Long read: What's the best way to support EAL students?

International schools know they have to cater for EAL students - but are they getting it right, asks Dan Worth

Dan Worth

English as an additional language: What's the best way to support EAL students in international schools?

Luis looks at the board.

He recognises the words but why they are in a maths lesson he has no idea. How can a square have a volume? What noise does it make? How would you turn it up or down? His fellow pupils seem to be following along but he is baffled.

Suddenly everyone starts working on something. What was the instruction?

The teacher walks to Luis’ desk: "And what do you think the volume of the square is?"

English as an additional language

This stuff-of-school-nightmares scenario is a situation common for many pupils in international schools where English is the language of instruction, yet the majority of pupils are not native English speakers.

According to work by Maurice Carder, who has written two books on the issue of second-language learners, it is estimated 90 per cent of international schools globally use English as their language of instruction – something that is routinely used as a selling point.

“For-profit schools are now in the majority, and investors are cashing in on the ‘all our teachers are native speakers of English’ or even ‘are British’, thereby promoting the supposed ‘excellence’ factor in British education,” he says.

This means that in international schools across the world teachers are increasingly having to contend with the fact that the majority of pupils in their class do not have English as their first language, and instead are learning in a language in which their proficiency varies wildly.

“It can sometimes feel as though you are teaching two different subjects in one room,” says one teacher.

The importance of English 

At Aiglon College in Switzerland, for example, they estimate that of 384 pupils, there are 30 different languages spoken, with 60 per cent of pupils speaking English as an additional language (EAL) – rather than having it as a fluent language.

Of course, international schools are aware of this challenge: after all, they will be under pressure to deliver results to fee-paying families and ensure that pupils become good English speakers.

These are mutual inclusive goals, given most exams are sat in English and good language skills are fundamental to quality learning outcomes, as Victoria Murphy, professor of applied linguistics in the University of Oxford’s Department for Education and chair of NALDIC – the national subject association for EAL in the UK – explains.

“Research has demonstrated that one of the biggest predicators of academic achievement is a high proficiency in English,” she says.

By way of example, a 2016 research project led by a team at Royal Holloway, University of London found that when primary-age EAL students had “comparable English language proficiency” with native speakers, they were equally likely to achieve similar academic outcomes, and display “fewer social, emotional, and behavioural difficulties”.

Expecting miracles 

Clearly, then, it makes sense for schools – both international and state – to ensure that their EAL cohort are suitably proficient to be able to succeed in all aspects of school life.

This is not always the case, though, as this anonymous teacher’s experience demonstrates.

“A decade ago, my school in China was accepting students who literally didn’t speak a word of English and then placing them directly into a mainstream GCSE English classroom,” they say.

“Our leadership team seemed to expect these students to go from barely being able to say their names to writing analytical essays on Shakespeare and Dickens in a matter of months. Needless to say, this resulted in bewildered students, frustrated teachers and predictably low grades.”

This may be an extreme example but it is certainly a very real issue for classroom teachers even in schools where EAL provision is front of mind: “There are students who arrive unable to say what day it is and what their interests are, so we are teaching them the very basics at the same time,” says another teacher.

The teacher here adds that the school does provide for these students, of course. It buddies students together to help with EAL development, runs extra EAL lessons and uses TAs to help with some of the larger language groupings in the school. No doubt many other schools do likewise. 

Time is not on schools' side

The trouble is that, the experts say, EAL is a hugely complex topic and it is very hard for schools to truly provide the necessary attention to this unless it is inherent in everything a school does, as Eowyn Crisfield, a senior lecturer at Oxford Brookes University and a consultant who works with international schools on EAL delivery, outlines.

“We know it takes three to nine years to develop full academic proficiency in English. No one is going to give [EAL learners] that many years of support – no one can afford that.”

This is a problem as at present there is a mindset that looks at EAL as something that can be incorporated into usual classroom teaching: “One of the catchphrases [in international education] is ‘every teacher is a language teacher’, but that is not true,” she says. 

“You can’t take a key stage 4 geography teacher and say, 'You are an English teacher as well' – at least, you can’t say that without supporting it with professional development and practices.”

Meaning is key 

Many teachers likely agree, as Murphy notes. “A lot of the time difficult vocabulary is sort of glossed over because some teachers think, ‘I am the maths teacher therefore I don’t need to be focusing on language.'”

But if you don’t know what words mean in the context of a specific lesson, they are meaningless.

“An example of the power of vocabulary comes from the EAL student who is normally very good at maths but then encounters a problem to calculate volume of the shape but does not understand volume in a mathematical sense,” she says.

This is exactly the sort of predicament that baffled poor Luis.

“That can create real difficulties for students if they do not have these extended meanings of key words,” says Murphy. 

How to provide the best EAL teaching

So how can international schools ensure their EAL provision is the best it can be for their multilingual learners?

The first thing is to ensure there is a proper process to assess the level of an EAL learner on arrival at school – not something that is as simple as you may think, according to Professor Cécile De Cat, from the University of Leeds.

“There is a huge variability in the EAL population,” she says. “Some of them almost speak no English and some at the other end spectrum [speak a lot] – it depends on their experience of English within their lifetime.”

As such, schools need to give teachers the tools to assess and measure this skill level so that they can gauge how to pitch their lesson content.

One tool for doing this is from the Bell Foundation called the EAL Assessment Framework, which can help teachers establish how competent a pupil is with regards their English language skills.

To complement this, though, De Cat is working on her own project that will take this starting point of a child’s EAL capabilities and then allow teachers to also understand the EAL influences in a child’s life.

“At the moment I am running an international project called Q-Bex [Quantifying Bilingual Experience] that is designing online tools that will be useful for researchers and teachers to get a good snapshot of the child’s background so you can adjust expectations for language development.”

This covers areas such as when a child first started speaking English, who speaks to them in English, how many siblings they have and so forth, to help understand the experience of child and set expectations for proficiency at a certain age.

In doing so it should allow a teacher to more readily spot where a child’s EAL language skills should be – and where they are falling short.

“You might have a child who might be quite poor in English development but super bright but you can’t pick that up because they are hindered by what language allows, so it’s important to really know backgrounds of kids in your class so you can adjust expectations and support,” says De Cat.

Such tools could prove key to properly helping schools track EAL development by firstly spotting those who may need more help on arrival and during their time at school.

This, in turn, would allow teachers to better structure their lessons and their content in response to the learners they have in front of them.

Put language needs first 

Dr Naomi Flynn, an associate professor at the University of Reading, who regularly hosts workshops for teachers on this very issue, says this needs to be a major consideration in all lesson planning when there is a wide array of EAL learners.

“My advice, whether to trainee teachers or experienced teachers, is to ask a series of questions before planning, to start with ‘What are the language development needs of my students?’ – in other words, how proficient are they in English?”

“And then ‘What are the language demands of my lesson?' , 'What is they key vocabulary they will need in this lesson?' and 'How are students being asked to respond – is it written or spoken English?'

“Finally you ask, How can I plan opportunities for speaking and listening in English and does my lesson content match the home and school experiences of my pupils?'”

A whole-school approach

This certainly sounds sensible and, on paper, achievable – and many teachers probably do this as a matter of course. But what if your colleague down the corridor is doing very little EAL-specific work – thereby creating a very lop-sided approach to EAL in a school?

The key – as for so many elements of education – is a whole-school approach to this issue. 

This is always a challenge for any initiative, but there are ways it can proceed without necessarily having to make huge wholesale changes overnight.

Murphy suggests, for example, working on building vocabulary on an all-school level, based on an idea formed out of a research project in the USA termed the "word generation intervention".

In essence, this is about making a list of five new words each week and making them something the whole school will focus on learning that week.

“You might simply introduce students to the words at the start of the week and then through the week build on them to set tasks that require them to use them, for example.”

What can work particularly well, she says, is giving a focus to the academic vocabulary that will serve students well in all subjects, but that they may not encounter in everyday life.

“Words like ‘evaluate’, ‘reason’, ‘evidence’ – these are all-purpose words that work in many subjects or contexts, but are not the sort of words [pupils] would use when having a conversation with their mates.”

Helping everyone to learn

Of course, this works well for all learners, not just EAL pupils. This approach – which benefits all learners but with EAL as a core focus – is something that Richard Elam, head of primary at Vijay International School in the Seychelles, has instigated to help his pupils.

“We have a massive focus on language and language development throughout the school. It is based on the mantra that good EAL teaching is good teaching for all,” he says.

He continues: “Our curriculum is story-based with a key text each half-term running central to everything. Explicit teaching of vocabulary is also commonplace as the children lack exposure to and understanding of many more common words.”

Creating this whole-school approach is also something that  Crisfield regularly works with with schools to help them overhaul their EAL delivery.

One important factor, she says, is that teachers need to be given the skills to understand how they identity the key terms, words and phrases that make part of the assessment within their learning topic to ensure they are addressed.

“If you look at the final assessment and that says, for example, the students will do a debate, giving a clear argument for or against something, you have to look at the language of argumentation,” she says.

“So you have to give lots of opportunities to practise to develop arguments using language they need so the teachers have to pay attention throughout the unit to building towards assessment – in terms of content, of course – but also in terms of language.”

Buy-in from all

This might sound simple but building learning to match an assessment criteria is what drives almost all of education and is hardly something teachers solve in a few weeks. Quite the opposite – it’s a never-ending quest.

So building an approach to EAL that takes in the ideas outlined above and has a real benefit on assessment outcomes is not something that can be done with a quick CPD session but requires proper buy-in from everyone to ensure it has a continual focus, say Crisfield.

“How long I spend with them [at school] depends on in-house expertise. I try to work with one or two key staff members who will shadow the work I do and then take over the coaching aspect.”

This approach was ultimately what solved the issues at the school in China mentioned earlier

“Eventually, the school hired an excellent, well-resourced EAL department and shuffled the timetable to allow students new to the language to spend their time focusing on building vocabulary, learning basic grammar and practising oral English.”

The value of home languages 

This is also the process that Aiglon College has been through by working with Crisfield to help bring a more holistic approach to its EAL delivery as the school’s language policy lead for EAL and English, Louise Brooke, explains.

“The decision to look again at the school language policy came after training [with Ms Crisfield] where staff were shown the benefits of integrated language learning within subjects and the power of using multilingualism within lessons to help students with understanding concepts.”

The reference to multilingualism in lessons may sound contradictory – aren’t we meant to be helping pupils to improve their English?

Yet, actually, allowing pupils to bring their home language into learning alongside English is increasingly recognised as working well for EAL learners.

“We know from research that there is a mutually supportive relationship between the development of the child’s home language and the language of instruction,” says Murphy, who has been involved in research in this area that can be accessed online for free.

This does not mean teachers have to become polyglots, but is more about giving students autonomy to use their own language as and when makes sense – an approach Aiglon is now taking, explains Brookes.

“Lessons are taught in English but if the student has an understanding of the concept in their own language and can explain how they understand that, then there are options for them,” she says.

“Instead of presenting a full presentation in English, they could present in their own language with the main bullet points in English on slides. This can help in science, for example, where concepts are complex and language can limit student access.”

Vocabulary knowledge 

It also means actively encouraging students to look up the topic in advance in their own language so that they come to the lesson with some vocab and understanding.

“The internet is a useful tool for the students and so if they can get insight into a complex topic prior to the lesson, it means that they have grasped some of the concepts and begin to use some of the language to explore it in English,” she adds.

It can also save teachers a lot of time, too, as primary teacher Gregory Adam notes. “I once spent 15 minutes trying to explain the word 'imagination' without translation. The next time I taught it, I just translated it because it saved me so much time that we could actually use to talk about imagination – not just me trying to explain the word.”

Finally, recognising and allowing students to use their home language has another large benefit that should not be overlooked: it makes parents feel their language is valued within the child’s education – something that should be encouraged.

“Some parents believe they need to stop speaking their home language to make sure the child can develop English skills, but developing the home language can support English skills,” says Murphy.

A balancing act

However, Dr De Cat, while also acknowledging the benefits of this multi-language approach, also offers a point of caution that home languages must not "take over" the school language.

“Research [by Professor Roy Lyster at McGill University] has shown that you have to be careful to limit the use of trans-languaging because if you use the first language in the classroom too much, you might end up not legitimising English as a language of knowledge, science and study. So it is important not to just freely swap and you must ensure the language of learning is clear.”

This feels particularly pertinent given this balance between English and home language learning may well have slipped over the past 12 months as students were at home with their parents for long periods of time and likely not speaking as much English as they would in school.

This won’t be the only issue the pandemic has caused either: it will be harder to spot if a child has failed to grasp key vocabulary, if pronunciation skills have waned or if they are even speaking English at all.

One quick fix Flynn suggests to counter this is setting students a task of recording a debate or discussion that can be recorded and analysed afterwards – both to assess subject understanding but also speaking and vocabulary skills.

More broadly, though, the academics acknowledge that there is no single fix for addressing EAL issues remotely – after all, pedagogical research around remote learning is relatively nascent, let alone specific to issues such as EAL.

The hope will be, of course, that as school everywhere creep back to normality during 2021, this issue ebbs.

As it does, though, it will certainly be the case that pupils like Luis will continue to stare at boards or worksheets that are laden with unfamiliar words, phrases and ideas – perhaps more so than ever.

The aim must be then for international schools to recognise that EAL learners need to be approached with a unified voice.

Dan Worth is senior editor at Tes

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