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Mind Your Language – 7 Points To Remember When Supporting Early Learners With EAL

There is much that early years settings must consider when supporting children and families with EAL, says Kathy Brodie...

  • Mind Your Language – 7 Points To Remember When Supporting Early Learners With EAL

There are more and more children coming to the UK’s early years settings who have English as an additional language (EAL).

This can present various challenges for practitioners, such as in getting to know the children concerned and being able to determine how much of the curriculum they are accessing. It may also present a particular problem for teachers in Reception classes, when it comes to carrying out a baseline assessment.

However, having EAL also presents children with a great opportunity. Research has repeatedly shown that there are significant advantages to having two or more languages at an early age – which means that there are many benefits to be had in terms of boosting children’s development, from being able to effectively and proactively support children with EAL.

It’s worth remembering that teaching the speaking and listening skills that are good for children with EAL will also help to support and develop the language skills of all children in your setting.

Finally, when thinking about EAL, it’s important for early years practitioners to keep in mind that a ‘home’ language is more than simply spoken words – it’s part of a child’s cultural and community identity…

1. Unique children

The children with EAL you encounter in your setting will likely be from a wide range of backgrounds and circumstances, and will often have very different life experiences. It is advantageous to be aware of each child’s background, to ensure that suitable and effective support is offered.

For example, you may have to focus on a child’s cultural differences before their language support if they are newly arrived to England, whereas a child born and raised in the UK may not need this.

2. Not just English

Valuing children’s home languages is a very important part of the process of helping them to learn English. Sometimes parents will be keen to encourage their children to speak English at home as well as at your setting, but children being fluent in one language at home will help you to support their learning in another.

3. A quiet start

A period of silence is absolutely normal when a child is just starting to learn English as an additional language. This can last up to six months, whilst he/she absorbs unfamiliar vocabulary, syntax and grammar, and builds up enough confidence to use the language.

Although positive encouragement to speak at this stage is helpful, you should not force children to speak before they are ready. Often they will talk to their friends during play first.

4. Useful resources

Many local authorities will have access to books, games and artefacts that can support children’s home language while also making links to English. There are a number specialist companies, such as Mantra Lingua, from whom you can buy books, posters and resources in a wide range of languages.

Alternatively, you could ask children’s families to provide books (preferably with a translation), recorded songs, stories or rhymes in their home languages.

5. Get support

Another option for supporting children with EAL is to employ or temporarily hire a bilingual teaching assistant who is able to speak both the home language and English.

If you need to hold meetings with parents who are also learning English you could buy in the services of a translator, who can translate both spoken and written language and explain any implications to parents. Do be aware, however, that this will be more expensive than a bilingual teaching assistant.

6. It takes time

You may be able to see ‘surface features’ of both English and a child’s home language within two years. However, it may take up to seven years for a child to have full proficiency in a second language, even though he/she may appear to be proficient when playing with friends.

This is because basic interpersonal communication skills are more likely to develop before the skills needed to use language cognitively.

7. Be aware

Depending on the circumstances, some sensitivity may be needed when putting children together purely because they have the same language. If they have been displaced from areas where there is civil conflict, for example, it could be that this will cause the children and families distress.

As before, it is helpful to find out as much as possible about individuals’ backgrounds first.

Is EAL an SEN?

Having English as an additional language in itself is not a special educational need – many children with EAL will only need additional support for a few months. However, it could be that having to communicate in a language that is not their home language may mask other problems affecting these children.

A bilingual teaching assistant can help you to determine the children’s level of learning and development in their home language. Don’t forget that liaising with parents may give you further information about children’s speech and language at home.

Kathy Brodie is an Early Years Professional and trainer based in East Cheshire; for more information, visit www.kathybrodie.com or follow @kathybrodie

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