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.
Wait. What do you mean it’s Week 4 already?
This term feels like it has gone from nought to a hundred in less than 0.25 seconds. And it’s not slowing down…
As many readers of this blog would know, I made the move to Sydney at the end of the last school year. 2015 has brought with it a new city, new job(s), new school(s), new colleagues, new kids, new system, new processes…new just about everything. Needless to say my head’s been left in a bit of a spin at times.
Today provided a great opportunity to take a breather and take stock of what’s happened so far and the direction in which my role as a secondary EAL/D teacher in a Catholic girls’ school in the south-west of Sydney is headed. A cross-regional EAL/D Induction Day offered the chance to meet key contacts within CEO Sydney and other new EAL/D teachers, to generate greater clarity about our role description and to engage with a range of resources.
Some of these resources were the same as ones I had engaged with in Adelaide, but many are different. Some are designed specifically for EAL/D specialist teachers, and others are for mainstream classroom teachers. The fact that EAL/D strategies are effective for all students in a mainstream classroom is something of which I have become acutely aware in my time as a specialist teacher in Adelaide. However, the cultural demographics I am working within Sydney’s south-west have truly reaffirmed this in a very short amount of time. In a school where roughly 70% of the girls are identified as LBOTE or ESL, it is simply impossible for an EAL/D teacher with a 0.6 FTE allocation to offer direct support to every student. Therefore the role of the classroom teacher in developing the language and literacy levels of the students is of the utmost importance.
So here are some resources that have helped me on my short, yet information-packed journey within CEO Sydney so far and that would serve both specialist and mainstream teachers very well in the work with LBOTE and EAL/D students…
Written by the team at CEO Sydney, this book provides definitions of roles, strategies for identifying and assessing EAL/D students and for supporting them in the mainstream classes, suggestions for effective practice for EAL/D practitioners. Whilst the language of ESL is still used, chapters are being updated throughout 2015 to align with the language of the Australian Curriculum. The content, however, remains fantastic and useful for teachers of EAL/D in any state. Available to order at the CEO Sydney Bookshop.
A document specifying the characteristics and behaviours of EAL/D students as they progress in their language development. It has been used since the 1990s, and the South Australian Language and Literacy Levels document has developed from this and the ACARA documentation. Available at the CEO Sydney Bookshop.
Overview, advice, EAL/D learning progression, annotated content descriptors for English, Maths, Science and History, and student illustrations of the learning progression. Created specifically for mainstream classroom teachers. Available here.
CEO Sydney’s online learning modules for individual teachers, school groups and leadership.
Twitter Hashtag #ealdconnect
A handle for EAL/D teachers to connect and discuss learning on Twitter.
Last week an EAL Consultant from Catholic Education SA, who I have worked closely with over the past couple of years, invited me to create a video sharing my experiences, observations, data and reflections on the use of Reading to Learn in my English and Italian classrooms. It was a fantastic opportunity to reflect on my own practice, but also to speak to a number of students and hear their reflections about how useful they find this approach to language and literacy. The kids astounded me with the depth of their insights, and I wish I was able to share their videos here (privacy policies prevent me from doing so). Fortunately, their voices will be heard at a formal presentation that the above-mentioned consultant is preventing both overseas and in South Australia. In the meantime, I can publish my own video, so I’ll let the vlog below speak for itself!
I love it when a classroom experiment works!
For some time now I have been experimenting with using Reading to Learn strategies in my LOTE classroom. As an English and LOTE teacher, I am in the fortunate position of being able to play around with the pedagogy in both languages and expand my own knowledge and that of my students in regards to how languages function. For a while I have been using it to build understanding of vocabulary in context in my middle school classes which tended to lend itself to focusing on participants, but I felt the students needed something more.
As mentioned in my previous posts, I am currently involved in a professional development project through Catholic Education South Australia where my main focus is strategies for improving my students’ understanding of the written language system in Italian and their ability to apply in it to their own communications in the subject, as required by the Australian Curriculum: Languages.
I started by gathering raw data on some of my Year 9 students, getting them to write a letter of introduction to me in Italian. Many of them struggled to write more than five lines about themselves.
In order to address this, I decided to extend what I had already been doing with contextual vocabulary and participants, and trial the same methodology in Italian focusing on processes. My aim was for the students to be able to produce a short biography about their favourite band or musician in the target language. The foundation of this was to be achieved during a double lesson this morning.
1. Detailed reading using a model text about the Arctic Monkeys as a ‘hook’. Students highlighted key verb structures and made notes.
2. Cloze exercise using the same text, with verb groups omitted. Students had to fill them into the correct spaces based on their new knowledge.
3. Word bank table containing useful participants, processes and circumstances. Students had to choose a band or musician and add relevant information.
4. Writing – students used the tables to construct ten sentences in Italian about their band or musician. This will be checked before they produce their final copy.
The lesson went extremely well and students engaged for the majority of the double lesson (anyone who teaches Year 9 would know how rare that can be!).
My observations from the lesson
- Highly scaffolded – increased confidence for many students. Some wanted to go beyond what was taught. This was great, however the point of the lesson was to ensure the sentences were structured correctly before moving on, and some were skipping that step in their rush to pack as much information in as possible.
- The students worked silently for an extended period – not because they were told to be quiet, but they were engaged in and concentrating on their own work rather than being distracted by others
- Students who usually struggle with Italian were able to do the task, whilst high achievers were still extended
- Students started to use their own strategies, highlighting the words relevant to their topic, adding new words and asking if they could use the model for structure – showing initiative!
- Students who usually procrastinate actively asked questions, sought support and wanted more information for their own interest and to take their writing further
- More on-task time and independent work.
- Students are being exposed to and are beginning to recognise the features of the past tense without the confusion of going through the structures at this point (one of our challenges is that we never seem to get beyond the present tense with our middle school LOTE learners).
At this stage I can use anecdotal evidence to demonstrate what I feel were the successes of this lesson. Students were clearly feeling more confident about their work, and their questions were less like “what’s the answer?” and more like “how can I do X?” I have gathered some partially finished work samples, but these will be completed next week. Of course, they are not perfect and nor do I expect them to be, but it will be interesting to see how they use feedback given on this piece of writing to refine their final piece for submission. More to come from this very happy Italian teacher!
I feel like I’ve been neglecting my little bit of cyberspace for some time, but the extended break has been much needed.
I have started this year fresh, excited about my dual role as both a classroom and an EAL teacher. The last two years have seen many hours of Professional Development through Catholic Education SA, culminating in a fantastic opportunity for a close colleague and myself to take on the EAL role halfway through last year. This year, my colleague and friend moved on to another fantastic opportunity and I found myself taking on the remainder of the EAL load. Whilst this was, at first daunting – given that I was taking the responsibility for a job that we had enjoyed sharing – the opportunities that the role opens up for my own learning and teaching are becoming increasingly clear. I provide in-class support for EAL students and their teachers, and in just a couple of weeks of visiting classes, I have learnt so much about EAL and my own teaching in general. More to come in later posts…
My responsibilities (at least for the first part of this year) also include data collection for Catholic Education SA, which will involve even further engagement with and accountability to the DECD Language and Literacy Levels.
In my own teaching area of LOTE, I am extremely conscious that the Australian Curriculum for Italian is on its way – progress is slow, but it is coming. This will require further responsibilities in our faculty to review our programs and ensure that our teaching and learning meet the requirements.
So, my focus for my blog this year will be on my work in EAL whilst I am in the role, and the development of the Australian Curriculum for Languages. I’m looking forward to a busy and exciting year, with all the positive challenges that it may bring. Happy 2014 all!