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

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!