Case study: the EAL specialist

23rd September 2005 at 01:00
I've been working in EAL since the late Eighties. After a linguistics degree, I taught English abroad for a couple of years and then did the postgraduate diploma at Manchester University for teaching English overseas. This conferred QTS, and becoming an EAL teacher was the obvious choice. At the time, it was a fairly common route for people coming into EAL and it meant we had a solid grounding in the mechanics of language acquisition. The demise of the diploma and the Royal Society of Arts course has left a big gap in training and the lack of a professional qualification specifically for EAL has not exactly helped the standing of the specialism.

Hopefully, the new course will address this.

Over my career, I've seen quite a few changes in ideology and methodology.

When I first came to Hounslow, beginners were taught at a separate language centre before being sent into schools. But such centres were considered divisive and ours closed in 1989, with the work of the specialist language service continuing in schools. In my experience students make faster progress in the mainstream as they absorb so much language from their peers. Obviously they need to be well supported; you can't just throw beginners in at the deep end. At Hounslow Manor school, where I'm based for two days a week, our beginners spend half the timetable on a carefully planned induction programme. All the lessons are based on the national curriculum and, as far as possible, are taught by EAL staff who are also subject specialists. In the induction groups, it's easier to put more emphasis on the language they need for the subject and get them using it in context.

Partnership teaching is also well established in the school. Over the years I've seen a real change in the attitudes of mainstream staff towards EAL pupils. Sometimes they used to be seen as a problem, but now staff are more aware of their potential and are happy to take responsibility for them.

Seeing them make a lot of progress in a relatively short time is exciting, and now it's common for subject teachers to volunteer to take classes that have lots of EAL pupils, provided they get support.

EAL teachers in mainstream classrooms can sometimes be seen as "helpers" and lack status. We've really tried to overcome this misunderstanding. The timetable is organised so that EAL staff work within their own areas of expertise and are attached to departments. That way they can get involved in curriculum planning. It's no good if you're trying to work in five different subject areas, as you're always on the periphery.

It helps that inclusion is high on the agenda of senior management at Hounslow Manor and there are systems to help ease new arrivals into the school. There's an induction mentor who makes sure they have a "buddy" who speaks the same language and provides support until they've settled in.

Obviously, this service is available to all pupils, but it's particularly valuable for the EAL beginners. We also celebrate the different cultures of the school through arts events such as our international evening, which can include anything from Afghan kite flying to Somali dancing.

As a borough, Hounslow has always maintained a strong, centralised language service and that has huge benefits. When all the responsibility for EAL is devolved to individual schools, it's really hard for them to keep up to date with developments in methodology and find the time to forge links and share good practice with others. With a central service, you can oversee projects more effectively. The service provides EAL staff with eight half-days of training a year and runs courses for mainstream teachers. We also have a central multilingual advisory team that can carry out bilingual assessments of pupils and interpret at parents' evenings.

Being an EAL teacher is fascinating and rewarding. You get to work closely with students from all over the world who come with very diverse life experiences. I often wonder how I would cope if I was 14 with no English and suddenly wound up here with just my dad, leaving five brothers and sisters in Ethiopia and my mum and brother in Italy. That sort of situation is not unusual, but somehow they just knuckle down and get on with it. It's humbling. Quite a few of our past pupils keep in touch. Recently we heard from a Zanzibari girl who was here a few years ago. She wrote to say she's just graduated from university with a 2:1 and is now going on to do an MA in forensic psychology. It's a privilege to be a small part of her success.

Trish Foster is an advisory teacher with Hounslow Central EMAG service. She was talking to Caroline Roberts

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