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.