On the last day of term I asked a student who was leaving her school in London to return to Italy about the best and worst things about moving. She said the worst thing was leaving friends and teachers and the best was going back to her old school to be with her old friends.
The importance of friendship for students in transition should not be underestimated – and the role of ‘buddies’ in helping students settle in is key to the new EAL student. When watching interviews with new-to-English students, it becomes obvious that these newcomers really do need a friend, or they can feel very isolated. Child-to-child interaction is essential: they need someone with whom they feel comfortable, to express possible feelings of frustration and anxiety, as well as someone that can satisfy (and nourish) their curiosity when they ask questions.
Choosing a buddy
Ideally, a buddy should speak the newcomer’s home language, as it is very stressful and tiring for the new student to be in an English-speaking environment all day. The newcomer needs to be able to relax at playtimes, to feel comfortable and to have someone to whom they can ask questions when they do not understand.
It is better to have several buddies for each new student, in order to relieve pressure and make this a less demanding and onerous task. A buddy who has themselves only been in the school for less than a year is likely to have a lot of empathy for the new student. They can serve as a role model for behaviour and rules, as the new student may find the new school culture alienating if faced with it alone.
A buddy can write any words or phrases the new student may want to know or questions they would like to ask the teacher. The buddy can also be used as an interpreter when needed. Interpretation is a high-order skill and an area we will focus on more fully in the next article, providing some useful resources to download. The buddy could also fill in a visual information sheet about themselves and their new friend. This is a useful bonding exercise in the first few hours.
The buddy should be able to be comfortable in their role and should have a flexible rota with other buddies, for days when they are tired or just want to play with their own friends. This flexibility makes it a more pleasurable and less burdensome task, as the buddy has some ownership over the schedule.
A transition mentor is an adult who provides some regular one-to-one or small-group time with the new arrival. They may be the adult teaching the new-to-English lessons or a mentor who delivers transition support in a school. The mentor can increase the newcomer’s understanding of their new environment and support the buddies in understanding their role better. Transition mentors might like to consider some of the ideas below for helping buddies and their new arrivals.
This YouTube link
provides a useful ‘friendship soup’ idea for buddies preparing for meeting newcomers. It can be watched with the buddies, who can then find their own most important ingredients for friendship (with particular focus on being a buddy).
At the initial stages of learning English, students need visual prompts and a lot of repetition. The importance of visuals cannot be over-emphasised. When a student does not understand a language, they cling to whatever clues they can find, including non-verbal clues such as facial expressions, gestures, etc., to support their understanding of the context. Having a survival language phrase tool is useful in this respect, for example, a key ring or cards with key phrases and images, which a buddy can teach the newcomer to use (see survival language key rings). The buddy might even help them make their own, extending this to social phrases for use at playtimes, such as “Can I play with you?”, “Can I join in?” or “Would you like a play date?”.
The transition mentor should also be aware that parents may need support as well. They too may have trouble settling in to the new culture, and this could have repercussions for the child. It might be a good idea for a parent association to develop a similar support system for buddying parents.