "well-prepared" to teach EAL learners.

With over 1.5 million learners studying English as an Additional Language in the UK today (2022), this lack of preparation definitely needs addressing. Whether you feel prepared to teach EAL learners or you don't, here are five things you should definitely be doing.

5 key tips for teaching EAL students

1. Make it visual

Visuals allow you to provide context for your learners. By representing subject content in a visual way, you are reducing the language demands but maintaining the cognitive demands of your lesson.

EAL students will arrive with different knowledge and experience of language. Visuals are useful to help teach new information but they are also useful to encourage learners to express themselves. Using visuals allows learners to express their experience in a different mode of representation when written language might be daunting.

When introducing new ideas or concepts, ensure that you support understanding by using visuals. Design matching activities that use images rather than text, sequencing activities that use images or play a categories game with photos. Ask students to draw concepts rather than explaining them in English.

2. Make it concrete

In the classroom, we often deal in abstracts. By using graphic organisers, you can help learners make abstract information more concrete. They allow a learner to organise their thoughts (in whichever language they choose) before going on to form their ideas in the target language.

Tables, bar charts, flow diagrams, Venn diagrams and content maps are just some of the graphic organisers that can be used to solidify abstract concepts. Graphic organisers take many forms.

One strategy that has worked well for many of my colleagues is the Ishikawa chart, or the "fishbone", which is designed to show links between cause and effect.

Fishbone diagram

Fishbone Diagram

These graphic organisers are a great way of enabling learners to distil key facts, make links between different bits of information and see topics as a whole without overwhelming them with a heap of new language.

Once learners understand the key factors in a new topic, they need to learn how to join up their ideas. One of the best ways to ensure their success here and make sure they feel confident is to model the process yourself.

3. Model the process

Modelling involves providing students with a written or oral version of the text you would like them to produce. At this point, learners might have the key vocabulary they need; modelling shows them clearly the grammatical structures they will need to link the information. It may also be a curriculum demand. For example, some specifications require learners to be able to compare or contrast or to show the cause and effect of certain processes (which links back to our fishbone).

4. Talk!

Before anyone starts writing anything though, encourage learners to talk through their ideas. Committing thought to paper is a high-stakes scenario if you’re struggling with your confidence.

Provide learners with the time and structure to practise expressing their ideas before they commit anything to paper. At first, learners may need written sentence starters or visuals to help them structure their ideas, but feedback from you or from other L1 speakers will help them to amend their ideas. If you’re in a multilingual classroom, hearing first-language speakers model the process is also invaluable.

5. Value the first language

Jim Cummins, an expert in language acquisition and bilingual education, suggests that all language learners have a "Common Underlying Proficiency" (CUP), which essentially means that the skills and knowledge we developed when learning our first language can be drawn upon when learning an additional language. It also follows that any development that takes place in our first language will have a beneficial effect on our second (or third etc) language.

While many schools with large proportions of EAL students insist on English being spoken at all times, Cummins and other notable linguists suggest that valuing the first language is a vital component in the successful teaching of EAL students.

Professor Ofelia García of the Graduate Center of the City University of New York argues that "translanguaging" enables learners of all languages to process and express their ideas at any stage of their learning – they are not forced to wait until they can speak with a "legitimate" voice.

With translanguaging, no learner is prevented from collaborating with peers or discussing content. If you have a dominant second language in your school, this is an invaluable string to your bow. If you have many learners speaking many different languages, learners can still be encouraged to express their ideas in writing or in speech with whatever linguistic resources they may have.

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