Deep learning with emergent bilinguals: don’t dumb it down

Cross-posted from Language and Literacy for Learning

I have been thinking of ways to improve support for emerging bilinguals, or beginners of English, in the classroom. I know this is an area in which teachers (including myself) struggle at feeling successful. Children at the early stages of learning a language have minimal comprehension and they don’t verbalize, so we don’t get an immediate response that tells us how to proceed. Often the language we use for our units of inquiry is complex,  and requires abstract language far beyond the language level of the emerging bilingual. So where do we start?

We’ve been having some discussions about this at my school: do we take these learners out for a crash course? If so, how long? If we do, is that really the right thing to do? Aren’t we taking away all the context that is so important at these early stages of language learning? And is the context we provide in our little pull-out classroom better than the context-rich environment of the classroom where they can see their peers accompany their actions? Does the matching activity we use to teach children classroom objects or survival phrases top this? And then after these initial weeks, what do we do? By then the child does still not have enough output to show deep thinking and understanding….. right? I’ve also heard the following being said:

  • There is no point for Johnny to listen to us unpack the unit because he just won’t understand what’s going on.
  • Better to work on some survival English and learning to write the alphabet while the others are doing the unit of inquiry.
  • I though complete immersion is not the right thing to do?

Recently we did an activity with students in grade 4 about the Learner Profiles (LP).  The class had just welcomed a new student to the class who was new to English. In groups of two they had to unpack a LP by deciding, if the LP was a person- what kinds of things could/would it do? We then asked the children to write news paper articles about their LPs. We use this routine often to get the deeper meaning of unit vocabulary. (Here is a useful scaffold to use to get them started and it can be applied to many text types- news paper articles, poems, interviews, explanation texts, procedures- even obituaries!)

This is one a student did on Caring:

If you look at the stages of language learning, it would be unrealistic at this stage to expect a student new to English to perform this kind of task.

But dumbing it down is not the answer either, as that would be denying this student the opportunity, being new to the PYP, to develop her understanding of the learner profiles. It was also important to get her to understand this routine. So why not let her do it in her home language? We explained the task with the help of Google translate and by watching the others work in class she soon understood what to do.

As I watched the students work together and brainstorm about Caring, I realized there was value in it for the English speaker too- she was discovering the German names for things and could be heard saying ‘wow, that’s nearly the same!’ It was beneficial for both: one was being exposed to English language for the task while completing it in her own language, the other got to see what some words were in German. Perhaps her mind was opened to the fact that her new classmate was perfectly capable of doing the same work as her in her own language. Also, structures of text types are the same in German and English, so they were both getting practice in that.



Below is the version that was created in German and here is a recording of her news broadcast using an App called Boss Jock Junior (highly recommended!). Sharing their broadcasts in English and German was another wonderful way to create a multilingual learning environment.

When the children moved onto angles in Maths, support was given by going over the different angles in English (with pictures), translating them to German and then looking for examples in the classroom and recording these on a slideshow. Again, using the home language and the context of the classroom to learn new Maths words.

As an EAL teacher I feel most successful if I can get English language learners to access to the same learning opportunities as their peers. What makes me feel least successful is seeing them do tasks that are only about learning the language at a superficial level, not about concepts or deep understanding. For emerging bilinguals one way to make this happen is to use the home language. One of the major contributors to accelerated second language learning is the strength of first language skills- another reason to keep on strengthening it. What also sits well with me is how by making use of the home language a multilingual learning environment is created and we are getting the right message across. I noticed how quick the children caught onto this, by sharing information about their own language or suggesting things for learning like ‘how about she looks for it in German!’

What home language strategies do you use in your class? How do you go about creating a multilingual environment in your classroom?

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