There are tons of EAL students at school. Last Thursday I was practicing my nearly non-existent Russian with a tyke who doesn't have any English. Even just saying "good" or admonishing her to say "please" and "thank you" in her own language allowed us to make more of a connection.
We recently had an in-set (teacher training doo-dad) about working with EAL students. I was fascinated. What I really took away from the training is that their home language is incredibly important. The workshop leader used a graphic of an iceberg to illustrate that what you see of their newer language is supported by everything they know and understand about how language works from their first language. Also that you need to be careful about what you are testing, if you're working in a maths class- does the student understand the concept in their own language? Is the language creating a barrier rather than the material being presented?
In my Year 3 class we have on boy whose English is nearly non-existent. Fortunately there are many many French speaking students in the classroom so mostly we can get by, but it is clearly frustrating for him to never understand what is going on and frequently he is off doing his own (disruptive/destructive) thing, like poking holes into all of the erasers with his pencil. I feel bad because it becomes necessary for me to pull him away or discipline him in order to get the rest of the class to focus on their work instead of his antics, and I really really don't want his only interactions with me to be negative.
So it was with great relief that I realized that in our English lessons, I could have him write in French. Yeah, okay, they are English lessons, but really we're learning about how to build sentences and paragraphs and write stories and such like, so it doesn't matter what language you learn how to do that in. That week we were writing a story about a Seagull named Sydney ('cause why not, right?) and they were meant to get Sydney in some sort of trouble and then get him out again (fascinating to read their solutions, it's amazing how much of themselves they put into their writing. "Ah, so that's what you're thinking about!"). I had our French boy describe the seagull, and write a paragraph in French about what the character of Sydney was like. He did such a good job! And because he actually had a task to do that he understood he didn't distract other people and destroy school supplies! It was pretty much the best thing ever. I just kept grinning at him when he brought me his workbook to show off what he had done.