Working with Children Learning English as an Additional Language (EAL)

My first experience of working with a child learning English as an Additional Language (EAL) was a lively, feisty 3 year old with an Italian family; I adored working with her and loved observing her emerging language skills. There were frequent moments, when out of frustration she’d punctuate an English sentence with an Italian word or phrase and then be further frustrated by not being understood. Except, of course we did understand. We learnt her mannerisms, her facial expressions, her sounds of anguish, horror, joy and excitement, just as we did with the other children in the room. During the 18 months I worked with her, she developed a wide vocabulary (in both languages) and was easily ‘school’ ready when she left us to start the next part of her learning journey. She’s probably just graduating from university this summer!

Since then, I have worked with many children and young people learning EAL, some take to English as swiftly and naturally as the child in my first encounter, but some struggled and found it more difficult. Of course, that made the job more challenging and all the more rewarding when the child successfully grasped English.

So, what is the secret to supporting these children? My honest answer: there is no secret, no magic wand, no perfect answer. Of course, you know that because you work with children and there is rarely one perfect answer to anything! However, there are some things that do help to move the setting in the right direction. (These are good practice for working with all children, you’ll know that too)

Patience is key to supporting children learning EAL, waiting, listening with every sense and waiting some more. Allowing children time to get out the words, actions, sounds that tell us so much about them. Gentle smiles, nods and strong eye contact help to reassure the child they can take this time. What is the rush?

Building relationships with the child and their family will support all aspects of the child’s well-being but especially the communication as a good relationship will be built on trust and security, once a child feels secure, they flourish!

All staff modelling effective communication in all interactions throughout the setting is an obvious one but children need to see adults having meaningful conversations, hear varied vocabulary and be involved in these interactions. Also, if we are all working together we can support the child learning EAL better too.

Resources that promote interest, build links with a child’s own experience and engage children are much more likely to provide opportunities for children to talk and listen to each other.

So, you see, no magic answer there….just solid good practice which benefits all children. Buona fortuna.

A fun update: last month, whilst door-knocking for democracy, I chanced upon the mother of the aforementioned bilingual child. I instantly recognised her and after dealing with the purpose of my visit I felt compelled to remind her of who I was. Before I had finished she exclaimed “Fiona, we all remember you, of course, and still talk about how Francesca helped to feed the fishes with you!” I asked how she was doing and got the thrilling response that she is currently studying a dual-language degree here in Oxford, meaning she has added a third language (at least) to her skills. We parted with a hug, like old friends and as I wonder around this lovely city I hope that one day I may spot Francesca to greet her too.


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