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EAL levels language limits

DEFINING a student who has "special educational needs" is a challenge. Generally speaking, a learner that cannot access the mainstream curriculum could be described as a Special Educational Needs (SEN) student. Differentiation for such students can take the form of in-class support or can involve extraction from classes. English as an Additional Language (EAL) learners also require significant differentiation to access the curriculum, but an EAL student is not a SEN student.

An EAL student cannot access the mainstream curriculum because they do not have the language tools. A SEN student is unable to access the mainstream curriculum due to a physical or psychological disability. As Caitlin Smith, a SEN coordinator at a Shanghai international school puts it: "While EAL students do face additional challenges due to the circumstance of learning a second or even third language, this does not imply that these students have a learning disability." As a result, admissions officers, administrators and EAL teachers need to have an arsenal of strategies that can help them distinguish clearly between two very different students.

Assessing needs

Sometimes this can be done instinctively. These intuitive professionals have seen such students before and can tell immediately what kind of additional assistance such a child might need. Yet such perceptions should be supported with substantial data, which can validate "gut-level feelings." The able administrator would take a two-prong approach to determine the roots of a student's limitations. They would look into performance in other subjects, in addition to administering appropriate testing.

If the student was achieving high marks in their mother-tongue course, then that child is unlikely to have special educational needs that would prevent them from learning English. Many studies reveal that competency in the mother-tongue is essential for learning a new language. Thus, if a child is achieving low results in their mother-tongue program, it could be due to a special educational need. It is also possible for a pupil to be earning an "A" in mathematics, yet to be struggling in most other subjects. These children are candidates for SEN support, as it may be required to help them actualize their potential as an all-round learner.

If testing and other data show that a student is both an EAL student and a SEN student, the child should be received into a school with thehuman and physical resources toaccommodate them.

The ideal environment for supporting EAL students is something quite different. According to Smith, "EAL students can become very high achievers based on their ability to work through the additional challenges."

With this in mind, it's worth remembering something very basic most of us learned as children: in order to improve at anything, you need to practice. If the student of English wishes to get better at English, then that child must practice diligently. This means more hours spent reading, writing, speaking and listening to English during the day and during the week.

The school can help by offering special EAL support classes that run parallel to regular English lessons. Some schools go even further, shaping programs that involve extracting students from subject lessons until their language attainment is sufficient to benefit from complete curriculum immersion. This may mean that the EAL student has less access to the curriculum - perhaps they will not initially study music and science, for example. They may even miss a few extracurricular lessons, as spending more time learning English increases the chances that the child can more quickly access the full curriculum.

However, as Smith reminds us: "We can reach the needs of ESL students in a balanced and diverse classroom." Separation from students with stronger English-language skills is only one developmental approach. Many pedagogues prefer what Smith describes, which is known as "mainstreaming," on the grounds that language development is more thoroughly accentuated through peer-to-peer interaction.

How fast the EAL student that interacts frequently with mainstream children climbs the mountain of language learning will vary; consequently, we advocate meshing the latter approach with the prior to achieve the best results.

Parents, too, can help. They can increase the amount of time students spend studying English at home. Make English the language at the dinner table, followed by an English movie, cartoon or board game. By being role-models for language learning, parents can also inspire confidence and language risk-taking.

In conclusion, we emphasize again that the trick is acknowledging that any skill or ability needs to be practiced. If the English as an additional language student practices enough - at school, home or as part of a special program - they will soon cease to be EAL students and perform on-level with the native speakers. Suspicions that they have special needs will have faded.


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