Great Podcasts for Education

Early this year my car radio decided to quit and I haven’t had chance to fix it yet. Given I work an hour away from home, this could make for some very long and boring commutes to and from school. Luckily there are a whole range of interesting and informative podcasts that I’ve managed to track down, and I thought I’d start to compile a list of suitable educational ones here on this blog.

Are there any educational podcasts that you love? I’d like to keep expanding on this list so please let me know!

When there are no sufficient answers…

I usually save this space for speaking about things like pedagogy, resources and issues in education. These are topics that I am passionate about, but which rarely evoke the kind of emotions and questions that I’m trying to reconcile at the moment, and that undoubtedly will impact on students and staff in our schools.

I was thirteen when the World Trade Center was attacked on September 11, 2001. I still distinctly remember watching the coverage as I got ready for school that morning, and the cloud that hung over everybody as we observed the events that unfolded over the next few days and weeks. This was the first time the notion of terrorism had come into my conscience, and the first time it occurred to me that the world was not entirely safe. In the 14 years since, there have been continual reminders of how vulnerable we are and how fragile human life is. And this week we are feeling this yet again.

As we in the “western world” struggle to comprehend the atrocities committed in France this weekend, we grapple with so many emotions – helplessness, vulnerability, fear, grief, outrage…just to name a few. There are the obligatory statements from those leading our nations and inevitable changes in policy, both at home and overseas, to protect us, to protect our country and to protect those our country counts amongst its closest friends. In our capital cities we light our monuments and buildings in French colours; the Premier of NSW sources a French flag large enough to fly at the top of the Sydney Harbour Bridge alongside the Australian flag.

As individuals, it is times like this that we seek connection and solidarity with like-minded people. Some people attend memorial ceremonies and masses. Many people express their grief, confusion, and support for those affected on social media. Facebook creates a “safe” button and allows its users to temporarily superimpose the French flag over their profile pictures. I’ve heard some commentators criticise this as “slacktivism,” but I hesitate to call it that because I think in situations such as these, people (rightly) feel so strongly about a situation that they personally cannot influence, that they look to show their support for those affected in a visible and immediate way.

Liberté, égalité, fraternité.

At the same time, I feel somewhat unsettled by this phenomenon, because as a society Australia can be unintentionally selective in our outrage (some darker elements of our society are intentionally selective – I choose not to give them air time here).

I am struggling, not because I don’t believe in what this movement is saying, but because of what it is NOT saying. Twenty-four hours before the Paris attacks, 40 people were murdered in an attack in the streets of Beirut, Lebanon. On 10 October, at least 95 people were killed when twin bombs were detonated in Ankara, Turkey. People in Syria are facing terrorism on a daily basis, and these are just a handful of examples of the horrific impact of terrorism in our world. Yet, they do not receive anywhere close to the international attention attracted by similar events in the west. We don’t see the red, white and green of Lebanon, the red and white of Turkey or the green, white, red and black of Syria, lighting up our national monuments. Enormous groups of people do not attend mass at St Mary’s Cathedral to pray in unity for the souls of those lost.

Blogger Joey Ayoub, who hails from “a privileged Francophone community in Lebanon” writes a poignant and heartbreakingly honest account of this weekend’s events. To him, it seems that “my people’s deaths in Beirut do not matter as much as my other people’s deaths in Paris.” This seems mortifying to the average, well-intentioned Australian – but it is the message we are sending through omission.

So why, as a society, do we allow ourselves to be so selective in our outrage? Have we simply come to accept that this senseless violence must be a part of everyday life in the Middle-East and other areas of the world?

I guess, in terms of action that individuals can take right now, it starts at home with ensuring our 480,000 strong Muslim population knows they are valued, included and an important part of our society. The worst thing we could do is isolate them because of the vile actions that some people commit under the guise of their religion.

As a country, we need to be visibly united, not just with other western countries, but with the global community at large. We need to show that we care about the innocent people in countries being torn apart by violence, even those who, politically, perhaps have a slightly different world view to our own. I just don’t know how we do this in a way that is meaningful, rather than tokenistic. And that’s what I’m grappling with…people much smarter than me might have some answers – but at the moment I just can’t shake a sense of sadness and helplessness for what’s happening in our world.

So as we #PrayForParis, let’s also make sure we do so as ardently for all of those suffering in the face of terrorism in our world.



Enhancing Student Learning Through Collaborative Planning

It is widely accepted that the Australian population is becoming increasingly culturally and linguistically diverse. This is reflected in our classrooms, with students bringing a great variety of linguistic experience to school with them.

The targeted support of struggling English language learners was once largely the responsibility of the EAL/D practitioner. But with the increasing diversity and decreased funding, this role has evolved. Now, the government and Catholic education sectors in New South Wales promote a whole-school approach to addressing the needs of English language learners. This means that the EAL/D teacher now works in a range of modes, depending on the needs of the students and teachers at the school. In the Sydney Catholic Education system, EAL/D teachers might operate through a combination of:

  • team teaching
  • withdrawal
  • bilingual classroom support
  • resource teaching
  • EAL/D informed instruction
  • parallel teaching
  • bilingual teaching

(Catholic Education Office Sydney, EAL/D K-12 Position Paper, 2014)

Many of these modes require collaboration, but team teaching and resources teaching rely upon it. Collaborative planning involving the EAL/D specialist teacher and mainstream teachers (and supported by leadership through actions, words and policies) is an essential component of the whole school approach. It helps to meet the needs of all students requiring targeted support, not just those that the EAL/D teacher is able to get to.

The Board of Studies, Teaching and Educational Standards defines collaborative planning with relation to special education as, “the process undertaken to determine the most appropriate curriculum options and adjustments for a student with special education needs.” EAL/D students do not fall under the category of special needs, but if we were to replace the words “special education” with “diverse learning” and “adjustments” with “teaching strategies,” the definition would be adequate for our English language learners. Collaborative planning is essentially the opportunity for the EAL/D teacher to work with a group of classroom teachers to develop teaching strategies and programs that are age and stage appropriate and accessible to EAL/D students. It means that staff are up-skilled in their programming and classroom practice and more students are therefore exposed to the targeted teaching strategies – not just those who fall into the EAL/D specialist’s priority groups.

Like any approach, collaborative planning has its strengths and challenges. I recently asked @TESOLoz and @sammi_orazi, two experienced EAL/D teachers from primary schools in Sydney’s south-west, how they viewed collaborative planning.

Some of the strengths of the process included:

  • it provides an opportunity for EAL/D teachers to support in designing and creating communicative strategies, ways to scaffold learning, and programming and planning
  • it encourages specialist and classroom teachers to engage meaningfully with student data and to use the ESL Scales, EAL/D Progression and the Literacy Continuum.
  • these discussions ensure everybody is on the same page in terms of understanding the students’ language learning needs and how to address them through programming and teaching strategies.

Challenges included:

  • everyone involved must be prepared with data, documents, ideas, and open minds.
  • there is never enough time!

@TESOLoz indicated one way that her school manages this lack of time is by scheduling the EAL/D teachers’ RFF (relief from face-to-face teaching) at the same time as the teachers that they provide in-class support to. I love this because it means that the collaboration becomes on-going and a natural process. From a secondary perspective, however, it is even more difficult to find the time due to complex timetabling and teachers having many classes. This year the school I am at has taken the approach of providing release days for groups of classroom teachers from the same faculty who teach the same year level. On these days, the teams have worked with the Teaching and Learning Co-ordinator and the EAL/D teacher to complete a Language Analysis of their classes and then engage in collaborative planning. Whilst the time we have had has been limited, what the collaborative planning process has allowed is rich discussion of the language demands of the KLAs, and opportunities to analyse student data and begin to develop strategies to target their language learning across  the curriculum.

It takes hard work and commitment from all involved, but ultimately collaborative planning is essential to meeting the needs of our increasingly diverse student cohort. Often there are only one or two EAL/D teachers in a school and they are spread thin. By sharing knowledge and up-skilling classroom teachers, we provide a more equitable and accessible learning environment for more of our English language learners across the curriculum.


“Classrooms of Possibility” – by Hammond and Miller

Many recent articles and posts about English language education in Australia have highlighted the fact that this area is ever-changing and reflective of what is currently happening in our society. Undoubtedly, the teaching of English as an Additional Language or Dialect is undergoing transformation at a government and policy level with changes to funding and allocations, but also at a grass-roots level as various groups of people arrive in Australia, many of whom have been forced to flee their home countries. Under the UN’s Rights of the Child, the children that inevitably arrive here amongst these groups are entitled to an education and to access an age-appropriate curriculum (ACARA).

For EAL learners, who may arrive as refugees with potentially very low levels of literacy in their first language and are now attempting to learn concepts at the same time as learning a new language, accessing this curriculum becomes a challenge for both them and their teachers.

Jennifer Hammond and Jennifer Miller’s book Classrooms of Possibility: Supporting at-risk EAL students explores the range of experiences that refugees bring with them and the implications for their education here in Australia.


The contributors recognise that there is significant evidence “that the strongest predictor of educational success for students learning in a second (or additional) language is the level of formal education in their first language (Thomas & Collier, 1997)” (Hammond and Miller, p. 18). For students who may have had limited or disrupted schooling in their first language, learning the academic style of English required to succeed at school will be much more difficult. Additionally, they often have to adjust to new institutional structures, form social relationships, and negotiate needs with teachers and other students. They may also have to deal with traumatic incidents from their past, which can influence how they adjust in our school system. 

Despite these challenges, however, EAL students with disrupted schooling can still flourish with the right support. Hammond, Miller and their contributors use many years of research and experience to suggest ways that we can support these at-risk EAL learners in mainstream classrooms. Amongst these – and to me one of the most important – is the notion of “cultural capital”; that EAL students feel that the language experience they do have is important and a valuable tool for their future learning. Depending on their experiences as a minority group (it is important that we avoid treating all refugees as a homogenous group), these students may have become culturally and linguistically disenfranchised, made to feel lesser or as an “other.” One of the most valuable things we can do as teachers is to encourage them to maintain connections with their language and culture and, when they feel comfortable, to share that with others as a rich resource for learning.

I recently observed what may be a very simple example of this: a newly arrived Kindergarten student is often hesitant to use the English that she does know for fear that she might make a mistake. Instead, she prefers to speak to her teacher (a native English speaker) in her home language through her more confident older sister, who then translates as best she can. A noticeable change has occurred in the last couple of weeks however, with the kindergartener taking greater risks with her use of English. This seems to have coincided with the teacher making an effort to learn and regularly use a few words and phrases in the girls’ home language. The students, who come from a refugee background, are sharing knowledge with the teacher, rather than the language learning being one-directional. It would appear that, as a result of this, the younger girl has developed more of a sense of her own cultural capital (although I’m sure she wouldn’t phrase it that way!) which has in turn facilitated a greater confidence with her own language learning.

The general message here and from the far more research-based claims made in Hammond and Miller’s book is that whilst the needs of at-risk EAL learners are exceedingly complex and challenging, there are simple things that we can implement in the mainstream setting that support them to access the curriculum equitably.

A great test of this is imminent with the arrival of an extra 12,000 Syrian and Iraqi refugees, set to be resettled permanently in Australia starting in December. This will present a challenge for many of our schools, but the children have a right to an education and we have a responsibility to ensure they receive it on an equitable basis to their Australian-born peers. To the teachers and school leadership that this will affect, Classrooms of Possibility is an invaluable resource with a positive message about best practice in supporting these learners.

Teaching Reading Comprehension Using ‘Think Alouds’

This afternoon I downloaded (full of nerdy excitement) the winter ePub available to members of PETAA. The Winter release for 2015 is Joanne Rossbridge and Kathy Rushton’s Put It In Writing: Context, Text and Language, a book that explores how texts work and provides teaching and learning sequences and strategies for a range imaginative, informative and persuasive texts.

After reading through the introductory chapter, I cast my eye over the reference list, and one of the links caught my eye. Jeffrey D. Wilhelm’s 2003 chapter “Navigating Meaning: Using Think Alouds to Help Readers Monitor Comprehension” focuses on supporting students to develop their inferential skills using explicit strategies and teacher modelling.

When students first arrive at secondary school, it is very easy for us to make the assumption that they must be, after seven prior years of schooling, fluent readers. For some students this assumption is true – they have strong skills in making multi-layered meaning from the words that they read on the page. This leads to a tradition of programming – especially in the secondary English curriculum – that tends to be based heavily on writing and doesn’t necessarily explicitly address reading skills. Weaker readers may be able to read the sounds of the words, but often struggle to read beyond the literal, to make connections between the text and what it is saying (or not saying) about the real world. Indeed, these inferential reading skills have appeared regularly in initial PAT-R data as an area in which my incoming students have needed support. As Wilhelm comments about a struggling student, “He could decode most words and thought that was reading!”

Wilhelm promotes “Think Alouds” as an effective strategy for accelerating the learning of these weaker readers. The teaching and learning cycle that we so often use to teach writing – build the field, deconstruction, joint construction, and independent construction – is quite applicable to teaching reading. Wilhelm suggests the following steps:

  1. Teacher does, students watch – teacher reads a text, verbally modelling a variety of strategies (think aloud) to self-check understanding when reading. Create flowcharts and lists and post in the classroom.
  2. Teacher does, students help – another text is read and students prompt teacher and explain the steps that should be taken to check understanding
  3. Students do, teacher helps – students read a text, taking over the comprehension monitoring process themselves. Teacher supports when necessary.
  4. Students do – support is withdrawn when students are able to use inferential reading strategies independently.

Wilhelm does not mention it – perhaps it is just assumed –  but I believe that just like the approach to writing, building the field would be a useful first step prior to teacher modelling. In his Reading to Learn pedagogy, David Rose argues that building the field prior to reading helps to reduce the cognitive load for learners when reading challenging texts, allowing them to focus on meaning-making because they already have a sense of what the text is about and understand the more difficult vocabulary identified by their teacher.

I am currently involved in an action research professional learning through Catholic Education Sydney that focuses on consistently embedding simple but effective activities for teaching reading within most lessons, rather than in isolated instances. Think Alouds are a strategy that has been modelled to us and that is applicable, not just in English, but across the curriculum. In fact, one of the most effective ways I’ve seen it used is in teaching students to interpret worded Maths problems! They can be adapted depending on the level of schooling, the subject area, and indeed the needs of individual students or groups within a class.

There is no absolute quick fix for struggling readers, but with a consistent and regular approach using simple and effective strategies such as Think Alouds, we can support these learners to successfully infer meaning from age-appropriate and challenging texts. This will in turn benefit their development in other areas of language and literacy.

The Changing Face of EAL/D in Our Schools

Last week, The Conversation posted an article by Misty Adoniou – Senior Lecturer in Language, Literacy and TESL at the University of Canberra. In this piece, Adoniou considered what the inevitable influx of refugee students will mean for Australian schools. Over the next few months, 12,000 Syrian refugees will arrive, many of them children who will be welcomed into the education system. But are we currently equipped to adequately support them?

Based on current performance, Adoniou would suggest that we are not:

 Research reveals students from refugee backgrounds are most likely to be in the lowest quartile of achievement as measured by national standardised testing (NAPLaN).

This is unsurprising, given their circumstances. They are learning and being assessed through a new language. They have had interrupted schooling which leads to inevitable gaps in their curriculum knowledge. They are emotionally fragile due to the traumatic circumstances of their past few years and their ongoing worries about the family and friends left behind. (Adoniou, 7th October 2015)

This poses an enormous challenge for schools and educators working with these students. Many of these children and their families want to learn, want to succeed, and are in a safer environment where it is now more conducive to do so. Yet when there are so many complex factors impacting on their lives – new culture, new language, new school system, potentially traumatic events in their past – it is understandable that the students’ desire and effort to achieve is often simply not enough.

But that does not mean the future is all doom and gloom. As a government and an educational system, we do need to ensure the correct structures are in place to support these learners. Adoniou argues for a return to Gonski, a report that proposed resource loading for students who require English language learning support. However, unfortunately there is still no measure by which to determine who qualifies for this funding and who does not, and strangely, there is no obligation for the states to use the federally allocated funds on the EAL/D learners for whom it was intended!

Adoniou notes that in a survey by the Australian Council of TESOL Associations more than 50% of English teachers indicated that funding was not being spent on English language learners. So where is it going?

The article suggests that instead of going directly to the students who attracted the funding, the money is often being pooled into general literacy programs under the common misconception that language learning = literacy:

Mainstream literacy teaching is not sufficient. Literacy programs work on the premise that students can already speak and understand English, and will bring innate knowledge of the English language to learning how to read and write.

It is the job of the teacher to make English language knowledge visible to their EALD learners. However, this is beyond the expertise of mainstream generalist teachers, for whom English grammar is intuitive and invisible. While they can correct those errors, they cannot explain those errors. EALD students need teachers with specialist training in the teaching of English as an additional language. (Adoniou, 7th October 2015)

So what can be done? As Adoniou notes, it takes a long time to learn a language, especially the academic language required for success in the Australian school system. It is said that EAL/D children generally acquire Basic Interpersonal Communication Skills (BICS), or ‘playground language’ within a few terms. But Cognitive Academic Language Proficiency (CALP) can take 8-10 years to achieve, and we rarely have that amount of time to get students up to speed. An effective solution, Adoniou suggests, is to “fund them out of needing funding.” If the money intended for those students is put towards intensive English language programming specifically for them, then there will be greater accountability in schools for their progress, and they will acquire language more rapidly and not require on-going support for as long.

This is not to say that great things are not being done in schools for New Arrivals. There are a number of fantastic intensive English programs in the government, Catholic and independent sectors. Unfortunately, the funding is severely limited (often only 6 months per student) thereby limiting what the dedicated teachers and students are able to achieve. Often, through no fault of their own or their teachers, these students leave the intensive programs for mainstream classrooms still not proficient in the level of language needed for them to access the curriculum on the same basis as their peers and with even more limited support in their new schools. The current system sets them up to struggle.

Adoniou ends the article with a sense of optimism, though. These students will be positive and productive citizens in Australian society, if we can just get the approach to their education right. It is challenge, representing a change that needs to start with those who make the decisions in departments and schools, but it is an achievable one.

Great Free Apps for Upper Primary EAL/D Students

The Importance of Prioritising Oral Language for EAL/D Learners

I find the idea of a quiet classroom being a productive classroom a difficult one to reconcile myself with. Of course, there are times when it is appropriate for the room to be silent, but in terms of lesson activities, I would prefer to hear the room buzzing with targeted discussion about the topic at hand. That’s not to say that I believe my students are always on task when they’re talking – I do have some sense of realism – but for me, sustained and targeted talk is a satisfying sign of student engagement.

To this end, from an EAL/D perspective, I find it to be a bit of an oxymoron that in secondary schools, we often push students to write about topics before they can even talk about them. So much of our content focus is based on written texts, but classroom learning is heavily reliant on oral interaction. This may work for some native speakers or exceptional EAL/D students, but it is not a situation that generates equal access to the curriculum.

Australia has an education system (including government, Catholic and independent schools) who, regardless of faith identification, mostly espouse values inherently based on the justice principle that “fair does not equal the same.” We differentiate because some students require more support than others, because students have different learning styles, because all students are different.


Equal versus Fair

In any language I know of, children learn to talk before they learn to write. For a native English speaker in Australia they are immersed in this from birth. For a non-native English speaker, they may not begin to learn to communicate in English until they reach school age, or even later if they were not born in Australia and migrated as older children. This means we need to provide targeted and sustained support to EAL/D students to ensure that they can access an age-appropriate curriculum on the same basis as their peers. And this begins with oral communication.

It is estimated that BICS (Basic Interpersonal Communication Skills), or ‘playground language’, takes a new arrival student between two and three terms to learn. So in less than a year, they may seem fluent in English when we observe them interacting with their peers. But CALP (Cognitive Academic Language Proficiency), the language students need in order to access the curriculum, can take 5 to 8 years of intensive and targeted language instruction. This doesn’t mean just sitting in a classroom learning content or rote learning verb tenses, but participating in a classroom in which the teacher uses carefully planned strategies to explicitly teach both the content and the academic language that goes with it. Students learn to engage in the academic talk in the classroom through constant practice, and as these skills develop, then they are able to learn to apply academic language in their writing. It is all well and good for us to tell students “You’re writing the way that you speak” (Translation: Your writing sounds like the informal language you use with your friends), but they will not be able to fix that unless we explicitly teach them how to make the transition – and this starts with oral communication.

So what are some simple methods we can use to scaffold the academic ‘talk’ of EAL/D learners? Here are a few that I and some of my colleagues have found helpful this year.

  • Think-Pair-Share – students are given a topic/question and a set amount of time to record their thoughts and ideas about it. They then pair up and share/consolidate/confirm ideas and understandings, before sharing with the class.
  • Jigsaw reading/listening – students become experts on the topic they have read about/listened to. Discuss with a group of ‘experts’ on the same topic, then go back to ‘home group’. Each home group member reports on their allocated topic.
  • Last word – students choose a sentence that stands out to them in a text. Read choice to group. All other members make one comment each, then the original group member makes their own comment about their choice.

An EAL/D Leader of Learning at CEO Sydney also suggested the use of video to encourage short, informal oral communication practice. I have just started using it once a week with an older student who is finding it very difficult to achieve BICS. We started with talking for 30 seconds about a topic (e.g. What job I’d like to do when I leave school) and are gradually increasing the length of time that she talks for. It’s great because she can take ownership of what she wants to say without having to prepare anything formal and it is non-threatening – I prepare a model in which I answer the question I’d like her to respond to, she gets to have a giggle at the fact that even a teacher finds speaking on video awkward and then she creates a response while I am out of the room. The product creates a focal point for improving her oral expression and pronunciation, and a mode of informal on-going assessment. This could easily be extended to suit a group of students.

So, there are lots of ways that we can get our student talking and then use that talk to scaffold their literacy skills. Given the fact that so many of the literacy skills that students need in order to successfully manage the curriculum stem from oral language, I really do question how any perpetually quiet classroom is really catering for the variety of needs of the language learners within the room.

LBOTE, EAL/D and Strategies for Supporting Language Acquisition in the Mainstream

This afternoon I made a presentation at a staff meeting about the nature of LBOTE and EAL/D students and simple strategies for supporting their language acquisition in the mainstream classroom. Shared below are the general slides (minus those specific to our school), including an explanation of the differences between LBOTE and EAL/D, the documents available to support mainstream teachers in their work with EAL/D students, and a variety of simple strategies for directly targeting the needs of these students in the mainstream classroom.

Draftback for Chrome

Dear my beloved blog, I’m sorry for neglecting you so horrendously! I’ve had a few hiatuses since starting this site, but this has been by far and away the most extended one. I’m aiming to get back into the habit of regular writing now that I’m finally settled into my teaching roles here in Sydney.

I thought I’d start off nice and gently with a plug for a very cool Chrome extension that a colleague showed me the other day.

Screen Shot 2015-06-15 at 9.40.23 pm

For those who don’t know it, Draftback is an extension for Chrome that draws upon the revisions you make to a document on Google Docs and plays them back for you as a video. It shows adjustments by anyone with editing access in chronological order and with a running time stamp at the top of the video. You can watch your work in real time or speed it up to 6 times the pace. This should be evident in the video below, which shows how I edited this blog post in Google Docs from separate gmail accounts. The video that the extension produces remain private unless you choose to publicise it (as I have here).

Draftback also produces a graphic representation of the writing and revision that occurred.

Screen Shot 2015-06-15 at 9.56.16 pm

On its Chrome Web Store ad, Draftback claims to show the “archaeology of great writing.” And I guess it is…it allows writers and collaborators to view the process that they went through to develop their written texts. In terms of education, what a fantastic tool for helping students to recognise the evolution of their work, to help them understand that writing is a continual process of revision, editing and improvement, even for the strongest writers. I can see opportunities for using this tool with my students to encourage the reflective process of learning, and also to understand how their writing evolved when I wasn’t standing over their shoulder watching!


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