I am lucky enough to have grown up within a large extended family rich in language and culture. My father was born in Portsmouth, Southsea with a ‘traditional’ mother and father in the sense that they sat down every Sunday for a roast lunch and forced my dad to attend church even though they never actually went themselves! My mother was born in Nairobi, Kenya and came to England where she met my dad at university and the story goes (as my dad likes to tell it) that my mum was something of a mysterious Indian beauty amongst the students and by the time my dad realised she wasn’t a rich, Hindu princess, they had already married!
My sister and I spent a lot of our school holidays either at my Nanima’s house playing with my cousins or at an Indian wedding, which seem to happen every other week! Hindu weddings are beautiful! Full of music, colour and dancing. And whilst I loved every minute of it, I barely understood anything that was happening as it was all spoken in Hindi, Guajarati or Urdu. As my Nanima also barely spoke any English and my mum herself spoke five different languages, it was decided that I should attend Saturday school and learn to speak, read and write Gujarati. I suddenly found myself in a new environment where I couldn’t understand what anyone was saying or read the workbooks or make friends, as most of the other children either spoke to each other in Gujarati or Hindi. I went home to my parents so upset to be out of my comfort zone that after a few meagre weeks, I eventually quit – something I continue to look back on regretfully.
(Me (in the blue dress) and my beautifully bilingual family at my sisters English/Hindu wedding)
When I give training about teaching children with English with an additional language, I like teachers to experience first-hand what it is like for children new to English by asking them to follow simple instructions given in another language. The feedback is always ‘enlightening’. Imagine yourself in a new country, where you don’t know the spoken or the written language, the culture, the routines, the traditions. How would you navigate? How would you know where the toilets are? Or how to ask for help? This is what it is like for all children with EAL. On top of that, they would be dealing with getting used to having left their old familiar school, home, friends and possible family members – that’s a lot for any adult to deal with, let alone a child.
My advice to teachers is this: do your research! If you know you are about to have a new pupil, try and meet them and their parents beforehand (home visits are great for this). However, as we all know, sometimes you don’t have time to do this and a child suddenly appears in your class first thing Monday morning with no warning or information. So, make the time! Arrange to meet parents as soon as possible, consider that they might need an interpreter too. Find out basic information about the child; how do you pronounce their name? How much English do they understand? What do they like doing? Do they have any dietary requirements? Where are they from? (In Thailand, the head is considered to be the most sacred part of the body and so you should never touch their heads and in some Asian, African and Latin American countries it is deemed disrespectful to look a member of authority such as a teacher, in the eyes). Are they religious? How do you say key survival words or phrases such as toilet, lunch, home, sit, stand, coat on etc?
It is also important to make sure that children with EAL aren’t categorised as being in a low ability group or SEN group (although it is useful to find out from parents if they are concerned about their child’s development or speech in their home language). Many teachers can often mistake a child with EAL’s ‘silent’ phase as being SEN when actually they are simply watching, listening and observing.
An aspect of planning that I often see in schools is where teachers differentiate for ‘SEN/EAL’ – that’s not to say that you might use similar resources e.g. visual aids, but for many children with SEN they need lessons that are broken down in manageable steps and need to take in consideration sensory and physical needs. When working with children that are new to English, you should be thinking about pre-teaching key vocabulary in the form of games and fun activities, repetition, gestures, buddying up with another child or adult that may be able to translate.
My mum was one of the first EAL consultants in Croydon and she would go into schools and support teachers through training, observations and in-class support. Unfortunately today, due to our ever increasing cuts in all things related to the public sector, specialist consultants are few and far between. The feedback I often get from NQTs is that supporting children with EAL is barely covered in teacher training despite this being an area that the majority of new teachers struggle with.
I wanted to create a resource for Early Years teachers that was easy to access and not too ‘wordy’, understanding that teachers’ time is limited. I always loved the ‘50 Fantastic Ideas’ series because it let me dip in and out for new ideas and the activities were usually easy to resource and fun to do. So, I decided to write 50 Fantastic Ideas for Children with EAL. I tried to design the games and activities so that you would use them not as a stand-alone intervention for children with EAL because, as we all know, our time is stretched, but instead you can use them with a whole class or in small groups with children that might need encouragement to build relationships, to enhance their speech, to help with confidence and to develop respect and knowledge of other cultures and customs. I recently hosted a network meeting for teachers in Southwark on how to support children with EAL in the class. Afterwards, one of the EYFS consultants said it was one of the highest attended meetings they had held which proves that it continues to be an area where even the most experienced teachers want help in. I hope that my book goes a little towards easing this need.
Natasha Wood has worked in the Early Years for nine years and has built a great breadth of knowledge in child development and play. Her latest book, 50 Fantastic Ideas for Children with EAL, is out now!