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It’s easier to be what you can see: Supporting EAL learners in multilingual classrooms

Written by: Johanna Thomson
5 min read

Johanna Thomson, Primary Link Tutor, The Tommy Flowers SCITT, UK; EAL Content Writer, Twinkl Educational Publishing Ltd, UK

One and a half million students in England are English as an additional language (EAL) learners (The Bell Foundation, 2020a). Yet too often in school, being multilingual can be viewed as a barrier to making academic progress because English is ultimately the language of instruction and assessment (Crisfield, 2020). Conversely, in adulthood, multilingualism is frequently considered a skill to be celebrated (Gallagher, 2020), with many adults often expressing regret at being monolingual.

If students are, or indeed become, embarrassed or reluctant to use their home language(s) in school, then as educators we have a critical role to play in inviting, welcoming and encouraging them to do so with confidence and pride. This article argues that valuing, sharing and encouraging the use of multiple languages should be a must in all classrooms – not solely because it could be a helpful tool in supporting students to acquire a new language, but because having a strong language awareness can be beneficial for all students and can promote social cohesion (Little and Kirwan, 2021). This article suggests several strategies to support students to value and develop their home language(s) that teachers can incorporate into their everyday practice to create open, language-rich, inclusive and multilingual learning environments for all their students.

Valuing equality and diversity is likely to be a priority for most settings. Celebrating language is one simple way of working towards this. Cultural and language diversity can easily be incorporated into classrooms and schools. Gallagher (2020) and Conteh (2019) suggest that interactive displays in multiple languages send out powerful messages to parents, carers and students and can be used to create a multilingual environment. The Reflecting Realities survey from the Centre for Literacy in Primary Education (2021) emphasises the importance of students seeing their realities reflected in the classroom through literature. Ensuring that the literature we share in our classrooms is reflective of the students we have in them is crucial. Reading, sharing and displaying stories from a variety of cultures and in different languages, taking the register in a range of languages, providing students with time to share news and events about extended family and friends living in other parts of the world and locating these places on a map are ways that Conteh (2019) suggests of ensuring that cultural and language diversity can be included in classroom practice.

A school in Ireland went further and implemented an open language policy: staff and students were encouraged to use Irish alongside their home language(s) in school during both social times and lessons. The following activities were identified by Little and Kirwan (2021) as being those that were successful: using familiar themes and routines to support language learning, such as counting and days of the week; including Irish and home language(s) in the delivery of the curriculum content; a plurilingual approach to classroom discussion; language awareness; and producing parallel texts in two or more languages. 

The school took on a translanguaging stance. The term ‘translanguaging’ originated from Welsh educators Cen Williams and Colin Baker to describe the concept that the two languages their students spoke (Welsh and English) should not be simply viewed as the addition of one language to another, but rather should be viewed as an ‘integrated whole’ (cited in Garcia, 2019, p. 56). Garcia (2019) goes on to acknowledge that teachers with a translanguaging stance understand and recognise that students have a broader linguistic repertoire upon which they can draw in the classroom to support them with their learning. Bifield (2019) also acknowledges the importance of translanguaging classrooms and highlights the role that digital translanguaging can play through digital tools such Immersive Reader and translation tools.

The fourth of Rosenshine’s ‘Principles of Instruction’ (2010) is to provide models. Sherrington (2019) suggests three different types of model that can be used to support teachers to provide effective explanations. The third is based on providing explicit narration of our thought processes when tackling problem-solving and creative activities, and Sherrington goes on to suggest that this process in crucial in developing students’ metacognition. Encouraging students to talk through problem-solving and creative activities using their full linguistic repertoire is a strategy that teachers could easily implement. The eighth of Rosenshine’s principles is to provide scaffolds for difficult tasks, which Sherrington (2019) suggests should be temporary to support students to develop their cognitive processes and be gradually withdrawn to develop students’ independence. Teachers could incorporate dual-language scaffolds in their lessons, such as providing a vocabulary list in Romanian and English. Additional modelling and scaffolding strategies and techniques are developed in Sherrington’s later work (2020, 2021).

Involving parents, carers and members of the wider community in maintaining and developing a student’s proficiency in their home language(s), Conteh (2019) argues, plays an important role in a student’s education. This essential role is also recognised by Little and Kirwan (2021), who state that parents and carers should be encouraged to engage in the same literacy-supporting activities, such as reading to their children every day and taking part in shared reading and writing activities, as teachers recommend to English-speaking parents and carers. Bower (2017) addresses a common concern that parents and carers may have when students start school that learning two or more languages at once will be confusing and will slow down their acquisition of English. If parents and carers have this concern, Bower (2017) suggests that teachers arrange to meet with them to discuss the benefits and importance of maintaining their home language(s). Mistry and Sood (2020) emphasise the need for educators to pronounce the names of all their students correctly so that other students learn to do the same. They also highlight the importance of staff making a concerted effort to learn greetings and key words in their students’ home language(s) as a means of valuing them and to help to support the building of relationships with parents and carers.

A range of ideas and strategies have been suggested for in-service teachers. However, it is crucial that trainee teachers are also as knowledgeable and informed about current EAL pedagogy and practice. A recent report focusing on initial teacher education (ITE) and EAL by Foley et al. (2018) highlighted the historic tendency for EAL training in ITE to not fully prepare trainees and, consequently, newly qualified teachers (NQTs), now known as early career teachers (ECTs). Similarly, Sharples (2021) supports this view, although he highlights that school-based ITE can fare better; however, he suggests that this is dependent on local expertise and pupil demographic. 

Foley et al. (2019) published an executive summary of their report, including recommendations for teacher training providers, which was followed by guidance from The Bell Foundation (2020a) to support providers with designing new curricula around EAL content. The Bell Foundation (2020b) released its first initial teacher training (ITT) module to support providers to address some of the recommendations in the report, with more modules expected to follow. 

While in most cases it is probable that teachers have not explicitly told their students that they cannot use their home language(s) in lessons, it is also likely that they have not explicitly told them that they can, that they should and that they might find it helpful. By enabling EAL learners to utilise their full linguistic repertoire in the classroom, we are actively valuing and promoting the importance of different languages, strengthening relationships between school and home and preparing our students to be global citizens of the future. If students can see their reality being reflected in the classroom, the hope is that they will develop a stronger sense of identity and belonging.

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