All inclusive! – How to involve all of your students in the EFL classroom
The primary school which offered us the possibility to observe English lessons in Potsdam is the Rosa-Luxemburg-Schule. Since 2012, the school takes part in the pilot project inclusive schools which started in Brandenburg a few years after Germany’s ratification of the United Nations’ Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities guaranteeing the joint learning of students with and without disabilities. In the context of this project, the Rosa-Luxemburg-Schule focusses on students with special needs in the field of learning, social and emotional development as well as language. However, inclusion means more than only teaching disabled students and students without disabilities in one classroom. The classes are diverse and heterogeneous in many other regards as well: mother tongue, cultural or religious background, efficiency, etc. Meeting the needs of every student is thus one of the major challenges for teachers in today’s classrooms.
While observing English lessons in a 4th and 6th grade, it became obvious that the success of the joint learning in a heterogeneous class is strongly linked to the teacher’s attitudes towards the diversity of her class and the relationship she has with her students. Laughing with them is as important to the teacher as showing the children that she is not perfect and does not know every English word. Moreover, she is not looking for every student in the same way, but rather perceiving every child as an individual with needs (e.g. security, attention, help, challenges, etc.) and strengths. This attitude towards her learners already offers a basic equity in her classroom.
An example in which the teacher differentiates to meet all students’ needs is that she speaks to them differently. To some students, she speaks more German than English and she also corrects some students’ mistakes more often than others’. On the one hand, the teacher explained that correcting one student’s mistake might help him/her to improve his/her language skills. On the other hand, it might entirely discourage another student from speaking because they might get afraid of making another mistake.
Another way how the teacher provided equity was the fact that she divided the class into pairs for partner work. She prefers letting her students work in pairs over working alone because this way success for all students is guaranteed and no student feels excluded or discriminated by her/his classmates. In general, the teacher is against help by special education teachers in her classroom. She believes that the disabled students would always feel “different”. She rather offers the students extra help like a dictionary and she gives them more time for a task. For the partner work, she often chooses pairs based on the students’ performance in English. This way, one student can help her/his partner. Another criterion of building teams is how well the students know each other since the social aspects are very important as well.
In terms of the students’ performance as EFL learners, the teacher obviously has to differentiate to meet all student’s needs and help them improve their language skills according to their abilities. In a lesson of a trainee teacher, the students could choose their own learning speed by working on the worksheets at their own pace. The trainee teacher prepared a learning buffet with several worksheets on three different levels. According to their ability, the students should either work on the black, blue or green worksheets. The worksheets were comprising the same topic and task but were differentiated in vocabulary, font size, and pictorial help. Solutions for all worksheets were accessible in the classroom corners. When students were done with one worksheet, they could go to the blackboard to put their name tag on the next step of the scale. This way it was transparent for the teacher as well as for the students how fast they are and if somebody is lacking behind and needs extra help. At the group tables, students of all levels were mixed so they could help each other.
Despite those obvious methods of differentiation, the teacher also provides differentiation in an implicit way without forcing the students to use the given help. In a 6th grade, for example, one student is dyslexic. Her writing skills are largely behind those of her classmates. When it came to writing down questions using a special grammatical form, the teacher offered all students the possibility to come to the front and use some example questions, if they felt the need for it. After talking to the teacher, the student decided to go and use them. Additionally, the teacher also asked her if she would prefer working on her questions together with the teacher. The student denied it because she wanted to try it on her own. This shows that the teacher, being aware of her student’s dyslexia, provides special help but by not insisting on it, she is not putting the emphasis on the girl’s “disability” and rather encourages her autonomy. In general, the student only has to write in headwords, copy sentences or words and tests and exams are only verbal. The teacher’s behavior underlines her attitude towards students who need extra help: She is more than willing to assist and offer help depending on the student’s will. The teacher is aware that forcing a student to use the offered help might produce resistance rather than an improvement of his/her language skills.
Furthermore, we were able to observe how the teacher prepared and practiced a play with her students in a 6th grade. The teacher explained that she let every student pick out their role on their own. She wanted the students to learn to realistically assess their own abilities. She gave each child the opportunity to experience themselves what they are capable of. Even if the student might have misjudged (overestimated or underestimated) their abilities, the students still had the chance to learn from that experience, no matter how well they spoke English.
Equity is in some ways even represented by some rituals in class: at the end of a lesson in the 4th grade, for example, the teacher asks the students to come together in a circle and reflect what they have learned, what they think was difficult or easy during the lesson, etc. Every student is thus encouraged to give individual feedback according to her/his personal abilities and perceptions. This feedback is held in German. This demonstrates that the teacher is truly interested in what the students think of her lessons. Every student, no matter how good his/her English skills might be, is therefore activated and encouraged to utter their feedback.
All in all, we have seen some very interesting ways of how to deal with inclusive classes. Each teacher handles inclusion and his students with special needs differently. Some students probably don’t have the status of a “special need student”, but when something in the family is not going well or the pet just died, they also cannot concentrate and have special needs. Therefore, we consider a positive attitude of the teacher towards his students regardless of their abilities, as well as an open and trustworthy environment for dealing with problems, as the most important features to achieve a positive learning atmosphere and guarantee success for everybody.