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What Anwar Taught Me

08/05/15

Miranda shares her experiences, challenges and triumphs of working with a child with EAL. 

Working one-to-one with a child with EAL can be hugely demanding, stimulating and always, always humbling. Last year, I worked with a boy in Reception who came to the UK from Somalia – the county is in devastation and there is little doubt that the family had been through trauma impossible to imagine. He was the youngest of six children and the only one of his siblings not to have any English language to support his entry into school.  

The other children had clearly had some formal education before, but Anwar (not his real name) had the steepest mountain to climb. He had to begin speaking English as well as to take on all the unique social, emotional and intellectual challenges involved in beginning formal education. He ran wildly about the classroom, challenging other children to join in; shouting what were clearly instructions in his own language. When the other children did not join in (well, mostly did not join in…), he found this infuriating and hard to understand. What was wrong with them? Didn’t they want to have fun?

Many children who have English as an Additional Language, enter a quiet or even silent phase, once they realise that their home language no longer works in the new context; and as they begin to assimilate sounds and their meanings; and the structures, rules and boundaries of their strange new world.  Not Anwar. He continued in rapid bursts of Somali over the coming days. He literally tried to pull other children into his play, he talked non-stop into their faces when they didn’t understand him, he charged into groups, directing the others into a role play that he could not communicate verbally.

And yet, the other children often went along with this. Despite his abrasive treatment of them, Anwar was very well-liked. He had a social spark, he had some guts, he had the makings of a popular alpha boy – and he was going to make us see it.

The strength of Anwar’s desire to establish himself socially and reap the rewards that social integration would instantly offer him, was a good way in to personalising learning for him. I set him up with a buddy – a socially able, rough and tumble boy like himself. And I worked alongside him in groups, extending the language he gave me, rephrasing and repositioning words so he could hear them working in the context of his own games. Chasing around after a very physical four-year-old, narrating all the way, was pretty exhausting. I can still see myself panting behind him, shouting out ‘I’m chasing you now,’ ‘No, don’t get us!’ ‘Help! Run to the tree!’

Anwar’s first successes with English were in song and rhyme – where he loved to show off his voice. However, as a very physical boy, he was not necessarily being offered the rich linguistic environment he needed, through self-directed play – all ‘Roar!’ ‘Boom!’ ‘Gonna get you!’ 

We worked hard to offer him incentives to sit at tables in smaller focus groups. However, he was having none of it. We tried jigsaws, listening corners, sound lotto, stories in his own language with his sister coming in from Year 4 to read to a small group of children. We gave him distraction toys on the carpet and plenty of time to run off energy in between attempts to encourage him to sit down to acquire more words. Nothing worked.

In the end, of course, we had to do what we should have done all along and enable Anwar to learn through the activities he enjoyed most. We moved every one of our sound activities to the outside and added a physical element to each. Lotto became a game where we ran from the sound of the cow to the sound of the sheep. Simon says, introduced Anwar to every day nouns, names for people and action verbs. This also involved hopping, skipping and jumping. Story telling came with actions, sounds and movements.

The lesson I learned from Anwar (which I try to apply every time I work with a child with SEN or EAL now) was that we learn through what we love. So generating enjoyment is the most effective way to begin to personalise learning for any child; particularly for one who has had almost every certainty snatched from him in sudden and irrevocable ways. Anwar’s only certainty, was that he was destined for popularity and fun with other kids. This was the foundation on which he could begin to build his academic future.

Have you worked on a one-to-one basis supporting the learning of a child? Would you like to share your experiences? Email teacherservices@protocol-education.com for more information. 

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