As we prepare to celebrate World Teachers’ Day on 5 October 2014, the British Council’s Caroline Drummond looks at what schools in the UK are doing to support EAL learners, and gives practical advice on how teachers can best meet their needs in the classroom.
What is the background to EAL learners in the UK?
There are now more than one million learners in UK schools who speak English as an additional language (EAL). This represents a considerable proportion of the school population, well above 15 per cent.
EAL learners come from very diverse backgrounds. Some arrive seeking asylum, while others follow families coming to the UK as economic migrants or for other reasons. EAL learners also include those who were born and raised in the UK speaking a language other than English. The most common first languages spoken by EAL learners include Polish, Punjabi, Urdu, Bengali, Gujarati, Arabic, French, Mandarin Chinese, Portuguese, Spanish and Tamil.
What are the challenges of teaching EAL learners?
Most teachers in primary and secondary schools have EAL learners in their classes. As with other groups of learners, they adapt their lessons to make sure that all learners can get the most out of lessons. They do this by involving learners in activities where the language is challenging but appropriate to their abilities and interests. But as EAL learners in their classes might have various levels of English and little or no prior knowledge or experience of schooling, this can often be difficult to achieve.
Based on the annual survey of Newly Qualified Teachers, teaching EAL students is the area of work newly qualified teachers say they feel least equipped for. All teacher trainees receive training in EAL but some report getting only two hours of training and feeling that they are not fully competent to teach and support these learners. Non-specialist teachers therefore need more training and support to be able to create the best learning environment for EAL learners.
How successfully are schools helping EAL learners in the UK?
Schools and teachers across the UK support EAL learners in a variety of ways. Some schools get the support of experts from their local authority while others employ EAL consultants or have their own EAL specialists. But some schools don’t get expert EAL advice at all. It’s not surprising then that outcomes for EAL learners vary greatly across regions and local areas.
We have done an evaluation of the EAL provision in the UK and identified the following areas of success:
- There is some excellent EAL-friendly teaching practice, particularly in primary schools.
- Most primary school teachers have a good command of English grammar. This helps them teach learners how to use language in the different subjects of the curriculum.
- Most schools and teachers are willing to get more support to be able to teach EAL learners effectively.
Areas for potential development include the following:
- There is a lack of EAL-qualified professionals in some schools.
- Some teachers might need support to better understand the principles of second-language acquisition and methodology to be able to develop their lessons accordingly.
- We found little evidence of schools supporting parents of EAL learners. Helping them understand how the education system works and how to support their child’s education is crucial to the success of their children.
How can teachers best meet the needs of EAL learners?
Certain principles can help teachers adapt their lessons to the needs of EAL learners. By following these, teachers can help these children reach their educational potential and play a positive part in school life, the community and society as a whole.
The potential among EAL learners for bilingualism is particularly important, as it increases mental ability such as problem-solving, creativity, and memorisation. Bilingualism gives EAL learners a fantastic advantage when looking for a job later on, too. Teachers therefore need to consider the role of learners’ first language and be aware that the acquisition of a new language goes hand-in-hand with cognitive and academic development.
Here are some of the main principles of EAL teaching:
- Use more visuals in the form of pictures, photographs, and so on, to help learners make sense of new information.
- Use graphic organisers such as tables or grids to help learners organise their thinking.
- Develop interactive and collaborative teaching and learning styles and activities.
- Think about the language demands of the curriculum (oral and written) and provide models.
- Use drama and role play to make learning memorable and encourage empathy.
- Get learners to work with partners or in a small groups using the language for a specific purpose rather than out of context.
- Maintain and develop learners’ first language alongside improving their English.
- Provide opportunities to talk before writing and use drills to help learners memorise new language.
- Support language development through key phrases and structures rather than key words.
EAL learners can be an asset to schools and their communities
Aside from the challenges, EAL learners can bring a new dimension to schools. They can share experiences and cultures from other countries and bring an international perspective, helping their peers understand different cultures, people and points of view better. EAL learners also have extra language skills they can share and bring to the school and to the UK. Finally, when lessons are successfully adapted for them, EAL learners achieve well academically, even outperforming their English mother tongue peers in most boroughs of London.
The British Council’s EAL Nexus project aims to help learners who speak English as an Additional Language (EAL) access learning and positively engage in schools, in the community and in society, thus promoting intercultural dialogue and social cohesion. The project works with EAL learners, their parents and families, and their teachers.