Students with English as an additional language face the same challenges as all other learners, but some are unique to them, writes Ashwini Parulekar
When it comes to closing the post-Covid learning gaps, one group is often left out of conversations. Yet, in terms of impact on educational outcomes, disruption to schooling for those with English as an Additional Language (EAL) is potentially massive.
At Oriel Academy, between 70 and 75 per cent of our pupils are classed as EAL. The children come from a range of countries across Eastern Europe, the Middle East, and the Indian subcontinent, and we celebrate and promote that diversity. Nationally in 2019, 65 per cent of EAL pupils achieve the expected standard or higher in reading, writing and maths combined at the end of key stage 2. Here, it is 77 per cent. The higher standard is achieved nationally by 11 per cent of EAL pupils. Here, it is 23 per cent.
But those numbers are for normal times, and the past year has been anything but. Supporting these children through the pandemic has required us to adapt in ways that will continue to influence our practice when this is all over.
London is a multicultural city. It’s part of its success and part of what makes it – and has always made it – a unique and wonderful place. But for children this presents equally unique challenges. In normal times, for example, children are usually expected to speak their home language at home and English at school.
So to ensure parents could facilitate home learning, our class teachers and teaching assistants worked with the families by telephone to ensure they were able to access the content, problem solving with them and answering their questions and queries.
Online learning is simply not as varied as these students need
For those children who arrive with no English, we ensure there are more visual activities on worksheets and our emphasis to start with is on teaching them what we term survival language: how to ask for help, where things and places are and how we do things, names of key people. This work does transfer online, and in fact that has helped it reach many more parents than it otherwise would have, which can only be beneficial to all concerned. In essence, the pandemic has helped to break down the home-school divide that puts the onus on children to adapt their register according to which adult they are speaking to.
But the fact remains that online is not as effective as time in a classroom. If that is true for all students, it is especially true for those with EAL. Online learning is simply not as varied as these students need. In school, our buddy system – which pairs a pupil who is an articulate speaker with an EAL student who can then model their language – is one of our most effective strategies. It is simply impossible to arrange that online, so we are glad that we have been able to restart it, as well as extra sessions of face-to-face group work and one-to-one sessions with me.
But with rising cases of Covid and the very likely scenario of more periods of home learning, disruption is far from at an end. Key to overcoming these challenges is to embody the solutions.
One part of that is to communicate with families in their own languages and empathise with the challenges they face. For example, I was a primary school teacher in India until I came to England in 2006. I come from a background where English is an additional language and I am now fluent in English as well as Hindi, Marathi, Urdu and Punjabi. In 2009 I obtained a Certificate in Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages (CELTA) and joined Oriel.
The other is to live your values. There are enough languages here that we can comfortably feature a ‘language of the month’ without repetition over a period of years. Celebrating their diversity like this helps EAL children feel more included and settled.
And if we continue to do that, I have no doubt they will continue to hit and surpass the milestones set for them, as they so often show they can.