Removing Language Barriers with EAL


Mrs. Sarah Porter joined the British School of Bucharest in 2013 as an EAL and Modern Foreign Languages (MFL) teacher. She holds a BA in Modern Languages and an MA in Russian. Sarah previously taught French to Years 3 to 5 at a preparatory school in North London. Currently, she is the Head of Secondary EAL and Primary MFL teacher.

Sum up your role at BSB.

As Secondary EAL Coordinator, my first task at the start of a School Year is to organise English testing for all new Secondary students who are non-native English speakers, to identify students who need additional English support and to work with my department to organise EAL lessons on students’ timetables. After this is done, my main role is to work with these students in order to teach them English grammar and vocabulary, as well as to practise key language for their other academic subjects such as History, Maths, Geography and Science. In addition, we prepare and enter EAL students for external exams such as the Cambridge KET (Key English Test) and PET (Preliminary English Test) examinations, so I am responsible for entering students for these exams as well.

I also teach French to Years 3 and 4, which is lovely because it gives me a chance to work with Primary pupils and all that they bring to learning. We learn French through a range of different activities and through games and songs, although with COVID and social distancing rules these have had to be adapted. We have special French toys in our lessons, so Albert the Bear and Kitty the Cat are quite famous among our Primary French learners!

What inspired you to join BSB?

Romania has always interested me as my mum’s best friend is half Romanian and I grew up listening with fascination to stories of her visits to relatives in Bucharest and Cluj-Napoca. I remember watching the Revolution unfold in Bucharest on the TV in 1989 aged 14, never dreaming that one day I would live there! My husband and I had studied Modern Languages at university and we had both spent time abroad in various countries, so after we had our children we thought it would be a great experience to work internationally. Then my husband applied to BSB and it just felt right, so we were really happy when he was offered the job. I was also offered a job teaching EAL and I haven’t looked back.

What do you think about the BSB learning environment?

I love the fact that the School is large enough to be able to offer a range of subjects at iGCSE and A-Level but small enough in order to get to know students individually and to have that ‘family’ atmosphere. Teachers are basically the students’ substitute parents from the time they arrive at School until they go home. I believe that strong pastoral care is an essential feature of an excellent School and I like to think that every student at BSB would feel comfortable talking about minor concerns or issues with their teachers and that they would feel listened to and valued, because this is of prime importance in a student’s educational journey.

What motivated you to write an appendix for the EAL Handbook? Can you tell us why teachers should read this book without giving any spoilers?

I met Graham Smith, the founder of the EAL Academy, at a conference in London in 2018 and we got talking about international schools. Graham was planning a re-publication of the EAL Handbook and wanted to include an Appendix about International Schools and he invited me to write it. The number of students in international schools who have English as a second (or third, or fourth) language has grown dramatically since the 1980s and 1990s, with the percentage of students with English as a second language overtaking the percentage of native English speakers. The issue of EAL students in international schools is therefore more important than ever and we need to make sure that appropriate programmes are in place for all such students. There are many reasons why teachers should read the EAL Handbook – or parts of it – as it gives a range of strategies for academic teachers to support EAL students, as well as clearly showing the difference between conversational fluency (which takes one to two years to achieve) and academic fluency, which can take up to seven years to achieve. So, just because a student seems ‘fluent’ in English it does not necessarily mean that they will be able to write an essay on an academic topic. It’s a really fascinating read.

How did your experience at BSB help you write a chapter for a book about second language learners in international schools and what are some of the essential points you’re making in the book?

In 2017 I helped to organise the first COBIS EAL conference at BSB and we were very fortunate to have three renowned EAL experts leading sessions at the conference: Dr. Maurice Carder, Dr. Patricia Mertin and Eithne Gallagher. Maurice Carder and Patricia Mertin were in the early stages of writing a book about second language learners in international schools and it was a terrifying but wonderful opportunity when Dr. Carder asked me to contribute a chapter about one international school’s model of EAL and suggestions for the future! I tried to paint as clear a picture as possible of EAL at BSB in my chapter, as well as making some general points. One point that I make in the chapter is that students should be kept in EAL lessons for long enough, since ‘exiting’ the programme too early could prevent them from progressing in their academic English. A further point is that non-native English speakers can also be excellent EAL teachers and that native English speakers are not necessarily better teachers - and I say this as a native speaker! A further point is that an EAL programme must include the teaching of subject content (academic) language to EAL students so that they feel as prepared as possible for content lessons and for upcoming tasks. At BSB I am lucky to have colleagues in other departments who are always willing to collaborate by providing key language and terms and this willingness on their part makes the process easy.

How do you go about removing language barriers and providing support and guidance to students to help them achieve their full potential?

With beginner students, translation tools are our friend and I also try to learn at least ‘hello’ and ‘goodbye’ in students’ home languages to make them feel welcome. For all new EAL students to feel accepted and at home at BSB, it is vital for them to know that teachers are interested in them as a person, their language, their country and their culture, so I always make sure to ask students to tell me (and the other students in class) as much as they can about these things. It is amazing what connects us.

Another key aspect of helping our EAL students feel secure and happy is an ongoing dialogue with their parents and families. We try to arrange a meeting with the parents of new students as soon as possible after the start of the School Year so that we can explain the EAL programme and answer any questions they may have – where possible, using an interpreter if needed. Of course, BSB does not have staff to translate e-mails into every home language but if a parent does not speak English, a Google-Translated e-mail is better than English alone, as at least it gets the point across and shows some effort on our part. An informed parent is a happier parent, in my opinion.

How do you plan on optimising the academic progress of our Secondary EAL students?

This year we have started using the Bell Foundation EAL Progress tracker, which will give us a better and firmer idea of where each of our students is at and what their next target(s) should be. We now also have parallel English streams for Years 7-11, where our EAL students study English as a Second Language instead of English First Language and Literature. This additional time is undoubtedly of huge benefit to our Secondary students. As I said in my answer to a previous question, it can take between 5-7 years for students to achieve academic fluency in English, so they need as much English support in Secondary as possible in order to be able to fully access the curriculum for their iGCSE courses.

How do you build a positive School culture or climate?

By having open, honest and constructive relationships with both students and colleagues. By helping each and every EAL student to feel settled at BSB and in their academic lessons as quickly as possible. By smiling every day and meaning it.

 What are you looking forward to in your BSB journey?

There’s lots to look forward to. I am excited about continuing to develop our EAL programme along with my fantastic colleagues. There is still lots to do, including collaborating with other departments to build up more comprehensive banks of key language for different subjects. I’m also looking forward to the continued progress of BSB’s IELTS programme. We are now an accredited IELTS test centre, so not only can students prepare for IELTS at BSB, they can take the test at School too!

What do you plan on writing next? 

My next assignment for my Post Graduate Diploma course in ‘Bilingualism in Education’. It’s a 4,000-word essay on ‘EAL and Special Educational Needs’…wish me luck!

And finally: tell us something unexpected about yourself

I can sing ‘Heads, Shoulders, Knees and Toes’ in Japanese. I don’t speak Japanese.

January 2022

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