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May 12, 2015
Hugh Dellar

Making active and creative use of all the languages in your classroom.

I was recently at the third annual BELTA Day conference in Brussels, organised by the excellent Belgian English Language Teachers’ Association. Whilst there, I saw a really fascinating presentation by a local teacher called Joris Van Den Bosch. Joris has spent the last four years working as a secondary school EAL teacher at the British School of Brussels. He teaches English as an additional language to a wide range of international 11-to-14-year-olds and supports them in accessing the mainstream English curriculum. He started his teaching career in 2005 after completing a TEFL course in Thailand, and taught ESL in language academies in Thailand, Vietnam and Spain before returning to Belgium, his home country. He has great passion for internationalism and the creative use of different home languages in the classroom. His presentation included some really unusual and innovative ideas on using students’ mother tongues in a multilingual classroom, and we’re delighted he’s agreed to share them with you here. Over to Joris.

The use of home languages in the ESL / EAL classroom is still the subject of vigorous debate. For me, working with many different nationalities in the classroom, it is clear that in order to acquire all the necessary academic language items and structures, my EAL learners need to link newly presented or encountered knowledge with pre-existing knowledge. Learning is, by definition, built upon previous learning, and the most significant resource that learners bring to the language learning task is their existing linguistic knowledge (an idea I recently found reiterated in a great book by Philip Kerr called Translation and Own-Language Activities). A good example of this is the fact that some of my students, who don’t really have one fixed home language because they have moved about so much, progress much more slowly than those that do have a clear home language.

Perhaps even more important is the fact that home languages form a significant part of everyone’s roots and cultural identity. They link us to friends and family in our home countries and at some point, they may well be essential if students are to reintegrate into their home countries, national schools or universities. Obviously, it would be impossible for me as a teacher to speak the home languages of all my students, but teachers can make active and creative use of them in the classroom – and not just have them there!

Many own-language activities may well be familiar to many of you, but for most, the teacher needs to have a language in common with their learners. What I’d like to outline here are some practical, fun and original ideas that you could immediately use with your second-language learners irrespective of their home language.

Academic Word of the Week

I have a special little whiteboard in my class and every Monday morning I write a new academic word on it which my learners have to translate into their home language. They absolutely love it and some students will automatically take out their smartphone and look the word up, as some of them might have forgotten how to say it in their own language. Others will be disappointed if their language is already represented on the board and sometimes they will start discussing the meaning of the word. It is such a simple way of introducing new vocabulary and at the end of the week I take a photo and add it to my wall display. This has been a very successful activity and ideally all other subject teachers could make excellent us of an academic word of the week whiteboard.

Reverse Translation

EAL learners want and need to understand and explore the differences and similarities between English and their home language. As such, translation exercises work really well. Reverse translation is an already well-established and ancient technique. I really like it as students can see for themselves where they can improve and what they should focus on in the future. Here’s how I handle it.

I give the students a short 250-word text which contains target language and structures. The learners then translate it into their home languages and subsequently back into English. The most important element is that the students then compare their translations with the original and write a list of what they do well and words or structures they need to work on.

What is she/he talking about?

This activity originated from looking at all of the academic word of the week photos shown above. So many words are similar, even in languages with different scripts. So now after a content-based lesson (Geography, Science, Food, IT and so on), I’ll have students play a game in which one of them comes to the front and says a sentence in their home language using key vocabulary from that lesson. The other students then have to guess what the student has said. The real aim of this activity is, of course, for the students who are listening to activate new key vocabulary in order to try and find a solution. Even though it may well be difficult to work out the correct answer as students sometimes don’t recognise any of the words being used, all students will be using the target language while guessing and, if necessary, the student at the front (or the teacher) can always give a hint. It’s such a fun activity and the learners feel genuinely happy and proud when they use their language in front of their classmates.

Using activities such as these is not only about progress and linguistic ability, but also – perhaps even more crucially – about international-mindedness and creating an atmosphere of belonging and wellbeing. We should treat the students’ cultural knowledge and home languages as precious resources. Let them show off and feel proud of their language. It is the language they will connect new learning with.


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