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.

 

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