Subject teachers! EAL needs you!

I am a huge proponent of the collaboration between mainstream teachers and EAL teachers in our teaching of English as an Additional Language learners. This is why I make it a point to go out to many different events such as TeachMeets, conferences and events, aimed at teachers in general, rather than those aimed specifically at EAL professionals – I strongly believe that, quite simply, without the full collaboration of EAL and subject teachers, it is impossible to fully or even partially meet the linguistic, cognitive and academic needs of EAL learners.

 

Too many a time, I find, mainstream teachers in our schools and EAL teachers work completely separately. This is likely to be more so in the secondary school environment (at least in Britain), where it always feels like the specialisation of different subject domains is adding to the separation of teaching staff. Thus, when EAL specialists come, they are “drawered-up” in a similar fashion. However, in their case, they are not actually mainstream, so they can feel – by definition – to be separated just by the virtue of what they’re doing: providing for children who might not speak very good English within English-speaking schools. Additionally, as research of scholars such as Angela Creese has shown – languages in general are often not seen as an important part of schooling – as opposed to the content of what is taught.

This separation does not help. Subject Teachers! We Need You! I am really passionate about the collaboration between EAL teachers and subject teachers. This is the point at which I am going to refuse to use the term “mainstream”. Language, literacy and content are very tightly connected and bound up, and so calling EAL “not mainstream” tends to somehow suggest that we EAL teachers are not concerned with the progress of EAL children in various subjects within the curriculum. I can assure you – this is not the case!

Below, I am describing why I feel that without you, subject teachers, we cannot do the job.

1 – We don’t have the money for this!

The national budget of £244 million pounds that England gets for EAL represents 0.27% of the overall budget. There is only so many EAL Teachers, TAs and bilingual assistants that this money can buy! The money available to schools to meet the needs of English language learners is, quite frankly, pathetic, particularly given that there are over 1 million EAL learners in the UK right now. This means that even if we did want, despite evidence available (see later on in this article), to simply teach the language to EAL learners, there is quite simply not enough of us to do the job. Where I currently teach, there is 3 of us, and 180 EAL bilingual learners. By the way, the only EAL teacher is me (the others are teaching assistants) and I have to devote part of my own time to coordinating the department. All this means that we have to prioritise – often make very difficult choices about students who are obviously and visibly struggling linguistically. And don’t even get me started on the students in KS4, approaching their GCSEs who, in the eyes of many, apparently “do not have a problem anymore” – yet, I’d call the inability to get a C in English due to academic English language barriers a problem!

2 – “Mainstreaming” EAL learners is educationally beneficial to them

Beyond the money, we need you, subject teachers, because EAL learners’ participation in subject lessons has been shown to be more beneficial to EAL students than any EAL withdrawal classes. There are several reasons for this.

a – EAL students don’t actually have the time to be withdrawn; that is, putting them in an EAL group, with no good English native speaker models available amongst their peers, and keeping them there, is not assuring their faster progress, but slowing it down. Curriculum doesn’t wait for EAL students and they need to catch up with their learning targets being set by an average English native speaking student. If a newly arrived EAL student (with at years of prior schooling in their home country) is in year 7, it is possible that they will catch up to their English native speaking peers by year 11 (according to Jim Cummins, it’s 5 to 7 years to catch up in terms of academic language – CALP), but both targeted EAL support and good EAL strategies in the subject lessons have to be present in order for this to happen.

b – in their publication, The Disctinctiveness of EAL: a cross-curricular discipline, NALDIC argues that the process of learning EAL is related to pupils’ cognitive, linguistic and socio-cultural development. NALDIC also points to the learning context in which EAL learners find themselves. American scholars, Thomas and Collier, had argued before that not taking care of all of these areas (in their case: academic, linguistic, social and cultural and cognitive) will slow down a student’s development. Therefore, isolating your students to language lessons only is detrimental to their overall development. This is because they do not have access to regular classrooms context and they do not have access to good models of English language (peer models). Students’ cultural and social experience will affect their perception of their surroundings and that, in turn, is likely to affect their motivation for learning. Being more involved in the life of the school and included in it has a greater chance to increase their motivation and, in turn, their learning of the language. On the other hand, treating EAL students’ personality as “linguistic only”, not treating their personality holistically, can easily result in disenchantment, put up barriers between their culture and that of the UK and slow down their linguistic development. This seems to be linked to the learning context as described by NALDIC – if a school is institutionally racist (e.g. regularly places EAL learners into Maths bottom sets on the basis of them being new to English – yes, it happens far more than it should!), then our EAL learners’ identities and learning will be undermined. Just imagine moving to Japan and being told that you’re no longer good at Maths because you don’t speak Japanese!

3 – Bilingualism Matters!

From the research into bilingualism, we do know that learners literate in their first language are able to draw on this knowledge when acquiring their second language. The outcomes of second language learning are influenced by age, level of literacy in L1 and types and quality of education received. Subject teachers who recognize the power of bilingualism and harness it in their teaching are able to reap the bilingualism benefits much more efficiently. The very same Jim Cummins has proposed a dual-iceberg model: a picture of two icebergs (each representing L1 and L2: separate languages), but both having Common Underlying Proficiency – in other words, common cognitive and linguistic awareness can be applied through both languages. Simply put: if you know what subject and a verb is in Russian, then you will grasp the same much easier in English. But, if you have no idea of what constitutes a sentences in your L1, your task ahead of you is considerably greater. Subject teachers who provide context through scaffolding, graphic organizers and directed activities related to text (DARTs) are invaluable in bringing this proficiency – and they have far greater opportunities to do so because of the content of their lessons than English language lessons can.

4 – Content and Language are Important!

Linking content and language is crucial, I find to teaching EAL learners. EAL lessons can only provide so much of this – I mean, what do we teach? English? Maths? Science? Geography? RE? We repeatedly hear that EAL should be linked to the curriculum – but which curriculum exactly? It’s a bit much to choose from? Probably, the tendency amongst EAL professionals is to link to English, Maths and Science – core subjects – but that’s limited isn’t it? We can only do so much! However, as a subject teacher, you teach your subject regularly and so if you are able to cater to both your content and language in your lessons, you’re providing your students with the best of both worlds. This is why we need subject teachers to complement our EAL lessons – using graphic organizers, scaffolding and kinaesthetic learning are some of the strategies that could be employed. A very powerful way of teaching content and language at the same time was provided by Bernard Mohan long time ago – he suggested linking knowledge structures to thinking skills, which in turn are linked to specific graphic organizers and associated language.

5 – Teacher Collaboration is Beneficial!

We need to work together! We can’t expect that us compartmentalizing ourselves in our small offices after hours is going to help our learners. As argued earlier, the educational development of EAL learners depends on many different factors such as linguistic, academic, cognitive and socio-cultural. Surely, we are not convinced that as teachers have answers to everything and know everything! So why not use the expertise of others and learn from one another to the benefit of our learners. This is why the Partnership Teaching as proposed long time ago by Department of Education should be strongly considered in every school. This involves EAL and subject teachers planning together, delivering lessons together, evaluating the strengths and weaknesses of their lessons, disseminating findings to other staff and then repeating the cycle. I’ve personally tried this approach before and it works. By the way, it is a two way street! That is, it’s both teachers learning from one another. This, of course, relies on SLT being supportive of this approach as you need some time given to you for planning, but I can assure you that the benefits of this approach will amaze you!

6 – Greater literacy skills for all

Simply put, approaches such as partnership teaching and utilizing the specialist skills of EAL teachers, learning how to use graphic organizers, DARTs and scaffolding, will benefit all of your learners. Literacy is obviously very much linked to language, so using these skills will benefit your native English speaking learners. If they speak better, they can be better linguistic models to new arrivals (EAL students) and so everyone’s language skills go up. Your English speaking children will not suffer from content presented visually through Venn diagrams, cycles and other key visuals (graphic organizers). They will not suffer from being pointed out what subject, verb and object is and how to tell the difference between adjectives and adverbs. Ensuring the use of collaborative learning in your classes will increase the feeling of inclusiveness, tolerance and cooperation between children from different cultures in your school – that can only help children learn better. Safe environments is where we learn easier and better – “othering” EAL children will not help achieve this but will lead to their alienation and the feeling of being different, a special “caste” within a school. I believe this is called “segregation” and it’s the last thing we would ever want in our schools and in our society.

Giving the EAL teachers the sole responsibility for EAL learners is short-sighted, only increases the segregation issues and sends very wrong message to the children in question and their parents. Through this short piece, I am trying to say that we, EAL teachers, cannot achieve the success for our EAL learners without you subject teachers. We simply cannot. There is not enough of us, there is too little money for us (we don’t even have an EAL curriculum!), there are significant benefits to EAL learners coming from being “mainstreamed”, it’s paramount to combine the teaching of language and content at the same time, and teachers can learn from each other if they form partnerships.

But I also want to point to one other things. There are EAL teachers out there who see their roles as “comfortable” and “safe”, who like to withdraw EAL children to another room and happily work away on the children’s language only. It’s too easy that way and it doesn’t do EAL children any favours! It does not provide for their academic needs and is precisely what Thomas and Collier warn against – cater to the language only and you’re not developing the cognitive, socio-cultural and the academic! They are at school, they need learn the language and the content at the same time – they don’t have time for this! We need to provide them with both the linguistic part and the content part: EAL teachers linking their teachers to aspects of the curriculum and the content (subject) teachers linking their teaching to language. If we do this together , I think we’ll be this much closer to our EAL students being winners. Otherwise, we’re failing them.

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In every specialism, there is probably this special brand of people who seem to mistreat others who do not possess the “great” knowledge that they possess. I know of a great many things related to language development, second language acquisition and scaffolding, graphic organizers and language-friendly strategies for EAL learners. However, I certainly have a lot to learn from many of my fellow subject teachers and always will.

“Grumping about” how great you are and how not-so-great others are has never, I think, brought about any meaningful change. Rather, collaboration, partnership, working together, learning from one another is far more powerful. Changing minds, giving others skills and learning from others is what’s required. My mission is to equip teachers (who are not given good – or any! – EAL training through their universities) with ways to effectively teach EAL learners in their classroom. I recognize the enormous creativity and skills that so many subject teachers possess. I can learn from them. But, equally, they can learn from me as this is where my specialism lies.

Without this bridge – this link – between EAL teachers and subject teachers – we can’t fully and effectively help our EAL learners. So let’s come together, let’s build this bridge and let’s meet in the middle of this bridge. Let’s combine our strengths for the benefit of our learners.

cantilever_bridge

This mission is precisely why I go to many TeachMeets and conferences across the country, talking to other teachers, advising them, but also learning from the very many different things that they are experts at. If I am to cater to the content side of Science or Maths through my language lessons, what better way to understand this than by talking to subject teachers? And if I can do this, then so can you, our subject teachers.

 

References: 

NALDIC (1999) WP5: The Distinctiveness of EAL. Available at: http://www.naldic.org.uk/eal-publications-resources/Shop/shop-products/wp5.

Thomas, V. and Collier, V. (1997) A National Study of School Effectiveness for Language Minority Students’ Long-Term Academic Achievement. Available at: http://www.usc.edu/dept/education/CMMR/CollierThomasComplete.pdf

Knowledge Framework (2012) The Knowledge Framework. Available at: http://tslater.public.iastate.edu/kf/ 

Bourne, J. and McPake, J. (1991) Partnership Teaching. Available at: http://www.collaborativelearning.org/partnershipteaching.pdf

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