Grammar and EAL Learners

On Saturday morning (7 June 2014), I got up very early (some might say insanely early) to go to Birmingham to attend a workshop run by NALDIC for teachers of EAL there. Even though, I started in London, and early, the trip itself was very easy.

The event took place at The International School in the Lea Hall area of Birmingham. Mary Maybank, a consultant in language education and one of NALDIC’s associate members, with huge experience behind her as a teacher in multilingual schools, trainer and lecturer, delivered an engaging workshop on various ways in which grammar can and should be taught to bilingual students.

She began by saying that schools should be able to have an understanding of how the importance of grammar impacts on the whole school curriculum, confidence to teach English grammar to both advanced and less fluent bilingual learners and practical ideas for how to teach key grammar elements of the new National Curriculum. Even though she was referring to primary schools throughout her workshop, the vast majority of her ideas were applicable to my own secondary schooling circumstances.

She pointed out some objectives for the teaching of grammar in the New Primary Curriculum – the ability to use ‘and’ and to link sentences, using ‘when’, ‘if’ and ‘because’, using adverbs, using adverbial clauses and using relative clauses. In our first practical activity, Mary utilized a truly lovely book called ‘Azzi in Between’ (a beautifully written and illustrated story about a family having to leave their own home for England because of danger – rather timely, given the upcoming Refugee Week! – you might want to consider buying it from Amazon). Working in groups, we were asked to retell the story using a combination of simple sentences, compound sentences, complex sentences, adverbial phrases and relative clauses. To explain: simple sentences have one verb (even a long sentence with a lot of descriptions, if it has just one verb, will still be simple). Complex sentences have one main clause and one or more subordinate clauses.

Mary pointed out two more things that I have myself found before are too often omitted in teaching children how to write descriptions. One is expanded noun phrases: that is, whilst adjectives are taught and insisted on, children might not get it that phrases such as “children will kinds of toys”, “the girl with the headscarf”, “people with worried faces” are also descriptive even though there are no adjectives there! The other one is the fact that adverbs come in all shapes and sizes. Normally, children are taught that adverbs are those with the -ly affix and relate to how? However, there are more than just the how adverbs of manner. There are also adverbs of place (outside, inside, away, here, there) and adverbs of time (now, then, next, soon always).

Building up on that, Mary provided us with a very useful grid of adverbs, adverbial phrases and adverbial clauses and reasons for using them (manner, time, place and reason). This reminded me of my BA studies in Teaching English as a Foreign Language back in Poland years ago – good thing to revisit these days and my knowledge from them for the benefit of the children I teach nowadays!

Relative clauses came next and Mary ensured that we were reminded of embedded relative clauses (I knew them as non-defining relative clauses). Mary provided an example: Azzi, who was feeling happy now, curled up on the sofa to sleep. Three different parts of such a sentence: Azzi, curled up on the sofa and who was feeling happy now could be cut up and given to children to move around to create a full logical sentence.

Mary pointed out to some specific linguistic difficulties that many EAL learners face: that is, prepositions, determiners, subject + verb agreement (I can vouch for that one!) and verb tenses, before we went to our mid-way break that morning.

After the break, she provided us with ideas of how we can use adverbial phrases to help students develop cohesion: using phrases such as afterwards, having gone this far…, soon…, almost at once… as beginnings of their sentences.

She suggests that we teach modal verbs to our students, of course, but not just the basic uses of them – she says that we need to focus more on the differences between possibility, probability and necessity, i.e. words such as might and should have and must have.

Further, she brought our attention to the need to develop coherence and cohesion across our students’ paragraphs. Coherence is the relevance of ideas in text enabling the reader to follow the meaning, whilst cohesion are grammatical features used to clearly link different parts together. Mary looked at different cohesive devices in a text: references, connectives, substitutions, ellipsis and lexical (semantic) cohesion.

  • she warned us not to put a lot of connectives in front of our students (say, on a connective mat) at the same time – it will only confuse them
  • she reminded that ellipsis is more than just “…” – essentially, it refers to any time when a writer deliberately leaves something out, for instance Some cats like cheese, but some don’t . “Some don’t” may appear as an error to an EAL learner since from another language perspective it might be lacking a required verb and seem to make no sense. Obviously, a verb has been missed out here on purpose – making it an ellipsis.
  • Mary provided a wonderful example of how words themselves can link content and paragraphs (lexical cohesion) – we should be teaching this, too. That is, repetition of a word can create clarity and cohesion, referring to nouns or people with “he”, “she”, “it”, “they” creates cohesion, using adverbial phrases can help cohesion, etc.

Phrasal verbs came next! They were a rather fascinating part of my English as a Foreign Language courses in school long time ago. As Mary pointed out, they combine with adverbs or prepositions to make rather unexpected new meanings and may (in my experience, they usually do!) are a challenge to a language learner. We carried out a “walkabout” activity – essentially, we were given a card with a phrasal verb or its more straightforward meaning on it (e.g. turn up or increase, hang on or wait, bring up or mention) and had to find a person who had our phrasal verb’s meaning – a great activity for children, too, and a very simple one to do, too.

Finally, as our last activity, we were given 5 different texts and were asked to arranged them in terms of the writing’s formality and informality, from the least formal to the most formal. The text ranged from a newspaper article, through a transcript of an interview to a diary, but even more so in the language used. Mary asked us to justify our choices, so rather than have a feeling, we needed to say what exactly it was about the texts that was more – or less – formal. For instance, the use of acronyms (don’t rather than do not) makes texts more informal whilst the use of passive voice is normally linked to greater formality.

These were fascinating three hours, filled with ideas for activities to do with our children and specific reminders for how to teach language and the language itself. More than anything, it made me feel like a specialist. Too often English as an Additional Language teachers are peripheralised and seen as not essential. Any non-EAL teacher, if they had attended this NALDIC’s event, would have realized how specialized the field is and how much knowledge there is in the field. This runs counter to the idea that I still see persisting amongst some teachers that everyone can teach EAL: this seems to be linked to the common perception that language is second fiddle to content in education. Perhaps because language did not use to be that important in many British people’s education in the past – specific language was not explicitly taught.

As Mary pointed out, EAL children are not just going to pick the language up – I loved hearing this, because too often it is assumed that just dropping them in the mainstream will somehow enable them to use the language. Often the case is that they will become basic communicators and develop erroneous strategies for coping with the demands of their classrooms. What I mean by that is that many students I have worked with, had internalized wrong structures and wrong spelling rules – just to cope, because they had never been specifically taught it before. This might be irreversible in such cases. EAL students need to be taught the rules specifically from the very start of their education in Britain.

We – EAL teachers – are important and we are needed. Interestingly, the grammar aspects that Mary brought to our attention at the NALDIC event are exactly the sort of things taught to me when I was originally training to be a teacher of English as a Foreign Language (EFL) in Poland. In other words, EFL and EAL specialisms have a lot in common, even though a lot of the time this may be frowned upon. This was brought up at the talk I attended in Westminster just a few days ago, where it was suggested that perhaps specialists from fields such as EAL, EFL, ESOL, TESOL, etc., should actually come together as a unified teaching profession front. If we’re less fragmented, we might be stronger.

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