It is widely accepted that the Australian population is becoming increasingly culturally and linguistically diverse. This is reflected in our classrooms, with students bringing a great variety of linguistic experience to school with them.
The targeted support of struggling English language learners was once largely the responsibility of the EAL/D practitioner. But with the increasing diversity and decreased funding, this role has evolved. Now, the government and Catholic education sectors in New South Wales promote a whole-school approach to addressing the needs of English language learners. This means that the EAL/D teacher now works in a range of modes, depending on the needs of the students and teachers at the school. In the Sydney Catholic Education system, EAL/D teachers might operate through a combination of:
- team teaching
- bilingual classroom support
- resource teaching
- EAL/D informed instruction
- parallel teaching
- bilingual teaching
(Catholic Education Office Sydney, EAL/D K-12 Position Paper, 2014)
Many of these modes require collaboration, but team teaching and resources teaching rely upon it. Collaborative planning involving the EAL/D specialist teacher and mainstream teachers (and supported by leadership through actions, words and policies) is an essential component of the whole school approach. It helps to meet the needs of all students requiring targeted support, not just those that the EAL/D teacher is able to get to.
The Board of Studies, Teaching and Educational Standards defines collaborative planning with relation to special education as, “the process undertaken to determine the most appropriate curriculum options and adjustments for a student with special education needs.” EAL/D students do not fall under the category of special needs, but if we were to replace the words “special education” with “diverse learning” and “adjustments” with “teaching strategies,” the definition would be adequate for our English language learners. Collaborative planning is essentially the opportunity for the EAL/D teacher to work with a group of classroom teachers to develop teaching strategies and programs that are age and stage appropriate and accessible to EAL/D students. It means that staff are up-skilled in their programming and classroom practice and more students are therefore exposed to the targeted teaching strategies – not just those who fall into the EAL/D specialist’s priority groups.
Like any approach, collaborative planning has its strengths and challenges. I recently asked @TESOLoz and @sammi_orazi, two experienced EAL/D teachers from primary schools in Sydney’s south-west, how they viewed collaborative planning.
Some of the strengths of the process included:
- it provides an opportunity for EAL/D teachers to support in designing and creating communicative strategies, ways to scaffold learning, and programming and planning
- it encourages specialist and classroom teachers to engage meaningfully with student data and to use the ESL Scales, EAL/D Progression and the Literacy Continuum.
- these discussions ensure everybody is on the same page in terms of understanding the students’ language learning needs and how to address them through programming and teaching strategies.
- everyone involved must be prepared with data, documents, ideas, and open minds.
- there is never enough time!
@TESOLoz indicated one way that her school manages this lack of time is by scheduling the EAL/D teachers’ RFF (relief from face-to-face teaching) at the same time as the teachers that they provide in-class support to. I love this because it means that the collaboration becomes on-going and a natural process. From a secondary perspective, however, it is even more difficult to find the time due to complex timetabling and teachers having many classes. This year the school I am at has taken the approach of providing release days for groups of classroom teachers from the same faculty who teach the same year level. On these days, the teams have worked with the Teaching and Learning Co-ordinator and the EAL/D teacher to complete a Language Analysis of their classes and then engage in collaborative planning. Whilst the time we have had has been limited, what the collaborative planning process has allowed is rich discussion of the language demands of the KLAs, and opportunities to analyse student data and begin to develop strategies to target their language learning across the curriculum.
It takes hard work and commitment from all involved, but ultimately collaborative planning is essential to meeting the needs of our increasingly diverse student cohort. Often there are only one or two EAL/D teachers in a school and they are spread thin. By sharing knowledge and up-skilling classroom teachers, we provide a more equitable and accessible learning environment for more of our English language learners across the curriculum.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.