EAL: Breaking down the language barrier

What can be done for the increasing number of pupils in our schools with little English?
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The Independent Online

A short bus ride anywhere in London these days is a reminder that the capital has become a glorious modern babel. This is great for philologists, but it's a headache for government, and a serious concern for immigrants and their families looking to integrate and prosper in Britain.

Poor English for most means a barrier to any but the most casual jobs, and many worry that it also brings with it segregation and a dangerously balkanised Britain. The Government says that even among middle-class immigrants – skilled workers – who arrived last year, more than a third would have failed a basic English test.

With English so poor among migrants, it comes as no surprise that their children are no better off. Every year, tens of thousands of children arrive in the UK with little or no English. Most will lag behind their native peers by two or more years in school performance. The dangers of a second-generation underclass are all too obvious.

So, what is being done about it? In the last four years, the number of students in primary and secondary state schools learning English as an additional language (EAL) has leapt by nearly 150,000, to just under 800,000. Twelve per cent of the school population now require EAL teaching, rising to 50 per cent in inner London.

With so many children to cater for, schools are looking for novel approaches, and ICT is providing them. This year, Resource Education launched its Talk-2-Talk range of educational software that allows pupils to learn maths and music in Gujarati, Polish, Punjabi, and Urdu, and compare it with English tuition. "It has been very useful," says Nosheen Majidi, EAL co-ordinator at Lammack Primary in Blackburn, who uses the program with new arrivals. "It helps to develop their confidence," she says.

While the Government recommends that schools get children learning English as quickly as possible, developing their first language, too, has been shown to help in the development of their English. Several schools in the UK with large Pakistani constituencies have brought Urdu on to the timetable as a modern foreign language, instead of French or German, for example. The courses are aimed at fluent English speakers with social, cultural and family links to Pakistan and Muslim India, but teachers say that it has also helped new arrivals from the subcontinent.

"It helps students whose mother tongue is Urdu to understand English, too," says Shahnaz Iqbal, head of Urdu at Feversham College in Bradford.

Feversham also takes new arrivals with poor English out of class to provide them with EAL tuition, but increasingly, at primary level at least, the Government is looking to integrate EAL. Between 2004 and 2006, 20 schools in seven local authorities took part in a pilot scheme that integrated EAL teaching into regular classes. Previously, it meant the distracting background hubbub of teaching assistants working with students in different languages. Under the scheme, consultants taught standard primary-school teachers how to integrate EAL into lessons. It has had some success. English skills improved significantly, notably not just for EAL children but for their native peers. But the scheme failed to help children with poor English improve in maths and science.

Not everyone is convinced. Many schools continue to have separate EAL lessons for students. Independent schools, like state schools, are becoming more international. Most close their doors to EAL students, but the greater resources of those that don't allow them to take a different approach. At the Mount School in north London, for example, EAL has its own building in the grounds, the "Cottage". "It gives them a sense of place and belonging," says Karen Ferson, head of EAL.

Whether the best course for schools is EAL delivered through regular lessons or specialist teaching, everyone agrees on its importance. "Until children get their English sorted out," says Ferson, "they can't fulfil their potential."