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.
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.
Last week an EAL Consultant from Catholic Education SA, who I have worked closely with over the past couple of years, invited me to create a video sharing my experiences, observations, data and reflections on the use of Reading to Learn in my English and Italian classrooms. It was a fantastic opportunity to reflect on my own practice, but also to speak to a number of students and hear their reflections about how useful they find this approach to language and literacy. The kids astounded me with the depth of their insights, and I wish I was able to share their videos here (privacy policies prevent me from doing so). Fortunately, their voices will be heard at a formal presentation that the above-mentioned consultant is preventing both overseas and in South Australia. In the meantime, I can publish my own video, so I’ll let the vlog below speak for itself!
I count myself as very fortunate to have been involved in Catholic Education South Australia’s Reading to Learn professional development program over the past two years. Given the fact that it has been at the front of my mind for the past term and going into the ASFLA conference next week, I felt it required a descriptive/reflective post to explain my fervour.
Reading to Learn was developed by Dr David Rose and is based on principles of functional grammar. It aims “to enable all learners at all levels of education to read and write successfully, at levels appropriate to their age, grade and area of study.” (http://www.readingtolearn.com.au/) This provides a key point of access to the Australian Curriculum, which also demands that students of all abilities work with age-appropriate, challenging texts across the curriculum. Whilst Reading to Learn was originally developed with EAL students in mind, the strategies are applicable to mainstream students of all levels.
Having said this, I think David Rose explains the theory behind the strategy best:
My Reading to Learn journey began with my colleague’s encouragement two years ago. Getting involved is the best thing I have done for my teaching. It has strengthened my prior knowledge of linguistics, changed my approach to literacy education, and helped me to develop a lot more empathy with my students and what they experience when learning to cope with complex genres in secondary school.
As well as its application in my English and Religion classes, I have also found the pedagogy successful in my LOTE classroom. Whether in English or Italian, I am seeing my students’ confidence and willingness to attempt challenging genres growing by the week. With this, their reading comprehension and ability to produce quality writing is increasing tenfold. It is hard work and time consuming, but the fantastic results make it worthwhile.
Reading to Learn is being used at an international scale, and my colleagues and I have had opportunities to network with visiting teachers from Denmark, Sweden and Norway, as well as teachers from across South Australia. We are looking forward to continuing to share ideas and learn collaboratively at next week’s Australian Systemic Functional Linguistics Association Conference next week in Melbourne.
Some generous gifts to our school by our Scandinavian Reading to Learn visitors.
This program is not just for English and EAL teachers, either. Literacy is a cross-curricular priority, and as a school we are working with staff to develop a consistent approach across the learning areas. This is an on-going process, which is still in its very nascent stages, however there are some promising signs and I will continue to post as we progress through this stage of our Reading to Learn journey.
I would love to hear from other teachers and schools using this pedagogy. What have been your successes and challenges? How do you implement it in your classroom and across the curriculum?
This afternoon I was fortunate enough to be present at the launch of Composing Written Texts: Across the Australian Curriculum F – 6. This fantastic resource, aimed at a national audience, represents several years of work from Beverley White, Anne Hamilton, and Kylie Pedler from Catholic Education SA and Bronwyn Custance from the Department for Education and Child Development.
The book is a practical manual for classroom teachers to support the scaffolding of written language in English, Science, History and Mathematics. The writers set out to provide “written models that illustrate the language features for particular genres at specific stages of linguistic development” (White & Hamilton 2013, p. 5). They have drawn upon genre maps to determine which genres students are expected to write at each year level in the Australian Curriculum. They have then developed writing samples for each genre which reflect the AC’s expectation of linguistic capacity at each year level. Each year level and genre is aligned not only to the Australian Curriculum, but also to DECD’s 2012 Language and Literacy Levels across the Australian Curriculum: EALD which have replaced the former ESL Scales and “describe the development of language and literacy needed across the year levels to access and demonstrate curriculum knowledge, skills and understandings for all learning areas” (DECD 2012, in White & Hamilton 2013, p. 6). Hence, the content of the book is relevant to all students in a mainstream or EAL classroom.
It is important to note at this point that while the resource draws heavily on functional grammar, it is not a guide to functional grammar and does not offer further explanation of terms other than in the glossary. That is not its purpose, although it provides references for those who do wish to learn more about the linguistic theory that underpins the work.
Structurally, Composing Written Texts is divided into year levels Foundation to Year 6. Annotated samples of the genres expected at each year level are found within the sections. These annotations include details about text cohesion, text structure, grammar and word knowledge, which are features described in the Language and Literacy Levels. Immediately following the annotated samples are practical suggestions for scaffolding the learning of students at this stage in their development. The scaffolding is structured around the following teaching and learning cycle:
This cycle allows teachers and learners to engage in a continual process of assessment for learning, and provides the flexibility necessary for differentiation of learning at any point depending on student needs.
Finally, at the end of each sample, specific links are made to the Australian Curriculum for English, Mathematics, Science and History to demonstrate where these units of work meet AC requirements.
This edition of the resource only covers Foundation to Year 6, but there were whispers at the launch today of an edition covering the scaffolding of writing from Year 7 to Year 10 (where the Australian Curriculum stops and the South Australian Certificate of Education begins). This would take some time to develop, but as a secondary teacher I am excited about the possibilities. Having said this, I still think that Composing Written Texts: Across the Australian Curriculum F – 6 is an incredibly useful resource for secondary teachers. It is a reality that we do have students working at the language levels that are explored in the book. This may be for any number of reasons, but regardless of what those are we must meet these students where they are at and work to move them up the levels. Composing Written Texts provides a practical guide for doing so that I will certainly draw upon in my role as both an EAL teacher and a mainstream classroom teacher in a secondary setting.
Yesterday a colleague and I attended a Purposeful Assessment workshop run by ACER. It focused on the PAT-R and PAT-M tests, and how they can be interpreted and used for diagnostic data and to inform classroom strategies. It was a clearly-structured, relevant workshop which provided me with direction for how to effectively use the PAT-Reading tests my Year 8 English students completed at the end of last term.
Something which the presenter said that struck me was about the necessity for teachers to have a deep understanding what makes a text complex. This seems obvious, I know – but it got me thinking, I wasn’t taught this at uni. At no stage in my degree do I remember doing a topic or unit that focused on explicit teaching of grammar. We did a lot of work on unit planning, lesson planning and the curriculum, but nothing when it came to teaching students language (other than in in my Italian elective). But nothing substantial when it came to English. So as a graduate, I didn’t have the depth of knowledge and skills required to explain linguistic operations to students, or to effectively deconstruct a text. I could do it myself, but to make some of the concepts accessible to students was a struggle.
It wasn’t until my work with the EAL team at Catholic Education SA that I was truly able to explain the connection between what I could do, and the theory behind those skills. Then I was able to effectively communicate them to my middle school students in a way that set them up for successful reading and writing. Given that I was training to be an English teacher, this is a gaping hole in the course. Fortunately in my first few years I have been exposed to and participated in courses and projects surrounding literacy and have made links with amazing colleagues from whom I have learnt the necessary skills.
Essentially what beginning teachers need in order to learn to move students from general decoding of language to real comprehension, interpretation and analysis is a starting point. The Reading to Learn program was my stimulus, and now that we are using the PAT-R test I am able to effectively identify and target the skills that my students need to develop. There are a wealth of resources out there to help students develop the language they need to be effective readers but it is important to be discerning. We must consider multimodal presentations, and whether or not the questions posed are appropriate. For example, questions that simply require the students to recount the events word for word do not require any critical thinking or manipulation of language and therefore are not an accurate measure of comprehension. Questions and activities need to encourage students to explore, infer, interpret, analyse and crate using language.
Some recommended resources for building students’ language skills and comprehension include: