‘I don’t know what to do with this child … they can’t speak ANY English!’


How do we teach children with little or no English in our classes when the rest of our class are English speakers and they need our attention as well?

The first question we must ask is, ‘What is best for the student?’ Some teachers have suggested that these students should be withdrawn to special classes and returned to the mainstream if and when they can speak enough English to learn with the others and to be immersed in learning with the rest of the class. The difficulty with this is that these non- English speaking students are then isolated from their cohort and it takes away from the fact that while explicit teaching is necessary, most language is learnt through being immersed in it – hearing it, being part of the conversation and practising it with many different people.

Others believe that we should practise both withdrawal from, and immersion into the classroom; Withdrawal at least once a day for intensive English lessons and then back into mainstream classes to help them to integrate and learn social language.This works quite well as long as there are enough specialist teachers who understand the progression of language acquisition. These teachers work collaboratively with the classroom teachers and they are able to adapt their program to the child and their particular needs.

Another important consideration is the curriculum. Even if these students are withdrawn they need to be exposed to what the other students are learning in class so that they are able to participate in the learning on their return and also so they are not being left too far behind. Most of them do not have learning disabilities so the content does not need to be dumbed down even if the language being used to explain the concepts is being simplified.

As teachers we need to be understanding of these students and meet their basic needs for safety and comfort. You can’t judge how much they are learning by just being in the classroom. Even if they are quiet and not reading or writing, they are learning about how that particular classroom operates and they are picking up the language of interactions.

In most of our schools we don’t have enough specialist EAL/D teachers to sit in each class all day; so here are a few guidelines for the classroom teacher;

1. Use visuals

It is generally agreed that in most cases teachers talk too much and for too long. Basic instructions should be kept ‘basic’ and directions should be written down. Diagrams and pictures need to be used wherever possible. Showing the students what they need to do (i.e. modelling) is helpful as well.

Rich visual literacy like modern picture books that can be linked to what they are learning in class, are really wonderful for sparking conversations and building vocabulary. These can lead to the students, creating, writing and reading their own visual texts to communicate what they have learnt and their reflections on their learning. Using technology to record their artworks and responses also works well for language acquisition.

2. Use pairing and grouping 

Take every opportunity to work in groups and pairs. If you have other students who speak the same language as the newly arrived non-English speaker they can be used in group discussions to translate and interpret. This way all the students are engaged, learning and having input into the lesson.

If there are no other children of a similar language background  the students can still be engaged in group work if there are objects to touch, materials to manipulate, pictures to look at and draw, and friendly faces to encourage them to ‘have a go’.

3. Collaborate with the EAL/D teacher

Your EAL/D teacher is a valuable resource. They have training, resources, skills and ideas that can help you. They are there to support you with your newly arrived language learners. Share your program with the EAL/D teacher. They will look at it and work out how to adapt this to your students. They will explicitly teach and practise the vocabulary, give the students hands-on experiences and plan activities that help the students to have conversations in a safe environment.

4. Respect them and their culture

If the students are already literate in another language allow them to use this to learn English. They can work with students of similar language background to participate in classroom activities using their first language until they feel comfortable enough to use the language of the classroom. If they do not have enough English to write a response let them draw diagrams and illustrations or write in their own dialect or language.

Get to know the students and build a relationship with them. Take an interest in them and learn about where they have come from and where they have travelled. Do this sensitively, and not in front of a whole class. Don’t make them nervous, upset or embarrassed.

When planning class activities be sensitive to the foods they may not be allowed to eat. Have lessons where students share aspects of their lives and culture so that the whole class learn to respect and appreciate one another.

5. Give them time

When a student is new to a culture and a language they will find being at school extremely  tiring. They are processing what they are hearing and seeing around them. The picture book, “My Two Blankets”by Irena Kobald and Freya Blackwood is wonderful for explaining this. “We came to this country to be safe. Everything was strange.The people were strange. The food was strange. The animals and plants were strange. Even the wind felt strange. Nobody spoke as I did. When I went out, it was like standing under a waterfall of strange sounds.The waterfall was cold. It made me feel alone.”

A new language learning student cannot be judged by their lack of language. Patience needs to be taken with them. They are equally and sometimes more mature than their cohort. Many will go through a silent period because they don’t want to make fools of themselves and are reluctant to speak until they feel they are competent and confident.

Finally, be kind and understanding. Just remember how much they are processing. Give them time to answer. They are listening to the English, translating it into their first language, thinking about the answer in their first language and then translating it back into English in order to answer. They are doing far more work than most of the other students in the class.

Meeting the needs of all our students in our classes can be challenging. All our students deserve an education.  Include them in all your lessons. Use your creativity and teaching skills to scaffold and differentiate your lessons. One of my favourite texts is “Scaffolding Language, Scaffolding Learning” by Pauline Gibbons. It is full of games and ideas for teaching English language learners in your classroom.

My plea is that our new language learners are not given ‘busy work’; like colouring-in, or childish toys to play with or books to read that are not age appropriate. Please don’t leave them in a corner to fend for themselves and grow bored while both of you wait until the EAL/D teacher comes to withdraw them for their special lessons. If you need help, just ask someone.


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