Whole school support for EAL learners

One of the exercises on my online DPC course had the participants looking at IB research. I had a look at this summary article and I thought what I read warranted further reflection.

The summary highlights what I have mentioned in previous blog posts, that there is an agreement in the academic literature  that there is a specific academic language of school and that this is different from general language style:

There is a general consensus in the literature that there exists a specific style of speaking and writing which is appropriate for the school context of academic learning. Although researchers and theorists disagree on the exact nature of this language style, it is widely accepted that students who are learning in a second language require support in acquiring the academic language of the classroom

This could arguably highlight the concepts of BICS and CALPS identified by Jim Cummins and which I have written about here and here. Writing about EAL instruction in biology teaching has been one of the focusses of this blog and reflects my thinking and reflection around school practices that best support EAL teaching.

Teaching

It is important that teachers are aware of the difference between academic and “general” language and take individual responsibility to instruct their EAL students sufficiently in the language of their academic subject when working at an advanced level. EAL “specialists” may be able to support with instruction at times, but they don’t necessarily have the technical expertise to have a strong enough grasp of subject-specific terminology and concepts to fill in the gaps left by teachers who maybe aren’t aware of these differences.

For example, I teach biology in y12-13/g11-12. This subject (like all subjects at this level) has a highly specific language. One that even native speakers struggle with when first encountering the subject at those grades. When I first was exposed to the distinction between prokaryotic and eukaryotic cells at A Level, I had to repeatedly commit to memory what these terms meant.

I could understand easily that one had a nucleus, and the other didn’t but I still had to learn the distinction. The point is, this relied on me knowing what a nucleus was and developing my understanding further.

An EAL student may have to then learn what a nucleus is, either by translating from the knowledge they already possess in their mother tongue or depending on their academic background may have no conception of this in their own tongue.

An EAL specialist may or not be able to help them unpack these words depending on their own expertise – it is highly unlikely that any teacher without a biology background would understand immediately the distinction between these two types of cells and therefore would perhaps be limited in the support that they could give.

In order to provide effective instruction in the academic language needed for success in the content areas, teachers must be prepared to integrate academic language teaching into the teaching of the disciplines (Bunch, 2013; Heritage, Silva and Pierce, 2007; Wong-Fillmore and Snow, 2000). High-quality professional development programmes targeting academic language instruction can result in improvements in student performance (Kim et al., 2011; Anstrom et al., 2010; Dicerbo, Anstrom, Baker and Rivera, 2013).

The problem here is that many schools in my experience (which is limited) simply run a training session for staff (maybe on BICS and CALPS) but offer very little in terms of helping subject teachers develop practical skills in terms of language teaching of their subject.

Even less so, do schools spend time educating parents on these issues. I remain surprised by how many parents think they can switch there child from one academic language to another in upper secondary and not understand the difficulties this might pose for their child.

Assessment

Data from this report shows that many schools will assess students level of English at the point of entry but do no follow up to that assessment

The survey results indicate that when schools are assessing the proficiency of second language students on an ongoing basis, they are doing so using appropriate measures. However, almost half of the schools which responded to the question (45%) provide no language proficiency assessment beyond initial screening for identification. This is potentially problematic in cases where teachers require ongoing information about students’ language proficiency in order to be able to provide effective support.

How can language learning be supported if there is no formative and summative assessment of a students progress to date.

So what would an effective policy for supporting EAL students look like?

I strongly believe that the best support for EAL students in the final years of secondary/high school will come from their classroom teachers. This based on the belief that these individuals are the experts in their subject and, having had a high level of academic training within their subject, will be best placed to understand the academic language norms of vocab, grammar and style or discussion unique to their subject area.

I also believe that these subject teachers may not initially be all that familiar with the needs of EAL students and should, therefore, receive ongoing support and training from specialists. These specialists would best be represented as individuals from the same department who have studied the subject at some depth.

It may be helpful to have these subject EAL specialists associated with an EAL support department comprising EAL generalists and subject-specific specialists in EAL instruction across the whole school. This department would be responsible for delivering training to teachers in the community which help them gain an understanding of EAL concepts like BICS/CALPS and tier 1, 2 and 3 words.

Teachers would have access to high-quality ongoing training. This would have to:

  • Have elements of direct instruction to get teachers familiar with some of the general principles in EAL teaching.
  • Have elements of flexibility that allowed teachers to continuously develop in this area as their needs allow – perhaps providing ongoing “clinics” where teachers can bring questions to the EAL specialists.

Schools needs to provide effective assessment measures for EAL development:

  • Initial assessment of a student’s needs and abilities to decide on what strategy of support to put in place. This needs to subject specific as well as general. For example in biology, I may have all students take a vocabulary test which includes tier 3 words but also tier 2 words like yield and coolant – it is important to assess each students understanding relative to one another.
  • Ongoing language assessment within subjects delivered by subject teachers – this may mean that students take vocabulary tests on specific vocabulary throughout the year. This should be done in such a way that the performance of all students can be compared and so

It is not acceptable to admit students into the higher grades of secondary school if they don’t have a good grasp of tier 2 vocabulary and the school isn’t willing to place resources into developing those students language skills. Neither is it acceptable to simply except classroom practitioners to differentiate down so far for these students who are placed in exam classes without additional support.

In addition the school needs to work proactively to educate its parent community about these issues if they exist.

 

Biology EAL Resources

General Bio EAL teaching resources

Quizlet deck of 100+ suffixes and prefixes

Suffixes and Prefix list supplied from comments in this post

Suffixes and Prefix list supplied by Gretel vB

IBDP Bio Reources

 

 

This much I know about EAL teaching

In my view, biology is a subject that is largely about language instruction. Of course, this doesn’t mean, to the exclusion of all other considerations. Yes, of course, there are facts and concepts that need to be learned and understood but, at its heart, it is a subject concerned with language acquisition.

And just like French, it is full of irregular verbs.

Personally, I remember the challenge of all the new vocabulary of the subject at A level, as being something that attracted me to it; I had the impression that by learning all these new words I would be entering another higher plane of existence.

So just imagine what this vocabulary is like for a new student, stepping into this level of biology and operating in their second or third language and perhaps with a very limited exposure to schooling in English. I am always surprised by the number of other adults, parents and administrators, who don’t seem to see this.

Parents, particularly, seem surprised when I bring up the issues of academic language acquisition

I have had some amount of experience teaching students who have started the subject with no English or very little English and this post will outline what I understand about teaching them today I fully recognise that  I am no expert.

James Cummins: BICS & CALP

My first foray into the realm of EAL teaching brought the work of James Cummins to my attention. To summarise, Cummins’ work postulates differences between basic interpersonal communication skills (BICS) and cognitive academic language proficiency (CALP).

Essentially, the former can be developed over a relatively short period of time (1-3 years) and is the language of peer culture. Children who have developed BICS may well sound fluent and indeed can communicate on a level using common everyday terms and phrases with their family and peers. The latter can take much longer, 5-7 years, and once developed allows the individual to think, manipulate and utilise complex academic concepts mentally. They can think with the language and they can think in very abstract terms.

It seems to me that the work of Cummins suggests that schools should resist simply placing older EAL students into secondary subject-specific classes and hoping that they will catch up. This may work with students going into grade 6 and 7 classrooms but could actually retard students progress in grades 9 and up.

Obviously, in the international context, students may well keep joining older classes (I once had a student who joined grade 10 directly from school in Israel. She has never been taught in English and yet was expected to just catch up in grade 10 biology) and so we can’t reasonably say don’t come to school. But the approach of some managers seems to be that students will just pick up the language.

These students need intensive English instruction first (if that is the language of instruction of their academic subjects) using methods that have been shown to have the largest effect size. Strategies in this category have the best hope of bringing the students learning forward faster and thus the best hope of bringing the time for students to acquire CALP down.

Isabel Beck: Tiered Model of Vocabulary Aquisition

More recently I have come across the work of Isabel Beck whose model of vocabulary acquisition places words into three categories:

 

  • Tier 1: These are the common, everyday words that most children enter school knowing already. Since we don’t need to teach these, this is a tier without tears!

  • Tier 2: This tier consists of words that are used across the content areas and are important for students to know and understand. Included here are process words like analyze and evaluate that students will run into on many standardized tests and that are also used at the university level, in many careers, and in everyday life. We really want to get these words into students’ long-term memory.

  • Tier 3: This tier consists of content-specific vocabulary—the words that are often defined in textbooks or glossaries. These words are important for imparting ideas during lessons and helping to build students’ background knowledge.

 

In biology instruction, it is the tier 3 words that all students are going to struggle with initially, but EAL students may also be lacking a good number of tier 2 words, which will make their comprehension the tier 3 words that much limited as these words often provide the context for the tier 3 words.

For example this year I can think of the words “coolant” and “yield” that came up as not being known by my grade 11 students. Many of these are students raised in English speaking families but have been attending Swiss public schools up until the start of grade 10 or 11. These aren’t words that come up in everyday conversation but are used across academic domains.

I am relatively new to the idea of Tiered vocabulary but it does seem, on first impressions, a useful way to think about words that EAL students may or may not have and to plan to help students bridge that gap.

Perhaps, one wider school aim could be to map out the tier 2 words that are common across subjects. Once a working list is compiled then students can be assessed for their knowledge of these words and interventions put in place.

Strategies

  • Identify and pre-teach complex vocab (tier 3 words) before starting the unit (I use Quizlet “learn” for this)
  • Get to know your suffixes and prefixes so that you can explicitly model your understanding of the terminology to students.
  • Keep new words on the board, clearly visible to students to use in their thinking, speaking and writing.
  • Encourage more reading and writing in your classroom. Encourage students to constantly use the new terms that they are being exposed to.
  • Use a reading age analysis to examine the tests and exams that students in your class are likely to sit – what is the level? What is the English reading level of your EAL students?
  • At the start of the course give students lots of opportunity for guided reading, ask students to identify words that they don’t know and keep a running list. Provide explanations for these words.
  • In line with the above, continue to identify Tier 2 word gaps in your student’s knowledge through reading exercises.
  • Perhaps try to list out common tier 2 words in your subject (this would take time) and compare with other departments. Check students understanding for these.

Biology vocabulary

UPDATE: I had a bit of response to this on twitter and two colleagues have shared lists that already exist for science or biology in general. What I would like to do is:

  1. Go through these lists and find out which are more frequent on the DP biology course
  2. Create a quizlet based on those terms for students to use.

On the IB Biology course, there is approx 450 Tier 3 words at SL and 650 Tier 3 words at HL. You can see my list here.

On this page, I want to collate all the prefixes and suffixes relevant to teaching biology at secondary level into one resource. I have thrown this together at nearly 10pm on a sunday night so please add suggestions in the comments

Prefixes

mono-
poly-
a-
bi-
di-
tri-
quat-
pent-
hex-
Photo-
Hydro-
Geo-
Cyto-
Glyc-
Gen-
Hyper –
Hypo –
Iso –
endo-
exo-
meta-
cata-
ana-
angio-
chloro-
telo-
gastro-
Renal-
Cardio-
Hepato-

Suffixes

-ose
ase
mer
-lysis
cyte
-gen

From Knowledge to Understandings

Recently (when I first started this post at least) I blogged about the best way to begin the DP biology syllabus and I was frustrated by the limitations of the syllabus to be able to pick and choose different assessment statements.

The DP biology course has always been knowledge rich. Maybe not as full as the A Level syllabus to take account of the fact that students are taking six subjects plus a summatively assessed course in Theory of Knowledgea summatively assessed research project: The Extended Essay, and their Creativity, Activity and Service Program.

Now, the IB changed the syllabus to allow more conceptual teaching, by removing the series of statements about students should be able to:… “explain x” and “state y” and grouping knowledge into brief statements under the heading of understandings, applications and skills. However, the structure of the syllabus with the essential idea for each topic tends to hamper the ability to lift assessment statements out and add them to new areas. i.e. mutations and oncogenes in topic 1.6 could be taught with topics 3.1 after 2.6. See the biology guide for the full IB syllabus.

This year, my Diploma Programme Coordinator, asked the subject departments to focus on developing their written curriculum.

It seemed timely to be asked to do this, when over the summer I had been musing about the best place to begin the course and the best ways to break up the different topics – many of the schools I have worked in simply teach the course topic by topic and the IB is keen to point out in the biology guide:

The order in which the syllabus is arranged is not the order in which it should be taught, and it is up to individual teachers to decide on an arrangement that suits their circumstances. Sections of the option material may be taught within the core or the additional higher level (AHL) material if desired or the option material can be taught as a separate unit.”

Over the course of this academic year, I have thought a lot about how best to structure the course to allow the “best” progression of concepts. Actually, I think that this is a process that began when I first started teaching my current Y13s, and I am an exceptionally slow thinker! I do remember reflecting on how to best position evolution within the course and which topics would be best coming before or after it.

But it wasn’t until this year that I have had the time within my working week or the emotional time within my personal life to really dig down and get to grips with writing up my ideas into the formal IB course outline.

I have also been exposed to new ideas about teaching and learning over the last twelve months. Last summer I read Dan Willingham’s book “Why don’t students like school?” which I think I got put onto after reading Michela’s “Battle Hymn of the Tiger Teachers”.

Idea’s from cognitive science have become more and more prevalent on my twitter feed as well as I have started to interact a little more with the #CogSciSci crowd.

All this to say that my thinking has evolved in the last twelve months.

I now know that, generally speaking, content knowledge, concepts and skills are domain specific and that learners have to become fluent with a subject’s facts before they are able to transfer that to abstract concepts and develop understanding let alone build connections with other subjects.

I am also beginning to understand the concepts of retrieval practice, spaced practice, dual coding and the distinctions between declarative knowledge and procedural knowledge and how all this may apply to my subject teaching or pedagogical content knowledge as Lucy Crehan puts it in “Clever Lands”.

Translating this into biology teaching is still not well understood (or so it seems from my vantage point) but conversations like the ones below (propositional knowledge = declarative knowledge) and blogs like this one, are beginning to help me unpack this.

The finished product

The below is the finished course outline that details the units and sequence of the teaching of the course. It is an official document used in the authorization and evaluation process of IB World Schools.

The below is my SOW for the course. It has six tabs. The DP overview shows the number of teaching hours recommended by the IB for each subtopic along with my grouping of them per unit. The Year overview shows the spacing of the units through time for both Y12/Y13. The next two tabs are for the week to week (mid-term planning). The Bio and TOK tabs show the TOK links that I have chosen to focus on the topic and are to support collaborative planning with the TOK team. Finally, the PSOW tab shows the practicals that can be built into the course. The IB mandates a specific number of practical hours for both SL and HL courses.

Final Word

The other effect of this learning for me is that I am now worried about the direction that the IB is taking in its philosophy.

If research from cognitive science is telling us that learners need a solid factual knowledge base before they can build conceptual understanding then what does this say for a course whose syllabus is about “understandings” as opposed to knowledge?

I have not heard anything from the IB that shows that it is reviewing research from cognitive science. Is the IB becoming an ideologically run institution that ignores research that doesn’t fit in with its own paradigm?