Students who have English as an Additional Language (EAL) are part of almost every school, and each presents their own challenges. Each and every one of us hold multiple identities: Teacher, parent to a child, child of a parent, sibling, partner, country music fan, XBOX player, Chelsea supporter and so on. These are our communities, whether in real life or ‘imagined’ (I may not have much in common with another fan of ‘The Clash’, but our common playlists would render us a community). If we understand the communities our students are part of the identities they hold, then we can better support them and their progress.
This article originally appeared in the February 2017 Edition of UKEdMagazine
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So, which communities are our EAL students part of? If I take a walk in the area that my students live in, I will see a large Mosque, an African Church, a Romanian Delicatessen and the wonderfully named ‘From God to Man’ Barbers, specialising in Senegalese hairstyles. I can easily spot old men in Pakistani dress, a Halal butchers and ladies with beautiful Henna designs on their hands. I can see that these linguistic and cultural communities are present in my catchment area, and a lot of my students will belong to these very visible groups. However, it’s far too simplistic to assume because they speak a language all your students will have a geographical community bond with your local area. A student who has just moved here may not know about the local community centre, or even want to. These bonds may form later, but we should not assume anything. The communities they might fit into could be unexpected and not based on their language.
As with most advice on our interactions with students, it all comes down to knowing enough about them. My school is located a short bus ride away from a large Turkish community in South London, with an system of classes which range from beginners to ‘Pre GCSE’. When my students tell me they’re Turkish, my next question is: ‘Do you go to Turkish School? Which class are you in?’ A student who is immersed in their language and attends the school will be part of this community. Football teams are a good place to start too. If they say ‘Shaktar Donetsk’ as opposed to ‘Millwall’ odds are they may well be part of two communities. Around Diwali and Eid the students who are absent from your class will be the ones involved in the religious communities.
Knowing this information about your student will help you adjust their tasks and understand your EAL students’ errors. Take Anna, a Year Nine student in my set two English class. She is a Turkish speaker, but only really to talk to her grandparents on her dad’s side. She goes to family parties, but her cousins and siblings all speak English first. She is currently under target for English. My line manager asked me to consider her for language intervention, but this would not be right for her as phonics and reading in English are not her issue. She is not part of the community my task adjustment would be targeting.
On the other hand, Robby, also in Year Nine, has terrible handwriting. He is not confident in his English at all, and struggled with a short character analysis. His teacher recommended that he joined my intervention class, but I was puzzled: He was on target! Turns out, Robby moved to the UK from Turkey in primary school and was given an obscenely low Target. His parents are mainstays of the local Turkish community and as a result Robby uses his Turkish Intensively. Switching languages is his issue, and unlike Anna he thinks in Turkish. I was able to pass this on to his teacher and make sure he was supported in his class.
Knowledge of the community is also useful in welfare issues for out EAL students. Markus, from Romania, had been truanting school. His parents had split and since he accessed the Romanian community through his dad, who moved across London, he was lonely. Markus believed if he was ‘naughty’ enough, his mum would send him back home to Romania. We had to re-establish a community for him. Hopefully 2017 will be his year, as Markus is now on the football team with two other Romanian boys and is acting as a reading mentor for one of my beginner students who is in the year below him.
Creating familiar communities in your classroom will help to make your environment more welcoming for your EAL students. In the classic ‘inspirational people’ display, explicitly highlight the nationalities and languages of the people so your students can know that their backgrounds are respected. If you know that your EAL students mainly come from, say, Polish and Arabic speaking communities, translate key words into these languages. Even if your students don’t have these words in English, they will have the concepts and might appreciate the effort to make things obvious to them. If you have any chance to bring the students’ communities into your school in the form of outside speakers, special events or holiday celebrations then jump at the chance. School is an artificial community at the best of times, and an acknowledgement of additional communities your students are part of will help them accept where they are an, in turn, your teaching. A simple ‘Happy Chanukah!’ could make all the difference.
Katherine Allvey @MissCoffeeEAL is an EAL Coordinator in South London. She’s been teaching English as a foreign language since 2010. Read her blog at ealteaching.wordpress.com