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.
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.