How to support learners who speak other languages?

In our modern world, families often move to different countries for work, opportunities or even for traumatic reasons.  Whatever the reasons may be, we often encounter learners who do not speak the school’s language of learning tuition (LOLT) in our classes.  It can be a daunting experience for learners and teachers alike. However, with the support from parents and the school community, as well as time, patience and empathy – steady progress can be made.

Here are a few tips and tricks that I have found helpful when bridging the language gap in the classroom.

  1. Connect face to face with families – as it is easier to communicate in this way than in writing.  When typing emails or writing short notes, make sure to keep the message short and concise.    This will help ensure that the reader understands what is being said. 
  1. Ensure that the learner is surrounded with peers that enjoy sharing. A way to expose the new learner to the new language of tuition is to ensure that the learner has a few peers to listen and talk to.  Basic questions and the subsequent interactions (e.g. “May I borrow your ruler?”) can help the newcomer to learn through experience.  
  1. Try to have regular routines and expectations – basic routines such as greeting the class, requesting the class to open their books and to write the date are but a few to mention.  Initially, it would be beneficial to talk a lot about what the requirements for assignments are and to then demonstrate the necessary actions, checking in on the learner throughout the day.  Show examples in books and try to incorporate illustrations, graphic organisers and pictures as often as possible.
  1. Ask the class to help label items such as furniture and stationary.  Have a peer join the new learner to explore the classroom and to talk about these labels.  It will expose the newcomer to the basic vocabulary and to language associated with it (e.g.  Would you like a drink of water?  I can take a sip of water from this cup, bottle, etc.).  The learner ccan then be encouraged to reference these labels in future essays or various written assignments.
  1. Use familiar children’s stories (such as The Three Little Pigs) to create a familiar starting point to discuss pictures and concepts.  Include nursery rhymes or songs to sing and illustrate in a notebook.  Provide the lyrics of songs to read whilst singing them.  If you often use video clips (e.g. from YouTube), turn the closed captioning (subtitle) function on when possible.  
  1. Provide a variety of books to read.  Depending on the age of the learner, one can have a variety of illustrated dictionaries, illustrated bilingual dictionaries or simpler readers at hand.  Provide the learner with a list of new words to review – in flash card format.  Start with word families and sight words.  Have the learner draw illustrations for the respective words or try to use the new words in descriptive sentences (orally or in writing).  As soon as the learner has mastered a word, add the flash card to a notebook to create a compilation of words to review and use in spelling tests.

There are some lovely resources available online. Free websites such as Epic ( has various books available in audiobooks and will highlight words as a recorded voice reads the text.  When doing basic research, choose Simple English on Wikipedia and activate Read&Write for Google Chrome.  Listening to someone else read whilst the learner follows, exposes the newcomer to the correct pronunciation of unfamiliar words.

  1. Write descriptive sentences for pictures in books. When the new learner is able to compose short sentences, he or she can write descriptive sentences for pictures in books or even make a voice recording of these sentences if the written task is still too advanced.  Transcribe the recordings and use it as reading material or have the learner access the Voice Typing function on Google Docs (a dictation function).
  1. Find readers on different levels.  Doing this can allow the learner to attempt reading books on various levels – from simple books (to build his or her confidence) to more advanced material.  Books on similar topics can also enhance the child’s background knowledge to act as stepping-stones to the next book or topic.
  1. Make use of Translation apps. If your school has access to iPads or computers, one could access Google Translate or translating apps such as Speak and Translate to support the communication process.  
  1. Allow for some wandering. Find opportunities for the newcomer to visit parts of the school and to engage in conversation with staff.  Send him or her on errands with a friend (e.g. to take the daily attendance information to the office) to create opportunities to practice conversational skills.  
  1. Encourage the new learner to join extramural activities or to join the aftercare program.  A lot of experience is gained through more informal interactions with peers.
  1. Discuss the learners’ specific needs. Connect with the Head of the Department or the principal regarding assessments.  Review the National Policy Pertaining to The Programme And Promotion Requirements Of The National Curriculum Statement Grades R – 12 (E.g. Chapter 2, Point 4) and discuss the requirements for the specific learner with the departmental advisors.  Where will your learner fit in and are there specific accommodations available?
  1. Lastly, maintain a good sense of humour.  There will be many moments of frustrations, but a good laugh can lighten the tension and gives one the boost needed to try again.

This article was originally published in Teacha! Magazine 2.4. To take a look at the latest edition, click here.

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