Why touching things and being physically close to other learners is important

When I was Head of EAL in an East London secondary school I found myself teaching with the Head of Science. It is fair to say that he was old fashioned and liked to deliver from the front of the classroom. The first time we worked together we agreed I would just observe and feedback. The classroom turned out to be a mini lecture theatre with three banked rows of benches and lots of room to demonstrate at the front. It was then I realised just how good the Head of Science was at explaining his subject. I was completely absorbed. The intricacies of chemical reactions, which I had struggled with 20 years earlier at O level, were suddenly very clear to me. Maybe I’m wrong, I thought. Perhaps you don’t need to scaffold learning carefully and imaginatively to ensure that all your pupils learn what you want to teach them. If only my teachers at school has been that good. Then I looked round the room and realised that I was the only person who had understood the brilliantly clear explanation. I was the only one in the room with a good enough grasp of academic English and enough experience of listening intently to learn just by listening. Recently I found a description in Wikipedia that captures what I heard well:

“The substance (or substances) initially involved in a chemical reaction are called reactants or reagents. Chemical reactions are usually characterized by a chemical change, and they yield one or more products, which usually have properties different from the reactants. Reactions often consist of a sequence of individual sub-steps, the so-called elementary reactions, and the information on the precise course of action is part of the reaction mechanism. Chemical reactions are described with chemical equations, which symbolically present the starting materials, end products, and sometimes intermediate products and reaction conditions.”

If you run this paragraph through the Academic Word List Highlighter, you find a long list of words highlighted as being the kind that many fourteen year olds (with and without English as an additional language) might struggle with: initially, involved, chemical, reaction, reactants, consist, sequence, individual, elementary, information, precise, mechanism, equations, symbolically and intermediate.

I think yield and properties might be a bit tricky too. Of the 89 words almost a quarter are abstract nouns.

In a room where 80% of pupils speak English as an additional language and 10% have been learning (in) English for less than a year, even a crystal clear explanation does not work if the pupils don’t understand the vocabulary being used or the ideas being explored.

So how can we help these pupils?  A glossary might help but trying to learn lists of words does not usually work very well. What does work is being supported to use the language. Talking to other pupils about work works.

If you consult a glossary you might well be told: “The substances which participate in a chemical reaction are called reactants.” Participate, chemical reaction and reactants are all highlighted when you put this definition the Academic Word List Highlighter. Substance might be hard for some pupils too. These pupils are still stuck.

How about giving a pair of pupils sentences with words missing and cards with the missing words to place in the correct sentence? On the cards are written:

chemical change chemical reaction
reactants products


Sentence number 1 is:

A new substance is made when you have a ______________.

Sentence number 2 is:

The substances we started with are called ____________.

The act of moving a card into the blank space and then discussing whether it is the right card both contribute to embedding the understanding of chemical reaction and reactants.

How can teachers possibly do that with remote learners? In theory you can put them into Zoom breakout rooms. In practice many children live in a no or single computer household where there is just one mobile phone. How do you get pupils to do this very informal activity in a socially distanced classroom where you cannot have two pupils touching the same card?  You can’t. As the author of this activity[1] originally intended, you can read the sentences aloud and ask pupils working alone to choose a card which fits in. That helps to develop listening skills and vocabulary. Does it give pupils the opportunity to talk themselves into understanding by justifying their choice to another pupil or the teacher?

There are many more examples of learning that just cannot happen in the kind of classrooms to which our children are now returning. Pity the poor four and five year olds in Reception classes where soft toys are now banned.  How do children learn one aspect of a topic in one group and then reinforce their understanding by having to explain it to another group?[2] If you want to teach fine gradations of language you might give every child in the class a piece of card with a word on it: uncertain, improbable, unequivocal, impossible, tentative, inevitable, questionable etc. Then you ask pupils to arrange themselves and their cards from least likely to most likely.[3] Lots of clarifying of what words mean happens and lots of movement happens. I can’t see it happening in the kind of classrooms that are now allowed.

It is entirely right that our pupils are safe and protected at school. However, at some point in the not too distant future, we also have to ensure that every opportunity for learning is available.

[1] I am very grateful to Manny Vazquez for sharing this activity with me several years ago.

[2] This technique is known as jigsawing.

[3] This is often called a washing line.

Want to know more?

Subscribe to our newsletter

Sign up here to receive our termly EAL newsletter.

Click here

Read our blog

Read our latest articles on academic literacy and find out about schools that are really good at teaching EAL pupils.

Click here

Access our resources

EAL Handbook, Language for maths, History and geography academic literacy handbook, Academic word list highlighter...

Click here

Sign up for our online course - university accredited and 100% online

Find out about our Accredited online EAL course which you can complete in your own time from anywhere in the world.

Click here