Teaching Children With English As A Second Language: How Schools Are Coping

Recent figures have shown that 1 in 6 primary school children in the UK have English as a second language. This has led to some concern that teachers are becoming overburdened with the pressures brought by a multi-lingual classroom. Schools, too, are said to be struggling, because teaching children with a variety of needs requires hiring extra teaching assistants in an already cash-strapped education system.

At the same time, critics argue that diversity in the classroom is an asset, not a burden, and that the difficulties of teaching children with English as a second language (ESL) are widely overstated. So the question is, how are schools really coping?

On the face of it, the challenges of teaching in a multi-lingual classroom are significant. Different provisions need to be made for each child's unique needs, which can impact on the time the teacher has for general class teaching. This can have a detrimental effect on those children who are native English speakers. The head of Migration Watch UK has suggested that the 'huge strain on the educational system... is bound to have an impact on those children who do have English as their first language'.

This assertion has been contested by a number of academic and political figures, who have argued that the figures do not necessarily reflect the fluency that bilingual pupils have with the English language. A lack of evidence for both cases suggests that estimation of the challenge which teachers face nationwide can only be speculated.

Putting political arguments to one side, how difficult is it to effectively integrate native and ESL children while maintaining a high quality of teaching? Academics suggest that, with the right approach, a diversity of languages need not be a problem. Encouraging interaction between children, by pairing them or regularly setting group work, can be a good way to accelerate ESL children's familiarity and confidence with the English language. Taking an immersive approach is widely recognised as the key to successful learning for children from all linguistic backgrounds.

In fact, young children are especially adept at learning new languages and it may be the case that the problem has been overestimated. Some have even suggested that the real challenge is to make sure that English is an addition to, rather than a replacement for, the child's first language. Respecting children's cultural and linguistic background has widely been argued as key in maintaining their confidence and self-esteem, and this may be where teachers face the most difficulty.

The need, therefore, for extra teaching assistants and cultural sensitivity on the part of teachers is clear if a happy balance is to be struck between the needs of native English and ESL children. It's important to recognise, though, the benefits that diversity can bring to any classroom, along with the challenges. As the UK becomes more multi-cultural, encouraging interaction between children from different backgrounds can only help to improve their understanding and sensitivity towards one another. Perhaps more focus should be placed on the positives of classroom diversity, rather than a narrow emphasis on the difficulties.

Hannah McCarthy works for Education City, a leading supplier of e-Learning software for schools and families in the UK. Education City offers comprehensive curriculum-based resources for teachers, including a new Learn English module for teaching English as an additional language. Outside of school, the Stig and Sten website offers a host of cool games for kids to enjoy at home.