How to Support EAL Students in the Classroom

January 4, 2021
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EAL (English as an Additional Language) students are those that are learning English, but already speak one or more other languages, although not necessarily fluently. They can be found in classrooms around the country – in 2018, there were 1.6 million in state schools in England alone, making up 19% of students.

Yet despite their numbers, there is a lack of adequate guidance and training for non-specialist teachers on how to support EAL learners in mainstream classrooms. These students need to be communicated with in a slightly different way, and are likely to communicate differently themselves. It is important for teachers to be aware of this, as well as to understand the difficulties the students face, and which teaching strategies could help.

In this article, we will outline the barriers to learning for EAL pupils, and provide you with a range of teaching methods to help multilingual students in your setting.

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Note on Terminology

Other terms that are used for EAL students are ‘ESL’ (English as a Second Language) and ‘bilingual’. These terms were popular in the past, and are still used now. However, it is more inclusive to use ‘EAL’ and ‘multilingual’; English could be a third or fourth language for some children, rather than a second.

Why Should Schools Provide EAL Support?

Providing EAL support leads to benefits for both your school and the individual students. These include:

Increased academic achievement

When students feel supported – and when they are helped to understand and use the language of their curriculum – they are more likely to achieve at the expected level (or above). This is good for the individual, but also for the overall attainment levels of your school. EAL students who have had appropriate support often outperform monolingual students in school, due to their perseverance and higher-level abstract thinking skills that come from speaking more than one language (Bialystok, 2010).

Higher self-esteem

A consequence of feeling supported and being properly included in lessons is higher self-esteem for the student.

Helping to eliminate discrimination

Schools have a legal obligation not to discriminate against any particular group of children. If you don’t put strategies in place to help EAL students, then they don’t have equal opportunities to achieve the highest possible standards. This is a form of discrimination. EAL students should always be seen and treated as integral parts of mainstream classrooms, not just additions to them. By doing this, you could help to tackle achievement gaps, and build life chances.

Stronger learning environments

Bilingual and multilingual students usually have stronger working memories and attention spans (see Adescope, Lavin, & Thompson, 2010). As a result, having EAL students could encourage the rest of your class to focus and pay attention. Research has also shown that students in diverse schools have an enhanced ability to think creatively, and to use higher-order cognitive thinking skills.

Different perspectives

Students from other countries bring different cultures and experiences to the classroom, which helps their peers to better understand other perspectives. This leads to everyone feeling safe and valued in your classroom, and diversity of all kinds being celebrated.

Positive home-school relationships

If parents feel that their children are being supported in school, they are likely to have a better relationship with you. This makes things easier for your school, but also has potential academic benefits for the children – their parents become more involved in their education, and help them to continue learning at home.  

It is important to keep in mind that most EAL students do need your support, even if they appear to be fine. In general, children can become conversationally fluent in a second language in two to three years, but they can take four to eight years to catch up with monolinguals in academic contexts (Paradis et al., 2011).

What are the Barriers to Learning for EAL Students?

As an educator, it is your goal – and responsibility – to break down any potential barriers to learning. EAL students often face barriers when they first join a school, some of which may not have occurred to you. For example:

Learning the language

Although this is an obvious point, there might be much more to learning a language than you realise. As well as acquiring vocabulary, picking up pronunciation, and understanding grammar, students also need to be able to learn through the language. This requires them to comprehend the language well enough that they can grasp new, complex concepts expressed through it. Then, they must be able to ask questions, analyse ideas, and use academic language (such as the passive tense and formal vocabulary). This can be extremely difficult for those whose grasp on a language is not yet very firm.

Developmental differences

Children who grow up bilingual or multilingual reach language development milestones in a slightly different way to monolingual children. They do meet the milestones, but only when you consider their speech in both their languages combined (Bialystok & Feng, 2011; Hoff et al., 2012). This is because they hear less of each language than monolingual children do – their time is split between two languages.

This is not an inherent barrier to learning, but teachers who can only communicate with a child in one of their languages might be concerned that it is therefore more difficult to spot a potential problem in the early stages. For example, autism spectrum disorder, neurological impairment, or hearing impairments might all cause different language development. However, multilingual children tend to fall within the ‘normal’ range, even with their developmental differences. As a result, you should still be able to spot a potential red flag.

Stigma or misinformation

Because EAL students may not initially be able to communicate very well, some people believe that they are less intelligent. They think that the students don’t understand the concepts discussed in lessons, rather than simply the language they are discussed with. This is untrue – EAL students are often even more capable than monolingual students, because learning another language gives them cognitive advantages. It is important to remember this, and to convey this to the other students in your class.

Misunderstandings about their behaviour and cultural norms

Cultural differences can lead to EAL students feeling confused and uncomfortable with the expectations of an English classroom. Teachers often don’t realise that things they consider to be ‘normal’ are not commonplace for students from other countries. For example, in China, teachers are authority figures – there is little teacher-student interaction, and talking to the teacher is seen as daring (Wan, 2001; Zhang & Xu, 2007). As a result, it could make a student uneasy if you force them to interact with you and express their own thoughts and ideas.

A sense of discomfort leading to challenging behaviour

When students feel frustrated or embarrassed that they cannot understand or be understood, it may lead to them acting out in class. They might disengage, misbehave, or simply refuse to do any work. This can have a huge effect on their ability to learn.

Teachers’ lack of experience

Although all teachers receive some training on EAL students, it’s often not enough to deal with the everyday realities. Additionally, research on best practice changes over time; teachers might not be up-to-date with the best methods to use to help English language learners.

By being aware of these potential barriers to learning, you can better empathise with your students. In the next section, we will give you some suggestions of things that have been shown to be helpful to EAL students.

EAL Teaching Methods & Classroom Tips

To help your EAL pupils overcome the challenges that they face in the classroom, we have come up with 14 tips and teaching strategies for bilingual and multilingual students.

1. Use visual learning

For EAL students who are struggling to process spoken language, visual learning can be extremely helpful. Use labelled images and videos to illustrate your lessons, so that when you introduce new concepts, everyone understands what you’re referring to. Print these images out for students to stick into their books and refer back to. You could also label everyday items in the classroom, such as scissors, protractors, and other equipment.

Other ways to use visual learning are to write all instructions for the lesson on the board, and to use gestures and facial expressions to engage and aid your students. This has the additional advantage of benefitting non-EAL students too – multiple modalities give everyone maximal opportunities to increase their understanding.

2. Sit them near the front

So that your EAL students can better hear and see during the lesson, sit them near the front of the classroom. You could also consider who they are sitting next to. A native English speaker with high ability (i.e. one who uses a wide vocabulary and complex sentence structures) will be a good language role model for those learning English.

3. More group work

Group work increases students’ engagement, and gives EAL pupils a chance to practise speaking in a less intimidating context. They may not be confident speaking out in front of the whole class, but might feel able to contribute to a small group discussion. Choose peers who are supportive and good language role-models to be in a group with EAL students. This will also help to facilitate friendships, giving the students further opportunities to develop their language outside the classroom.

4. Adapt your teaching style

To enhance students’ understanding of lessons, speak slowly and pronounce every syllable in every word. When you ask a question, give EAL pupils an extra three to five seconds to think before you call on them. They need this time to translate the question into their first language, think of the answer, and translate back – and it could help them to build up their courage. It might also be helpful to repeat instructions several times, and frequently check that your students understand the topic and what they need to do.

Be aware of phrases that might be particularly different for those trying to learn the language. Idioms (such as ‘that’s the last straw’ or ‘I’ll let you off the hook’) as well as slang and words that are specific to English-speaking cultures (think of ‘brolly’, ‘wellies’, or a ‘Sunday roast’) might need an explanation. This is another place where you could use pictures to help EAL students to understand.

You should see yourself as a language teacher; think of ways that you could help your students to increase their progress. For example, you could have a ‘word of the day’ that could boost your students’ vocabulary, or regularly use synonyms in your teaching (e.g. ‘the climate – the weather – is very warm’). This not only clarifies the meaning of difficult words, but also widens students’ vocabulary, and teaches them which words are interchangeable.

Finally, use sentence frames to scaffold your students’ responses. Frames such as ‘I disagree with what ­­___ said, because…’ show students how to structure formal, academic sentences. Display your sentence frames on the wall of the classroom, and ask all students to use them regularly in their discussions and writing. For younger children, have ‘who/what/where/when’ question words on cards to support their learning.

5. Let them use their first language

It is become increasingly accepted that you don’t need to separate a learner’s languages to encourage fluency. In fact, their first language is a useful foundation to build on – it gives them an opportunity to compare words and sentence structures, and understand more quickly. In the early days of language-learning, the classroom can be extremely intimidating. Allowing EAL students with the same first language to speak it together can help them to relax, and engage with concepts at a higher level. Dictionaries – and apps such as Google Translate – are helpful for the same reason. However, don’t let the student become entirely dependent on these aids.

Additionally, if a student is struggling with the language, and unable to complete a written task that you have given the class, let them to try it in their first language. This makes them feel included and less self-conscious. There is some evidence that this strategy helps them to produce higher quality work in their additional language later on (Yigzaw, 2012). This might be because it stops them restricting themselves to words that they know; instead, they try to express what they really want to say.

6. Allow preparation before each lesson

If your EAL students are given the learning materials in advance – for example, an article to read, a link to a video that you will be watching in class, or a list of key terms and phrases – it increases the likelihood that they will understand the lesson. Their confidence will also be boosted. Make sure that you remember to give them the materials a couple of days in advance.

7. Don’t force them to talk

It is important to understand that language learners go through several stages on the path to fluency. They can often comprehend language – through listening and reading – before they can produce it themselves, through speaking and writing. Some teachers may see that a child is able to understand and try to make them speak; however, this puts on too much pressure. Accept that it is normal for EAL students to go through a silent period, and let them speak when they feel confident to.

8. Learn about their name and their culture

Make an effort to get EAL students’ names right, and encourage your students to do so too. This shows them that you respect their language and identity, and helps them to feel accepted. Similarly, learn exactly where they come from, and research the religion and culture in that area. This will help you to accommodate for your students’ needs. For example, in Japanese culture it is preferential not to express your opinions in public. Japanese students might, as a result, feel uncomfortable participating in debates and discussions. Additionally, in many East Asian and Middle Eastern cultures, eye contact is disrespectful. Don’t force all your students to look you in the eye, and be aware of other cultural differences.

9. Give feedback

Providing feedback, both positive and corrective, is extremely important. It shows the learner what they are doing right, building on their self-esteem, and gives them models for what they should improve. Strategies for giving feedback on spoken language include:

  • Repeating what the student has said, but with the correct sentence structure or pronunciation.
  • Asking for clarification if you don’t understand what they have said.
  • Questioning whether they think the sentence is well-formed or not – for example, ‘is that the right word order?’. Let them rephrase it themselves.
  • Talking about how to structure similar sentences to the one the student said, without directly correcting them. This could help to preserve their self-esteem in front of the class.
  • Praising them for good attempts at difficult structures, or trying something new, even if it isn’t quite right. Don’t feel the need to correct every error.

Strategies for giving feedback on written language include:

  • Acknowledging their effort and what they have done well.
  • Giving marks for good content, even if there are grammar, punctuation or spelling errors.
  • Pointing out their use of correct sentences in the wrong context. Try to explain which contexts you would use this structure in. For example, when you’re writing instructions in a recipe, you would use command words. You would not tend to use them in a formal letter.
  • Writing clear examples of structures that the learner is struggling with so that they can practise.

10. Understand that the child may act out

It can be tiring, frustrating, and sometimes embarrassing to feel that you are unable to communicate or understand what is going on in the classroom. As a result, EAL students might display challenging behaviour. By empathising with the challenges they are facing, recognising how well they are doing, and using effective techniques to deal with the behaviour, you can encourage them to keep trying.

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Need Challenging Behaviour Training?

Our Challenging Behaviour training course is recommended for professionals who want to have a better understanding of how to respond to the behaviour of the children that they work with. The course includes a series of activities for you to complete in order to help you relate the information given to your setting.

11. Signpost learners to resources

Your students may not be aware of all the resources that are available to them. As well as age-appropriate dictionaries and thesauruses – and Google Translate – introduce them to Simple English Wikipedia, Learn English Kids, and websites like Twinkl with dedicated EAL resources.

12. Communicate with home

If your students’ parents understand what they are doing at school, it gives the students an advantage. Ensure that you are communicating effectively with home by making letters clear and accessible. This means using short sentences, no jargon, and translating them into the parents’ first language if necessary. Encourage them to come to parents’ evenings, and provide a translator if you need to. Give them reminders of the topics you are currently covering, and suggest that they could do research at home in their first language. Additionally, you could give them a list of useful websites for homework or further information about school.  

13. Have regular EAL training

Even if you don’t have a specialist EAL coordinator in your school, you can still perform EAL training. This might involve a short session where teachers share their experiences and recommendations for good practice. You could even just set time aside to research the latest resources and advice.

If you have a large EAL cohort, consider asking your Local Authority if they can provide support – for example, by arranging translator services, dual text reading books, or translated advice packs for parents.

14. Use an assessment framework

Assessment frameworks, such as The Bell Foundation’s EAL Assessment Framework for Schools, help you to understand the specific needs of your EAL students. The framework assesses their proficiency from A (beginner) to E (fluent). It then gives you support strategies and resources to use for each level.

EAL students are a key part of our classrooms, and it is important for every teacher to understand how best to help them learn. We hope that this article has given you awareness of the challenges they face, potential teaching strategies to use, and the benefits that this has for your school and for the individual child.

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