Teaching children with English as an additional language (EAL) is not new for schools in the UK, but it still presents many challenges for lots of teachers.
Children with EAL are just as likely as their monolingual peers to have a speech, language or communication difficulty.
So, how do you identify these needs when English isn’t their first language?
For starters, you are not alone! This is an incredibly complex issue and is definitely not straight forward. Best practice in the ideal situation is for the child to be assessed by a speech and language therapist who is a native speaker of their first language. But, as we know this is rarely available in schools anywhere – not just here in the UK.
So, although I always advocate best practice, I also recognise there may be difficulty accessing bilingual speech and language therapists to provide you with the information you need. With that said, I am going to give you a few tips on how to piece the puzzle together, and give you some advice about when to make a referral to a Speech Therapist.
Let’s break it down
Fundamentally, we must identify:
Children with EAL who have normal speech,language and communication development
Children with EAL who have speech, language and communication difficulties.
So here is the reality of EAL in school: There are over 300 different languages spoken in the UK. In some primary schools in London up to 76% of learners have English as an additional language.
As many as 1 in 5 children are starting Reception without adequate receptive and expressive language skills to access the curriculum. For many children, this is because they are new English speakers, or they are learning English as an additional language. For others, this is due to SLCN and for a minority few, it can be both.
Unsurprisingly, bilingual children are just as likely to experience communication impairments as their monolingual peers.
Identifying children with speech and language needs is intuitive for a lot of teachers. But, how can you begin to gather the evidence you need to support your intuitions?
Does it affect all the child’s spoken languages?
If a child has EAL and SLCN, difficulties will occur in all languages – not just in English. Asking the child’s parents how they are communicating in their home language will give you an insight into their abilities.
Where possible, ask a bilingual interpreter or member of staff to ask them questions about their child’s development in their first language.
Understand the culture
Sometimes a child’s perceived difficulties with interaction can be explained by cultural differences and we must demonstrate knowledge and awareness of these cultural differences in order to get a full picture of the child’s communication abilities.
I have provided some examples below. Please understand these examples are cultural stereotypes and do NOT apply to individual families. You must use your common sense as well as sensitive information gathering skills to decide whether an idividual’s culture is impacting on perceived communicative behaviour.
- Islamic children may demonstrate passivity in the presence of an authority figure – which could be interpreted as a communication difficulty by western standards.
- Similarly, In countries such as China and Japan, eye contact is not a marker of social communication as it is in western cultures. Reduced eye contact can often be considered appropriate in these countries, yet would present as a red flag for social difficulties in The West.
- In Pakistani families, fathers are not encouraged to take part in direct child care. However, fathers are considered the major decision maker for health care, education, and money spending matters in a family. Consequently, the major responsibility lies on the mother’s’ shoulders for childcare and rearing. This is NOT the case with all Pakistani families.
- In some African cultures, intense eye contact is seen as aggressive, confrontational and extremely disrespectful. This would prove important not only when observing and assessing the child’s communicative ability, but also when communicating with family members.
As educators, we must ensure cultural stereotypes are not assumed and we must be sensitive to those behaviours that appear communicative but are embedded in culture rather than a manifestation of specific difficulties.
Understanding these cultural differences can guide information gathering, and decision-making procedures; ultimately reducing the gap between what we know about the child’s communication, and the full picture.
For more information about bilingual assessment or further information on supporting children with English as an additional Language contact the Royal college of Speech and Language Therapists or Association of speech therapists in independent practice