How to excel in a second language classroom

November 6, 2017 by admin in Speech and Language Therapy,Speech Therapist

Written by Dr Anna-Mari Kruger, Words First Ltd Resource Lead

If you search “How to prepare my child for school”, you instantly hit 165 000 000 websites explaining in 10 easy steps how to prepare your child for his first day at school. However, if you ask “How to prepare my child for school in a second language”, the number of hits drops considerably with very few that offers any practical advice to parents.

Let me start off by saying that limited ability in the language of education has proved to be a possible risk factor for literacy difficulties. Indeed, minority language students face several challenges: acquiring a new language, integrating into a new peer group and learning new academic skills and knowledge, often doing so without the support of an educator who is proficient in their home language. Thus, if parents have a choice, I would always go the mother-tongue education route. But what if parents don’t have a choice? The percentage English Language Learning (ELL) (learners coming from non-English speaking backgrounds with limited English skills) students in the US is estimated on nearly 10%. In the UK, the number of ELL students has risen by 20% in five years with some schools having as many as 20 different languages spoken on the playground.


So how can I prepare my child to excel in an English classroom if English is not the language we speak at home? What does the research tell us about the children who excel in second language classrooms?


Firstly, the number of children’s books at home as well as the age at which children started with joint book-reading proved to be strong predictors of success for second language learners. In other words: Read, read, read English books to your child. And if you get tired of reading, pick up one more book and read it with gusto! Exposing your child to the vocabulary in books is preparing him for the “language of learning. This is very different from the basic interpersonal language skills he’ll need on the playground. In the classroom, your child needs to use language to take part in discussions, make statements or predictions, reason, estimate and calculate. Children’s books are an excellent way to introduce your child to this kind of classroom language.


Also, start introducing non-fiction books to your child from an early age. By reading about spiders, dinosaurs, planets and plants, your child is building a strong scaffold of scientific vocabulary. Ask probing questions about the books e.g. “how is a spider different from an insect?” “What do you think will happen if the earth was closer to the sun?” By exposing your child to expository text, you are preparing them for the text books they’ll need to master in the classroom.


Another feature of classroom language is that it is very often low in context. If there is a knock on the door and the teacher ask a child to open the door, he will easily use the contextual clues to follow the instruction. But if the same teacher asks “Who invented the telephone?” a child needs to rely on his vocabulary knowledge to be able to answer the question. Help your child to cope with de-contextualised language in the classroom by asking the right questions at home e.g.: “Explain why you say that.””Describe that to me” “What happened a week ago?” “What do you think is going to happen next?” Role-play activities are also brilliant in helping your child predict certain situations and helping them think about the vocabulary they might need to cope. “What are you going to do if you left your lunchbox at home?” or “How could you find out about soccer practice?” are good examples to get your child thinking.


Finally, old crib notes can be a handy support during the first few weeks in a new school. Words First Ltd. has developed Keyword Key rings™, consisting of important vocabulary cards to attach to their backpack. The cards contain pictures of words a child might need in a new school e.g. ordering food in the cafeteria or finding the bathroom. Help your child by drawing up their own cheat sheet with important words they might need to jump over any communication hurdles in the classroom or on the playground.


For older children, you might also ask the teacher for a vocabulary list to do some pre-teaching at home on a weekly basis. Being familiar with the subject vocabulary will help your child tremendously in following and understanding a lesson. Imagine having to sit through a science class if you have never heard the terms parasite or photosynthesis before. Remember, for English second language students this is a double whammy. They need to cope with all the new information of the subject while struggling to make sense of some unfamiliar vocabulary as well.


In the global village we call “world” today, growing up in a multi-lingual environment is definitely not uncommon any more. The benefits of mastering more than one language are numerous. Not only socially but children who speak more than one language have been shown to have good memory-, listening- and problem solving skills. Thus, even if your child is entering an English school, don’t neglect your first language at home. Your child might start preferring English, the language they mingle in at school, but they need to continue listening, reading and writing their first language as well. A famous Chinese proverb says: “To learn another language is to have one more window from which to look at the world.” To make sure your child excels in a second language classroom, you’ll just need to provide them with a support-step to be able to peer through that window.