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.

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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.

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