1.7 million pupils in the UK are recorded as having English as their second language, according to the Office for National Statistics. Maria Sadler is a modern foreign language coordinator and Year 6 teacher at St Andrew’s Church School in Somerset. Jenny Byford is SENCO and inclusion lead at Sauncey Wood Primary in Hertfordshire. Agnieszka Kwiatowska is an English as an Additional Language (EAL) Teaching Partner at St Gregory the Great in Gloucestershire. All three schools use visual classroom resources, including symbols from Widgit, to support EAL students. They discuss the challenges EAL students face in schools and the benefits of visual prompts in teaching them the English language.

The Challenges EAL Students Face in School

Venturing into the unknown is always scary. Venturing into the unknown without being able to understand or be understood, can be doubly daunting. We don’t think of our schools as scary places, but for newly arrived children yet to acquire English language skills they can be.

Asking for a cup of water, or to go to the toilet, perhaps where the pens are kept when you don’t know the words can be challenging. Providing the right support from the outset so EAL pupils feel at ease to become independent learners is essential.

I’m a Modern Foreign Languages coordinator and for me learning a new language is all about immersion. The more children see a language the more they will absorb it. It’s a case of see it, say it, hear it and it will stick, which makes me a huge fan of labelling. Everything in my classroom is labelled in French and English, from the door to the pens we use, and all the children love the idea of learning as they go about their day. It encourages independence and empowers them to take ownership of their learning.

The same applies to our EAL pupils learning English, the more they are immersed in the language the quicker they learn. But for newly arrived children with limited understanding, deciphering written and verbal instructions can be challenging and frustrating. This then impacts how they can engage with tasks. We are not always able to rely on extra teaching support in class and so our EAL pupils need to become independent learners as fast as possible.

A Symbols-Based Language System

Using a symbols-based language system has helped pupils to become more confident learners. We typically use icons and symbols from Widgit and incorporate them into written instructions, signage and displays throughout the whole school, menu cards, and visual timetables.

When the pupils see an image, they can understand and relate it to the text. This helps children navigate their way around the school and the school day and focuses on the keywords and information they need to know.

For instance, a symbol of some books represents the library, an easel and paints represent art, and a globe that it’s time for our geography lesson. As symbols are universal the pupils can use them to decode the meaning of the text, making it far easier for them to follow and understand.

I also pre-teach words and phrases to introduce my EAL pupils to relevant language-related topics in advance. A phrase like ‘humans evolved from’ is a lot easier to explain, and be understood, if it’s accompanied by related imagery. When I’m teaching my Year 6, trickier, subject-specific language, I’ve found it’s easier for the whole class to grasp vocabulary like ‘Tectonic Plates’ or ‘magnetic’ if the text is accompanied by a visual image. I create displays using photos and images from school trips which helps the children recall newly acquired vocabulary.

The Benefits of Visual Prompts

Agnieszka Kwiatowska, EAL Teaching Partner from St Gregory the Great School in Gloucestershire, also finds using visual prompts a useful way to pre-teach English and science vocabulary. “It helps give the children prior knowledge of the vocabulary and increases their confidence in the class. They remember the symbols and start to associate them with certain words, which also boosts their self-esteem and encourages them to learn.

“I also run afternoon sessions with small groups of children outside of the classroom where we can use the symbols to aid their understanding of verbs, adjectives, nouns, and sentence construction. Or we might need to revisit something they didn’t understand in class, so they don’t fall behind. For example, they may not have understood the difference between the homophones, pear, and pair, as they sound the same. Using an image makes it easier for me to explain.

“I’ve found using imagery alongside text particularly useful for children who haven’t yet acquired any English or who are just past the post-beginner stage. Often, they are fluent readers in their own language, and so we will use a story they are familiar with and create a simplified English version of the text online using symbols to accompany the text. We can print it out and stick it in their books and many children enjoy reading the printed version with their families at home. This provides them with an extra opportunity outside school to rehearse their language skills.”

Breaking up a Text into Manageable Sections

At Sauncey Wood Primary School in Hertfordshire, SENCO and inclusion lead Jenny Byford has found EAL and SEN pupils process information more easily when the text is broken up into manageable chunks. Reading can seem too big a task when they are presented with too many words on the page. Using visuals alongside text makes it more accessible if they have difficulty with language processing, or they are just starting to learn English.

“Take teaching about the Great Fire of London for example. It’s far easier for pupils to understand ‘a great fire’, a ‘bakery’, and even ‘London’ if they can see the words represented visually as well. “Sometimes even those pupils who seem to have a good grasp of English can struggle to understand nuances. A Year 5 Chinese pupil who had reached a good level of understanding asked for additional help as she was finding it hard to understand the difference between ‘forest’, ‘wood’ and ‘trees.’ Using symbols, I was able to explain the subtle differences and created a bespoke resource for her that she could continue to refer to.”

In Summary

Incorporating visual prompts in resources and displays across the school can help both teachers and pupils overcome initial language barriers and create a more inclusive learning environment. They can help pupils learn, recall, and remember the meaning of new information more easily, making them less reliant on adult support. This makes them feel more comfortable joining in lessons and drives engagement and attainment.

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1.7 million pupils in the UK are recorded as having English as their second language, according to the Office for National Statistics. Three teachers discuss the value visual aids add to teaching EAL students and the challenges these students face when joining a new school.

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