Intensive EAL support and differentiation in Biology

As an international teacher, I am familiar with EAL or Lang B students in my classes, and familiar with how to support them in my Biology classes which, more than even some of the other science subjects, has a lot of context-specific terminology that cannot be simplified. These terms can be almost impossible to simplify form non-native speakers but repeated INSET training has told me that I must. Some examples would include:

  • Heterozygosity
  • Anyone of the Animal or Plant Phyla students are required to know
  • Proteome
  • Clade
  • Oxidative Phosphorylation
  • Photolysis
  • Inhibitor
  • Eukaryote
  • Archaea
  • Transpiration
  • Cohesion

There are many more…

This past academic year I had a particularly difficult situation to deal with in my grade 10 biology class.

Grade 10 is the final year of the MYP and is equivalent to Year 11 in the U.K. My current school is very small, tiny in fact, by the nature that it has only been open four years.

As a new school in a competitive area we have a battle to recruit students. As an international school in an area where lots of families come with the parents work on short term contracts we have a high turn over of students.

Due to these factors, every year of teaching I have had to completely change my scheme of work for this grade and grade nine because of changes in the cohorts of students as well as yearly changes to science teaching hours across the week.

One year I only had brand new students taking grade 10 Biology all of whom had come from Francophone schools and so the MYP 5 course I had planned had to be changed to accommodate these students.

As an international school it can be normal to have turnover in students with many students leaving and new students entering at any grade. Things are also complicated because students may come from different national systems, and may have studied in different languages prior to joining us. It's very hard to comparatively assess the biological knowledge of different students coming from different languages of study and these different systems.

Whereas, last year, all the students in my grade 10 class were new to the school and I had to create a novel one year curriculum for them to ensure that none of the fundamentals from grade 9 were missing, this year I could revert to the original two year program I had planned previously.

This year I had some students who had progressed to grade 10 biology from grade 9 (these grades are planned as a two year consecutive course) internally and were on track to take the MYP eAssessment.

However I also had students placed in the class who came from different schools and were new to studying in English, let alone biology in English. Amongst these students there was variation. One student had absolutely no prior experience using or studying in the English language and others had never studied in the language, academically, but had spent some time of heir lives speaking and communicating with English.

At the start of the year, I was informed that all of these students would be taking the MYP eAssessment (the IB equivalent of GCSE)!

Despite my protestations that these students would not be ready for the eAssessment with only six months of going to an anglophone school, let alone studying biology in English and that they were better off being placed in an intensive EAL program, I was ignored.

The message to me was that I simply had to differentiate for these students! Differentiation is fine but when does differentiation steadily become "plan a whole new program?" What are the practical limitations for a teacher that determine when differentiation should stop and alternative arrangements need to be made.

A similar situation happened to a colleague of mine who teaches French. One year he was told that he would have French A (Literature – native speakers) students mixed in with French B (Aquisition – non-native speakers) and that the teacher would have to differentiate between these two groups.

I am all for differentiation and trying to meet individual students where they are at but I don't like it when it becomes a lazy shield for management to hide behind. Instead of the SLT taking charge and actually putting a proper intervention in place for these students, it is easier to pass the buck to the teacher and simply say "differentiate!" The problem with this is the anxiety, stress and associated mental health issues it will invariably create for staff.

What seemed to be lacking from members of the schools management is the difference between Jim Cummin's BICS and CALPS. Being able to speak in a second language with your friends is one thing, but being able to think about and explain complex, abstract concepts in a second language is quite another. Biology has a huge amount of subject or context-specific terminology that even native speakers can find daunting.

The year hasn't been a great success. Unfortunately some non-negotiables have to be negotiable as there is a limit to what a person can achieve in a day. What this meant for these students is that I simply wasn't able to plan for them as well as I would have liked, with all my additional responsibilities, particularly the running of the university guidance.

I focussed what time I could devote to this class on the students who would be taking the exam and focussed on developing the thinking routines within the class; connect-extend-challenge has become very popular!

However I have been able to learn something from this experience and found that the following techniques could be put in place very easily to support EAL students without too much interruption to the flow of the lesson:

  • Glossaries for every unit that focus on key words. I have started adding them to my DP workbooks as simply a space at the back for students to add their key words and definitions, but for the younger grades I will provide the words and the definitions.
  • Whole-class reading in every lesson. Making solid use of available texts and reading these out gives students a change to practice saying new words and gives me a chance to feedback to them and explain any new terminology.
  • When asking students to explain a concept to check for their understanding, allowing them to write out their ideas in the their mother tongue to support a speaking in the second language.
  • Asking students to write, in English, a short paragraph (3-4 lines) explaining what they learned either at the start of end of a lesson. As the teacher, I can rotate and check grammar, spelling and sentence construction. This is best done by hand as 1) the IB exams are currently written and 2) due to the Lindy effect, writing is likely to be around a lot longer than google docs.
  • Taking care to fully explain the roots of words e.g. "photo" & "synthesis" and giving students time to find the words in their mother-tongue if they have studies this concept before.
  • Allowing students to speak in their mother tongue to each other to aid explanations and comprehension.
  • During explanations given by me, slowing down and, where possible, using simpler language (not always possible in Biology – what is a simpler word for heterozygosity?).
  • Always check for understanding with open questions. "Please can you explain/write/draw this for me?" to show understanding.
  • Use of colours and images to describe tasks so that students become aware that when a symbol of a quill is used it means that they have to write.

Any more advice or ideas welcome in the comments!

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