English Language Support programmes in international schools

After reading Edna’s thought-provoking article about a language inquiry I started thinking about the complexity involved in setting up English language support programmes in international schools.  As educators in an IB school we are all expected to be Communicators: “We express ourselves confidently and creatively in more than one language and in many ways. We collaborate effectively, listening carefully to the perspectives of other individuals and groups.”  The concept of communication is certainly more complex in a multilingual setting.

Our approach to language learning is open and inclusive, affirming each learner’s identify and promoting critical thinking.  The complexity comes not only from working and learning within a multilingual, multicultural context but also from acknowledging the immediate need for our young learners to achieve at least a pre-intermediate level of English as quickly as possible.  When, several years ago, I was working in the field of teaching English as a foreign language and of language teacher education, the context was very different.  The needs of the children we taught were long-term and in fact as teachers we were usually attempting to meet their parents’ perceived needs for them as opposed to the children’s own wish to learn English. These needs were usually along the lines of ‘my child will need to read English texts at University’ or ‘One day my child will study abroad’.  Rarely were the children expected to become effective communicators within a few weeks or months.

In International schools, in order to help our young students quickly develop their English language skills, teachers need to balance what often seem to be contradictory factors:

  • The need for the children to achieve a reasonable degree of fluency in English, while not wishing to overload them or lead them to perceive English as a ‘difficult’ or ‘confusing’ language (children’s attitude towards the learning of additional languages being of great importance).
  • The need for lengthy periods of language instruction while creating a positive, supportive, low stress environment that encourages creativity and risk-taking.
  • The need for children to become literate in English and therefore to comprehend a wide range of written texts and be confident with different genres, while acknowledging that the priority needs to be oral skills to ensure that the children understand teachers and friends and can socialize with their peers outside the classroom.
  • The need for children to access the curriculum in English, exploring knowledge across a range of disciplines, and therefore to have exposure to as much English as possible, while acknowledging the importance of maintaining and developing mother tongue.
  • The need to develop children’s critical thinking skills and to nurture their curiosity as they develop skills for inquiry and research, while acknowledging that children need basic English skills with a focus on lexical and grammatical systems.
  • The need for children to learn English in the sheltered environment of a pull-out programme, usually with one regular teacher working with a small group of students, while acknowledging that any time spent away from the learning in the home room can be detrimental to the student, the aim being to exit the student from the withdrawal programme as soon as he/she can function independently in the homeroom (usually with some ongoing in-class English language support). The goal of our ELS programme is to mainstream students as quickly as possible without sacrificing the individual attention to language development provided by the ELS programme.

English language support teachers need to be able to balance these sometimes opposing needs.  They will need to focus on basic, functional English language skills while also being committed to structured, purposeful inquiry as the leading vehicle for learning.  For English language support teachers, the following are crucial:

  • Ongoing collaboration with other teachers – not only the homeroom teachers but also single-subject teachers – to ensure that in addition to basic English language skills they are teaching the language needed for the children to access the curriculum.  This collaboration will also mean periods of observing the children in their regular classroom which will help the teacher to know which language to focus on (e.g. mathematical language).
  • Teaching the children the language they need to ask questions – and then fostering a classroom environment in which the children can ask questions, wonder, discover, uncover, explore, experiment, play with possibilities, pose and solve problems.
  • Helping students to notice key features of the language.  Children need to grapple with meaning and observe how others express the meaning that they wish to express.  The teacher needs to help them notice small chunks of language typically used in particular contexts.  This involves isolating particular words and phrases, exploring what they mean and discovering how they are used.  Once such features are noticed, processed in the child’s mind and understood they can become part of the child’s developing language system.  To help students notice particular features of English, use can be made of recordings of their peers in the homeroom classroom.   In this way children who are learning English can compare what they say with how the same meaning is expressed by children for whom English is a first language.
  • Making sure that the school’s language policy includes provision for the teaching of learners who are learning in a language other than their mother tongue, and for mother-tongue language support.
  • Making sure that your classroom environment meets the essential conditions for language learning.  Children need exposure to a rich but comprehensible input of real spoken and written language; they need opportunities to use the language to do things through exchanging meaning and they need motivation to listen and read the language and to speak and write it.  To provide these conditions teachers should design meaningful tasks (activities where English is used by the child for a communicative purpose in order to achieve an outcome).
  • Providing opportunities for interaction, including a focus on discourse skills such as opening and closing conversations, turn-taking, reaching agreement.
  • Encouraging parents to use their mother tongue at home.  This helps students cognitively, through discussing their learning in another language, and emotionally, by helping to affirm their identity.

The following extract is taken from our whole school language policy:

We believe that students learn additional languages best when:

  • Interaction is meaningful with the emphasis on communication rather than avoiding errors
  •  Students’ personal contributions, cultures and mother tongues are valued and respected
  • Mother tongue language development is actively encouraged and supported.  Discussions in a language other than English enable ideas to be discussed and learning to be consolidated
  • Students’ prior knowledge, experiences and beliefs are used as the starting point for language development
  • Language learning takes place in clear, meaningful and whenever possible authentic, contexts
  • Attention is paid to functional language, for example the language used to make requests or to ask for permission
  • The culture of the classroom is collaborative and inclusive, creating an environment where students are motivated and self-confident and feel able to take risks in their language learning
  • Students are helped to see patterns and regularities in language
  • Purposeful, structured inquiry is seen as the ideal vehicle for language development.
  • All teachers at BIS are language teachers.

Last year we developed a stand-alone planner for modern foreign languages in Grade 5 (Indonesian, Chinese and French) with the following central idea: ‘Effective interactions within a multilingual community contribute to an understanding of self and of our own and other cultures.’  We have yet to develop a stand-alone planner for English language support classes and would be interested in hearing from schools who have done this (while acknowledging that English language support is not a subject and therefore does not need a planner in the same way that a planner would be developed in e.g. Maths or Arts if the learning in these subject areas does not develop understanding of the central idea as expressed in the transdisciplinary programme of inquiry).


Finally, our English language support programme is part of our commitment to internationalism, expressed in our understanding of internationalism that was developed by school community members last year:


Bandung International School encourages students to develop as balanced, inquiring individuals empowered to “participate responsibly, successfully and with integrity” in their education through understanding of and action on global and local issues. This is enhanced by fostering cultural and linguistic diversity, thinking critically and by valuing humanity in a spirit of cooperation, respect and tolerance.

About marycollins21

Mother of three daughters and one son; grandmother of one. PYP teacher at Xiamen International School, China. I am a member of IBEN (IB Educator Network) and love my role as PYP workshop leader. As well as being passionate about inquiry and all things that enhance student learning, I enjoy reading, salsa and swimming.
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6 Responses to English Language Support programmes in international schools

  1. Thank you for this post. You describe the challenges of ESL teachers at IB schools very well. And, you lay out a theoretical basis for what needd to be done and how we can support students as they learn English, at the same time that we adhere to the goals of communication and learning the English langauge so that students can fully participate in their regular classrooms as quickly as possible. I couldn’t agree with you more in this perspective and the conflicting ideas that ESL teachers need to grapple with in order to teach effectively. My question is: what might this look like in the pull-out classroom? Also, what are some projects, lessons or activities that we can do with our students to get at these goals? How can ESL teachers collaborate, across our many schools, to help each other with these challenges? A regular Twitter chat maybe? I’m open to any and all ideas that would help us support each other in our unique situation working with second langauge learners.


  2. kath Murdoch says:

    Really great, comprehensive post Mary -thank you. One that will be very helpful for international school teachers especially…but also for the many culturally diverse schools I work with here in Melbourne. Thank you – will be passing on. Kath


  3. Thanks for your feedback Kath! As more and more students are learning in multilingual environments the nature of the English language support that they receive certainly becomes even more crucial!
    Thank you also to Eliza for your comment. It would be good to have a #pypchat session devoted to English language support programmes!


    • Let’s organize that #pypchat around ESL students sometime soon. We start back at the beginning of September. Our school wide focus this year is supposed to be around the idea that “all teachers are ESL teachers”.


  4. Pingback: Feminist Literacy and Numeracy – A Path to Empowerment for Grassroots Women: The Whole Language Philosophy | Papers, Pursuits and Purrsuasions

  5. Jason Graham says:

    Great post! I dont know of any school who has a stand alone planner for ESL, Id be interested in seeing one. Id also like to see us addressing the EAL needs on the planner somehow.


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