Should schools teach EAL children their home language?

I’ve been meaning to write a post about this for a while, after reading a comment on social media some weeks ago, claiming that the lack of attention to home languages in schools is degrading to that language. Could or should schools take more responsibility for teaching a child the language of their family? In my opinion there are arguments for and against.

The most obvious reasons against is that a child who has arrived in England and started school with no English needs help to learn English for both social and academic purposes. Without additional help with English, they are likely to fall behind their peers in the other subjects because they are unable to access them. And this additional help inevitably means they miss out on some of the other timetabled activities. If they were to have lessons in their home language on top of this, it would mean missing out on even more of the other timetabled lessons. This would probably lead to their English suffering because they weren’t practicing it in the classroom as often. Factor in the cost of finding teachers for all of the different home languages of pupils in a school, and it’s quite easy to see why schools feel that their responsibility ends with teaching the children English. After all, if their families want them to continue learning their home language, that’s up to them to sort it out, right?

On the other hand, if children are spending Monday to Friday in school and then all day Saturday having language lessons, they’re going to get tired very quickly. It’s already exhausting for them having to concentrate so hard because teaching is not taking place in their first language, and then at the weekends instead of having time to switch off, they are spending several more hours in a classroom. I have seen children struggling to stay awake because of the extra mental effort they are using. There is a definite advantage to bilingualism, and if they were given lessons in their home language during the school day, they could take full advantage of that later in life, and still only have to learn for the same number of hours as other children their age.

There is also the self-esteem issue to take into consideration. If they are not as good at English as their classmates, and are struggling to keep up in the other subjects because of the language, it could give their self-esteem a boost to spend some time during the school day doing something they are better at than their classmates.

Another thing the comment I saw bemoaned was the fact that EAL children rarely get to achieve qualifications in their home language. This is another tricky area. Of course it would be lovely if all children who could speak another language could get a qualification in it. Many schools already do their best to do this, and I often see pleas from other language teachers asking for speakers of various languages to assist with oral exams. However, there is a cost to exam boards to produce exams, and at a time when languages in general are in decline, there is little incentive for them to write and mark exams in minority languages.

What’s the solution? I’m sure I don’t know! One possibility for the qualifications would be for each country to take responsibility for its own language. So for example, English children living abroad would take an English GCSE, provided and marked by this country; Polish people living in England would take the equivalent qualification in Polish that their classmates would be sitting in Poland. It would need lots of agreements between the governments of the different countries, but in theory it should be possible. As for who should take responsibility for the teaching and, when and how they should be taught… Maybe somebody else could come up with a plan!

If you enjoyed this post, you might also enjoy Endangered Languages

Update: Since publishing this post I have come across this one about the pros and cons of weekend language schools that seems to tie in well with what I have written.

Educational Clocks

senclock 1I don’t usually write blog posts recommending products, but I’m making an exception for this educational clock: not because it’s my brother and sister-in-law who make it, but because it’s so versatile I really believe it’s useful to teachers and carers.

Richard and Theresa are children’s nurses and they have a lot of experience working with children with special needs, and this was originally designed as a SEN clock, but I think it could also be used by EFL and MFL teachers.

It has a tickless mechanism, making it suitable for anyone who is susceptible to auditory overload, including those on the autistic spectrum. The background is clutter-free, and because they’re customisable you can choose how much or how little information goes on there, depending on what the child can cope with. They recommend having the hour hand only as that is the most distraction-free, but if you really want the minute and second hands as well, you have the option to have them in a different colour to the hour hand so that they blend into background.

senclock 2The magnetic pictures make a great visual timetable for anyone who needs structure to the day. I think they work better than a traditional visual timetable, which usually consists of pictures blu-tacked along the bottom of the white board, because the clock shows at a glance whether it is a long or short time to the next event – especially useful for people with a poor concept of time.

You can choose between pictures only, or pictures and numbers, depending on the individual it’s for. The write-on wipe-off surface makes it ideal for teachers, TAs and carers to write additional notes on there, such as required doses of medicines.

The versatility of this clock would also make it ideal for the EYFS setting.

The fact that the pictures have words written under them made me realise that this clock would also be really useful to EAL children. It’s bewildering to be somewhere where you don’t understand the language, and this clock could help introduce structure and reduce anxiety levels for children who have only recently arrived in the country. The pictures would indicate what lesson was next and the words would reinforce the English word for that subject. Because the pictures are magnetic, it’s easy to swap them around for days when lessons happen in a different order.

Thinking about the benefits to EAL children led me to thinking about MFL teachers – most things do because I am one! Because the clocks are custom-made, there is no reason why you can’t have one made with the subject labels in whatever language your class is learning. Most primary school learn one language all the way through KS2, but if your school alternates there is no need to buy a whole new clock when you change languages – you can just order a new set of magnetic pictures.

These clocks are also ideal for children who are learning to tell the time in any language. The pictures can easily be replaced with magnetic words (y cinco, zehn nach, et quart, twenty past) or numbers. You could easily put just the o’clocks first and then add the half and quarter hours and the five minutes as you learn them.

If you have an idea in your head of what a fully customised clock like this is going to cost, I think you’ll be pleasantly surprised. For more info visit Trip Clocks.

VCOP display

Every classroom in my school has to have a VCOP display. In fact as a supply teacher I’ve been in a lot of classrooms, and every single one of them has had a VCOP display, so I’m assuming it’s something on Ofsted’s ticklist.

Now don’t get me wrong – I like VCOP. I know it has a lot of opponents, but I find it a very useful teaching tool, and like every tool its success depends on how you use it. I’m not a big fan of taking it out of context and treating it as four separate elements that children have to shoehorn into their writing, and to me a VCOP display does that.

My sentence displayThis display is my solution. My children are Deaf and for many of them BSL is their first language. They find English sentence structure difficult, so I have put up this display to demonstrate the structure of a standard English sentence. It would work equally well for EAL and EFL students, and I’m sure it could also be adapted for the MFL classroom, although I haven’t tried that yet.

adjective and subjectI have my Openers at the beginning of the sentence, where they belong, and my Punctuation at the end, also where it belongs. Connectives are underneath punctuation, to show that they are used to join two sentences together. Vocabulary is spread over four panels – Nouns (subject and object), Verbs and Adjectives.

Like everything with teaching, once you’ve done it, you think of a better way to do it, and next time I’ll move the adjective panel to just before the object instead of just before the subject. I think adjectives are probably used more to describe the subject than object, and it means that I could also have a S V A structure (The rose is pink) in the middle of the longer structure. It’s still a work in progress and I do plan to split the subject panel into nouns and pronouns, and the white panel needs an “or number” halfway down. Other than that, I’m quite happy with it so far.

In addition to providing them with a standard structure sentence, it is exposing them to grammatical terms, and already one of the boys in the class has asked what the word “article” means and what it’s for.

So there you have it. Nobody can accuse me of not having a VCOP display in my classroom, but I’ve managed to turn it into something more useful.

Grapefruit Grammar

A couple of weeks ago I was teaching a lesson on adjectives, in preparation for the children writing a poem later in the week. The plan I’d been given said “have a selection of different coloured items at the front of the classroom and get the children to describe them.”

First item up was a grapefruit. Now the children in this class are all EAL, and having just come back from a long summer holiday, none of them have been using English for several weeks, so this task was difficult. After pair talk and group discussion, they had come up with…… “yellow”! There the word sat, all alone in the middle of the board.

I managed to get them to add a few more to it by giving them choices: Does it feel rough or smooth? Is it heavy or light? Hard or soft? Warm or cold? “Yellow” was slightly less alone on the board, but we still weren’t awash with ideas.

In desperation I asked the TA if she could find a knife, and we cut the grapefruit into chunks and handed it round. Luckily it was a small class so everybody had a bit.

Suddenly the classroom was exploding with ideas. “Oooh, this is sour,” said one child screwing his face up.

“I like it – it’s juicy!” said another.

“It’s wet inside. I thought it would be dry.”

“It’s delicious.”

“My mouth feels funny – it’s all tingly.”

“Please can I wash my hands, Miss? They’re sticky.”

The board filled up really quickly – in fact I ran out of space – which just goes to prove that well-known rule. If you want to inspire children, bring food into your lessons.



International Mother Language Day

Today is International Mother Language Day. On this date in 1952, a group of students were shot because they were demonstrating for their language to be recognised as an official language. The day is now used to promote the importance of different languages and cultures – a subject very close to my heart.

It’s not often I wish I had my own class, but on days like today I do.  If I had my own class and my own classroom (and if it wasn’t half term), we’d be going off curriculum for at least part of the day. There would be posters on the walls in a multitude of languages. EAL children would be allowed to write in their home language instead of struggling with English, and they would all have the opportunity, if they wanted it, of teaching the rest of the class a few words in their mother tongue. We’d have poetry and story-telling in different languages, and listen to music from all over the world. There would be dual-language books around the classroom so that everyone could see what their classmates’ mother languages look like in print.

If I had my own class and my own classroom….but I don’t.  I hope though that activities like these are happening all over the world today. If you have done anything to celebrate – let me know in the comments below. I’d love to hear what you’ve been up to.