More than just the words

Blog
26 July 2017 by ATL
It is usually clear to staff in schools that there is a support need to address when a new pupil from overseas experiences a language barrier.  This may be the child’s first experience of being in an English-speaking environment, and there is much to learn in terms of the new language. 

What’s less discernible - and perhaps less well-supported - are barriers related to pedagogy, social and cultural differences and of course the sense of dislocation and loss the newly-arrived child may feel when they first start.

We are so immersed in the UK classroom culture that as practitioners we may forget it’s not like this everywhere in the world

 

Being placed in a situation far outside of their comfort zone, there is a lot for a new arrival to manage in addition to the demands of having to cope in a new language.   

In the UK, pedagogical approaches focus on children learning through experience, learning from each other, learning through trial and error, and learning through talk. From an early stage our indigenous, monolingual children learn how to learn in these ways. Teachers may also be a product of this system and therefore believe teaching in this way works.  We are so immersed in the UK classroom culture that as practitioners we may forget it’s not like this everywhere in the world. 

In Poland for example, children do not sit on the carpet to learn, as the carpet is perceived to be a dirty surface that’s walked on by everyone. So a Polish child – and possibly also their parents - may look askance when the class is directed to come to sit there for story time. 

In other parts of the world, pedagogical approaches may rest on the premise that children are empty buckets, waiting to be filled with the knowledge possessed by their teachers.  While the teacher teaches from the front, the children sit at their desks in rows, their success measured by how much they can repeat back in the end of year test. 

There is little scope for learning through dialogue or for experimenting with ideas and hypotheses to see which ones hold true under close examination and which do not.  A child coming from that sort of school experience may struggle to comprehend what is going on in their lessons in their new UK classroom.  How should they engage with their education when it looks like this?  How should they now behave and function as learners? 

Parents may experience their own difficulties as they grapple with the apparent vagaries of the UK education system

 

Parents may experience their own difficulties as they grapple with the apparent vagaries of the UK education system.  They may have found applying online for a school place challenging enough, but that was just the start.  If they were used to a system where their child was taught from a textbook that came home every night so they could see what had been covered during the day’s lesson, then how difficult must it be for them to keep abreast of their child’s learning when there is no text book to look at? How then should they recap at home the key points covered in class each day? How might they help prepare their child for the school day ahead? 

If they were familiar with knowing where in the class ranking their child sat, what sense can they make of our system where we don’t publish information about each child’s attainment in comparison to their peers?  And if in their country of origin promotion to the next class depended on their child passing the end-of-year tests, what must it mean to them in our system where promotion from Year 4 to Year 5 is automatic, regardless of whether or not the child has met the end-of-year expectations?

An awareness of the far-reaching impact of living in a new culture will help practitioners reflect on how they currently support their international new arrivals. There is more that can be done to help a newly-arrived child to integrate into their new UK school by thinking about the barriers children and their parents might be facing and what can be done to reduce or remove them.

Sarah Coles is a Consultant for English as an Additional language at Hampshire EMTAS.

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