Category Archives: Reflections

Do we need longer school days or more flexible ones?

Two posts in two days is a rarity for me at the moment, but I’ve had the opportunity to do some reading this weekend and I’m a little riled up.

The first piece of reading was Lucy Clark’s Beautiful Failures, which I speak about in my last post. The second, which popped up on my Facebook feed on Sunday morning, I’m not so impressed by.

Yesterday the Adelaide Advertiser ran an article online titled “Two in three parents want the school day extended, SA Association of State School Organisations survey finds.”

‘Well, is that so?’ I thought to myself and clicked the link  to see what kind of quality reporting I might find. This is the Advertiser, remember…

So, the article basically explains that the SA Association of State School Organisations ran this survey of approximately 700 people(quite a small sample size given the many thousands of school age children in SA), 94 per cent of whom were parents, and found that a staggering 66 per cent of them wanted longer school days. There were three primary reasons for this:

  1. relieve financial pressure on families
  2. reduce the need for homework
  3. provide greater access to activities such as art, music, and sport.

Let’s unpack this a little.

Firstly, relieving financial pressure. The article states that the number of respondents who said that extending the school day would relieve financial pressure is the same as the number who place their child in Out of School Hours Care. At its crudest level, this equates to them wanting the school to provide a cheaper childminding option. What is being ignored here is the fact that the teachers who are then required (not volunteering, required) to provide the additional supervision would also come at a cost, leading to increased school fees. Not to mention that most teachers’ hourly wage would be more than that of an OSHC supervisor, so would it really be a cheaper option?

Next, reduce the need for homework. Now, I am very open to a logical discussion about the pros and cons of homework. I believe that too often it gets set for the sake of it. However, that aside, the argument that a longer school day will reduce the need for homework and therefore reduce stress makes no sense at all. The students would be spending more time at school, doing more work. A great deal of research suggests that homework is not beneficial for students so I think what is required here is not more hours at school, further exhausting already tired children and teachers (have you met a class of kindergarteners or 14 year olds at 3pm?), but an evidence-based discussion between schools and parents about the value of homework and how it is set.

The third reason in favour of longer school days was to provide greater access to activities such as art, music and sport. A valid issue that the article does raise is that a crowded curriculum and a fixation on literacy and numeracy to improve NAPLAN results means that time dedicated to the pursuit of such subjects is being squeezed out. These are subjects that encourage communication and creativity and that research suggests helps to shape our minds and make them more flexible. Lucy Clark, in Beautiful Failures, also refers to research that shows that music education is linked to positive well-being in students. Now, if this is a reason for a longer school day, or public schools offering more services, I might be able to be swayed but it would take some work because I do not believe that it can be made mandatory for all students and all staff.

So how by long did the parents who responded to this survey want the school day to be extended? Supposedly more than half wanted eight hour days, while 15 per cent wanted nine to ten hour days. Nine to ten! This, in itself, is obscene given the number of students who are already suffering anxiety and burnout. According to Beyond Blue, one in six young Australians currently experiences an anxiety condition and their greatest worries are stress and school, in that order. But sure, let’s keep them there longer…

Now, what must be noted is that the article is not one hundred per cent clear about what it means by a “longer school day.” So far I have interpreted it to be a longer instructional day, and indeed, that’s how the first part of the article and the parents’ reasoning makes it seem. It’s not until later that SAASSO’s director suggests that no-one is calling for a longer instructional day (questionable). But one of the survey’s findings was that 75 per cent of respondents wanted secondary schools to offer night classes. Now we are talking not necessarily about a longer school day for the students, but flexibility in hours. There seems to be more evidence to support this approach than the longer approach. Merrylands East Public School, in Sydney’s west has altered its school day to run from 8am to 1.15pm to ensure that students are learning at the optimum time for brain function. There is no less instructional time, but the results have been positive. There is also research that suggests most teenagers (who studies show require more sleep) would benefit from a later start to the school day. Schools such as Templestowe College in Melbourne have responded to this and operate three schedules including a 10.30am start (with a later finish). Of course logistically this would be a challenge (good luck to whoever is involved in timetabling that) but the flexibility could also be built in for the staff. Simply creating a longer school day is rigid and does not take into account the needs of many for flexibility.

As a teacher and a human being, I cannot support a mandatory extension of the school day as some parts of this article seem to be suggesting is needed. I do not believe there is any benefit in that for the well-being of students and teachers. What I could get around is a rethinking of how we structure school and approach learning to provide greater flexibility, in time, in environment and in teaching and learning style.

And on that note. Rant over for the weekend.

‘Beautiful Failures’ – Lucy Clark

Every now and then, in the busy-ness of the term, I find myself with a very rare opportunity on a weekend to sit down and read something of my own choosing. Any teacher can tell you that that doesn’t happen often.

So when an invite appeared in my inbox to a presentation by journalist Lucy Clark, author of the recently released Beautiful Failures: How the quest for success is harming our kids, I opted to pick up a copy from my local bookstore and settled down on the couch to read. That was yesterday. I finished the book early this afternoon.

beautiful failures

Clark presents an account of the flaws in the Australian education system that are leading our children and young people to experience unprecedented levels of stress and anxiety, disengagement with school and difficulty finding employment at the end of their education than ever before. This could easily have become an exercise in teacher bashing, and as someone who fakes a smile but secretly seethes each time a friend jokes (I know, they’re just joking, stop being so sensitive, right?) that as a teacher I only work from 9am – 3pm each day and am basically a glorified baby sitter, I tend to put up the defences when it comes to people who might actually be arguing that seriously.

But this piece, by Suzanne Leal at The Australian, coupled with the invitation I received convinced me that the book might be worth a read. And, boy, was it!

Clark draws on a large body of research to consider the nature of our educational system and other systems around the world and to explore how the high stakes competition and testing impacts children who, like her daughter and many others, are “square pegs in round holes”; they don’t fit the mould that the traditional educational model, dating back in many ways to the nineteenth century, imposes upon them. And because of this, they are seen as failures – the deficit is with them.

It would be the easy way out for Clark to start pointing fingers at teachers and I can already feel people bristling as they read that last sentence. Yet this is the opposite of what she does and she recognises that most teachers and principals do not see their students that way. However, Clark doesn’t pull any punches in her deconstruction of the current system’s manner of reducing students to numbers and rankings and limiting the creativity and professional agency of teachers and principals. The well-being of students is severely compromised as is that of their teachers. Curriculum is prescriptive and tests and exams carry with them the perceived threat of “not achieving in life” and sometimes the very real threat of being limited or excluded from subjects, schools, and universities. She cites incidences of higher rates of teenage self-harm and suicide in countries and areas (including Australia) where this pressure to achieve a number as determined by a set of criteria can, in the minds of many, literally define a young person. As I read through her analysis of what this competition is doing to many students, I couldn’t help but nod my head sadly. I cringe each time one of my students asks for where they ranked in the class after an assessment task, and the fact that in some places this actually gets published in black ink on their report card galls me. My heart breaks for the students who try so hard and yet see that number and perceive themselves as ‘unworthy.’ I worry as much for the straight A student in middle school whose worry – and it was a distressing one for this child – was that she wouldn’t top the class this year because of one B on a task. Clark asks, as many parents and teachers would ask, is this what education is really there for?

Clark explores the government’s powerful role in shaping the environment in which students learn. Education, she says, is like a political pawn or football that is tossed around by those in power to satisfy their own agenda, even if all research says this is to the detriment of our kids. And with the Australian government currently changing it’s Prime Minister almost as often as a pair of underpants, stable leadership in the matter and bipartisan support for projects that espouse a long-term solution is difficult to attain. One only need look at how bipartisan support for Gonski has diminished and fluctuated since the Liberal government took over under Tony Abbott to see why we manage to achieve such little change as a system.

Parents are not left out of Clark’s consideration either. She looks at how often well-intentioned parents bring their own ‘baggage’ and past experience of education to the table when it comes to the schooling of their children. There is an exploration of the “Tiger Mum” phenomenon heralding from East-Asia, the exhausting hours of coaching children are signed up for, the pressure felt by parents to get their children the ‘golden ticket’ into the most elite and selective schools, and the tendency of some parents to believe that they know best about education just because they went to school themselves. She calls for respectful partnerships between parents and schools, where the teacher is the expert in education and the parent is the expert in their child. Yes, question the teacher about how they are doing their job, she says in one chapter. As a parent you have every right because they are working with your child. But do so with respect and do not tell them how to do their job.

In a conversation on Twitter today, someone mentioned that parts of the book left them feeling quite disheartened about education, and there were times when I certainly felt the same way. But Clark shows the same compassion towards parents, teachers and principals as she is advocating for for the students who don’t fit the specifications our industrial model education system places on them.  She describes an education system that has some inherent and serious flaws and I found myself nodding my head in agreement the whole way through. Alternative solutions are offered through explorations of Finland’s high achieving, low pressure approach to education (they top the PISA rankings, consistently ahead of countries such as Korea where students could be involved in study for 16 hours a day, and are well ahead of other western countries such as Australia and the United States), Steiner education, and progressive and collaborative schools who have entirely rethought their approach to learning such as the Northern Beaches Christian School in Sydney and Templestowe College in Melbourne. But I’m still left wondering, unless something revolutionary occurs at the level of government and policy, will Australia ever be able to adequately address these flaws in the system, which lead to 26 percent of teenagers not completing high school, on a national scale?

Clark’s book is conversational and engaging and I have only managed to scratch the surface of her extensive research. Despite the complexity of the issues she deals with, this is a book that is as accessible to parents and people less familiar with the inner workings of education as it is to educators. If you have the opportunity and are invested in any way, shape or form in our educational system, have a read. It may make you curious, it may make you angry, it may make you disheartened and it may make you hopeful. But it will certainly get you thinking.

 

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.

Peace.

 

“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.

classrooms

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.

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.

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.

Reflections of an “Accidental” Primary School Teacher

I have always respected primary school teachers. My sister is trained in early childhood and special education, and several friends teach different levels of primary school. To each of them I have always said the same thing: “I don’t think I could ever do what you do.”

There was a reason nine years ago that I opted to train in secondary teaching. In fact there were several, and I was certainly quite adamant that I could not teach primary – and I mean that in the sense that I did not have the skills and patience and therefore would fail miserably.

So imagine even my surprise at myself when a month ago a call was put out for someone to help with the Primary New Arrivals Program at two (now three) of the primary schools in Sydney’s inner west and northern region. They needed someone for a couple of days a week –  and I had a couple of days free – to work with students ranging from Kindergarten to Year 5. I found myself jumping at the opportunity and a week and a half later, I was walking into a primary school full of excitable and inquisitive little people. The children are warm and welcoming, and love to have a regular visitor. But of course, they also come with challenges, just different ones from the secondary students.

Some things I’ve learnt so far that I would say to any secondary teacher who finds themselves unexpectedly in a primary classroom:

1. Firstly, preparation is the key. There is no “ten-step lesson plan” when you are spending all day with the same 20-30 five to ten year olds.

2.The colour printer and laminator become your best friends. Invest in them and use them well. My Wednesday and Thursday nights currently involve me sitting in front of the television printing resources, then cutting, laminating and cutting them again. At one particularly dark moment when the laminator was eating my work, I asked a primary teacher friend if there was any reprieve from it…she laughed and just said “sometimes.”

2. That ever-patient and happy early childhood voice does not come naturally. It is a skill of which Kindergarten teachers are the gurus.

3. Get ready to sing and dance and look like a fool. I had to get over this phobia very quickly…and you know what, five year olds don’t care, anyway!

4. There will be bodily fluids involved at some point. Whether it’s being sneezed on, having drool left all over your stationery, or anything else…brace yourself.

5. They don’t care if what they have to say is completely irrelevant to what you’re doing…they will give you a full account anyway. Or maybe it seems relevant to them… who knows?

5. They are HARD work and they can be crazily needy. Yet it is also FUN and incredibly rewarding to see them achieve even the smallest of things – which for them are huge steps.

So yes, I have always respected primary school teachers, but that’s been deepened now with some insight and experience with the younger students.

calvin and hobbes

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