This morning, my 4-year-old woke up and said, “Mummy, there are two languages – child’s language and adult language”. I asked her what she meant and she explained that when her friend was crying, the teacher told her to read her the “owl” book. She then said, :The teacher reads the words, but the child changes them.” She meant that a young child may not be able to read, or retell a story using the actual words, but can often retell it in their own words. This is a bit like a translation: the key factor is not the actual words, but the story behind them. Comprehension and listening skills in a younger child are therefore of paramount importance – and these are constantly developed through story-telling.
The use of literature in class should never be underestimated. Through literature, a young child is exposed to vocabulary and syntax that they may not come across in everyday life. A lifelong love of books and reading is likely to be fostered: computers, televisions and films simply cannot replace the imagination, creativity and incidental learning it sparks.
New vocabulary, grammatical structures, tenses and connectives can all be found in written texts. Meanwhile, comprehension skills are developed. I always remember reading my first difficult Spanish book when doing my A-level in the subject. For the first two pages, I looked up all the new words – which took a very long time! By the time I reached the third page, I was interested in the book and suddenly, it all made sense. The key factor was interest – even though a book may be challenging for an EAL learner, if they are really interested, they can work out the key elements without having to understand every word.
I was fortunate enough to attend a conference on language in the Primary Years Program, where the dominant theme was the use of literature for language learning. The conference explained that literature is the ‘vehicle’ that enables language learners to develop and arrive at their destination. Through literature, children are exposed to language and vocabulary that they may never otherwise encounter and familiar language and structures are reinforced.
For example, narratives, like all other text types, have a purpose and structure. Through the exploration of narratives, learning can be achieved in a less formal way, as, for example, you use the story to note new vocabulary and find equivalents in a learner’s home language, discover synonyms for words, or highlight particular tenses or grammatical and sentence structures.
An EAL Book Club is a great way to get students to share their learning. Students can write a synopsis of a book they have read and give a score out of 10, as well as saying whether the book was easy, average or difficult. The reviews can then be displayed in the library for other readers.
In Upper Primary, reading can allow a child to better understand particular topics. The Horrible History books, for example, are a fun way for children in Primary schools to learn about ancient civilisations and their idiosyncrasies. The illustrations in these books are particularly useful for the more visual EAL learner, as they depict aspects of history in a vivid way. For students transitioning to Secondary school books such as The Secret Diary of Adrian Mole are good options, portraying aspects of teenage life in an entertaining and amusing way. The Twilight and Harry Potter series are also great reads for older children.
However, it is most important that students choose books that are interesting to them and that cover something they are passionate about.
The keys to a good book, according to the Oscar First Book Prize judges, are illustrations, whether the book is imaginative and original, whether the book has ‘drive’, and the message the book delivers. The list of ‘good books’ is therefore endless – and the ones you choose can serve as springboards for some highly rewarding EAL activities.
You can download a free ‘recommended books for younger learners’ list by clicking on the button at the top and bottom of this article.