The EAL learner has to speak. Speaking allows students to practice the articulation of words, sentences and extended explanations and arguments. No one learns these by silently listening.
Recently I had to work with an enthusiastic young lady who just couldn’t seem to get her handle on spelling. Initially it didn’t make sense, since she was so eager to speak and learn. When I pulled her aside, however, I discovered that she could not pronounce any of the new vocabulary correctly – in fact, she had developed the habit of skimming past words to hide the fact that she couldn’t pronounce them. How could she possibly spell words if she couldn’t articulate them! Unfortunately, in her earlier learning, there wasn’t a focus on actually pronouncing her words aloud which had led to her developing bad habits to hide the fact.
When I worked with newly arrived immigrants who had just a few months of exposure to English a few years ago, I kept a basic principle in mind – I would only talk for no more than ten minutes before getting the students involved in the talking. My classes were never quiet. Students were constantly working in groups, talking about their learning in one way or another.
The classroom dominated by the teacher speaking will not allow the EAL learner to speak. So what can the teacher, who feels the need to impart all that knowledge, do to build a classroom where students speak to learn?
With my early learners, the recognition of some of the hurdles they faced in learning helped guide my principles. Firstly, these students were teenagers who often already brought knowledge into the classroom – they just did not have the language to articulate their thoughts. The key, on my part, was to provide them with the language they needed to access and articulate their learning.
To manoeuver across this hurdle, I would usually introduce vocabulary and structures as information was imparted, then get students to discuss or work with the information in segments which would allow them to practice using the new language they had been introduced to. Recently, when teaching the causes of World War 1 to my history class of grade 9 EAL learners, I found that having given them a brief overview of the causes while putting up the key words up on the board as I used them enabled the students to then use the appropriate vocabulary themselves when they were called upon to use the language in a group activity soon after.
These words were revisited often and whenever possible in the weeks that followed, and it was quite clear every one of the students were very comfortable articulating their thoughts by the end of the term. This ties in to the second guiding principle when working with EAL learners. They need constant reinforcement of their learning – especially vocabulary – otherwise they will revert to using the easiest words that are not really suitable for the context.
One way to revisit these words and ideas is to place them up on the word wall or as posters. This way, they can be easily referred to. Often, to spice up the learning with some kinesthetics I’d get students to move up and choose the most appropriate word from the word wall. That gets the whole class involved, and prolonging the selection reinforces the learning for students as they engage with the words.