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.
This afternoon I finished my marking and reports, then set my out of office reply in preparation for heading off on a study tour to Italy next week.
Two colleagues and I are accompanying 14 students from Year 10 and 11 on this exciting opportunity. There is much excitement, and I think – to be honest – a few nerves as well!
I have had many conversations with the three delightful girls from my Year 11 class who will be going on the trip, and while at first I found some of their questions a little strange, it did force me to cast my mind back to when I was their age and preparing to embark on a two month exchange.
The excited anticipation, coupled with the anxiety of being so far away from home and family and in a country in whose language they are not yet fluent, makes for a mixture of emotions.
But they will learn quickly. They will experience things, sights, foods, and people they have never encountered before. They will learn from and with each other. They will forge close friendships.
It will be something that sticks with them for a life time.
And so I look forward to seeing their excitement and wonder in many of the same places that I displayed the same emotions nine years ago. You can follow our adventures and their reactions and reflections on their blog: http://cardijncollegeinitalia.wordpress.com
THE ASFLA Conference 2013 wrapped up yesterday with the final key note speakers and presenters presenting their research papers and workshops.
Pauline Jones opened proceedings with her key note address “Learning to teach grammar: orchestral moves and virtuoso moments.” She posed the question: How will teachers enact the Knowledge about Language strand of the Australian Curriculum: English? Jones explored the relationship between teacher’s knowledge about language and their curriculum and pedagogic expertise. She used a case study of primary school teachers to investigate how they enact functionally oriented grammar in their pedagogy through multimodal exchanges. An analysis of these exchanges show that in their teaching of functional grammar, the teachers in this case study follow the process outlined in the diagram below. They complete each step multimodally through the actions identified in red above each phase of the cycle.
This is a cycle which I recognise from my work with Reading to Learn, however Pauline’s session prompted thinking about how that could be further embedded in my teaching in a secondary context.
The first workshop following the key note address explored how Reading to Learn is being implemented in a Danish English as a Foreign Language class. Susanne Karen Jacobsen and Anne Kryger Larsen explained how Anne, a classroom teacher of English was implementing Reading to Learn in her class to improve students’ reading and writing skills in the target language. This was particularly interesting for me as it is something that I am also working on implementing in my Italian classes. Whilst Anne is still in the early phases of the project, the results that she presented from her English class reflected some of the positive outcomes I have also noticed in my Italian students. I was particularly impressed at the level of text that she had her language students working with, which is food for thought about what kinds of texts I could be bringing into my Italian lessons. Discussion after the workshop with Peter Mickan from the University of Adelaide raised many questions about current practice in secondary LOTE classrooms, but also possible solutions that I would like to try in my own language classes.
Britt Johansson’s session immediately after morning tea was also particularly inspiring. Britt has been working on a long-term project in her school in Knutby, Sweden, to close the gap between linguistically and culturally diverse students. Pauline Gibbon’s work on SFL is the foundation of her approach and she has been training teachers in incorporating functional linguistics in their pedagogy. The results have been excellent, with a continual increase in students’ result in national tests affirming that they are on the right track with their literacy program. The greatest lesson Britt’s workshop held for me is that changes such as these are long term projects. Britt has been working on these changes in pedagogy for the benefit of the students at her school since 2003 and it is ongoing. Things do not change overnight.
Kristina Love and Carmel Sandiford from the Australian Catholic University then presented the initial findings of a project which tracked the metalinguistic development of teachers and their students as the teachers undertook professional development based on Halliday’s principles of ‘using grammar to think with.” Teachers were interviewed about an initial persuasive text that students were required to write, before undergoing the training. They were then interviewed again after students wrote a second text that had been taught using SFL. One of the teachers was an early career educator, whilst the other had significant teaching experience. Subjects’ metalinguistic development was mapped against their previous interview and results were positive, demonstrating improvement in knowledge and understanding both of the teachers and the students.
The final workshop of the day for me was Damon Thomas’s presentation “Persuasive writing genres from two theoretical perspectives.” A PhD candidate from the University of Tasmania, Damon explored why so many students reported having difficulty with the persuasive writing component of the 2013 NAPLAN test. He did this by outlining the persuasive writing in schools is grounded in two language theories which complement each other. Firstly, Classical Rhetoric divides persuasive language into judicial discourse, epideictic discourse and deliberative discourse. On the other hand, school-based persuasive genres are often taught from the SFL lens of analytical exposition, horatory exposition and discussion. We can see elements of judicial, epideictic and deliberative discourse within any of the SFL models. Damon suggests that the reason students struggled in 2013, was because they had been prepared for the traditional persuasive text prompt such as “Homework should be banned in schools. Do you agree/disagree?” which focuses more on deliberative discourse. However, this year’s prompt of “Choose someone who you believe is a hero and explain why you think they are so,” called for students to draw more on the epideictic discourse, the function of which is to praise. This was a fascinating and practical workshop, which did also demonstrate that SFL can work with complementary theories of language to improve students’ (and teachers’) understanding of language.
The conference was an intensive but incredibly rewarding four days of professional learning. I certainly leave Melbourne with many questions answered, and even more raised about how we can use approaches to SFL in practical ways in the classroom to improve student literacy and general learning outcomes. As Britt Johansson demonstrated, it is a long journey, but it is for the benefit of our students’ learning. And isn’t that why most of us are here?
After successful pre-conference workshops yesterday by expert linguists Sally Humphrey, Susan Feez, David Rose and Peter White, the ASFLA Conference was officially opened this morning by Professor Clare Wyatt-Smith, the Executive Dean of Education at the Australian Catholic University.
This was followed by the first key note speaker Emeritus Professor Frances Christie, with a paper titled ‘Seizing the moment: the case of English literature studies.’ Christie unpacked how students are expected to adopt a particular ‘gaze’ or knower code in order to respond to literature. The paper was heavy in systemic functional linguistic terminology such as semantic waves, semantic gravity and semantic density, which are rarely – if ever – used in teacher education or in the classroom. However, as the talk unfolded, it became apparent that as teachers we refer to the same or similar elements of responses to literature that Christie was discussing, but we use different terms that are more accessible in a classroom setting or to those whose training is not in the field of systemic functional linguistics. These new concepts acquired through Christie’s presentation were very useful for coming to a deeper understanding of how students need to create meaning in their responses to texts.
After morning tea, delegates broke off into concurrent sessions. Len Unsworth’s presentation considered ‘visual grammatics’ through a study of student interpretive responses to images in picture books. The data was collected and divided into three kinds of responses:
– tactical – seemed like students were simply tying to find something to say
– mimetic – students were aware of interpersonal meaning but did not technicalize awareness
– semiotic – three levels within this response 1) descriptive of interpersonal meaning, 2) technical naming of interpersonal meaning, 3) interpretive, where students relate interpersonal positioning in an image to thematic concerns of the story
The first round of data collected was simply written responses, and very few students from the sample of Year 4 through to Year 10 managed to go beyond the mimetic or early semiotic responses. Interestingly, however, the second round of data, in which both written and oral responses were collected, showed that students could begin to express the interpretive response verbally even at Year 5, when they struggled to express it on writing. This raises questions for educators in terms of how we help students to express the same meaning in an interpretive way through writing. It’s not that they are not capable of the necessary thinking skills , but they don’t necessarily have the formal written language to express these ideas.
Another fascinating concurrent session was that of Lars Salomonsen and Winnie Østergaard, titled ‘Developing a language-based teaching of Maths in primary school using the mode continuum as a teacher planning tool.’ This paper followed how the presenters worked with trainee Maths and Danish as a Second Language students in Denmark to enhance the learning of Year 1 students through language. The presentation provoked fascinating discussion between linguists and educators of varying backgrounds, but a general understanding was met that language, visuals, and symbols are equally important to student learning in mathematics, reaffirming the importance of a cross-curricular approach to literacy.
More concurrent sessions followed after lunch before the first day concluded with the second key note speaker, Peter White. White spoke about “issues associated with authorial identity or persona.” This identity is often seen as flexible – constructed, produced or performed through language according to the requirements of specific communicative events.
Day One of ASFLA’s Conference was engaging and stimulating. The conference attracts delegates from a range of backgrounds, providing the opportunity for academics, linguists, educational consultants and educators to come together and understand the practicalities of each other’s work. This is crucial given that the work of one does, in fact, impact upon the work of the other. What better opportunity to bridge gaps, come to better understandings, translate academia into practical classroom approaches and celebrate the amazing work that is going on in our universities, education departments and schools.
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: