By Hampshire EMTAS Bilingual Assistant Eva Molea
In Diary of an EAL Mum, Eva Molea shares the ups and downs of her experience bringing up her daughter, Alice, in the UK. In this instalment, Eva tries to understand ability grouping in secondary school settings.
Imagine it was July,
and you were sitting in the garden on a sunny afternoon, with your cup of tea
and a lovely book, engrossed in your reading. Everything was great, and you were
looking forward to an idle couple of hours until you had to taxi your child to
their afterschool club. Hold on to this dream as long as you can…
My dream couple of hours vanished as I straightened up on my chair and tried to make sense of what Alice was telling me. It seemed that, from Year 8 onwards, the school would be grouping children according to their abilities, and that some subjects would be bundled together. Therefore, if a child happened to be brilliant in one subject, but not so shiny in the other one, they would be put in the group (= set) of the less shiny subject.
My first reaction was: This is crazy! One of us must have not understood correctly. Check again.
My second reaction was: This is unfair and penalising – with all the self-confidence and self-esteem consequences, especially after the pandemic – whereas the children should be praised for their abilities and efforts.
I tried to think of the information in the school prospectus, of all the things that my friends with older children at the same school had told me, looked at the school policies but could not find an answer, so I decided to write to the school.
I blamed poor Alice because “she certainly had misunderstood what she had been told and it would not be fair to penalise her in Spanish because of her results in Maths”. Spanish and Maths sounded like a strange matching.
Anyway, less than 2 hours later I received a phone call from the Head of Maths (!) who had kindly made time to talk to me about my email. He explained that for the first time, the following academic year, the school would be trying a different type of subject association which saw Maths with MFL, and English with Science. He also explained that to be in the highest set, Alice would have needed high marks at the last tests. Before calling me, he had discussed Alice’s attainment with the Head of MFL, who had confirmed her being an able linguist, which is often the case with bilingual children. Even so, she might have gone down a set because of her attainment in Maths. My understanding was that there were also some timetabling issues involved.
I was very confused. Like many EAL parents, I had been educated in a different system, where children are taught in mixed abilities groups from Year 1 to Year 13, classes are up to 30 children, every child has favourite subjects or is confident in some areas more than in others, and children learn from each other, and from each other’s mistakes as well. Therefore, I was not prepared for this kind of grouping, and wished I had known before, as it would have given us the chance to put in place some support for Alice so that she could feel more confident with her Maths.
I did ask why parents, especially the EAL ones, were not informed about the grouping system and it seemed that nobody had ever raised the issue. So far. The lovely gentlemen said that he would discuss with the SLT how to communicate more clearly with parents.
Needless to say, I was none the wiser after this conversation, because even if I could in part understand the school’s reasons, I still felt that the children were not being treated fairly.
A lot of questions sprang to my mind: would Alice be able to move from one set to the other if her attainment improved? And would she be able to move from one set to another during the academic year or would she need to wait to be in Year 9 to be in the higher set? Would moving up in Maths automatically mean that she would move up in Spanish too? And what if she moved down? And what if she wasn’t appropriately challenged in a lower set?
At this point, my curiosity had been ignited, so I did a little research about different types of grouping in secondary school.
I looked at the EMTAS Position Statement on the placement of EAL learners, which clearly explains that the language barrier might not allow students to demonstrate their full knowledge or abilities and, funnily enough, Maths is the only subject in which Alice still thinks in Italian.
The position statement highlights that EAL learners might understands ideas or concepts in first language, including those which are more abstract and complex, and be confidently able to demonstrate this understanding in their first language. However, when asked to demonstrate this understanding in English, they might lack the necessary language of instruction to fully understand the task they are being asked to complete. Equally, they might not have a sufficient command of English vocabulary or language structures to be able to convey their understanding to school staff or peers.
According to the Position Statement, a thorough EAL assessment would be needed to find out the knowledge and ability of a child in first language and it would be good to discuss any decisions about grouping/setting/streaming with the learner and their parents/carers, who might not be familiar with the UK education system and how decisions on grouping are taken.
I did further research on setting and streaming and the outcome will be part of an new piece of work EMTAS is doing on EAL Parents FAQ.
Fortunately, a few days after my conversation with the Head of Maths, I received an email saying that Alice had done really well in her last Maths test and, therefore, she would be placed in the highest sets in both subjects. I was very pleased for her. She was safe for this year but would have to work very hard in Maths to remain in the highest set. Obviously, I set Dad on a mission to find the best maths revision guides and exercise books, so that Alice could have a little extra practice every now and then, and kindly asked him to patiently instil his love for Maths in our daughter (after all he is an engineer, offspring of a Maths teacher). Patiently being the key word here, I can see a Maths tutor coming our way. 😉
By Hampshire EMTAS Bilingual Assistant Eva Molea
In my Diary of EAL Mum I share the ups and downs of my experience of bringing up my daughter Alice in the UK. After 9 weeks of lockdown and with the happy prospect of school re-opening, I reckon it is time for me to reflect on the last couple of months, especially on the irregular shape that Alice's education has taken.
I would like to start with a big shout out to all teachers, TAs, and school staff in general. You, guys, are my true heroes. Where do you get all your patience from? How can you manage with 30 children, day in - day out for 39 weeks a year, when my own one has driven me round the bend in not even 10 weeks??
Anyway, let's get back on track. When the nation was told that the 20th of March would have been the last day of school for the foreseeable future, I was hit by an education frenzy, so I went to the bookshop and bought:
- as many learning packs as I could possibly carry
- two books that I believed Alice should read (=I wanted to read) and one that she had asked for
- a pack of story cubes
- a notebook as we are always short on paper, and a letter set should she ever feel the need for correspondence
- a jigsaw puzzle of the periodic table of elements
- sketchbook (hoping that Alice would keep a diary of this peculiar period).
Proud of my shopping, I showed it to Alice when she came back from school on the 20th of March, but her reaction was far less enthusiastic than I had expected. I wondered why...
The school had provided her with SATs buster test booklets for maths, SPaG and reading and a grid of activities on Ancient Greece. They had also set tasks on the digital platforms for the children to complete.
On Sunday the 22nd of March, I sat down with my husband (aka the Headmaster) and made a learning plan for the first week: 5 days, 5 subjects per day. I was very proud of my broad and balanced curriculum.
So, on Monday morning, bright and early, we sat down to work. We focused on the booklets and the digital activities and easily Week 1 was out of the way.
On Week 2, having completed all the booklets and digital tasks, we approached the Ancient Greeks grid. I really enjoyed this topic. In Southern Italy, also known as Magna Graecia (Big Greece), Ancient Greek culture had shaped ours well before the Romans, and we learnt the ins and outs of it in school, so it was lovely to be able to share this with Alice. We did some learning on the BBC Bitesize website; we read some myths from books we had brought with us from Italy; we used the story cubes to write Alice’s own myth. But I was not satisfied. So, we had a Greek Day, where we:
- tried to learn Sirtaki, the Greek traditional dance, following some videos on YouTube;
- dressed Alice up as a Greek Goddess (YouTube tutorial);
- learnt the alphabet and the polite words in modern Greek, and looked at how Greek language has influenced most European languages, including English;
- cooked pastitsio and tzatziki, following the recipe that my lovely Greek colleague, Eva P, had recommended. And bought baklava…yum!
This was a great way for the whole family to learn new things and share our knowledge with Alice.
Weeks 3 and 4 of lockdown were the Easter holiday, and my lovely child decided she was not going to touch any schoolbooks and the Headmaster agreed, so I could be off task too and enjoy the sunshine. We did a lot of drawing tutorials on the YouTube channel of the children’s illustrator Rob Biddulph, that are glued in the sketchbook.
Alice devoured one of the books I had bought for her (The boy at the back of the classroom), and tried the other one (When Hitler stole pink rabbit) but found it too hard (or not interesting enough, I’m not sure). Fortunately, dance and gym went virtual that week, so we had enough to keep her entertained. We also played some traditional Italian card games.
Getting back to work on week 5 proved to be quite hard. By then, Alice was feeling very lonely and bored because we did not have the skills to keep her interested and, not to be underestimated, we also had some work to do. But fortunately, the school set more structured homework for the children and we were not sailing in the dark anymore. Having daily work to complete was very helpful, as Alice had some tasks she could carry out independently and ask for the occasional help, whereas when she had to make research on the Internet I was a bit concerned about the appropriateness of content she might come across. For guidance, I also re-read the EMTAS information leaflet on safeguarding and wellbeing which includes online safety .
From week 5 onwards, home learning has been an emotional rollercoaster. We have gone from enthusiastic reactions to some tasks to flood of tears for others, covering all the shades in between. Obviously, had Alice been in school, her learning would have been tailored to her abilities (including the right challenges) and more interesting for her. But I have to say that I really enjoyed learning with her, especially because we all had a very intense EAL experience as we used Italian to investigate, question, explain and reinforce everything and both the Headmaster and I have noticed that Alice’s Italian has improved and her vocabulary has widened, with many new and more interesting words being used. She has also enjoyed listening to audiobooks in Italian and asked me to read to her in Italian at bedtime. EAL parents will be interested in this survey on multilingual language use during the COVID-19 Pandemic.
I pushed my luck and asked her how these 9 weeks had been for her. At first, I got a single word answer: “Boring”. I was expecting that. But then she told me that using Italian for maths had made the subject easier as she still counts in Italian (I didn’t know that), that she felt that her translation skills had improved, and her vocabulary in both languages broadened.
Despite the strangeness of this lockdown period, I really enjoyed playing school with Alice and loved seeing her eyes brighten up when there was something that interested her or when she had finally secured the concepts she was struggling with. But now we all, especially her, can’t wait to get back to school.
PS: The lovely learning packs I had bought have never been touched in these 10 weeks. I will have to force them upon Alice during the Summer holidays…
Mum, I don’t want to go to school today!
By Hampshire EMTAS Bilingual Assistant Eva Molea
This is the 5th chapter of my Diary of an EAL mum, a series of blogs in which I share the ups and downs of my experience of bringing up my daughter Alice in the UK. So far I have spoken about my experience as an EAL child, how we prepared a cosy nest for Alice to feel at home in her new country, how I tried to support her learning, and the sometimes peculiar choices for lunch. This chapter is about attendance.
Author's own image
Unless I was feeling seriously unwell, for me as a child not going to school was NOT an option. Probably because my parents always told me that going to school was my job and that I had to do it as professionally as possible, which meant being neat and tidy - especially at secondary level, where maintained schools in Italy have no uniforms - and well prepared for my lessons. But mainly because staying at home was DEAD BORING. Not going to school meant being locked up at home, no escape. So why would I ever swap a good 5 hours with my friends for the same amount of time on my own?? Therefore, my approach to the subject had always been simple: we all have to go to school. Until... one morning Alice started crying desperately because she didn't want to go to school and that SHE WANTED TO GO BACK TO ITALY RIGHT THEN.
Oh dear me! She was in such a state that, for the first time, I had to consider not sending her to school. I was very surprised though, as Alice had started going to school everyday at the age of 2 (drop off at 9 am and pick up at 2 pm) and had never told me that she didn't want to go to school. What was I supposed to do? I was worried that, had I allowed her to stay at home that day, she would have asked for it again and again. On the other side, to be fair to the child, we had been in the UK for less than a month and she was still finding going to school very hard and tiring because of the massive effort of processing everything in two languages and because of the linguistic isolation she was still experiencing, which she hated.
So I decided to give her a break and spend the whole day together as a reward for her hard work and intense effort. But I made an agreement with her: this would be the ONE AND ONLY exception in her school life (a bit drastic, I admit, but that's it). In Italy I would have just kept her at home, but here I had to call the school by 9 am to tell them that Alice would not be in school that day and why (schools require all parents to do so, otherwise they call you). I tried and tried but to no avail so I sent an e-mail to the School Office and within minutes I received a reply that it was OK to have Alice at home for that day as homesickness could be a real physical and mental condition. I was very grateful for their understanding. Her school is amazing.
Oh no! I had the hairdresser booked on that day, and a class at the gym I really wanted to go to. AARGH! The wise person that sometimes lives within me told me that instead I needed a plan to make the most of our day together so... We started with the hairdresser (I was not giving this up), next out for lunch, then to the bookshop, played some games at home and cooked a nice dinner for dad who, oblivious of all the things we had done that day, had been only at work (note to self: get a credit card on his bank account).
At the end of Year 1 Alice missed the last day of school too. Our tickets to fly back to Italy for the Summer holidays were a lot cheaper if we flew on the Friday instead of the Saturday, so I went to the School Office and they told me that they understood the issue but the absence was not authorised. I must have had a question mark on my lovely face as the Office, without prompting, explained to me that the Head Teacher had to authorise every absence and holidays were not a good reason to be off school. Obviously I could take my child with me but that would appear as an unauthorised absence on the register. I was very surprised to hear that if Alice made too many unauthorised absences we would have to pay a fine. And being late for school sometimes can count as an unauthorised absence. Aaarghhh! Given my Mediterranean concept of time, I would need to set my watch 10 minutes early to make sure we would be on time!!! The positive news was that Alice would be authorised to be absent during term time for weddings and funerals. So hopefully we will have loads of them. Let’s rephrase this: loads of weddings. Friendly advice: if you wish to know more about attendance policies, please ask the Office at your children’s school or visit the Hampshire EMTAS website.
We navigated swiftly through the rest of Year 1, 2 and 3 with Alice being true to her word up to Year 4 when, all of a sudden after the Christmas break, she started saying that she did not want to go to school. Obviously, I stuck to my principle that she had to go to school every day, until she started to get ill. At the beginning, she was complaining of a constant tummy ache and initially I thought it might have been a bug she had caught in Italy over Christmas. But that went on for a long time and we explored all the possible health conditions, but nothing came out. So, my husband and I started to worry about other issues at school we might not be aware of. So, just to test the waters, I offered her to change school and, much to my surprise, she accepted straight away. She then had to give me reasons for leaving the school she had always been so fond of. And here she opened Pandora's box: friendship issues of two different types, unkind friends and much-too-sticky friends; feeling limited in the choice of children she could play with; feeling the competition on academic grounds; a bit of tiredness because of her busy routines outside school; but the worse thing was the anxiety of not knowing who to talk to for the fear of not being taken seriously. As soon as she had told me all that, she felt immediately relieved, such a big weight having been lifted off her chest. As soon as she told me that, I felt like the worst mother ever. Why hadn't she trusted me enough? Was I being too superficial? Was I too busy to give her the attention she needed? Could have I spotted the sign of her uneasiness by myself? All this called for a large bottle of whisky to drain my sadness into (straight translation of the Italian saying “affogare I dispiaceri nell’alcool”). Sadly, I don't drink...
I addressed the issue with the school the following morning and, at pick up time, Alice and I had a meeting with the teachers who had promptly and delicately discussed this in class with all the children and everything was back to normal. I think I might be repeating myself but her school is amazing.
If I had a lesson to take home from my experience this was to pay attention to everything Alice tells me (which is hard work as she is a chatterbox, I wonder who she takes after...). It is in the little things that we can spot any difficulties our children are facing and an early detection can help us set things right before they become worrying.
Anyway, since then, I have never heard her saying "Mum, I don't want to go to school today". But, they say, never say never…
WHAT IS FOR LUNCH TODAY, MUM?
By Hampshire EMTAS Bilingual Assistant Eva Molea
Being a parent is never easy, being an EAL one sometimes can be even worse… In the first chapters of my diary I wrote about my experience as an EAL child, how I made my daughter feel comfortable in her new environment and what strategies I used at home to support learning. In this new chapter, I will try to tell you how I found my way though the labyrinth of school meals.
© Copyright Hampshire EMTAS 2018
4/9/2018 - Ok guys, back to school, yahoo! After six weeks with the children in full swing, the sense of relief at the idea that we don’t have to entertain them anymore is tangible. In every house, uniforms are all set at the end of the bed, schoolbags already by the front door. Everything seems to be in the right place when the most dreaded question arrives from our lovely little ones: “MUM, WHAT AM I HAVING FOR LUNCH TODAY?” And the nightmare begins. At least for me, because I hate thinking about lunch before I have even had breakfast! And also because Alice is a bit fussy when it comes to eating, and going through all the possible choices with her can take hours.
For some of us EAL parents, school dinners (they are called dinner even if it is lunch…) are an unknown territory. In Italy, usually school ends at 1 pm and children come home for lunch. Some families choose to leave their children at school for a longer time, in which case they eat at school, but it is not mandatory. And even if they eat at school, they have no choices. The menu is one, and often families have to provide part of it.
Imagine Alice’s surprise on her first day at school in the UK when she was offered several choices: meat menu and vegetarian menu which she had to order by colour (red and green). Never mind colour blindness… Alice could also choose from a sandwich and jacket potato menu. To guarantee variety and choice – and to add a little spice to my organisational skills – school menus work on a three week cycle, whereas the jacket potatoes and sandwich menus stay the same throughout the terms. I could never be thankful enough with Alice’s school for providing me with a lovely colourful copy of the menu, as big as a bedsheet, that we stuck on a magnetic white board – so we can always have it at hand and discuss the choices in advance. Thankfully, Alice’s teacher thought of also giving us a translation of the menu into Italian (see HC3S for translations). These are a great support for EAL parents, thank you, while we try to get our head around what foods such as Yorkshire puddings might possibly be.
Being the fussy little eater that she is, Alice approached the school menu with some resistance, so at the beginning she was allowed to pick and choose what she wanted to eat. She was eager to be like all the other children, so she wanted to take part in this process of lining up/getting a tray/having all her food put in there in one go/sit down/clear your plate/go to play. She enjoyed it, and also eating with other children was a chance for her to talk freely to them. But this new system had also some downsides: one day she came home very mortified because her tights and skirt were completely covered in gravy. She told me that her hands got dirty and there were no napkins available, so she had to clean them on her tights. YAK! My first thought was that it was not possible that there were no napkins. She must have made it up, mustn’t she? So the next morning I went to her school and asked about napkins and I was told that the child had been truthful: THERE WERE NO NAPKINS. ARGHHHHHH! Anyway, she enjoyed the flavours of school food, loved the roasts, avoided all the ‘exotic’ ones (such as curry dishes), stayed far away from garlic bread (I will take the chance here to tell you a secret: Italian cuisine is NOT based on garlic). She found it a bit strange to have all the food in one tray, since in Italy she would have been served each course in a different plate. She missed Anita’s – the school chef in Italy – dishes though: pasta with pumpkin, pasta with beans or chickpeas, meatballs, meatloaf…
Since, on some specific days, our lovely little one did not like any of the food offered at school, we had to choose the packed lunch option. In Italy, Alice would normally have in her lunchbox a “panino” with prosciutto cotto (ham), prosciutto crudo (cured ham) or similar with mozzarella or local cheese, or a Caprese salad (mozzarella with tomatoes, oil and basil), or a pasta or rice salad, or her all-time favourite frittata di pasta and then some fruit and a nice thing. Water as a drink. We were advised by Alice’s teacher that ideally, her lunchbox should be balanced and contain: carbohydrates (pasta, rice, bread, and potatoes), wholemeal if possible; proteins (meat, fish, eggs, low-fat cheese); vegetables and fruit. It was a bit of a challenge to make such a brilliant lunchbox when I was still half asleep, but that’s life! The school was giving out flyers on how to create a balanced lunchbox and they referred to the NHS Change 4 Life website which has easy to follow guidelines and lots of suggestions on how to make healthy and appealing packed lunches. Mind you, there are a lot of possible variations for sandwiches: bread, wraps (Alice’s favourite), pita, flatbread… so it is easier to make them look different and less boring for her.
In addition to this, Alice’s school provided information about morning snacks which have to be low in sugar and fat meaning that crisps, chocolate, sweets and fizzy drinks are banned from school bags and lunchboxes (on which I agree, mainly because personally I don’t like them, exception made for chocolate). The top suggestion on NHS Change 4 Life is fruit and veg followed by lower-fat, lower-sugar fromage frais, plain rice cakes or crackers with lower-fat cheese, one crumpet (cold and without jam???), one scotch pancake (I had to look it up on Internet…), one slice of malt loaf (Alice would throw it back at me…). I may be old fashioned and used to food cooked from scratch, but probably a slice of homemade cake would keep our children healthy and happy…
The school office staff was an incomparable source of information. They were so very patient with me when Alice started. They answered my many many questions and took the time to explain that children in years R, 1 and 2 were entitled to free school meals. I learnt we would start paying for school dinners when Alice would move up to year 3 unless our circumstances allowed us to have free school meals until she’s 16 years old. To check entitlement to free school meals I was signposted to the Hantsweb pages by the school office. They also told me about the EMTAS website, which has a brilliant section for parents where I found very useful information about many different aspects of my child’s life in her new school, like support, good parenting, behaviour management, English classes for EAL parents, the Young Interpreter Scheme (other children helping newly arrived EAL pupils to settle in) or the phone lines in different languages where a bilingual assistant can answer parents’ questions when they feel a bit lost.
So, now that you have reached the bottom of this very lengthy piece, how about a well deserved piece of cake??
By Hampshire EMTAS Bilingual Assistant Eva Molea
© Copyright Hampshire EMTAS 2018
I never trusted my mum when she told me that being an EAL parent was not easy. I regret to admit that it has more challenges that I expected. In the first chapter of my diary I went down memory lane, writing about my experience as an EAL child. The second chapter was about how I made my daughter feel comfortable in her new environment. This chapter focuses on strategies I used at home to support learning.
If helping Alice to settle in could be achieved following one’s own gut feeling, supporting her learning in English needed to be done in a less instinctive way. Before leaving Italy, I had taken Alice to the GP for a check-up and asked if he had any advice about how to support her acquisition of the second language. He told me that he assumed that she would pick it up in school without me doing anything special, but told me that we HAD to speak Italian at home because all the emotional life of a person flows through their first language. So we did, and still do, stick to this rule strictly. It would always be Italian at home or when it is just the three of us, and English when we are with other people.
Since I knew that I would be moving to the UK anytime soon, in September 2014 I enrolled Alice in Year 1 in a private school, so when she started school in the UK she could already read, write and count and she could transfer these abilities to English. I have to say that Alice’s school in the UK was amazing. They made her feel welcome from the very first minute. All the grown-ups would be very nice to her and make sure that she had company and was buddied up with some sensible children. Her teacher in Year 1, Mrs Barton, was just amazing. She was always smiling and positive, and kept her under her wing. Mrs Barton would spot immediately if there was something wrong going on and tell me about it when I went to pick up Alice from school, or call me during school hours if she had some concerns. She knew a tiny little bit of Italian, which she used in the first days to welcome Alice to the class and which gave her the chance to guess what Alice was saying in Italian. She would look up specific words on Google translate to explain tasks or instructions to Alice; she would team Alice up with children who were strong models of language and behaviour and make sure she always had a buddy at playtime and lunchtime. She made all tasks accessible for Alice and would provide her with pictures and visuals, so she could participate in the activities just like any other child. Before reading a new story to the class, Mrs Barton would ask me to go to school at pick-up time to read in advance and translate the book for Alice so that she could follow the story in class the day after.
In Italy, Alice was used to having a literacy and a numeracy task plus reading
every day as homework, so she was very relieved when she found out that, in her
new school, homework was given only once a week and was due the week after. In
fact, she felt so relieved that at the end of the first week she did not even
tell me she had homework to do!! Reading, instead, had to be done every day and
recorded on the reading diary. Alice would come everyday with a book from the
Oxford Reading Tree and we would read it at home. In the first weeks, I would
do a first reading and translation of the book and then she would read it. I
also had to negotiate how many pages I would read to her in Italian and how
many pages she would read to me in English. So once I ended up reading 10 (ten)
Italian books in a row, in order to have her read a tiny little English book
with a line in each page. Life can be tough!
One day Alice came home with a sandwich bag full of pieces of paper with just one word on each. At the beginning I thought it was a puzzle and she had to build sentences with them. But, after a more careful look, I realised there were no verbs, so no sentences could be built. I decided to investigate with Alice, but she had no clue about what they were and why she had been given them. I felt too stupid to ask Mrs Barton about them so, not knowing precisely what to do, I stuck them on the fridge with magnets. A few times she played with them, rearranging them as she preferred, or making shapes on the fridge. After a long time, I found out that she was meant to read them every day. That episode persuaded me to ask a teacher every time I was not sure about what I needed to do. No question is too small.
When it came to writing tasks, they mainly consisted of spelling lists. Every week Alice was given a sheet which had the list of words in a column and then two columns for every day of the week. The task was to read the word, copy it in the first column of the day, cover the word and then write it independently in the second column. I cheated. I made her read it and write it independently both times. A bit of a challenge, but it worked because she used to get all the words right in the weekly spelling tests. This exercise also helped her reinforce her first language and acquire new words because we would translate each word in Italian and explain their meaning.
Maths was my nightmare. I know you would think “Year 1 maths a nightmare?? Really??” And the answer is “Yes”. Not because of the difficulty of the tasks themselves, but for the worry of not using the right method to explain things. In the olden days, when I went to school in Italy, we were taught only one method for each operation. To me these are the only options, the easiest ones and the ones that never fail. Can you imagine my face when Alice told me about the “bubble strategy”?? I could only think about a good bubbly drink… Anyway, I resolved to address the maths issues using pegs. Being the “Queen of the Washing Machine”, I had loads of pegs, so I could master additions, subtractions, multiplications, divisions and, ta da, fractions. It was easier for me to explain maths using real objects, things that we could count, move around and “bend” to our needs.
No matter which subject the homework was about, since the beginning we have always done them together and with a dictionary at hand. We have taught Alice how to use the old school dictionary (i.e., the paper copy), but we have also downloaded on all our devices Word Reference, an online dictionary that provides also idiomatic forms and common uses (very useful for verbs whose meaning changes depending on the preposition associated). We still do the daily reading and, luckily, since the end of Year 2 Alice is an independent reader and has access to library books, so no more one-line pages for me. In Years 3 and 4, most homework has been project works or topic works which is really nice because we use literacy and numeracy in different contexts. Alice is a very creative child, so we use lots of colours and ICT, which make the tasks funnier.
A great support in acquisition and development of Alice’s social language came from her school, which offered many after-school clubs at a very accessible price. In Years 1 and 2 she took part in many of them: dance, basket ball, cricket, gymnastic. This was a way for her to be exposed to the use of English in a friendlier context and in an environment she knew. She made lots of new friends in school, and had a bit of fun-time with other children, developing new skills at the same time.
Truth is that, not being a professional, I had no precise recipe on how to support Alice’s acquisition of a second language. It was a trial and error process, a bit like Pavlov’s dogs. All I had to do was to be always positive (which comes easy to me) and patient (much harder, I have learnt many breathing techniques), and when the situation was super-dramatic (which, to tell the truth, happened very rarely) HAND OUT A DELICIOUS PIECE OF CHOCOLATE!!!!! (I know this solution is not the most politically correct one but, trust me, it works!!).
Written by Hampshire EMTAS Bilingual Assistant Eva Molea, this is the second instalment in a series of blog posts focussing on the experience of parents of pupils with EAL. Read Chapter 1 before enjoying this new post.
I needed a strategy. And a pretty good one, too. I needed to make my daughter Alice’s life in the UK enjoyable, cure her homesickness and support her learning. Any of these tasks on their own would have been hard enough, but all together I was not sure I could make it. So, I rolled up my sleeves and started working on our new environment.
An enjoyable life in the UK
The first thing I had to do was to make Alice comfortable
in her new house. So, we made a lovely and cosy room for her, with some of her
toys from Italy, many books in Italian and some in English (now we have loads of
both and we do not know where to put them…). Since she was in the “pink
period”, we chose some of the furniture accordingly, and some decorations as
well. We showed her where everything was in the house, so she could quite
independently have access to what she needed. We taught her how Sky worked, so
she could watch TV whenever she wanted. At the beginning, we allowed her to
watch much more TV than we normally would, but we believed that TV would offer
a good model of English, so she had free access to it for quite a while. In the
first days, she would just watch “Tom & Jerry” or the Warner Bros. cartoons,
as she could follow the story even if she did not speak a word of English. Then
she gradually moved to other programmes without our suggestion, and soon
started to watch feature films, even if with a bit of a struggle.
Then we moved to explore the surrounding area. We went to the adventurous discovery of the neighbourhood and then of our small town. We took her to the playgrounds and to the cinema, to the local museum for a play day on dinosaurs, shopping for her school uniform and for food, encouraging her to try new flavours. We took her for a full English breakfast and to eat out. In general, unless it was raining cats and dogs, we took her out every week-end, even if it was just for a walk into town. But the best thing we did was to enrol her to the dance school at the local leisure centre. Since she was very little, she had asked me to go to a dance school, so now she was in for a treat. It turned out to be a great decision because Alice had the chance to meet with other children and make different friends from the ones she had at school. Also, since she had already practised sports in Italy, she knew she had to imitate the teacher, so she could join in quite easily. Her dance teachers were lovely and this helped a lot. She still dances three times a week with the same eagerness of the first days.
To overcome homesickness was definitely a harder task. Alice missed her grandparents, her friends, her teachers, and the entire little universe she was used to live in. We tried to recreate the life she had in Italy: we did not change habits, but stuck to the usual routines. Doing everyday exactly the same things that she was used to in Italy made Alice feel safe and secure. She knew what was coming next, and these little certainties helped her find her way through the bigger changes our lives were going through.
The other thing that was very helpful was that I did not work at that time. We had decided, with my husband, that I would have not looked for a job until September 2015, because I wanted to make sure that Alice had settled in nicely and everything was going well. My husband had moved to the UK in 2013, so Alice and I had been on our own for quite a long time. At that time, I used to work from Monday to Friday from 4.30 to 8 pm. This meant that Alice had to stay with the grandparents, who would alternate in the babysitting during the week. She was looking forward to an intense one-to-one time with mummy, which was served to her on a silver tray when we moved to the UK. She really made the most of it: she would ask for girls’ night in, to go to the cinema, to go shopping. Basically, she really enjoyed being part of a team of two. Yahoo!!
Technology also played an essential role in defeating homesickness. Daily video-calls with the grandparents made distances smaller, and Alice would happily take the tablet to her room and talk to them about her day or play games with them on Skype. We often spoke to our closest friends via Skype, so the children also kept in touch. This also created great excitement the first times we went back to Italy, because they would not feel like strangers when they met after a long period.
So far so good, but now how was I going to help her with her learning since I am an EAL person myself? And with a strong Italian accent too (they say)? Find out in the next chapter of my Diary of an EAL Mum! In the meantime, why not browse the 'For Parents' tab on the Hampshire EMTAS website?
Written by Hampshire EMTAS Bilingual Assistant Eva Molea, this is the first instalment in a series of blog posts focussing on the experience of parents of pupils with EAL.
Many moons ago, when I was nearly 5, my dad decided to apply for a temporary position as plastic surgeon at Queen Victoria Hospital, in East Grinstead, and was luckily appointed. So, we packed our entire house, the useful and useless (silver cutlery included because one could never ever think of dining without one's own silver fork!), loaded our blue Alfetta and embarked on the three day trip that would change our lives.
It was early 80s, and a very exciting time to be at Queen Victoria Hospital with many other people from all over the world: Australians, French, Israeli, Egyptians, Irish, Italians, just to name a few. And, obviously, some Brits as well! It was also very exciting for us children, all attending the same primary school.
This is the background of my personal experience as an EAL child. I will not say that it was easy at the very beginning - name it the first month. The sense of deep isolation for not having a child to talk to and who understood me was overwhelming and my mum, who did not speak a single word of English, had to do everything in her powers to keep me entertained.
Then I started going to school in Year 1 and it was a blessing. My mum felt relieved (and we all know that a happy mum has happy children) as I picked up the language very quickly and made many friends, making her juggling skills no longer needed.
Besides taking me out of my linguistic isolation, the school gave me much more: thanks to the empiric approach of the British scholastic system, I developed strong observational skills and a genuine curiosity towards what I was being taught, which have been my main features through all my years at school and university. It taught me to challenge what I was learning to prove it right. It helped me develop a very rational approach to everything and the ability to analyse. Should it not be clear enough, I am still very grateful to the system. Also, the environment was amazing: massive playground with forts and a field at the back which had no boundaries. My classroom was big enough to host 30 children, plus a play-pretend corner, a big carpet, loads of toys and walls covered with pictures and resources to support our learning.
Unfortunately, my EAL experience came abruptly to its end after just one year because my dad's contract expired and we repacked all our house plus some other souvenirs, loaded again our Alfetta and headed south. Back to Naples, Southern Italy. I could have never imagined, at the time, that my own daughter would follow my steps.
We packed our house, with all its useful and useless clutter, shipped it to the UK - how smart! - and moved in February 2015, my daughter being nearly 6 and halfway through Year 1. Strong from my personal experience, I moved quite light-heartedly. At the end of the day, how hard could it be?? This is when I learnt that every child is different, despite genetics. It also made me understand that I had always seen the whole issue of moving from a happy child's perspective, not from a sensible adult's one. I was not prepared. Not at all.
Fortunately, school started one week after we arrived, and with a school trip to the HMS Victory on day 1. What a great start! A. was very impressed and this put her in a good disposition towards her new school. As soon as her teacher introduced her to the class, a girl came and took her to line up. An unexpected act of kindness that changed one of my most dreaded days into a lovely and very informative school trip - did you know that when Admiral Nelson died he was put in a barrel of rum to be preserved for his funeral?
But the linguistic isolation struck her quite soon, so we had the before-going-to-school tantrum and the after-school one. The "I want to go back to Italy right now" desperate cry and the unintelligible sobs that showed all her frustration at not being able to function as well as she was used to in Italy.
But I was not prepared to give up. Nor to let her do so.
To be continued… Come back soon to read the next chapter of this unique parent diary, using the tags to help you.
Visit the Hampshire EMTAS website for information and guidance on how to help settle a newly arrived pupil into school.