One of the most common mistakes that I see being made with BMLs is that they are put into lower-ability groups or given ‘easy’ work because they struggle to access learning content.
While it might seem logical to give BMLs easier work that they can better understand, this is actually the wrong approach. Let me explain a little more…
Research suggests that BMLs (like all students) require an ‘enriched’ learning environment which stimulates their cognitive development and, at the same time, enables the development of their language acquisition (Thomas & Collier, 1997). This equates to challenging or rigorous learning opportunities where BMLs are able to scaffold their language-learning. Many BMLs are high academic achievers in their home country, but when they come to their new English school, things are very different because they can’t access the language of learning. As a result, many students are given more simplistic work or put into lower-ability groupings. I once worked with a BML who was an outstanding mathematics student and he was put into the lowest-ability group in his Year 6 class. Every day he was angry and resentful. This greatly affected his self-esteem and attitude towards school and learning. He became disengaged and his marks started to reflect this. Since this boy wasn’t challenged academically, his inclusion in the group became a self-fulfilling prophecy because he eventually began to under-perform and was soon identified as an under-achiever by his peers and teachers.
The reality is that many teachers are simply not given adequate training to understand BMLs or support their unique needs. In light of this, I want to share some insights and practical strategies that you can use immediately to help your BMLs get access to the right level of learning while providing an enriching and stimulating environment.
First, it’s important to understand that most BMLs who come to you in this position will have knowledge of their home language and literacy. This means that you can tap into this wonderful resource in order to naturally support their learning in English. Don’t be afraid to empower your BMLs to use their home languages for learning tasks. Let them do research online, allow them to talk to same-language peers and even write their ideas in their own languages. BMLs must not STOP their learning from continuing at a similar rate and pace as they’re previously accustomed to. Then, to build up their English acquisition, you can have them write key points or even words and phrases in English to summarise what they’ve learned. Alternatively, you can have their work translated by a peer, a staff or even a parent who speaks their language if you need to. There is no harm in supporting this strategy and it doesn’t mean students’ English will be jeopardised as a result.
If we look at the image above, we can see students are more reliant on their mother-tongue/home language when they first begin English. They have the full use and potential of their language but then may have very little English proficiency at this stage. Then, as they continue to be immersed in English from year-to-year, they start to use their English language for learning and thinking; thereby having to rely much less on their mother-tongue. In fact, if BMLs actually stop their mother-tongue language over the longer term, English will take over as their dominant language. This is why it’s important to encourage parents of BMLs to continue to maintain their home languages by speaking it at home and even going to external classes to maintain literacy.
Now you now the first (and often easiest) strategy for supporting BMLs to learn content—encouraging them to use their mother-tongue/home languages. Be sure to share this strategy with their parent(s) so they know why their child is spending time learning in their home language and not English. Naturally, this can be confusing to some parents! You can easily assure them that this will not take away from their learning of English, particularly because they are fully immersed in English and English interactions all day.
Strategy number two might be obvious to you: Differentiate the learning. I know this is a buzzword that gets over-used but it’s often not done correctly–so that learners are actually able to access content at their level. The very first thing you need to know in order to differentiate properly is the literacy levels of all your students. Then you’ll know what kinds of texts you can use with different students and this helps you to make decisions about various learning tasks. I know it’s not standard practise to share literacy levels with all teachers who work with students but it really should be. It’s often kept in the English teacher’s files somewhere, but consider this information GOLD for each and every teacher who works with students—from the art teacher to the Science teacher. We suggest having a shared online platform to post student literacy levels for full and immediate teacher access.
The key to successful differentiating is to be sure you’ve targeted learning at the right place for students—this is typically at their ‘instructional level’. The instructional level is the ‘just right’ level where there’s a little challenge but not too much. It gives students some room for growth. If the learning is too difficult, that’s at the ‘frustration level’ and it means students won’t benefit from learning, they’ll need a great deal of support (aka ‘spoon-feeding’) from the adult because it’s just too hard for them to work on their own. At the other end of the spectrum is ‘independent level’ and this refers to learning that’s at the mastery level. It’s easy for students to do on their own and doesn’t offer much in way of challenge. When you’re designing learning tasks, activities or projects, make sure you’re aiming for students’ instructional levels in terms of concept learning but don’t be afraid to allow BMLs to access learning by using texts that are at the ‘easy/independent’ level. This will help them quickly and easily access background information and gather facts.
The next challenge for teachers is how to differentiate tasks in a work-smart manner so you don’t kill yourself? Well, that’s easy-enough. Just think about the learning as a funnel. You create all the learning tasks and activities to meet the core learning objectives or goals. For your native English speakers, they can most likely benefit from, and complete, all of these learning tasks largely on their own. On the other hand, for your BMLs, they need some adjusting or ‘tweaking’ to the learning. Now think about moving the concepts down into the funnel—the funnel hole gets narrower so you must only focus on the most critical core components of the learning so they fit into the funnel. Differentiating for BMLs can easily mean narrowing your focus for the unit/lesson. For example, if the central concept of the learning in English is “to understand plot elements through short stories” and your BMLs can’t access the grade/year-level short stories, then just narrow the focus of the lesson to “understanding plot” with one story or one short story that’s pitched right to their level. You have to make sure that you’re not taking any of the core learning away so maintaining focus on ‘plot’ and ‘story’ is essential. In this case, you can have BMLs read a book at their level so they can access the understanding of plot elements on their own. They could even read a book in their home language and analyse plot. Don’t make things too difficult for yourself so you end up designing laborious individual lessons for each student. Stick with the main lesson goals and objectives and then filter it through the proverbial funnel to make it accessible to your BMLs. Take into consideration that BMLs may require much longer to complete tasks if they’re at the frustration level. That’s why everything needs to be on-level and this will eliminate your need to spoon-feed students. You want to see them working as independently as anyone else when they set out to work and you also want them to feel challenged and engaged. This will help them view themselves as competent and able.
One of the worries that teachers often have about differentiating learning for BMLs is that ‘sooner or later they need to do the real work.’ They’re right about that actually. Depending on the BML’s current stage of English acquisition, they will certainly be able to do the ‘real’ work–but often later rather than sooner in many cases. This is because it takes a BML around 2 years to master conversational English but 5-7 years to master academic English. So, in time, with good language exposure and continued understanding and support from teachers who are dedicated and caring, BMLs can and will be more likely to succeed in both their academic English and their academic learning.
Still have questions about your BMLs or differentiating? Feel free to drop me an email (firstname.lastname@example.org) or comment down below and I’d love to help you!