Over the years I have learned various ways of saying ‘hello’ and ‘welcome’ in various languages, as well as trying to help students get to grips with speaking, reading and writing English.
My most recent venture, The International Club, came from a need for some of my most recent foreign students to be able to develop confidence in speaking English in a non-threatening way. I set up a group, that is now in its second year, whereby they could come at lunchtime, three days a week and chat informally. I laid on different activities, including discussions on pop artists, favourite food, cultural celebrations and football discussions; all fairly accessible and relaxed. I bought biscuits; they brought with them homework, worksheets and other items that needed deciphering or translating. The fact transpired that all these students from different countries had different levels of English and needed slightly different levels of support.
A case in point was the time, just before Christmas, when I brought in a box of wrapped chocolates and asked the students to pick a colour. One boy struggled until I asked him what was wrong. He looked at me and finally said that all the time he had been learning English he realised he had got the colours orange and purple muddled up. It impressed on me that he admitted this in front of the group. I was pleased that it was solved by a box of Roses chocolates!
We all work together, the more linguistically able helping the newer arrivals so that by the end of the first year, several of the students had made progress in their subjects, just because they felt that they had an ‘English’ voice to be able to share their ideas. I also invited English speaking students to act as language mentors. They helped drive any discussion and were a point of contact when I was unavailable.
As part of this, I set up a mini project where I took the students out to local landmarks, for example the library and museum as well as a trip on the local canal to help them gain an awareness of where they were living. We also used online maps for them to talk about where they have came from and to compare the cultural differences between here and where they have come from. This helped them form a stronger bond with the place they had moved to.
The club is a drop in, I don’t insist on attendance but the students who have started to come since September have made it part of their weekly routine and I have already seen improvement; a young girl who seemed very quiet, chats to me non stop about her latest history class, formulating her sentences and correcting herself as she thinks things through in a more relaxed setting. I am able to keep a register and give informal feedback to staff, if they need it, to help them gauge how well a student attending my club is able to understand and comprehend what they are being told in class.
The other side of this has been that I have developed and found online glossaries and phrase sheets to help staff ensure students settle in quickly. I work with the students to help differentiate the work they are given so they can access it and from time to time staff ask me to go through homework with the students to ensure they know what to do. I know that there is a school of thought to say immersion in the target language is useful, but to help these students as quickly as possible I found a bilingual dictionary to be useful and effective in avoiding initial frustration.
One thing I have observed – just because a student is newly arrived and speaks limited English doesn’t necessarily mean they need to go into an SEN group. If you are able to workout the students level of literacy in their home language then you can judge how quickly they will make the transition to English and from that predict their level of progress. I now have students who have been learning English for two years in my Set 2 class who are performing above their target grade, just because they were able to develop their ideas and vocabulary in line with their natural literacy skills, supported by suitably differentiated work.
My work continues and with each new arrival I pick up more and more ideas about how to help them achieve. I have also started reading and researching the known wisdom on students with EAL and sharing that with whoever wants to listen!
Charlotte Harding is an English teacher at Castle High school, Dudley. In her 20 years experience she has developed an interest in various aspects of whole school life, including poetry and EAL. In her spare time she is a GCSE examiner and team leader. Find her on Twitter @charlieferrett.