Teaching EAL and ESL Students: The Essential Guide

An article by Richard James Rogers

Illustrated by Sutthiya Lertyongphati

It was a typical INSET/teacher-training day at my school, or at least it started out that way. 

I was up early at the ring of three alarm clocks, and a few snooze buttons worth of ‘sneaky sleep’ time for each (a habit which I have now, thankfully, changed. Side note: Check out a book called The Miracle Morning if you want your life to change immediately!).

with-ukedchat

It was a long summer vacation, and now it was back to the daily momentum of the first semester. 

The morning was fairly standard: new staff introductions, receiving our timetables and talks from the principal and deputies about our school’s focus and aims for this academic year. A complimentary lunch of Pad Thai and iced tea followed. So far, so good.

And then came the afternoon slot. First session on the agenda: Supporting EAL students in mainstream classes. We all eagerly walked in, took our seats and got out our pens and notepads ready to take notes. One of our popular and friendly American colleagues was leading the session, so we were we’re all excited. 

The session began with a ‘Bonjour……, sava?” and that’s all the vocabulary I can remember from then on in. I had no idea that my American friend was a fluent French speaker, and I couldn’t speak even a string of three words in French: I dropped it at age 14. 

card gamesThis went on for about 15 minutes. The spoken language was French, the PowerPoint was in French and the handouts were in French. And then, oh no, the teacher asked me a question!

I did what all of my EAL students habitually do at this point, I turned and asked my friends for help, in my native language (English). Big mistake! My American friend turned into a ruthless foe as she launched a vicious and aggressive verbal attack on me (which I didn’t understand). Even though I knew this was a teacher-training session, and I was ‘supposed’ to make this mistake, I still felt humiliated.

I later learned that she said “Speak in French only”, in French. 

If you’ve never took part in an activity like this before, then try it. It is a very blunt and merciless reminder of the challenges our EAL and ESL students face when they are taught through the medium of English.

Over the past 11 years I have had the privilege of working with thousands of EAL and ESL students. It started when I was in the UK teaching the children of eastern European migrants, and then progressed on to a wide-spectrum of international students in the ensuing 8 years in Thailand, and my current year in China. I’ve learnt that some techniques work really well almost every time, and some can be a bit hit-and-miss (sorry for the colloquialism: that’s something you should avoid, by the way!). lab

Let me share with you the best techniques that will take your EAL and ESL teaching to the next level of excellence. 

Have sympathy and patience

Don’t forget that EAL students need time to process whatever you’ve said, or the task or information they’ve been given, in their native language before they can give you a response in English.

Allow students time to think. Pause a while, let the student discuss their answer with a friend who speaks their language if necessary. Listen carefully to the response you get. Praise the parts that were correct. Model good grammar and execution.

High five
Pause and allow your students time to process information. Praise them when they provide a good response. Have patience, and watch your students flourish!

Take a look at this short dialogue:

Teacher: “So, James, what does the word ‘Species’ mean?”

James: (Has a short talk with his friend in Chinese. Teacher pauses.) “Species mean when animal are like the same.’ 

Teacher: “Wow! Great answer James. A species can be a group of animals or plants that have similar characteristics. Well done for using the word ‘same’, but I think that ‘similar’ is a better word. Can anyone else tell me something about the word ‘species’?”

Focus on the long-term goals of improving your EAL students’ comprehension gradually. Don’t expect miraculous results overnight, but at the same time don’t limit your beliefs in these students’ abilities. 

Speak slowly and watch your accent

As soon as I landed in Thailand I discovered this important secret: EAL students need to hear a clear speaker when being taught through the medium of English, so that they can model good practice.

Slow your voice down, and speak loudly and clearly (but don’t shout). If you have a thick localised accent, try to make it more classical and concise. 

I come from Flint in North Wales: a small town with its very own unique accent that’s different to anywhere else in the UK! When my wife, who is Thai, comes with me to the UK to meet my family, she often cannot understand what we are all saying when we use the local dialect (including me, her husband!).

My wife has a master’s degree from the UK, so what hope would my high school kids have in understanding me if I tried Q & Aspeaking in ‘Flint’ to them?

I have learned to slow my voice down and speak in a more neutral/classical dialect when I’m teaching. You may have to do the same. Make a video recording of one of your lessons and watch yourself teach. You’ll be surprised at how many slip-ups you make, and there may even be times when you can’t understand yourself!

Elocution, elocution

Elocution simply means modelling good speech.

Speak your key words and key vocabulary clearly, and get your students to repeat them! I used this technique only three days ago in a KS3 Science class. One of the key words was ‘species’. The dialogue went something like this:

Teacher: “Say spee-shees”

Students: “spay-shees”

Teacher: One more time. Listen carefully: ‘speeeeeeee-shees”

Students: “Speeee-shees”

Teacher: “Perfect, ‘Speee-shees’ Well done.”

Class Q and A
Be vocal. Use elocution as a way to reinforce concepts, vocabulary and inflections

Don’t forget that written delineation is not enough to enable students to understand words and contexts. Visual and auditory outputs are essential too, and that’s why we must spend time on correct elocution.

Prompting

This is a classic technique that is very simple to implement. Prompting is when you say the initial sound of the word, allowing space and time for the students to complete it. Take a look at this example:

Teacher: “The force that pulls objects towards the Earth is called grr, grr, grr…….”

Students: “Gravity!”

Teacher: “Yes! Gravity. Well done!”

Use prompting often, even with written language. Point to words on your presentations, and make students say them.

Continent Investigation.jpg
Do you prompt your students to use key vocabulary?

Use vocabulary journals

These are very powerful learning tools, but they are so underused in the teaching profession!

Take this week for example. My AS-Level Biology students had just finished their mock exams and I sat down with one young lady to provide feedback to her. She had great subject knowledge, but had used incorrect adjectives in some of her answers. For example:

Student’s answer: ‘The nuclear membrane disappears

Model answer: ‘The nuclear membrane disintegrates’

Any AS-Level examiner will tell you that this is a common way in which international students lose marks in exams. So, how can I help this student now?

discussing-homeworkThe solution is simple and effective: she’ll have a special notebook in which she writes down all of the model answers to questions she gets incorrect in the intense past-paper practice we’ll be doing for the next month and a half. She’ll be keeping a ‘vocabulary journal’, and I’ll be checking it and sitting with her to discuss it each week. 

Journals are a great way for students to constantly review their understanding and knowledge of key vocabulary. With students who have very low English proficiency, you may wish to use journals from day one. With others, such as my AS-Biology student who only needs some ‘fine-tuning’, they can be used at specific points in the academic year.

Make full use of dictionaries and translators

Many international students carry electronic or paper-based dictionaries with them to class. Personally, I think that all international schools should make this a requirement for all of their students, even native English speakers.

Why? Because they’re powerful learning tools.

Students can use dictionaries in many ways, but the most common and effective are:

  • Translating key words in their textbooks into their native language, allowing full understanding of terms and permannet record that’s all in one place
  • To support learning journals, where key words and adjectives can be written bilingually and checked regularly. Get parents and language teachers involved in this for extra credibility and scrutinizing
  • Some electronic dictionaries can ‘speak’ the word being researched, allowing good verbal modelling and repetition by the student
  • Creating bilingual displays in class (e.g. posters and infographics)

Use vocabulary games

I write about this extensively in my book, and my blog post here has some very clear instructions and ideas for using vocabulary games in class. My personal favourites are ‘splat’, ‘mystery word’, ‘corners’ and ‘bingo’ which I’ve included below. These are great fun, but they do take time to implement in class. It’s worth it though!

Never demonize the native language of the students

I had the unfortunate experience of working in a school that had an ‘English only’ policy, which was strictly and rather bizarrely enforced. As a British teacher in Thailand, I was expected by the management of my school to tell students not to speak Thai.

I thought we’d left this archaic ideology behind with the abolition of the ‘Welsh Not’ necklaces in 1888. I guess I was wrong.

out-of-control

Don’t forget: our EAL students will be using their native language to cognitively process facts and information. Try these strategies:

  • Allow students some time to discuss answers with a friend who speaks the same native language as they do
  • Pause, and allow the student to verbalise the answer in their native language before expressing it in English
  • Instead of saying “Don’t speak Thai” or “Don’t use German”, say something like “Try your best to use English please”, or ” I really want you to improve your English, so could you please try to talk in English?”. 
  • Posters and displays around school that promote English can be effective. Choose upbeat, modern graphics that show students why English is important. One school I worked at had a poster in every classroom that said “In this school, we try our best to express our ideas in English, so that we can get good grades in our exams”. 

Use groups strategically

You’ll come across two scenarios when using group work with international students:

  1. Groups where every students speaks the same native language
  2. Groups were some or many students speak different native languages
card games.jpg
Do you assign roles in groups?

Where possible, it’s a good idea to group together those students who do not speak the same native language, This forces them to use English in their group work (though, most probably, you’ll have clusters of two or three students per group who can speak the same native language). 

How you assign groups will depend on the age and emotional maturity of the students too. For example, you don’t want to group together students who you know will just chat aimlessly with each other, and you also don’t want to group together students of completely different nationalities who all have very poor English language proficiency – that would be a very quiet group!

Also, don’t forget to assign roles to each student in a group. Who will be the spokesperson? Who’s drawing the diagram? Who’s doing the research using the iPad? Who’s collecting the data? If you don’t assign roles, then you may find that the group work is slow, unproductive and chaotic. 

Differentiate your resources

This is a classic and vast area of pedagogy which is often made more complicated than it needs to be. 

Basically, make sure your worksheets, tasks and materials are neither too easy or schematictoo difficult for individual students. This website here provides some links to detailed strategies for this, but the most common ones that I’ve used include:

  • Breaking down prose into sentences, bullet points or ‘blanks’ to fill in.
  • Using pictures, lots of them! When student asks “What does ‘tripod’ mean”, are you going to give a lengthy explanation? Show the student! Type the word in on a search engine and show them an image of the object.
  • Writing out step-by-step instructions for any kinaesthetic task, such as doing an experiment or building a model
  • Changing your verbal questions to match the fluency of each student. Do you ask a student to ‘describe the electromagnetic spectrum’, or “Name the parts of the electromagnetic spectrum. For example, gamma rays, radio waves, and……… (prompting again)” 
PC activity with mouse pen
Differentiate the resources and tasks in your teaching to meet the needs and abilities of your learners

Conclusion

We all have a duty to help our EAL and ESL students in the best ways that we can. Our efforts need not be time-consuming nor difficult, just a few easy-to-implement strategies like the ones mentioned above are needed. Be consistent, have patience, never lose hope. Previous EAL and ESL students of mine have gone on to study bachelor’s and master’s degrees at UK and American universities and now have flourishing careers. 

Patience always pays dividends, so make sure you are patient with your EAL and ESL learners.

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Author:

High School Science and Mathematics Teacher, Author and Blogger. Graduated from Bangor University with a BSc (Hons) degree in Molecular Biology and a PGCE in Secondary Science Education. Richard also holds the coveted Certificate in Mathematics from the Open University (UK).

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