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Off to a good start with language learners

Happy New Year! As someone who has spent her whole working to the academic calendar, September 1 is always my "New Year". It feels like the time to make new plans, perhaps a resolution or two, and think forward to what I want to accomplish.

For teachers going into the classroom this week for the first time, or for the 20th time, there are always ways to expand our practice. Today I'm going to share my Top 5 ideas for getting off to a good start with your language learners.

1. Make sure you can pronounce their names properly.

We've all felt that moment of dread, looking at the register and seeing a completely unfamiliar name. If we don't make sure to know those names in advance, children will feel that their names are undesirable or unwelcome. The worst thing we can do is tell children that their name is difficult (and with my name, I know this personally!). Try and have a quick conversation with parents to get names right before class starts. Encourage all students (even the ones with 'easy' names) to teach each other how to say their names. Emphasise the importance of everyone speaking names correctly.

2. Create a class language policy.

It's not easy figuring out how you are allowed to use your languages in school, and while schools often have a Language Policy, it rarely makes it to the classroom (and when it does, it's often not meaningful for the children). A Class Language Policy is a collaboration focusing on how languages are used in the classroom, to encourage good habits, inclusive practices, and collegiality. It should be visibly displayed, showing all of the languages spoken by the students (and teachers!) and set up healthy guidelines that allow for multi-modal and multilingual practices to sit at the heart of the class. The Class Language Policy should be translated into all the languages of the students in the class, so everyone can access it.

3. Have communication devices available for students who do not speak the school language.

The simplest form of communication device is an A4 sheet with pictures showing key parts of the daily routine, basic requests, and basic feelings. Alongside is the word in English (or the school language), and a column for parents to translate into the home language. The teacher should have a large version on the wall. This device allows students to communicate needs by pointing, and the teacher to signpost transitions and requests visually. Scaffolded with appropriate language input, it allows language learners to participate in the class before they can speak, and to follow along before they can understand the teacher's words. The dual-mode of visual and verbal will also help them learn the language more quickly.

4. Make sure you know the dominant language of each child in your class.

Admissions procedures and documentation often don't provide the information class teachers need about their language learners. The most important piece of information about each child's language profile is knowing their dominant language. This is the language a child understands best and feels most comfortable using. It should be the language that is at an age-appropriate level, and will be used for supporting learning in the classroom and at home. It may be what the parents consider the child's 'mother tongue', or it may be a language gained outside the home - this is why admissions documents often misrepresent language profile information if they only ask for 'mother tongue'.

5. Have practices in place to ensure all students can communicate from Day 1.

If you have same language peers in the classroom, sit them together and make sure they know that they are allowed (encouraged) to use their language together to help each other. If you have 'single sock' learners with no language buddy, make sure they know how to access Google Translate (Speaker buttons for younger learners) to be able to express needs, opinions, etc. Work this into your practice, so that all language learner students understand that their own language is a bridge to English, and as they use the translation device to express themselves, encourage them to practice the English that they are creating through the technology.

And above all, make sure that every child knows that being a language learner is a good thing - celebrate the languages they have, and their status as children who are working hard to acquire another language.

I wish you all a wonderful school year, and this year I am happy to write blog posts to answer your questions as well as my own! If you have a question you'd like answered, or a topic you would like me to write about, pleas get in touch.

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