Twenty-six percent of the Australian population are born overseas (Australian Bureau of Statistics, 2017). With this in mind, it is not unlikely that at some stage in your teaching career, you will educate a student for whom English is not their first language or dialect.
In this piece, I will outline what I deem to be the foundational knowledge required to cater for the needs of EAL/D students – English as an Additional Language / Dialect.
The migration journey is often a traumatic experience for students, especially those from a refugee background. In supporting the learning needs of students, wellbeing must be at the forefront of any support strategy. It is vital that as teachers we ensure that students feel welcomed into their new learning environment, one which is often in vast contrast to educational settings they are accustomed to. This means taking positive steps to ensure that students feel safe (both emotionally and socially), and to foster trusting relationships so the students develop attachments to their teachers, peers and the school community. In doing so, teachers establish optimal conditions and environments where learning can flourish.
EAL/D students are a very diverse group. Many are learning English as a third or fourth language (hence the move away from the term ESL). They bring with them varied backgrounds, experiences, English language proficiencies and cultural capital. This group of students also incorporates Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students who do not speak Standard Australian English (SAE).
Whilst intensive support for students with limited English is an important feature of EAL/D education, we must all have the mindset of collective responsibility for the language acquisition of EAL/D students. For primary schools this includes mainstream teachers – as they teach EAL/D students for the majority of the school day. For secondary teachers, it means that ALL subject area teachers understand the role they play in language instruction. To truly be able to differentiate learning experiences for culturally and linguistically diverse students as teachers we must possess a certain level of professional knowledge, develop explicit professional practices and foster certain mindsets to ensure effective language learning.
Skills, expertise and PL
Not all teachers have the necessary training (whether undergraduate or in the workplace) to address the needs of EAL/D students. Consequently, it is vital that teachers reflect on and self-assess their current practices and theoretical knowledge in supporting the needs of these students. This will help to identify areas for further development. In doing so, they may seek the professional learning needed to build their capacity (such as engaging in personal research, enlisting in professional development course or further study). This self–reflection and evaluation is an important process for any educator who endeavours to effectively support the needs of EAL/D students – understanding their self-efficacy.
When teachers develop their professional knowledge in EAL/D education and the metalanguage of EAL/D pedagogies, they reinforce their capacity to support the efficacy of their colleagues by transmitting this knowledge to others who may need additional professional support in teaching EAL/D students. Often, the best form of professional learning occurs through collegial and collaborative professional discussions and incidental workplace learning.
Assessing student language proficiency
The identification of who EAL/D learners are, and assessment of their language proficiency, is the first port of call for any teacher supporting EAL/D students. There are a range of useful support materials for teachers of EAL/D students to use as a guide for their practice. In particular, the EAL/D Learning Progression (Australian Curriculum, Assessment and Reporting Authority, 2014), which is used in some states, is useful in guiding teachers and schools by providing a description of the stages through which students usually pass as they move toward English language proficiency.
The terminology of the EAL/D Learning Progression is regarded as a “common language” shared by EAL/D specialists and mainstream educators to describe student language proficiency.
Teachers must be cognisant that learning a new language takes time. The time taken to move from one level to the next is dependent on several factors including each student’s previous educational experience and students’ literacy skills in their first language. For refugee students who have experienced trauma or disrupted schooling, this time frame can extend substantially, possibly to around ten years. Similarly, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students requiring EAL/D assistance, whose language learning needs go unrecognised and unsupported, may attend a mainstream English-only school for several years without progressing beyond the developing or even emerging stages.
It is important for teachers to be patient with their EAL/D students’ progress with English whilst maintaining high expectations. Remembering these students do not have a learning deficiency, they are learning the language to express their learning and knowledge.
It is important for teachers to be patient with their EAL/D students’ progress with English whilst maintaining high expectations.
Recognising students’ ‘cultural capital’
Teachers of EAL/D students must also recognise and acknowledge the cultural capital which these students bring to the classroom. The term ‘cultural capital’ refers to those cultural elements that help students succeed at school, including family background, status, taste and cultural resources (Bourdieu, 1986). A student’s cultural capital is usually developed across different educational contexts. There are times when their cultural capital can help promote their learning and the learning of others. For example, students may be well travelled, or have lived in societies vastly different to their Australian contexts. When students share these experiences, others can develop a deep knowledge, understanding and appreciation of different cultures.
Conversely, EAL/D students may have limited knowledge of aspects of Australian culture, which can impact their learning. For example, EAL/D students may not be familiar with common nursery rhymes, which children from the dominant culture in Australia learn from a very young age. EAL/D students may also bring with them learning skills such memorising, which served them well in schools in their home country but may not be valued to the same extent in Australia where many classrooms are underpinned by pedagogies based on constructivism, a view that students learn more by doing than by rote learning.
These students bring knowledge, experience and orientations to learning to the classroom that, if recognised and valued by teachers and peers, will enrich the curriculum, and expand and extend the learning repertoires of EAL/D students in ways that will lead to success in their new educational context. EAL/D students are learning English, through English, and about English simultaneously. This makes the process of language acquisition a very complex one.
Best practice in supporting EAL/D students
A key strategy in valuing the cultural capital that EAL/D students bring to school is developing an inclusive curriculum where diversity is valued and celebrated. This may be achieved through text selection, including the use of bilingual books and texts which represent diversity through stories and illustrations.
Parkin and Harper (2019) stress the importance of selecting quality literature in the classroom that “represents the lives of our minority students” (p. 8), so all students can identify, understand and engage with characters and plots in texts. Teachers may also consider using the child’s first language (L1) in the classroom, especially during discussions when EAL/D students are confirming or clarifying ideas, or seeking support. Teachers must understand and value the benefits bilingualism brings to the classroom and harness them.
Best practice in supporting EAL/D learners is based on several key conditions.
These include (but are not limited to) a focus on oral language development as a precursor to successful learning, learning through contextualised experiences, scaffolding (especially through guided experiences) modelling language, allowing wait time, message abundancy, zone of proximal development (in the form of high challenge high support experiences), awareness of the linguistic demands of lessons and explicit vocabulary instruction.
The fore mentioned teaching strategies can be augmented with other strategies that support the language learning needs of EAL/D students, including the use of visuals, integration of ICTs, providing timely and constructive feedback, rich tasks, collaboration etc. These are all useful inclusions in teaching repertoires that contribute to effective EAL/D education but are indeed also best practice for ALL students.
We cannot assume these principles are shared knowledge among all teachers. They are non-negotiable intellectual tools that set EAL/D students up for success.
Bourdieu, P. (1986). The Forms of Capital. In J. Richardson (ed). Handbook of theory and research for the sociology of education, New York: Greenwood Press, 241-258.
Parkin, B. & Harper, H. (2019). Teaching with intent 2. Literature-based literacy teaching and learning. Primary English Teaching Association Australia (PETAA). Sydney.
Dufficy, P (2005). Designing Learning for Diverse Classrooms.Primary English Teaching Association Australia (PETAA). Sydney.
Gibbons, P. (1991). Learning to Learn in a Second Language.Primary English Teaching Association Australia (PETAA). Sydney.
Hertzberg, M. (2012). Teaching English language learners in mainstream classrooms. Primary English Teaching Association Australia (PETAA). Sydney.