On why EAL learners are not EFL

Any school – indeed, any teacher – who treats English as an Additional Language (EAL) as if they were English as a Foreign Language (EFL) learners does them a disservice. Thomas and Collier report on some US schools “pulling out” (withdrawing) their ESL (“s” meaning “second”) learners for English language (meaning: not linked to the school curriculum at all, but teaching them “pure English language”) interventions. Here, in the UK, some schools still do it, but perhaps more importantly, I have myself come across many a teacher who thinks that learners new to English should learn “the English language”, equated to “a foreign language” first before entering their classrooms.

This is plain wrong.

In this post, we’ll leave aside the fact that such teachers and/or schools seem to misunderstand the political and philosophical reasons for choosing the term EAL in the first place – and that by treating their new learners as “foreign” they are othering them. This is a matter for another blog post. Here, I’ll simply relate to the fact why it is not an effective approach to take in a mainstream school setting and why it neither improve the EAL learners’ English language skills nor helps them academically.

National Association for Language Development in the Curriculum states in their flagship publication, Working Paper 5: The Distinctiveness of English as an Additional Language: a cross-curriculum discipline (1999), that EAL learners face two tasks when entering their new mainstream schools: (1) to learn the English language, and, (2) to learn the academic content through English. This makes it a diametrically different task than that faced by a, say, Polish learner of EFL, who might:

a. learn EFL at their mainstream school as one of the subjects – but not need to speak the English language outside of the classroom, including other subjects such as History or Geography, of course – as they live in Poland


b. learn EFL at their private language school outside of the mainstream schooling system – but not need to speak the English language outside of the classroom – as they live in Poland

Whilst EFL is a compulsory subject in Polish schools, in neither of the cases above are the English language skills required for other subjects or for general life. Even if you go to Tesco in Gdansk, Poland (yes, Tesco supermarkets operate there), you don’t speak in English!

I am stating the obvious, of course, but it is for this reason that the pedagogy for the teaching of the English language to learners who come to anglophone countries and are educated there in schools has to, necessarily, be diametrically different to the ones where the second language is not the main language of school instruction. With EAL learners, the distinct EAL pedagogy’s focus must be as presented in the diagram below.

Today, we’re focusing specifically on linking to content. In order to exemplify how different the pedagogies of EFL teaching and EAL teaching are, we’re going to examine a sample from an EFL course book that teachers outside of the UK (or, perhaps, at summer EFL courses in the UK) could choose to use:

  • MM Publications: Full Blast 2

Both these course books are for learners on CEFR (Common European Framework of Reference) A2. CEFR is not intended to be a scale for assessing English only, but is to function for teaching of any language. This Council of Europe’s initiative has been functioning for many years and has been translated into 40 languages. Most EFL course books will indicate a CEFR level on its back cover. Below, I am presenting the overview/descriptors of the levels so we are all on the same page in terms of what kind of level of the English language the inspected samples represent:

from: http://www.cambridgeenglish.org/images/126011-using-cefr-principles-of-good-practice.pdf

It will be important to consider how these levels compare to our GCSE levels/grades. The task is quite difficult, but Manny Vazquez, of Hounslow Language Services, has attempted this, and he considers that a student on A2 might be expected to be at GCSE level 1 (or old G/F). Being on CEFR’s C2 would allow one to achieve GCSE’s A (or 8). You can see the full presentation at https://www.naldic.org.uk/Resources/NALDIC/Professional%20Development/Documents/NALDIC%2023%20Vazquez.pdf (see slide 20 for the breakdown and comparison of the levels).

Below, I am looking at to what extent the thinking skills defined by the Bloom’s Taxonomy, in use by many British schools, is actually reflected (taught) in the samples of the course book provided.

Let us start with the analysis of the contents page of Full Blast 2. Below is an image available for free from MM Publications. This lists, as you can see, the topic of each module/unit, vocabulary to be taught, structures, functions, reading, listening, speaking and writing skills. Since “functions” describe what we do with the language we’ve got, we focus here on these. We can see that these are here:

  • identify (Bloom’s Knowledge)
  • understand (Bloom’s Comprehension)
  • express preference (related to most Bloom’s thinking skills)
  • describe (similar to Define in Bloom’s Knowledge)
  • discuss (Bloom’s Comprehension and Synthesis)
  • talk about  (similar to Define in Bloom’s Knowledge)
  • express opinion  (Bloom’s Analysis)
  • distinguish (Contrast in Bloom’s Comprehension)
  • make predictions (Bloom’s Synthesis)
  • compare (Bloom’s Comprehension). 

We can see that the vast majority of the skills link to Bloom’s Knowledge and Comprehension – the first two of the thinking skills listed. Going further up is rare; the other observation we can make is that there is a repetition of the same skills throughout the programme (judging from the content pages) – for instance “expressing” is used 5 times and “discussing” 4 times. There is not much of a variety here, particularly when we think about the key words listed in the Bloom’s Taxonomy above. This is not to say this is somehow inappropriate by itself – the book is an EFL course designed for the EFL content. The level (A2) defines what can be expressed or talked about within the English as a Foreign Language lesson. However, when the same students (in Greece, Spain, Russia, Japan or wherever this book is used) attend their other school lessons, they will not be slowed down by the fact that the curriculum for EFL is such as above as, across the other parts of the curriculum, they’ll be able to operate cognitively at the level mediated by their first language. 

Should we apply the EFL curriculum to teach EAL learners in Britain, where their context is different, we would be confining them to cognitive mediocrity. Here, their cognitive skills need to be expressed through the second language; the English language pedagogy needs to include more Bloom’s Taxonomy / thinking skills key words. The curriculum doesn’t wait – we can’t teach them just basic functions of identifying, describing and perhaps occasionally comparing. The achievement gap between them and native English speaking children will only grow.

Let’s now look at examples of two pages from the book itself. 

The tasks ahead of the learners on this page are those of identifying (matching). perhaps comparing if we really stretch our imaginations to think that the task of matching the opposite adjectives is comparing. The Speak activity at the bottom of the page clearly states it’s about describing – using the adjectives pre-learned earlier in the lesson. Perhaps some form of comparing/distinguishing (fact from untruths) is possible here.

Activity B on this page engages learners in naming, labelling and finding information to put into the form from the previous page – it’s a transfer of information. Activity C focuses on Bloom’s keywords such as ask and tell (exchange of information). D is, of course, about identifying subjects, verbs, objects and other grammatical sentence elements and then recreating sentences using these items (a form of application). The final task, whilst being longer and wider in scope as it’s a writing task, is still only about showing knowledge and comprehension – restating the previously explored content (information about a friend).

Yet again, we see how these pages focus on knowledge and comprehension, rarely leaving the confines of these first two initial stages of Bloom’s thinking skills. And this is okay in Poland or Slovakia, where students will be exposed to those full thinking skills through the other subjects delivered in their L1. But employing EFL course books in withdrawals, without linking these to cross-curricular thinking skills demands and how these skills are expressed in the English language, is counter-productive, and I would say. a dangerous game to play at the expense of your students. The idea that “they need to learn English first” is deeply-flawed and disadvantages EAL learners.

If your students are to develop that CEFR C2 level of the English language, it is not through being locked away in a classroom as learners of the English language learning about isolated past simple or present perfect tenses or the grammar of conditionals. These are not bad to teach, but students need to understand how and when to use them in Science, Geography and Maths. That’s their task. Only this is the genuine EAL pedagogy: recognising their academic purposes and taking into consideration other factors at play, such as age (perhaps they’re great at Maths if they’re 14, as opposed to a child 9 years old?), and not defining them entirely by their English language skill set.

To those critics who will argue that learners new(er) to English cannot possibly hypothesise, summarise or justify, I’ll say this: be more creative, be more original. Use EAL learners’ first language. Get them to summarise through pictures. Use graphic organisers – less verbally heavy, but not lowering cognitive demands. Scaffold language. Use substitution tables allowing children to use synonyms for easier words and verbs. Where there is a will, there is a way. Saying to the children, “you can’t because you’re EAL” is no will and no way on your part. 

Of course, all this can and should be do judiciously. Children whose English language level is higher will able to do verbally more, perhaps lowering for you the need for more extensive language differentiation. But this doesn’t mean that you can’t keep pulling them towards those higher cognitive tasks at all times – use the Vygotskian principle of ZPD and stay with the EAL pedagogy of contextualised EAL teaching recognising your learners’ need for academic and cognitive growth. 

Need to teach that lesson tomorrow? Wish to teach thinking skills but stuck with how to do this with an EAL learner? Ask me in comments or Tweet me @ktlangspec.

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One Reply to “On why EAL learners are not EFL”

  1. Students whose L1 is not English and who are trying to integrate fully in an English medium international school, require a different strategy, in my experience. A twin approach that is ESL and EAP or English for Academic Purposes can produce highly satisfactory results as it combines communication at two strategic levels. For many students who struggle with English in such environments, EAL alone is insufficient. Further, experience demonstrates to me that by combining inclusive and exclusive methods, results are better since students can acquire greater self-confidence on a daily basis with peer interactions and in communicating with tutors, while also having the opportunity to improve their academic level from the practical perspective.

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