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Founder of ESL Reads
EAL Teacher and Curriculum Writer (Secondary)   

3 Ways to Build Respectful Relationships with Your Pre-Beginner EAL Students

March 19, 2023 by Lauren Piovesan and Assunta Crupi-Pogliano

“Remember that you are teaching a human being,” said Assunta Crupi-Pogliano when I sat down with her to speak about teaching Pre-Beginner EAL adults. Assunta is a teacher, and more recently, an author, who has 25 years’ experience working with EAL and LOTE students in both the secondary and adult education systems.

In the last blog, Assunta and I spoke about 4 Tips for Teaching Pre-Beginners, but in this blog, I want to dive deeper into the different ways that you can build relationships with this cohort. This is not always easy, as the language barrier can make communication and trust difficult to establish. In this blog, we will cover the following:

  1. Principles of Adult Learning
  2. Relationships
  3. Building Confidence

1 - Principles of Adult Learning

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In our conversation about the principles of adult learning, I remember distinctly as Assunta looked me straight in the eyes and said, “Remember that you are teaching a human being.” When we are teaching pre-beginner students, who are still learning to hold a pencil, write the alphabet and understand what school is, it can be easy to fall into the trap of focussing on all of the gaps and deficits. Make no mistake, this is a challenging and at times, exhausting cohort to teach, as you constantly try to cater to their various needs.

However, just because their English is limited and they may never have had the opportunity to attend school, it doesn’t mean that they are not talented and resilient individuals in their own right. Many of these students show great levels of empathy and kindness to each other. Some have amazing cooking abilities or handicraft skills. They are resourceful and many have raised families. They bring a wealth of experience and knowledge to the classroom, which cannot be underestimated or ignored. So next time you are feeling overwhelmed by all there is to teach, take a deep breath, and try to focus on the strengths your students already bring to the classroom.

Assunta also spoke about the need to show all of our students respect and understanding. For example, if a student arrives late to school, remember, “You don’t know what happened to that person before they came to school which may have caused a delay.” Perhaps they were up early cooking the family’s breakfast or preparing dinner so that a meal would be ready once they returned home from school. Perhaps they had to drop off their children to 2 or 3 different schools on public transport. The lives of our students are complex, and they have many barriers to attending school. It is important to show empathy and kindness in these circumstances, and acknowledge their efforts to attend.

2 - Relationships

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Relationships, as we know, are key to providing a comfortable and safe classroom environment, in which our students are ready to learn. Sometimes, we can get bogged down in delivering a curriculum, getting through assessments, meeting the challenges placed on teachers by funding bodies or juggling rolling enrolments, but Assunta has her own version of Maya Angelou’s quote “They might not remember everything you’ve taught them but they will never forget how you made them feel!”
She has a few tips for how to do this:

  • Get to know your students; don’t make them feel like just another student on your roll. 
  • Consistently greet them and find out how they are going.
  • Find out about their lives: their families, their weekends, their events (Cultural celebrations and religious days can be a good place to start).
  • If a student hasn’t come to school in a few days, follow it up. Sometimes just a friendly phone call from their teacher or admin, is all that’s needed for the student to feel that their absence matters.
  • Try to notice when students are not looking like their usual selves and ask them about it. Most students won’t tell if you if they are unwell, because they don’t want to miss out on class. If you notice it, give them the option to go home if they need to. Send them home with a worksheet so they feel they aren’t missing out on work.
  • Always remember that your role as a teacher is to create a safe and welcoming classroom environment. This doesn’t mean taking on a counselling or social work role. If you are concerned about a student, refer them to your manager or if your organisation is lucky enough to have one, the wellbeing team.

“It’s amazing what students will do and how much they can learn when they feel safe with you,” remarked Assunta as she recounted how her adult learners happily started their morning revising the alphabet and classroom instructions via songs and actions!

3 - Building Confidence

building confidence

In a classroom where adults are learning a completely new set of skills, there will be a level of anxiety, self-doubt and frustration that is present at the beginning. Students might express or have someone translate on their behalf, a variety of mixed emotions, “You have put me in the wrong level,” or “I am 45, I should know this by now,” or “I used to be able to do this in my country.” These high expectations can affect a student’s mindset and in turn effect their ability to learn. Instead, try explaining the learning process to students. Assunta uses a motto to capture this, “We learn English slowly, slowly,” but you could form your own to help students understand that learning a language takes time, practice and patience. Work on building up your students’ capacity to take risks and develop their confidence. Here are a few ideas:

  • Consider the cognitive load of a task – do you need to peel it back to ensure student success?
  • If students are struggling, step in and differentiate. You can do this verbally as you check students’ work. For example, you might say, “I want you to focus on just this top sentence, have a go and I will be back to check.”
  • Give students a chance to think, rehearse and take safe risks. You can use, “Think, Pair, Share,” to achieve this.
  • Celebrate the small wins and use a lot of positive reinforcement around these.  

While many of these ideas are part of the bread-and-butter of teaching, so much goes on in the classroom each week that they sometimes tend to fly out the window despite our best intentions. It may be a week when you are struggling to meet your students’ needs and still get through the curriculum, or an assessment weekor a week with lots of interruptions. Hopefully, wherever you are in your teaching at the moment, Assunta’s tips have helped you reflect on your classroom practices and have reminded you of the ways that you can continue to build a safe and welcoming classroom environment.

If you have other methods for creating a safe and welcoming classroom environment or pre-beginner students, please share in the comments below!

Assunta Crupi-Pogliano has spent the last 25 years teaching EAL and LOTE (Italian and French), firstly in the secondary school setting and later in the adult education sector. She loved the adult sector so much that she juggled secondary teaching by day, and adult teaching by night early in her career. She has now found her place teaching in the adult community sector and her passion for this space is evident!

Assunta

Assunta has recently released an incredible workbook for pre-beginner EAL students called The Initial EAL Workbook. The workbook aligns to the performance criteria in the Course in Initial EAL Framework curriculum for adults and contains a variety of topics suitable for pre-beginner and beginner students. It’s available for purchase through EAL Resources 4 Adults at 123-abc.org.

*Please note: Assunta and I are teachersand what we write about in this post comes from our observations and experiences working with EAL migrant and refugee students. 

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