Stark insight into world of second language pupils

14th November 2003 at 00:00
Huw Thomas is impressed for once with a professional development scheme

I am wary of packaged programmes. You know the sort of thing: they have glitzy titles like "accelerative brain behaviour improvement", and cult-like followers who will not let you photocopy their notes.

However, there have been some good ones - Reading Recovery, for instance. I think I have stumbled on another: an English as a second language training programme from Australia called "ESL in the mainstream".

The programme began in the 1980s and is now in 36 countries. Thousands of teachers have undertaken the training and it is spreading across the UK, where it has been adopted by local education authorities such as Sheffield and Peterborough.

John Polias, one of its originators, recalls that "ESL in the mainstream" was developed because "the needs of newly-arrived students were being catered for adequately but nothing was being done for those students who had been in an English-speaking environment for a period of time".

The programme consists of 10 robustly-structured workshops covering second-language learning, specific issues raised in the teaching of reading and writing, oral development and cultural inclusion. There are integral readings and activities.

In Sheffield, advisory teacher Jenny Smith works alongside Pauline Grady, a teacher seconded to the programme. Both identify its selling point as the successful balance between in-depth theory and classroom practice, which includes in-class research.

The programme has other high points, such as the session which puts trainees through the experience of being second-language learners. In my session I ended up avoiding eye contact and cheating to get the work done, a stark insight into the world my ESL children face when they arrive in my school.

The scheme's strength seems to be the hefty nature of the research expected of participants, which virtually doubles the time commitment required by the course. However, I think it taps a longing teachers have for something more heavyweight than some of the training souffles we get.

A second strength is the way it gets teachers talking. The scheme provides a framework for us to share the knowledge we gather.

John Polias is in the UK promoting yet another idea. His work on "ESL scopes and scales" unpicks the two strands of texts and language, and describes the linguistics that teachers of ESL children need to take account of.

Huw Thomas is head of Springfield school, Sheffield, and author of Understanding Texts, published by Scholastic.For ESL in the mainstream, see www.eslmainstream.comJohn Polias will speaking in London on November 18.


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