Author: Paola Mileo
Posted: 28 May 2021
Estimated time to read: 6 mins
This week we have a guest blog from Paola Mileo, from FeelingHome; the team behind Refugee Week this June.
Paola is an Inclusive Education Project Manager, originally a Second Language teacher and trainer for courses and projects aimed at the inclusion of students with a migrant background. She supports schools and organizations to adopt creative, sustainable and lasting solutions for extensive and cross-disciplinary learning opportunities.
When speaking about children with English as Additional Language (EAL), we are moving within a wide landscape composed of many macro and micro-groups alongside disparate individuals who differ in numerous ways. This is mirrored in students’ English language proficiency.
What does your language mean to you?
A language shapes the way we think, how we perceive reality; it outlines our belonging and our understanding of society together with its conventions; it reflects our culture, customs, humour, manners, traditions, and so much more.
Within the same linguistic group, we share symbols, signs, sounds, gestures, coded language, accent and jargon; moreover, in our linguistic group, we feel understood. We are aware of the layers of meaning.
And how does it feel when we find ourselves within a group that does not share all the above, but we still need to fit in? We feel lost like we don't belong.
There’s a lack of safety as we are not familiar with the surroundings, and feel overwhelmed by the high level of stress we are experiencing. This is a typical situation of a student, new to English, who starts attending school in the UK for the first time.
Schools and EAL students
Students with EAL are asked to catch up with the curriculum content while learning a new language. They are asked to be performative on a variety of inputs not yet comprehensible.
When first learning a second language, students go through the silent or receptive stage, the so-called ‘pre-production’, which can take up to six months, depending on different factors, from exposure to previous language knowledge.
While inhabiting this language learning phase, the learner's attention is focused on understanding the inputs, on making sense of the context they are experiencing. Only once comprehension is more secure, can outputs start to arise.
At first, the student begins to speak in single words, and with time, the tone and volume of voice get clearer and louder.
During this first stage of language acquisition, given the limited comprehension in addition to not belonging to school life yet, students with EAL may experience extreme distress that can lead to additional issues.
This distress can even lead to a lack of empathy and the ability to empathise with others if not addressed thoroughly and in a timely fashion. A poorly structured inclusion process for students with EAL can translate into low attainment, behaviour issues and disengagement.
Being culturally responsive
Research shows that we are less accurate in reading the emotions of people who look different from us than those who are more similar to us. We tend to look through our lens of experience and shape our reasoning and judgments based on our own experiences and biases.
When dealing with students with EAL, we should consider being culturally responsive, trying to manage our default way of understanding and adopting a broader one.
Modelling an open, unbiased and unconditional welcoming and understanding attitude will shape more participative and inclusive school communities, as a ripple effect starting from teacher to pupil relationship, student to student, from minority groups to majority groups.
Creating an inclusive environment
When aiming to build an inclusive environment, we should intentionally try to create a face to face setting. Mirrored in every relationship and every human interaction. A great deal of learning comes from observing what others do.
Preventing a new student, with limited English, from experiencing anxiety, isolation, sadness, frustration, and uncertainty should be a priority over learning targets. Learning will not happen without emotional preconditions.
As educational practitioners, we cannot wipe off all the difficulties related to the new student's demanding situation. Still, we can certainly influence, model, and establish connections that can ease the circumstances and equip the pupils to better deal with all the challenges a new life and a new language may present.
What can we do to make the ‘New-to-English’ student shift from negative to more positive emotions? How can we implement practical solutions to foster mutual understanding, create a supportive and collaborative environment and establish meaningful relationships in an EAL friendly way?
Here I would like to share tips and strategies to make new students with EAL feel safe, welcomed, appreciated, recognised, supported, valued and respected
Setting up an EAL - New-to-English friendly environment.
- Employ welcoming language, tone, voice and posture
When relating to other people, sometimes we unintentionally give off signals that might make us seem unapproachable; being intentional and aware of the emotions and environment you want to generate can mark the difference. Embody positive emotion: I am here for you, I am approachable, come and talk to me, make contact with me!
- Value and celebrate diversity
Suppress judgmental attitudes. Guide students in having unbiased conversions. Embed multiculturalism and foster curiosity and knowledge around different cultures, countries, beliefs, religions, traditions, and related topics.
- Foster mutual curiosity in students
Value your new students belonging and country. Show the class where they are from: make a slide/poster with landmarks, famous people, typical dishes, landscapes, curiosity, symbols, flag and anything that could trigger your students’ interest.
- Establish a supportive team-like environment
Practice active listening through learn-by-doing activities—practice team building. Plan the lesson with time for peers and group activities. Make sure your pupils will provide the right words for the new student to make them take part in the conversation and the activities. Create a class system to support new students and value contribution. Provide clear language frames with visuals to take part in activities and discussions.
- Foster a welcoming learning environment
This includes classrooms and the school buildings, among peers and within the wider school community. Choose a word, a sentence, a short song for a group to identify with. Make them proud of it. Make clear that the new student now belongs to that class group and to that common space. Leave an object there for them (e.g., a dictionary, a book, a pen)as a visible sign of belonging.
- Create a buddy system
New-to-English students are assigned a buddy in their class. This fosters belonging and participation encourages language practice alongside active listening and leads to stronger relationships. Give the buddy precise duties to cover in the short and long term. Measure the impact of buddies and upskill students who are willing to become a buddy and provide them with praise.
Encourage risk-taking amongst your class. For example, you could learn how to say something in your new student’s language and invite the children of your class to do the same. Display the new words/sentences in class so everyone can learn them. Repeat the process in time. Ask your new student to correct your pronunciation. It will be a role-taking activity that shows that everyone can take risks, makes mistakes, and that it is safe to do so.
- Practising Social and Emotional Learning (SEL)
Activities can support the development of a wide emotional vocabulary and foster emotional awareness. Try displaying a wheel of emotions, or something similar, and encourage class-wide discussions on the different emotions and the impact they can have on our life and wellbeing. Name and share positive and negative emotions.
Encourage students to research and share different cultures' attitudes towards emotions and relational conventions. Practice and teach empathy. Value and support emotional intelligence. Practice class activities on SEL. Practice group mindfulness: the here and now.
- Encourage students' interests and passion.
Ask students to complete a personal poster with only pictures (non-verbal) showing who they are: what they like, what makes them happy. As a teacher, you could share yours first to then ask students to do the same.
You could embed this into PSHE activities asking students to share their interests, knowledge and passions and find commonalities among themselves
Students with EAL can be very vulnerable, especially in their initial stage of learning acquisition; securing their wellbeing will be essential to establish a culture of prevention over intervention.
Making the school environment a place they want to be is a precondition to creating meaningful learning and life opportunities.