Our estimation is that a student who has enrolled as a zero beginner may need to receive EAL support for approximately three years in order to be able to integrate into the mainstream and so respond to the requirements of the homeroom. However, the students cannot be rushed. Research has shown that EAL students typically fall behind native English speakers in overall achievements due to the language difficulties and the gap becomes wider with each school year as the requirements of the mainstream grow more complex. (Wayne P. Thomas & Virginia P. Collier)
Leaving our EAL support does not mean that the student has reached the average literacy level of the native English speaking classmates; it simply means that the student is ready to be fully immersed in the homeroom life. Thus, after leaving our EAL support, it is highly recommended that the student continue to receive some form of out-of-school EAL guidance in order to maintain and perfect the language knowledge acquired in school and eventually reach the desired literacy level. However, please note that during the time the student receives our in-school EAL support, the extracurricular EAL tuition is usually not recommended.
Acquiring English as a foreign language is a process that takes many years of consistent work in order to reach the average literacy level of native speakers. (Wayne P. Thomas & Virginia P. Collier) In our international school environment the language of instruction is English and your child is constantly surrounded by English speaking friends. With our intensive EAL support and providing that the child continuously receives support in the first language linguistic development, we will do our best to make the process shorter.
Various factors determine the length of the acquisition.
The majority of linguists agree that the most important factor is how well your child does in their mother tongue. If he / she has good language skills in their mother tongue, he / she will undoubtedly learn how to use them in English in a shorter time than their compatriot whose mother tongue skills are weaker. According to Collier and Thomas’s research on the “how long” question, students who have received 2-5 years of formal schooling in their first language will need 5-7 years to reach the literacy level of the native English speaking peers. (Wayne P. Thomas & Virginia P. Collier)
One more important factor is whether your child speaks other foreign languages. If they do, it will help them acquire English faster, because their brain is already familiar with the language acquisition process. Also, how similar their mother tongue is to English will influence the acquisition – students coming from Indo-European background will find English easier to acquire than the students who speak Japanese or Korean. Finally, your child’s intelligence, diligence, study habits and personality will be important factors as well.
Your child’s age is also a significant factor. Linguists and neurologists mainly agree that as long as a child starts learning a foreign language before puberty it will be easier to learn a foreign language than later in life. Although children of all ages seem to be in a better position when learning a foreign language than teenagers or adults, there are some noticeable differences between children in early years and in primary years. Very young children become acquainted with a foreign language in a more natural, subconscious way, having no or little accent. On the other hand, although primary children need to put a lot of conscious effort in the acquisition and usually have to work on the accent, their more mature overall cognitive capability makes the acquisition more efficient.
It is necessary to adjust the teaching to the cognitive ability of the age group as well as the ability of each individual student. Therefore, at an early age we teach grammar as an inseparable part of a discourse; teaching metalanguage and grammar patterns separately is inappropriate at this age because the children cannot make connections and place the rules in the long term memory. For the primary students who can make the connections, we do focus on particular grammar patterns, but always within a discourse. Moreover, in our EAL support we do not insist on the prescribed grammatical rules from the books; instead we encourage the students to observe the patterns and find their own explanations and ways to memorise them.
Although some children start speaking immediately and seem to have acquired more English than they actually have, there are children who need to go through a “silent period” first, which makes them seem to know less than they really do. Please remember that EAL students come from different backgrounds, have different learning styles and personalities, therefore the reasons for the silent period can be varied. Most students left the well-known, safe environment of their mother tongue in their home country to live abroad. The settling in is usually a difficult period for them. It may seem strange that the children who are very outgoing and talkative in their mother tongue go through the silent period more often than those who are quiet by nature. This is because the more outgoing they are, the bigger their frustration in being unable to communicate and express themselves in the new language. Some children are perfectionists and embarrassed to make mistakes; others may be depressed, angry or scared. Regardless of the reasons, please be patient with your child and respect this silent period – pushing such a student to talk is counterproductive. Please bear in mind that the students accumulate their passive knowledge through the silent period and it will become active in the right time.
In their homerooms EAL students are exposed to the mainstream syllabus, applying the new language and experiencing English holistically as a mean of acquiring other matters. Their work is corrected, but sensibly - if the homeroom teacher points out every mistake your child has made in an assignment, especially an oral one, then he / she will be embarrassed and unable to accept the corrections under the circumstances. In addition, the focus will be shifted from the target of the assignment onto the language mistakes. However, if there are so many mistakes that the work is incomprehensible, the assignment was probably too difficult for an EAL student. In our school we have constant collaboration between the EAL specialists and the homeroom teachers, which helps with these issues.
The homeroom teacher has a major role in the life of the students and their positive attitude to the EAL lessons and support is extremely important for the students and parents / guardians. Our teachers create a friendly, stress-free atmosphere in the homeroom. The work in the homeroom is differentiated, assuring that the EAL students always have appropriate assignments and that instructions have been clearly understood. When talking to the whole class, our teachers have the EAL students in mind and use adjusted language, avoiding language-based jokes or abstract expressions, as EAL students are not always able to understand them. Aptitude tests of the English skills, if conducted, are taken with consideration for EAL students’ levels of competence in the first 2–3 years, as they are designed for native speakers and cannot help with the acquisition of a foreign language. Standardised tests on other subjects in the first 2–3 years are also conducted sensitively, as they are usually language based and, therefore, underestimate the students’ actual knowledge of the subject. (Wayne P. Thomas & Virginia P. Collier)
In some schools teachers give English names to their EAL students, but not at Chatsworth, unless it is the student’s choice. The change of the name means the change of identity and could cause resentment and the feeling of insecurity in the student, as the message it conveys is that there is something wrong with the student’s non-English background. English should be a wonderful addition to the student’s mother tongue and by no means its replacement. (Wendy A. Scott and Lisbeth H. Ytreberg)
It is essential that you continue supporting your child’s development of the first language. As it is stated in Collier and Thomas’s research, “It is extremely important that cognitive development continues through a child’s first language, at least through the elementary school.” Furthermore, your positive attitude to the EAL support and your encouragement are crucial – talking in your mother tongue about what your child has learnt in EAL lessons, reading graded readers at home and practising spelling of the vocabulary lists sent home by the teachers can be a great help.
As mentioned earlier in this text, there is usually no need to hire a tutor for additional EAL teaching while the child is receiving our in-school EAL support. Instead, the child should be allowed time to apply their knowledge after school in fun and creative ways. Socialising with English speaking friends is a natural way to practise English. Contrary to popular beliefs, they do not have to be native speakers; the child may not be able to understand a native speaker, thus talking to a non-native speaker of the same EAL level can be more stimulating and engaging. (Stephen D. Krashen) The child can practise and take a break at the same time playing EAL educational video or board games – children enjoy these activities, which makes them very receptive to the new language. Watching English films and cartoons, preferably with English subtitles, is one more wonderful way to reinforce the language. Please take care to choose a film with good English. (For example, old Disney films: “Snow White”, “Cinderella”, “Sleeping Beauty”, “Peter Pan”, “Mary Poppins”, etc.)
As it has been previously mentioned, the better the students are at their mother tongue the better they will be at English. In our English speaking international school, the students are allowed and encouraged to use the mother tongue whenever it can help the completion of the task and does not compromise the aim of the assignment – when students are doing a group activity in the EAL pull out lesson in order to practice communication in English, obviously, they are not encouraged to use their mother tongue.
So far no methodology has been found to be perfect and effective for everyone - every exclusive methodology has its positive and negative sides. That is why we believe that it is the wisest option to use an eclectic approach – a combination of elements chosen from different methodologies to correspond to the particular nature of syllabus being taught. This way the students benefit from the best in each methodology, avoiding their downsides. However, our EAL support follows the IB inquiry based approach and our EAL work is built on the same principles as the Units of Inquiry in the homerooms. Through the UOI elements, our EAL support focuses on three equally represented language aspects: Vocabulary, Language Structure and Pronunciation, that are crucial to the development of the four basic language skills: Speaking, Listening, Reading and Writing. With our support, students work through the levels at their own pace. Although we encourage them to progress to the best of their ability, we cannot rush them. Please note that it is at the school’s discretion when an EAL student is ready to leave the EAL support. We are always happy to share our view on your child’s progress with you.
The key to success lies in permanent collaboration in an atmosphere of mutual respect, trust and encouragement between the EAL specialists, homeroom teachers, parents / guardians and the students whom we at Chatsworth see as active partners in the teaching–learning process.