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Language learning needn’t be a lonely experience

When starting a new school, in a different country, IB students can feel like “outsiders” until they have a basic understanding of the main language of instruction. Former English Language Learner Teacher Dan Franch tells IB World how this can be avoided

It was the first week of school and I was working with a new Middle Years Programme (MYP) English language learner student. She had previously studied English for four years in her homeland.

New country, new school and new classmates – she was understandably nervous and feeling overwhelmed. A star student back home, but she could barely grasp what was going on in the classroom. Her world had been turned upside down, and she was doing her best to persevere and settle into her new surroundings.

Instead of going to a language acquisition class to tackle yet another new dialect, she attended English language learner classes. In just three meetings her English skills advanced.

As she had studied the language before, she just needed a safe place to express herself. But how could that have happened in a mainstream classroom of comfortable English speakers?

Extensive research shows that the optimal mental state for learning is relaxed alertness. In other words, for students to learn the main language of instruction in a school they must feel safe.

There is no doubt that students will learn the language as they are immersed in it every school day. However, an English language learner teacher, for example, determines how it will happen, and how smoothly, quickly and calm the process will be. It should not be a painful or lonely experience.

As well as developing language skills, the teacher guides students and helps build confidence. It’s likely that they will form the first and closest bond with a student.

But a connection can only be created with time. That is why ‘pull-outs’ – taking students out of a language programme and sometimes mainstream classes – are the first choice when acclimating new students. This is key to getting students up to speed in their language skills.

There are concerns that this creates gaps in learning. But, a student who does not speak the language will not understand the content being delivered, and could end up feeling more insecure. Gaining basic command of the language supersedes being in another class.

Consider it a ‘short-term loss, long-term gain’ scenario. Content may be lost for the short term but content, language and social-emotional skills will be gained over the long-term.

We cannot underestimate the social-emotional needs of students who are learning the main language of instruction in a school. Many are in school for some time before being able to communicate, considered “outsiders” until they can interact. The longer language acquisition goes on, the further excluded students feel.

‘Push-ins’ – when the language teacher comes into the classroom to support the students’ learning – is another method for getting students linguistically up-to-speed.

It’s not the best initially. ‘Pull-outs’ are more effective, according to findings. Students may be self-conscious enough in their new environment without an educator drawing additional attention to their lack of English skills, for example. Once basic language skills are acquired, a combination of ‘pull-outs’ and ‘push-ins’ are ideal. But this, of course, depends on the classroom configuration and the presence of other specialists.

While programmes that teach the school’s main language of instruction are very beneficial, they can often be overlooked or underrated. It’s seen as an extra expense. Depending on the school and its needs, such programmes should be present but are often sidelined.

If students are not given sound language, academic, and social-emotional support, they can slip away or acquire other problems related to learning and adaptation.

An effective English language learner teacher, for example, should be a liaison between teachers, students, and parents. All stakeholders need to be involved for an effective and long-lasting partnership.

Dan Franch’s ‘top tips’ for encouraging English language learner students to lead their learning: 

  • Focus on building relationships with your students. You may be their only adult connection at the school. This will instill confidence and comfort, regardless of their language level. English language learner students are lost in a crowd all day until they come to a language learning class.
  • Put social-emotional development ahead of language development. The former facilitates the latter.
  • Don’t rush English language learner students back into mainstream classes. Let them be part of that decision making process. Adequate language skills are not the only sign of readiness. Confidence and comfort are of equal importance.