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!

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

EAL/D Resources for Specialist and Mainstream Teachers

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…

ESL Guidelines

ESL guidelines

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.

ESL Scales

esl scale

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.

ACARA Website


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.

ESL Matters

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.


Covey’s Fifth Habit: Seek first to understand, then to be understood

Stephen R. Covey’s fifth habit of highly effective people suggests that we must first seek to understand others before we seek to be understood ourselves. He points to the importance of actively listening with the intent of understanding rather than the common response of speaking or preparing to speak. Covey calls this ’empathic listening’, and argues that it goes far beyond “registering, reflecting, or even understanding the words that are said.”

Covey draws on research that estimates that only one-tenth of our communications is conveyed through the words that we speak, whilst a third is represented by our sounds and almost two thirds by our gestures and body language. Empathic listening aims to understand meaning through “listening” to each of these communicative means: “you listen with your ears, but…more importantly, listen with your eyes and your heart.”

There are a number of skills involved in empathic listening, according to Covey, and they comprise of four developmental stages:

1. Mimic content – “active” or “reflective” listening (minimally effective)

2. Rephrase the content – reform the meaning in your own words and reflect it back to the person

3. Reflect feeling – paying greater attention to the way somebody feels about what they are saying.

4. Rephrase the content and reflect the feeling – this final stage gives the speaker “psychological air”. The listener is seeking to understand everything they are communicating, not only what they are saying through words. This is an important principle in cognitive coaching.


Once we seek to understand, then “knowing how to be understood is the other half of Habit 5.” In order to do this, Covey draws on the Greek philosophy ethospathoslogos.

Ethos is one’s “personal credibility, the faith people have in your integrity and competency.”

Pathos is the feeling, our empathy for others.

Logos refers to “the logic, the reasoning” component of the argument we are seeking to put forth.

Seeking first to understand others and then to be understood is within the Circle of Influence that Covey refers to earlier in his book, and it helps to expand that influence. Regardless of other people’s responses or behaviour, an individual can still attempt to understand. The more truly empathetic we are, the more opportunities for creative solutions that will present themselves, fostering more effective and productive relationships between people.


Covey’s Fourth Habit: Think Win-Win

In my previous posts, I have looked at the first three of Stephen R. Covey’s 7 Habits of Highly Effective People. Covey posits that when individuals (1) are proactive, (2) begin with the end in mind, and (3) put first things first, they move from dependence to independence. IMG_0598According to his thinking, when this triangle of ‘private’ or personal habits is achieved, we can look to move towards the higher plane of interdependence, wherein lie the next three habits.

Habit 4 is the tendency to “think Win-Win” – to look for the best outcome for all involved, in order to maintain long-term, mutually beneficial relationships in terms of family, social and business. Of course, there are other combinations of thinking involving winning and losing, all of which are outlined by Covey, and which may be appropriate in some circumstances. However, as he indicates, usually the most desirable outcomes for all come from Win-Win thinking.

Covey states that thinking Win-Win “is fundamental to success in all our interactions, and it embraces five interdependent dimensions of life. It begins with character and moves toward relationships, out of which flow agreements. It is nurtured in an environment where structure and systems are based on Win/Win. And it involves process.”

Character is the basis from which Win-Win thinking emerges, and everything else develops from the foundation. It involves integrity (the value we place on ourselves), maturity (defined by Covey as “the balance between courage and consideration”) and an abundance mentality (the belief that there is plenty out there for everybody).

Relationships develops from the foundation set by character. Through our integrity, maturity and abundance mentality, we are able to build trust with other individuals and work effectively towards shared goals and mutual benefits.

When we have formed relationships, the flow on effect is the ability to come to agreements. These “give definition and direction to Win-Win.” According to Covey, there are five elements to the Win-Win agreement:

1. Desired results – identify what is to be done and when.

2. Guidelines – specify the parameters within which the results are to be accomplished.

3. Resources – identify the support available to help accomplish the results.

4. Accountability – establishes standards of performance and the time of evaluation.

5. Consequences – specify what will happen as a result of the evaluation.

Structure and systems of the company, family unit or social group are important to the success of Win-Win thinking. If the talking is win-win, but the rewards benefit one party more than the other (Win-Lose) then there is likely to be an overall negative outcome for all.

Processes are the means by which we achieve a Win-Win end. It is how people go about understanding the other point of view, negotiating accordingly, identifying key issues and finding possible new options for achieving results.

So, Covey’s 4th habit describes the essence of interdependence – of working together to achieve positive results for all parties, rather than one party finding themselves with a profit while the other is at a deficit. This may be okay in sport, where one team wins and another loses, or in some areas of business, however generally in order to be strong and sustainable, organisations need to be able to work together. And it is certainly a way of thinking that needs to underpin our educational institutions – highly interdependent organisations where if Win/Lose thinking is the standard, then students are being impacted on detrimentally.

Covey’s Third Habit: Put First Things First

In my last post about Stephen R. Covey’s The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, I discussed his concept of things being created twice – once as an idea, the mental creation. The second creation is the physical creation of that idea, which forms Covey’s Third Habit.

The third habit is that of “putting first things first,” or practising effective personal management in order to achieve our goals. It is the left-brain aspect of self-management; how we break down, analyse, sequence, and apply projects, problems and challenges.

Covey explains that is the human quality of independent will “that really makes effective self-management possible.” He argues that it is our capacity to “make decisions and choices and act in accordance with them,” as well as “the ability to act rather than be acted upon.”

So when we are approaching a project or problem our ability to self-manage, or prioritise, in accordance with our goals and values, has an enormous impact on the outcome, or second creation of the vision.

There are a number of “generations” of time management that Covey discusses, each with their own limitations. The first generation involves notes and checklists, followed by the second generation characterised by calendars, diaries and appointment books. The third generation seems to be a complex combination of the first two – combining the important ideas related to prioritisation and the “relative worth of activities based on their relationship to [our] values.” It also includes daily and long-term planning to accomplish the goals and activities of greatest worth.

Whilst this third generation has great worth, it has a tendency to take out the human/relational element of our daily interactions, making the scheduling and control of time counterproductive. So how do we move to the fourth generation of self-management that combines enhanced human relationships with the accomplishment of results?

Covey suggests a time management matrix that captures how this might be achieved.The matrix consists of four quadrants:

Quadrant I – activities that are urgent and important

Quadrant II – activities that are not urgent but important.

Quadrant III – activities that are urgent but not important

Quadrant IV – activities that are not urgent and not important


Ideally, we want to be focusing mainly on activities that fall within Quadrant II. This will act to prevent problems that result in us having to focus on the crisis-management of Quadrant I. When we find ourselves focusing on Quadrants III and IV, this is when Covey suggests we are at our least effective – when we feel like we are doing a lot but not progressing or achieving our goals. Working within Quadrant II will allow us to effectively achieve results in relation to our vision and values in a time-efficient manner, whilst building positive working relationships with people.

As educators, who are often have a lot to do and minimal time in which to do it, this could provide a useful framework for helping to prioritise our own work and projects. On personal reflection, I can think of several times when I have felt “time-poor” and frustrated with a growing list of things to do. Whilst this growing list is inevitable in teaching, perhaps I wasn’t achieving as much as I would have liked because I was working within the bottom two quadrants. Yet there have also been times when I have had a lot to do, but have felt good “flow”, perhaps because during these times I was working more within Quadrant II. So, as the new school year commences in a couple of weeks, one of the aims I am setting myself is to be conscious of when I am working within each quadrant, and then adjusting my priorities to bring my activities into Quadrant II.


Teaching critical thinking

Last week a friend sent me the link to this article by Peter Ellerton, a lecturer in Critical Thinking at the University of Queensland, published by The Conversation. Ellerton questions what we mean when we say students are learning to think critically.

He points to the fact that educational outcomes often state that students will develop their ability to think critically, but this in itself is rather vague and not fully developed in any discipline, let alone in a cross-curricular context.

What Ellerton then proposes is a structure for approaching critical thinking across the curriculum. This structure is based on four key pillars:

1. Argumentation – “the process of intellectual engagement with an issue and an opponent with the intention of developing a position justified by rational analysis and inference.”

2. Logic – formal logic (deduction – the set of processes used in mathematics or a Sudoku puzzle) and informal logic (induction – how we generalise and analogise – often used in scientific processes).

3. Psychology – metacognition, “how our minds actually work”, and “the realisation that thinking isn’t so much something we do, as something that happens to us.”

4. The nature of science and statistics – learning about “the differences between hypotheses, theories and laws” to understand the credibility of science, and the use of statistics to empower students “to tackle difficult or complex issues.”

Ellerton is referring specifically to the teaching and learning of critical thinking at a tertiary level, but the structure that he proposes could be applied to a secondary or even primary school setting at an age-appropriate level. These four pillars could be defined in curriculum documents that propose the development of critical thinking skills, providing teachers from across disciplines a framework for explicitly targeting them throughout their programs. For example, it is incredibly empowering for a student to be able to understand and use metalanguage to describe and explain their cognitive and creative processes, or to analyse the processes used by others. Argumentation could take many different forms, from a debate, to an historical analysis, to a scientific report. Logic, the nature of science and statistics can also be embedded throughout the curriculum to teach critical thinking and enhance, not detract from, the content.

This isn’t to say that these skills are not being taught at all. What Ellerton is arguing for is the formalisation of a critical thinking curriculum in order to ensure that we are doing justice to what is an incredibly important and higher order thinking skill, and one that enhances content and allows our students to explore more independently and at a much greater depth.critical-thinking-cartoon

Covey’s Second Habit: Beginning with the end in mind

In a previous post I discussed the first of Stephen R. Covey’s 7 Habits of Highly Effective People: being proactive.

The second habit explored by Covey is the idea of “Beginning with the end in mind.” Covey suggests that as we work proactively in our personal and professional lives, we must have a clear vision of what we are aiming to achieve. One might automatically think of goal-setting, but it goes further than that.

Covey tells us that,  “”Begin with the end in mind” is based on the principle that all things are created twice. There’s a mental or first creation, and a physical or second creation, to all things.” So, the creation of something starts first with our ideas and goals, and is then manifested in the physical creation of a tangible object, or the achievement of something potentially intangible. Covey gives the example of building a house. The first creation comes in the plans, the second creation in the physical construction of the building. Similarly, as a teacher there might be a vision for the establishment of, let’s say, a program targeted at improving students’ literacy skills. The first creation comes in the vision of how it would work, the second creation would be in the program’s development and implementation. We start by deciding on a specific target.

Covey says that when we understand these two creations and assume responsibility for the manifestation of both, we act within and extend our Circle of Influence. If this self-awareness is missing, then we are are at risk of allowing other people and circumstances outside our Circle of Influence to shape our lives by default. Essentially, we allow ourselves to be acted upon for the achievement of others’ personal and professional goals.

Another distinction made in this discussion is the difference between leadership and management. Leadership is the vision, the first creation, defining the aim. Management is how a person or organisation goes about achieving the second creation. Leadership has to come first otherwise the process of management will lack direction.

“To begin with the end in mind means to approach my role…with my values and directions clear.” According to Covey, this means that effective decision-making is principle-centred. He discusses that at the centre of our personal or professional lives may be many things that are important to us- spouse, family, money, work, possession, pleasure, friends, enemies, church, self – but these may skew our process of making effective decisions. “Whatever is at the centre of our life will be the source of our security, guidance, wisdom and power.” So, if our work is the centre of our life then it will affect our sense of identity and worth (security), our direction in life (guidance), our perspective on life (wisdom), and our capacity to act (power) potentially at the expense of other aspects of our lives. If we aim to make principles our centre, then we are able to act proactively rather than reactively, and can make more effective decisions about the things that are important to us, knowing that the choices come from a solid foundation.

In order to effectively begin with the end in mind, Covey refers to left brain (logic)/right brain (emotion, creativity) psychology. He suggests that by drawing upon the power of the imaginative, creative right brain we able to engage in the powerful technique of visualisation. Research by Dr. Charles Garfield has found that “almost all of the world-class athletes and other peak performers are visualizers. They see it; they feel it; they experience it before they actually do it.” In other words, they begin with the end in mind.

Covey recommends creating a personal mission statement – essentially a set of goals, but based on the principles or values that are at the centre of our lives. Visualisation is posited as a helpful strategy for creating this. He also refers to an executive who wrote his mission statement using the idea of roles and goals. Identifying our roles can help to ensure that we do not focus too much on one aspect of our lives at the expense of others. Once the roles are defined, we can visualise long-term goals for each of them based on our personal values. The acronym S.M.A.R.T (Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Realistic and Time-Bound) is often referred to in discussions of goal-setting. Covey also highlights that “an effective goal focuses primarily on results rather than activity.”

Essentially, the idea of beginning with the end in mind lends purpose and direction to our personal and professional lives. It allows us to see where we are, where we want to be, and how we can get there. By working proactively with a defined end in mind, we are able to give ourselves agency in determining the trajectory of our lives, rather than allowing our lives to be defined by the people or circumstances surrounding us.

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