Whole school support for EAL learners II

Imagine a normal primary school in an anglophone country like the UK or US. Now imagine taking a year 4/grade 3 or year 5/grade 4 child from that school and giving them an academic program aimed at year 12/grade 11 or year 13/grade 12 students. It could be AP, A Levels, IB DP. The course doesn’t matter here. Lets just assume that these children would be taking academic, pre-university courses in the the humanities/social science and the natural sciences. For the sake of argument, lets assume that these fictional children have the social and emotional skills of 17-18 year olds. Clearly I am not describing a real situation here.

From a purely academic point of view: what would happen? Would those children succeed? Would they have the background knowledge, understanding and vocabulary skills to access in class discussions? Or text books for that matter? Or even to understand what the teacher was talking about?

Now, I wonder, how would the teachers, tasked with teaching these children respond? What strategies could classroom practitioners employ to help their students achieve? How could the curriculum coordinators and Heads of Year respond to implement strategies to allow the children to access the curriculum? What would you do?

What makes an EAL student like a primary schooler?

Of course, this never happens in practice or does it? Is there any cohort of students in international schools that would somewhat match this description? I would contend that there are, to varying degrees, and in varying numbers, students who fit this description as EAL students.

Now clearly, an average 17 year old student, has cognitive abilities beyond that of an average 10 year old and certainly, we would hope, more advanced social and emotional skills. And indeed they probably do know more.

But how do we ensure that, when a high school accepts an older student who has never had any prior formal instruction in academic disciplines in the language of the school, and will ultimately sit exams in that new language, this child will be able to succeed.

Some might answer that schools shouldn’t admit students when they cannot meet their needs. I would agree. But I have seen schools that do admit students when they can’t meet their needs; usually when a child’s needs meet the economic needs of a school, the latter concerns tend to win.

My concern here really revolves around the question: If most major testing systems in the English Language (AP, IBDP etc) are norm referenced, then aren’t we simply propping up the performance of our native language speakers with the ultimately poorer performance of non-native speakers? Are our anglophone speakers succeeding on the back of the poorer performance of our EAL students (on an international level)?

Of course, in international schools, there is a lot of variance and there is certainly flexibility in the system. Most students who can’t access the full curriculum will be able to graduate from the school with some form of modified curriculum. But we need to ensure that students have as many options available to them when they leave us as possible. Going to an international school is a privilege and affords so many additional benefits to kids that they may not have had in there home country but we need to ensure that students are able to succeed after they leave us.

How do we solve these problems?

In practical terms when, as a coordinator, I have a cohort of students for the majority of whom English is a second language and many of whom have only been learning their academic subjects in English for a few short years, how do I put strategies in place to support them as best I can?

I have written here, here and here in the past about classroom strategies for teaching upper secondary curriculums to EAL students. I am an interested novice. But now as a coordinator I am concerned about curriculum level interventions.

The context will matter both in terms of the cohorts profile and the curriculums that can be offered as well as their flexibility. I coordinate the IB, which is a flexible system in the sense that, when combined with an American style High School Diploma, students have the option of taking IB certificates in as many or as few courses as they would like.

But I am blue-skying today and want to think about how to offer the full Diploma to as many of my students as possible in this imaginary cohort.

Making the Diploma accessible

There are ways to do this but it may require restrictions in certain areas, for example limiting extended essay subject selection to the students mother tongue or English B if the students level of English is so low that the team feels this would preclude them for taking the extended essay in another academic subject, like business studies or economics for example.

And what level of English is too low? Whats the cut off? Recently I have discussed, with colleagues, using lexile analysis to determine what the English grade reading level is of my EAL students as well as the lexile score. This is a measure of how dense a text is. The lexile score is useful for a number of reasons. It can be used to work out what the equivalent reading age in English is for the EAL students and it can compared to the lexile level of the textbooks used on the course, allowing teachers to the see the difference in where there kids are at and the material they need to present.

The lexile analysis of a biology textbook. The level ranges from Y13/G12 to post secondary!

Lexile analysis can be performed here. Teachers can set up their own accounts but I think this should be done centrally on a term by term basis or semester by semester basis and the information shared with students and their families, as well as teachers as part of a set of on going sharing of strategies and training on support EAL students in the academic classroom.

Hirsch (2016) claims that “Vocabulary size is the outward and visible sign of an inward acquisition of knowledge.”Lexile analysis therefore shows us not only what these students can read but what they know in English as well. Hirsch makes the case that the more domain specific knowledge students acquire, the more their vocabulary naturally increases. This is why, for Hirsch, knowledge rich elementary curriculums are so important. They ensure that students acquire vocabulary and this vocabulary acquisition is the magic formula for reducing inequality. Children from affluent families have more vocabulary when they start school (they oral life at home is richer) compared to their disadvantaged peers and knowledge curriculums help them to catch up.

In a sense our EAL students are like disadvantaged native language children; they certainly don’t benefit from homes where English is spoken and so they don’t benefit from expanding their knowledge and vocabulary in English when they leave school.

The matthew effect shows how learners who have knowledge will tend to acquire more at a faster rate and those with less will acquire knowledge more slowly. This is one of the important psychological principles often overlooked by commentators who claim if we teach knowledge then our kids will be competing with computers. Teaching knowledge is the only way to ensure that they can be life long learners; the more knowledge we have in our brains the quicker we gain new knowledge.  This is also known as the knowledge capital principle it takes knowledge to make knowledge.

Hirsch also claims that “High school is too late to be taking coherent content seriously” as part of his argument for knowledge rich elementary curriculums. Where does this leave our EAL students?

Evidence from cognitive science also shows us that knowledge is domain specific and that it doesn’t transfer readily. Thus students may now about the detailed components that make up the processes of photosynthesis in Korean, but they are unlikely to be able to transfer this knowledge from Korean into English. This creates real problems when it comes to supporting EAL students in the mainstream academic classrooms.

Taking all of the above int account, it seems that we need to begin by getting students exposed to speaking and thinking in English as much as possible.

Let me be clear here, as I have run into hot water on this one in schools. If the aim of a school is to have students graduate by passing English language academic exams for whatever greater purpose, then I think that in school, whenever possible, students need to be encouraged to speak English. I don’t say this because I am a cultural imperialist but because it is demonstrably the best way of getting students to learn the academic subjects, most of the time.

As an IBDP Coordinator this means, among other things, ensuring that students get as much time in the English acquisition classroom as possible. I would consider placing all the students into the English B HL class  at the start of their course. This would give them more hours in the acquisition classroom initially. As they progressed through the course we could look at their progress to see if they could afford to drop down to SL.

Clearly there is a balance to be struck here. Forcing kids to be taking an HL subject they might not be into could seriously backfire in terms of motivation and so continual communication with teachers, students and parents is essential.

To ensure that students felt like they were making progress (and therefore maintaining their motivation – psychology) I would consider having dedicated EAL support after school. This time would be given over to allow the students to do grade-levelled reading in English.

I also apply the IB research discussed in this post to ensure that their is ongoing monitoring of the learners progress, too often students are assessed at the beginning of the year and never again. Ongoing, regular assessment of learners progress is necessary here.

Since beginning to write this, I have been introduced to a piece of software that appears to be an answer to some of these questions.

I hope that ongoing posts on this topic will help me explore the strategies that can be put in place to ensure all learners succeed.

References

E.D. Hirsch (2016) Why knowledge matters: Rescuing our children from failed educational theories. Harvard Education press

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.

 

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