My reflections on the state of things related to the mainstreaming of EAL learners in the UK, as opposed to the idea of withdrawing them from classes for additional English language teaching. The official policy strongly suggests that EAL students should be mainstreamed. But should this be so at all times?
This was written in April 2014.
Please note: The names of the students in the article below have been changed to protect their anonymity.
I enter the Year 7 Mathematics classroom to find Alfonso, our new English as an Additional Language (EAL) arrival, at the back of the room. In the corner of the room, in fact. Alfonso, our lovely 11-year old from Spain, is still acquiring his English language. As I approach his desk in the classroom, it is easy to see how his peers, sitting at his desk and doing Maths group work, completely ignore him. Without my encouragement, they would probably never speak to him. Alfonso remains silent, shy and chooses to say very little. He observes. The teacher, bless her soul, running between the members of the 25-student class, helping wherever she can, has very little time to attend to Alfonso’s linguistic needs. In any case, it’s rather difficult to get to him, with him sitting in the corner and all. The teacher has chosen not to place him in the front row of desks closer to the board and herself – despite my prior advice – she needs the class’s troublemakers to be there, so she can control them better. Alfonso, quiet, calm and polite boy that he is, never causes any trouble. Having managed to get his group-classmates to engage with him on this occasion and getting him to do some Maths work, I look at him. His expression is almost blank, probably waiting until the incomprehensible English noise of the classroom is over. He appears withdrawn.
Tina is another one of our MPT (middle-phase transfer) EAL students. In December, she arrived from Denmark. I don’t have this much knowledge about the Danish educational system, but it doesn’t take a genius to figure out that she was a very, very good student there. Here, she is immediately plunged into the deluge of the mainstream schooling. Tina is an amazing student – the organization of her bag puts mine to shame, she asks for homework long before it’s actually given to her, she’s hardworking and extremely ambitious. And – she’s mainstreamed. Again, lots and lots of new language thrown at her where she understands very little, where nobody speaks to her, where she is ashamed to speak. She has the vivid memory of being the top of her Danish class! –Now, it turns out she can’t do Maths or Geography, because she can’t understand the teacher and getting other children to speak to her with patience is difficult.
Have you ever seen a child cry because they couldn’t understand a language? Crying their eyes out because they want to do well, wanted to talk to others, but couldn’t as they couldn’t understand a word and suddenly all their values and beliefs about their own knowledge have become subverted and torn up? Suddenly, their knowledge ceases to matter and their confidence receives a massive dip. Unattended to by the overwhelmed teacher in the mainstream class, rejected by the other students because of the language barrier, they become withdrawn.
On two separate days in the last term, Tina went into convulsions of crying. On two of them, she had to be withdrawn from the classroom to spend time away from the class – to be taught by myself, the school’s EAL teacher. I will never forget her tears.
To me, they were tears of humiliation. Tears of exclusion.
Strange, because the whole idea is supposed to be of inclusion. But too often, here in the UK, EAL learners – known as ELLs in other parts of the world – are only physically included in the classroom. Emotionally – they can be entirely excluded.
So why is this? To help you to understand this, I am going to have to paint a brief picture the history of EAL in England over the last half a century. In the 1960s, when non-English speaking immigrant children started attending English schools, they were usually taught separately in language centres. By the 1970s, however, it was recognized more and more that bilingual needs were more sophisticated, that the language centres were segregating children away from their English-speaking peers, and were often unable to provide for the cultural and social development of the English language learners. In 1985, The Swann Report argued against the withdrawal of EAL students from the mainstream classroom, claiming that this type of separation was socially and educationally unacceptable, pointing to issues concerning equal opportunities and anti-racism within schools. Whilst things did not change straight away, over the years between then and now, EAL learners have been receiving fewer withdrawal sessions and, in my own experience, are automatically assigned to mainstream classrooms. Whilst withdrawals to small group or for individual support of targeted learners are practised – indeed, I teach such small group lessons myself – the pressure remains on the students to be mainstreamed whenever possible.
Just last Friday, a very scared teacher approached me, telling me that the very same Tina and Alfonso are now going to be put in the same set (level) of the Maths group that she teaches. Essentially, she was begging me for EAL support and for the rearranging of my timetable, very worried about the two students in her classroom: concerned that she wouldn’t be able to support them. Our current arrangement is that my EAL teacher colleague is going to be teaching them right outside her classroom for 2 hours whilst she teaches the rest of the group. This story is just a tip of the iceberg: mainstream teachers are quite simply overloaded with the responsibility to cater to and differentiate for the needs of a huge amount of students (special educational needs, EAL, gifted and talented, below the poverty line, etc.), with huge accountabilities, student progress monitoring, marking, formative assessment pressures – and that’s just for starters. They simply struggle for time to cater to the needs of the EAL learners in their classrooms and feel powerless when dealing with very low English level learner in their classrooms. In my experience, it’s not that teachers don’t care. They undoubtedly do – too often, though, they just have too much on their plates to be able to attend to them. In addition, too little prior professional EAL training is provided to the mainstream teaching profession for them to feel confident with presence of EAL learners in their classrooms. Frankly, placing EAL learners in the mainstream as a default, irrespective of their English language levels, feels very much like “dumping” them on the teachers. Yangguang Chen at the Goldsmiths University of London actually calls this “treating all the children the same in spite of differences”!
This is not to say that a huge amount of EAL learners do benefit from being socially included with their peers in the mainstream classroom. Many of them do benefit from and enjoy the company of their peers: they are the ones who actually know what’s going on – at the very least, they have the functional social communicative English to interact with others. However, the children who are truly lost, unable to ask for directions, unable to ask what the homework is and unable to participate in conversations with their peers – these are the children I feel for. The children, some of whom, in the past, have begged me to teach English language to them. The children who ask for more specialist English language teaching.
In my EAL intervention classes, the students feel safe. They learn the language they know they desperately need. They gain confidence. They learn step by step, provided with well-structured, linguistically-informed activities, building the blocks of English language awareness, so much needed for their new lives in England. But, perhaps most importantly, they smile. They feel relaxed and encounter supportive atmosphere in their withdrawal classes. I’ve never had an EAL child cry in my class. They know what I say to them. If they don’t, I am instantly aware of this and slow down for them. They feel respected, valued. They are included. They are certainly not treated the same despite their differences. The individual focus I can provide them with is what allows them to grow as individuals and builds their confidence up to eventually participate in the mainstream activities further.
How much child trauma, sorrow and tears schools would be able to avoid if they actually listened to such students in the first place! Rather than push them into the “social inclusion” of mainstream classrooms no matter what, the educational policies in the UK should take into consideration the setting up of more intensive English language courses, particularly for those children who want them. Mainstream class inclusion of emergent bilingual learners despite their emotions can all too often lead to their exclusion and suffering. The very inadequate language support in mainstream classrooms coupled with the low numbers of EAL teachers employed in British schools leads to severe exclusion and social alienation of children such as Tina. How can you possibly feel included if you don’t understand the language at all? How can you be a part of the school community when you can’t even laugh at the jokes that everyone else laughs at? The philosophy of inclusion calls for leaving no child behind: and yet, mainstreaming may result in precisely the opposite.
The policymakers should step away from the comfort of their policy-making desks, look to the expertise of those delivering education to EAL children on the ground and, even more importantly, consider the feelings and voices of children that the state has promised to include.
Let’s not make them cry in our schools anymore.
Chen, Y. (2009). Language support for emergent bilinguals in English mainstream schools: an observational study. Language, Culture and Curriculum, 22(1), 57-70.
Swann, L. (1985). Education for all: The report of the Committee of Enquiry into the education of children from ethnic minority groups (The Swann Report).