EAL students are often placed in a situation in which the tools they need for building conceptual understanding of the world (their home language and home culture) are not used in their new situation. Tabors (1997) refers to this as a ‘double bind’ – the need to learn the new language, combined with the need to understand the cultural framework within which the students are now operating. As teachers, we spend a lot of time focusing on building language skills – but building cultural understanding is often not done explicitly. Research shows us that these two should go hand in hand.
One of the ways we can start to build cultural understanding is to develop an understanding of the school culture that the student has joined. I have found that parents/carers are excellent at helping to build a bridge between the two cultures and supporting their child in understanding the new school culture.
However, often parents/carers are unsure of the school culture, as they too are new to the country and the education system. It is therefore really important to extend a welcome to parents/carers and give them an opportunity to learn about the individual culture of your school.
Set up a parent/carer meeting as soon as possible, either prior to a student joining the school or by arranging to spend 10 minutes with the parents/carers at the start or end of the first day. The purpose of this meeting should be to give practical information about how the school runs and the equipment a student will need. Parents/carers will then be able to pass this information on to their child in their first language.
The resource accompanying this article is a ‘school welcome booklet’ that can be adapted to fir your school situation. The first draft of this booklet was written with my colleagues many years ago and I have continued to find it a useful tool for explaining the school set-up to parents/carers and students. I arrange a meeting with parents/carers and explain the booklet to them (see the list below). I then ask them to read through the booklet with their child to begin the process of understanding some of the school structures and expectations (in other words, the school culture). Following this, it is helpful to hold some cultural transition sessions.
The sooner a student can have this information discussed in their home language, the better for their transition into school. By doing this, you are giving the parent/carer the opportunity to help the student frame their experiences and build cultural understanding.
If the parent/carer does not speak English, it is as important (if not more so) to extend this welcome and give them a visual understanding of their child’s life at school and of the school culture. Don’t worry if they can’t read the booklet! They may well be able to find someone to help translate it, or there may be a capable student in the school who speaks the same language who could help you translate some of the practical aspects of the meeting.
These are some of the first steps you can take in terms of building a relationship with parents/carers. It is also one of the ways in which you can support the student’s transition and a systematic method of beginning to understand your new student.
Using the school welcome booklet as a framework for discussion
- If you have not already been able to do so, check how to pronounce the student’s name and which name to use (sometimes their recorded name is not their known name).
- Give the parents/carers a copy of the school welcome booklet and work through it, explaining:
- The structure of the school day – the timetable and what to remember to bring on which day.
- The names of people the student will come into contact with – particularly if different teachers take students for specialist subjects.
- The school uniform and PE kit.
- School start and end times (point out the holiday dates).
- What to do if the student is late for school.
- What to do if the student is ill.
- How you work in class – this may be very different from the school system they have come from and needs to be made explicit, particularly if the student has come from a more ‘chalk and talk’ teacher-led learning environment. This can sometimes be very tricky for students to understand.
- Subjects covered in the National Curriculum.
- Home reading and library books – school expectations and timings.
- ‘Remember book’ – a useful way to note down and structure the language they are learning as they go, supporting them as active participants in their own learning.
- Welcome/cultural transition booklet – this resource covers topics like their friends (old and new), their changing family, their changing life, feelings and questions. This can help you understand more about them and support them in acknowledging and enjoying the changes in their lives.
- Lunch and break times – these can be some of the most daunting times for students. Having the parents/carers understand the support structure will allow students to express any anxiety they may have.
- Questions – what to do if there are any questions and finding out who is the best person to answer them.
- Introduce the parent/carer to the class buddy and adult mentor and explain their role.
- Give the parent/carer a tour of the school with their child so they can explain where the toilet, lunch hall, playground, etc. are.
- This tour is very useful in helping a parent/carer visualise what their child is describing to them at home. If the parent/carer does not speak English, can you ask an older member of the school who shares the same language to show them around?
- It is important to stress the importance of the home language. The child will be learning English in school, but maintenance of home language is crucial. It is harder to develop proficiency in a second language if the first/mother tongue is not developed.
- If the student can read in their home language, it is worth asking parents/carers to bring a book to school in this home language. This will also give you an indication of their level of first language literacy.
- Let parents/carers know what your topics are at the moment, so they can talk about these at home in their first language. You could also give a list of topic-related vocabulary for them to discuss with their child.
- Running a whole-school parent/carer meeting to stress the importance of maintaining the home language is also really good practice for a school.
Tabors, P. (1997) One Child, Two Languages: a Guide for Preschool Educators of Children Learning English as a Second Language. Baltimore: Paul Brookes Publishing