EAL students are a very diverse group. Students range from those enrolling in their first year of school with little or no English through to students in their late teens arriving as immigrants, perhaps with some English language skills. Their backgrounds and experiences are also very diverse, with most students having age equivalent schooling in their home countries, but many will meet formal schooling for the first time in Australia. Students with refugee backgrounds may also be suffering the effects of trauma and displacement which will of course also impact on their learning.
It is really important for teachers of EAL students to know their students and their backgrounds well, so that suitable English language learning programs can be planned for them, and so that their progress can be monitored.
Teachers need in particular to know:
- how long students have been learning English
- what kind of EAL teaching they have had
- have they had formal education before coming to Australia, and what kinds of literacy skills do they have in their first language, or in any other language?
It’s also helpful to know something about the opportunities they have beyond school for using English and their first language.
Schools on enrolment often collect a lot of this information, and it can be supplemented over time with parent/teacher and student interviews and questionnaires. This process is called sociolinguistic profiling. Information to collect, and formats with questions to ask are provided on the website. Remember parents or guardians who are familiar with other kinds of education systems may not understand why you are asking these questions, so explain, through an interpreter if necessary.
Obviously students need to learn English, but it is important to appreciate that they also need to learn through English as they learn English. This is an enormous task. Research tells us that students can take from 5 to 10 years to learn English to the same level of proficiency as their peers, depending on age and background, so it is crucial that students continue their learning in the subject areas as soon as they arrive, and that this continues as a focus throughout. We know that people learn a language more efficiently and effectively if they are learning about real, engaging and important topics, which is what a school curriculum is all about. Another important aspect of language learning is the student’s need for social language so that they can be comfortable in school, start to make friends, and to take part in classroom activities with other students.
Many things impact on learning, and learning a new language is no different. Students who feel secure and relaxed, who are taught what they are ready to learn in a systematic way and who are who are encouraged and involved in their own learning will make progress.
Most students take time to settle into a new environment; however it may take some students longer to feel secure and relaxed, due to their prior experiences. Students from refugee backgrounds may be suffering from the effects of trauma, dislocation, the loss of family members and from ‘culture shock’. They and their families may be unsure about their futures. Organisations such as The Victorian Foundation for Survivors of Torture can help students and families suffering from trauma.
Those who are not used to formal schooling will take time to understand the expectations and routines of a classroom, where everything is new. Explicit teaching of expectations will help students to settle more quickly. Contact your principal or EAL Regional Program Officer (RPO) to find out what assistance may be available.
In Victoria, the VCAA has published the EAL Companion to AusVELS which should be used to assess the English language learning of EAL students, to help plan programs for them and to report on their progress. The EAL Developmental Continuum P-10 provides more detailed information about each stage of the EAL Companion to AusVELS, including more detailed performance indicators, and examples of language use. The EAL Developmental Continuum is organised in the same stages as the EAL Companion to AusVELS.
The most important priority is to make the student feel comfortable in the classroom, and to give them lots of opportunities to observe and to work out what’s going on and to learn the routines of the classroom. You might pair them up with a friend or two, to look after them in the classroom and the playground. Lots of basic resources are available to help them begin to learn some of the vocabulary that will be useful, such as the names of classroom objects, emotions, colours, actions and so on. Mathematics can often be a good starting point for newly arrived students who have intact schooling, as in many ways it is a universal language, and gives the student an opportunity to show what they know.
It is also worth finding out if your student is eligible for a new arrivals program, or whether other system support is available, such as access to assistance from consultants. See newly arrived students for more information.
Several resources have been specifically developed to assist teachers with newly arrived EAL students in primary school, and these are available for download from the Department of Education and Training Victoria website. See No English. Don’t Panic, a handbook for teachers of EAL students in their first few weeks at school in Australia. Information includes:
- enrolment and placement
- finding out about background information
- providing school information and orientation
- settling in
- classroom organisation
- assessment strategies
- teaching English
- everyday things to do
No English 2 Questions and Answers continues with answers to some of the concerns primary classroom teachers may have about the English language development of newly arrived EAL learners, and about providing appropriate programs for them. Information includes:
- classroom practices to encourage communication
- strategies to encourage social interaction
- EAL-specific teaching resources
- communication with home
- parent-teacher discussions – use of interpreters
- new arrivals with interrupted or little prior schooling
- transition to secondary school
- program organisation and modification.
Beginning English as a Second Language Primary supports mainstream primary classroom teachers by providing practical ideas and resources for newly arrived primary EAL learners. The material is organised into 16 units of work based around topics that are appropriate for newly arrived students.
Beginning English as an Additional Language Secondary includes four units of work (Time, Personal Identification, Body and Health, and The Classroom) for newly arrived secondary EAL learners with minimal or no English. Many units of work from the upper primary level are also suitable for beginning secondary EAL learners.
Word Study for New Arrivals includes materials for teachers of primary and secondary EAL students beginning their English language learning. These materials are designed to assist EAL students to develop early literacy skills in English through a focus on the vocabulary and grammatical features which early learners of English are most likely to use.
Language Games for EAL Students includes materials which can be used to make language games for EAL and Languages students, across all year levels. The games, based on 19 topics that are usually taught to newly arrived EAL students, consolidate and reinforce skills in speaking, listening, reading and writing, and give students a chance to use a range of language functions important for working and playing with others.
More EAL resources are available for borrowing from the Languages and Multicultural Education Resource Centre (LMERC) which is based in Carlton. LMERC is a specialist resource centre for schools across all sectors.
If you have EAL learners with relatively low levels of proficiency in English (especially AusVELS EAL Stages SL, S1, or S2) in your secondary subject class, don’t panic. Remember you are part of a team working with that student, and that each member of the team needs to understand their own role and how that fits into the team supporting the student. If there is an EAL teacher in the team she or he will focus on the general English language development of the student. If there is no EAL teacher available, then the English teacher should take on the role of nurturing the overall English language development of the student, with the support of an EAL Regional Program Officer or consultant. The school and team should check the availability of new arrivals support for the student, and see whether it is possible for the student to participate in a New Arrivals EAL Program. In any case, the team should try to map an appropriate learning plan and achievable goals for that student, given their current stage of development.
More adjustments will need to be made for students at lower levels of English proficiency (AusVELS EAL Stages SL, S1 and S2), while students at higher stages of English language development (AusVELS EAL Stages S3 and S4) will be moving towards being able to participate in class activities in the same ways as their peers who speak English as their first language, with less support and modification over time.
In most cases your EAL student will have attended school in their country of origin, and will come to your classroom with a lot of knowledge and skills they have gained from their previous education.
They may have also participated in a new arrivals EAL program, which will have given them a threshold of English to enable them to begin learning in mainstream classes, but they will still have a lot to learn. This will include learning English relevant to a range of subject areas. If you teach a subject like Maths or Science, where there are similarities in subject content across different cultures, this subject learning may well be similar to the prior learning of your Australian-educated students. In other subjects like History, Geography and the social sciences, their learning is likely to have focused on different topics, but it is likely that the general principles explored in these subjects will have similarities to the subject you are teaching. In practical subjects like PE and Visual Arts it should be very easy to see what students can do and understand, even though their current English language skills are limited. In English and language subjects, prior learning will be very specific to the languages the student has previously studied. In the subject of English, EAL learners will be adapting from their first language, to studying texts and language use in a second language which they are still learning. In Languages Other than English (LBOTE) subjects, EAL learners can be on a relatively equal learning base to their native English-speaking peers, in that the language they are learning is relatively new to them all, unless they are learning a language they already speak or have previously studied.
In your classroom you have responsibility for subject learning, so find strategies that can assist the students to learn about their subject, either through the medium of their first language, or using visual ways of conveying subject information, such as pictures, diagrams, demonstrations, or graphics. Also focus on helping your EAL student learn the important vocabulary and other key language of the subject. In this way you will make a valuable contribution to your student’s subject learning and their overall English language development. There are ways you can assess your EAL student’s subject learning while their English is limited. This may include getting them to demonstrate, or draw diagrams to show their understanding, rather than extended writing.
As your EAL students’ English language proficiency increases they will become better at displaying their subject knowledge and understanding. They will also begin to display proficiency in the language of your subject, and they will gradually be able to use English to participate in learning activities in your subject.
Look at the information in the other sections of this website. Also, keep these important understandings and principles in mind as you work with your EAL learner:
- Remember second/additional language learning is a long term process that takes a number of years. You will be working with a student for a part of that time, so try to help them along that part of their learning journey in the subject you teach.
- Second language learners can often understand better than they can explain. Look for ways in which you can check their understanding that don’t go beyond your student’s current level of English language proficiency. Of course, your EAL students will ultimately need to use the language of your subject area in ways appropriate to their year level and stage of learning, and you need to be working towards that goal.
- EAL students recently arrived in Australia may have attended schools where the nature of learning activities and expectations of students are very different compared to your school. It will take some time for them to adjust to this change of learning culture, but being explicit about expectations and modelling what is expected will help students in this important area of their learning.
- In cases where your EAL student has had limited education, and perhaps low literacy in their first language, it is possible that they will need more time and more explicit modelling of expectations than other students.
- In assessment tasks for EAL students, don’t rely only on tasks that require or assume language skills beyond the current English language level of your student. If a student doesn’t successfully complete a task, ask yourself whether this was because of gaps in their subject knowledge, or limitations in their English language proficiency.
EAL students have two main tasks, to learn English and to learn through English, and these need to happen simultaneously. When assessing students in the subject areas it is important to focus more on what students have learnt about the topic than on the English language they are able to use to express it.
At the very earliest stages of English language development it may be difficult for students to show what they already know in a subject area or to express what they may have learnt from a classroom topic through English. Students may be able to write about what they know (or would like to learn) in their first language, which can then be translated by parents or a bilingual aid. As students progress in their English language learning they will increasingly be able to express in English what they have learnt. Students may only be able to simply label or draw a diagram, rather than write a report, but this still will show that they have actually learnt a lot about the topic.
- Students may be able to explain orally, but not yet in written English, so discuss with them what they have learnt, encouraging them to use visual aids to help explain.
- Discuss with students the broad aims of the assessment, for example, to find out what they have learnt about the topic, rather than focus on the form in which it is presented.
- Modify assessment criteria to be simpler or use bilingual assistance to explain criteria.
- Assessment tasks may need to be broken down into smaller steps, and modelled so that students have a clearer understanding of expectations, for example, modelling a writing task and then providing sentence starters for the first few paragraphs and the concluding paragraph.
- Students may be able to write ‘dot points’ rather than an extended text.
Review and revise with students if they are expected to produce an extended text, and allow them to rewrite.