Blog: How to communicate with learners using EAL in international schools

In this blog, Tom Beakes considers the importance of communicating effectively with learners using EAL and outlines The Bell Foundation’s upcoming course for staff in international schools, Comprehensible English for Learners who are New to English.

Key sections in this article:

Can you remember the first time you found yourself visiting an unfamiliar country? The tumult of new sights, sounds, and customs. Curious tastes and smells. A new language, perhaps even a new script or alphabet to be deciphered. It is an exhilarating experience, but it can also be daunting. How do you find your way around? What happens if you need help? What if you make a mistake?

For learners using English as an Additional Language (EAL) these feelings of uncertainty can be present when they start studying in an international school environment where English is the main language of instruction. They may feel frustrated, confused, and isolated. The Bell Foundation’s course, Comprehensible English for Learners who are New to English, is designed to reduce these negative feelings by teaching school staff to communicate effectively with learners using EAL. In this blog, we provide a taster of some of the strategies that teaching school staff can use to achieve this.

Why it is important to communicate effectively with learners using EAL

Learning how to communicate effectively with learners using EAL is a critical skill set for international school staff. Clear communication with school staff reduces student anxiety and helps them feel comfortable: a prerequisite for effective learning. In and outside the classroom, being able to plainly explain tasks and introduce complex ideas in accessible ways is part of building an inclusive and welcoming school culture for multilingual learners.

International school staff are typically sympathetic to the challenges faced by learners who are new to English. After all, many staff are in a similar situation of living in a community where the main language is not their first one. However, proficient speakers of English, especially if they are accustomed to working in English monolingual contexts, may be unaware of what features of their language-use is difficult for their learners to access.

Language features which may cause difficulty for learners using EAL

Of course, the language features that might or might not be accessible to a learner will depend on a number of factors, including the learner’s proficiency in English, their home language, and more. However, learners who are new to English or in the early stages of English language acquisition are likely to struggle to understand sentences – whether spoken or written – which are too wordy and too complex. In speaking, the speed of delivery will also play a part. In terms of grammar, structures which tend to cause difficulty are various verb forms (including modal verbs or the passive, for example) or the use of pronouns for referencing, prepositions and determiners, especially articles (a/an/the). When it comes to vocabulary, colloquial language and idioms are among the features which tend to be learnt later.

How to adapt your language to be more easily understood

The course, Comprehensible English for Learners who are New to English, highlights possible areas of difficulty for EAL learners and teaches participants techniques for adapting their language to make it more comprehensible. Known as language grading, this strategy is beneficial for all learners, but especially those who are new to English. For example, a simple phrase like “hand out the books” can be confusing because a learner knows the individual meaning of the words “hand” and ”out” but may be unaware that together they make up a verb meaning “give to others”.

How many of us can relate to the experience of nodding and smiling when spoken to in a foreign language when we have not understood a word? School students are no different! There are times when we need strategies to check what our learners have and have not understood. Checking understanding is a core skill in using comprehensible English and this course will explore strategies such as effective use of questions to achieve this goal.

Having the skills to communicate with speakers who are new to English is extremely useful in any situation, but it is essential in an international school environment, and it should be part of induction and CPD for all international school staff, especially those who are new to the sector.

Taster task

Can you re-write these real-life classroom instructions to make them more comprehensible?

Tip: cross-out any unnecessary language that does not add to the key meaning.

“It would be lovely if you could write this word, children, because we’ve used it a lot haven’t we?”

You can find the answer to this question at the end of this article.

Find out more

Suggested answer: (Can you) write this word, please.