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Strategies to cope with language barriers

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Publish date: 2018-03-09

Experiencing language barriers in the classroom is like trying to climb an enormous, unknown mountain. There is no easy, straight-forward solution. Just like mountaineering, there are ups and downs- steep cliffs and deep ravines. In this second part of my blog series on "overcoming language barriers", I am discussing general teaching strategies to help you find your lost learner and clarify your options in terms of choosing the best routes for them.

USING YOUR COMPASS - General teaching strategies

Do not just tell your class what to do and expect them to do it. Physically model for learners what is expected of them. Explain and demonstrate in a visual way. Share your thinking processes aloud with the class. This promotes learning and motivation and also increases their self-confidence as they will have a strong belief that they can achieve the learning task if they follow the steps that you have demonstrated.
Speak slowly and clearly and give your class enough time to formulate their responses. Remember, they are thinking and producing in 2 languages. After asking a question, wait for a few seconds before calling on someone to respond. This is known as “wait time”. This gives them to think and process what is being heard and seen. Never speak too fast and if a learner says they don’t understand what you said, don’t repeat the same thing in a louder voice. Give concrete examples to convey further meaning. When giving instructions, include verbal and written forms. Instructions should be clear, simple and precise.
Regularly check that learners are understanding the lesson. One method is to say  ”Please put thumbs up, thumbs down, or sideways to let me know if this is clear, and it’s fine if you don’t understand or are unsure..” Another idea is to have the learners answer on a post-it note that they place on their desks. The teacher can the quickly circulate to check responses. If you regularly check for understanding in the classroom, learners become increasingly aware of taking note of their own understanding. This can help with acquiring good study skills. 

Try not to ask “Are there any questions?” This is not an effective way to assess what learners are thinking. Learners could just be smiling and nodding their heads, even when they shouldn’t be!
Encourage learners to continue developing their literacy skills in their home language. Research has shown that learning to read in the home language promotes reading achievement in the second language as a process called “transfer” occurs. This can include phonological awareness, comprehension skills and background knowledge. However, this does not mean that we shouldn’t encourage the use of the instruction language inside and outside the classroom.

Don’t forbid learners to use their home language in class as this does not promote a positive learning environment. This can harm the relationship between teacher and learner as they may not feel safe to take risks and make mistakes.

Wherever possible, teach in context. Vocabulary, grammar and language should be taught in context, e.g. when teaching about foods, it should be within a meal context and shouldn’t be just a list of words to read and memorize.

Repetition, repetition, repetition! Use the last 10 minutes of class as an opportunity to reflect on what you did earlier in the lesson. See how much the learners remembered. This can help build their confidence while also giving you good information about how much to review at the beginning of the next class. Repetition doesn’t have to be boring, e.g. When teaching a dialogue, write the passage on the board, erase a few words and have the learners repeat it with a partner. Then erase a few more and repeat until nothing is left on the board.
Keep a stack of flashcards with you and pull them out every once in a while. To keep the vocabulary fresh in your learners’ minds, try games such as charades to reinforce the vocabulary.
Use different interaction patterns to make repetition more interesting, e.g. line up learners in 2 rows, facing each other. Have them practice the dialogue with the person facing them. After everyone has finished, have one row move down and the other row stay so that each person is standing in front of a new partner.
Do a review lesson about every 4 lessons, repeating activities from previous lessons. This will help you measure if you are moving too quickly through material and if the learners are retaining the material.

Bond with the learners. Put yourself in your learners’ shoes. Simply addressing the learners by name, greeting each learner, physically getting down to their level and making a concerted effort to get to know them as individuals will go a long way in building strong relationships. Children won’t learn effectively from people that they don’t like or respect.
Create a safe learning environment. Children need to feel secure in order to express themselves effectively. By creating a positive learning environment in a physical and emotional way, will help the learners to be more willing to try new things and participate constructively in class. Correct their errors with compassion. Everyone makes mistakes – that’s how we all learn.
Positive reinforcement, such as rewarding good work and effort, is a super way to make learners feel included and to build a rapport with their teacher. It’s also important to give learners sufficient time to complete their work and to answer questions. Patience is always the key.
These learners will probably need to formulate a question in their home language in their head, before translating it to the language of instruction. This whole process can take additional time, so its important to give learners a chance to think it through instead of demanding a quick immediate answer. 
Children thrive in an environment with routines. Write a daily timetable, include clear objectives for the lesson. Learners need to understand the purpose or end goal of the lesson or activity.

Make things visual.  Labeling of the classroom resources (e.g. chair, table, window, carpet) will help learners absorb the new vocabulary and make it easier for them to communicate with you. Word walls are a great way to create print-rich environments. Words should be accompanied by a picture to help with the meanings of words.
Teaching is often unpredictable. Often, you will work so hard on preparing a lesson, only to explain the activity and be faced with a sea of blank faces. It’s important to remember that lesson activities can and will fall flat on a number of occasions. You will need to be flexible within your lesson and prepare multiple ways to teach a certain concept in advance. 

As this is the 21st century, incorporate technology, where possible. We live in a digital world and kids are growing up in an age dominated by technological tools and digital apps. Incorporating appropriate technologies into your curriculum and lesson plans is a great way to reach and engage digitally-savvy learners in creative ways.
Pairs and group activities which require learner interaction are so important. This can include peer assessments such as PMI (i.e. pluses, minuses and interesting feedback on a piece of work). Barrier games are activities where learners have to exchange information to complete a task. Mime and role-play activities; using rhymes/songs/chants to practice vocabulary; conducting surveys and interviews where learners have to ask a series of questions of another learner. 

PLOTTING THE BEST ROUTE - The 7 Learning Styles

Different pathways have different terrain, but with effort, you will be able to reach your goal. Not all learners will acquire knowledge in the same manner so it is essential to determine which type of style will be most beneficial to the individual learners and plan your lessons accordingly.

Pictures, images and spatial understanding are the preferred learning media of visual learners. These learners love to see lessons come to life and often sit at the front of the class to get a full view of their teacher’s body language and facial expressions, as well as to avoid potential visual obstructions and distractions.
These learners are your detailed note takers. They think in pictures and learn best from visual displays, slide shows, posters, clips and other visual tools. Sometimes, simple things like writing the outline of your lesson on the board will help the visual learner to acquire the new information accordingly.

These learners rely primarily on music and sound for learning. Information is often best acquired through verbal discussions. 
Since they interpret the underlying meanings of words through listening to tone, pitch and speed of your speech. 
Written information may have less meaning to these learners. They will prefer to read the text aloud and may even benefit from using a recorder during the lesson. Integrating audio books, songs and movies into your lesson will simulate their brain and wake up their non-auditory learners.

These learners learn best through words regardless of whether they are written or spoken. When learning new information, they prefer hearing a detailed explanation over viewing a physical, visual demonstration.
They thrive in a traditional classroom ‘lecture’ environment. They are also very interpersonal and welcome opportunities to interact with words and sounds through discussions, asking questions and teaching others. They generally make ‘teacher’s helpers’ and thrive in group activities that involve much interaction and words.

The hyperactive learner may simply be a curious kinesthetic learner who prefers using his body, hands and sense of touch to explore the world. He tends to have trouble sitting still for, but with the correct strategy, you may be able to catch this child’s attention. Instead of countering him with commands and harsh verbal discipline, try to find a balance between quiet, hands-on activities which will allow him to touch, feel and experience the fullness of their lessons. Games such as charades and pantomimes are great for providing opportunities to redirect energy as well as re-invigorate a class.

These learners prefer using logic, reasoning and systems. You may find them to have a keen sense of numbers, sequencing and problem-solving.
You can feed these learners by including activities such as multi-step processes, data collections and mysteries to solve. Revising new vocabulary and other information in the form of charts and tables also bodes well for these learners.

Group learning streamlines the learning experience of these type of learners. They are the social butterflies - quite verbal and are always anxious to apply what they have learned in an interactive setting.
Incorporating peer editing, peer teaching, group discussions and debates into the curriculum will dramatically enrich their learning experience.

They are the quiet ones, preferring to work alone with minimal directions from the teacher. They are often mistaken as shy, reserved, inactive or indifferent. You might forget they are in the class. When given the right opportunity, they can be quite extroverted. 
Their desire for self-study makes them refrain from active, verbal classroom participation. As a teacher, try to include more structured group activities that assign distinctive tasks and roles to every individual of the group.

Keep an eye out for part 3 of my series on "overcoming language barrier" where I will discuss the importance of understanding the individual needs of your climbers (learners), the reading mount and the rocky pathway of writing. 


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