Students who are new to English have particular circumstances and needs in schools. With the right support they go on to become proficient in English, and achieve success in education, in the same way as native English-speaking children. Whole school understanding and strategies facilitate successful outcomes for EAL students. EAL students are a very diverse group of students ranging 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, and most students have 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.
Schools need to understand the backgrounds and circumstances of their EAL learners. This includes knowing about EAL students’ prior educational experiences, and general sociocultural information about the families and communities of the students. Knowing about the students’ prior educational experiences helps teachers to know the starting points and prior knowledge of their EAL students, and know how to engage the students’ families in supporting their child in their learning.
An initial interview with a child’s parent or guardian should be through an interpreter, and conducted by a staff member who has experience or training in working with recently arrived immigrants and people of diverse cultural backgrounds.
While EAL students often learn enough English for basic social interaction in familiar situations in a few months, this is not an indication of complete learning of English. Academic language, which is so important in schooling, is a much more complex learning task. Research indicates that it takes between five and ten years for upper primary and secondary-aged EAL students to reach the same levels of proficiency in English as their English-speaking classmates, including proficiency in the academic language of schooling. The length of time taken depends on prior experience of schooling, and also whether students have had prior experiences of learning English in their country of origin. It also depends on age, as the language needed by younger children is not as complex or as extensive as the language needed by older students. So while it may take a shorter period for an early years EAL learner to reach a similar level to English speaking children in their use of English, it may take between five and seven years for older children, or up to 10 years in the case of children with limited prior schooling and low literacy in their first language (L1). Of course each child follows an individual path, and there may be variations from these figures. The variations will also be related to the quality of the EAL support they are given.
The educational goals, aspirations and needs of EAL students and their families are the same as for English speaking children and their families. Learning English is the most significant immediate learning need for EAL learners, as is learning about the culture of the community and school they are attending. While students are in the process of learning English, they still need to continue their learning across the curriculum, and this learning will also facilitate their learning of English. Like all children, EAL students learn best when they are comfortable in their social environment and have healthy relationships with their teachers and peers.
EAL students therefore need support in their learning of English and their learning across all curriculum areas while they are still in the process of learning English. EAL students and their families need to feel they are part of the school community, they are welcome in that community, and that other members of the community appreciate and respect their cultural backgrounds. Teachers and school staff knowing about the backgrounds of EAL students and their families, along with their important values, celebrations and concerns will facilitate the full participation of EAL students in all aspects of learning in the school. Schools can seek support in this from EAL regional or system consultants or advisers, and from local community organisations and services that work with local immigrant communities, such as Migrant Resource Centres. Talking to parents and students (through interpreters if necessary) is always a very good way to get to know parents and families better.
Some EAL learners have come from societies where access to schools has been limited or seriously disrupted. In some cases levels of literacy may also be very low in the communities in which they have grown up. So EAL students who come from such backgrounds, and arrive in the middle to upper primary or secondary years, may have little or no literacy in their first language, and little prior experience of formal learning to draw on as they move into Australian schools.
These students will need additional support, including extra time, in learning English, developing literacy skills in English, and learning about the expectations and routines of classrooms. They also need help in understanding expectations about learning, and the skills they need to manage their own learning. Schools without prior experience with low literacy EAL students should seek the support and advice of their regional or system EAL consultant in order to design a program to best suit the needs of these students. For more information, see: EAL Regional Program Officers
Catering for the language and literacy development of EAL learners is a long-term, shared school community commitment. The most effective EAL provision involves a whole-school approach, based on a school EAL policy. Ideally policy and program development means that:
- targeted EAL programs are provided for students with the greatest learning needs, and resources are allocated according to need
- all teachers understand and can respond to the learning needs of their EAL students
- strong EAL pedagogy is evident in classroom programs, planning, teaching and assessment practices
- EAL learners’ progress is assessed and reported against the EAL standards in the EAL Companion to the AusVELS.
- teachers use the EAL Developmental Continuum P-10 to broaden their understanding of the EAL standards in the Companion, to validate assessments of students’ progress and to design appropriate learning experiences and assessment activities
- Assessment practices focus on monitoring and assessing progress, then involving the learner as much as possible in evaluating where they are and where they need to get to, and enhancing student learning
- Effective assessment strategies are in place to monitor EAL students’ learning in all subject areas
- EAL programs and provision are regularly reviewed to ensure they continue to meet EAL learners’ evolving needs, and to cater for changing school populations.
The EAL Handbook provides advice to government schools about planning and implementing effective programs for students learning English as an additional language. Much of the information in this handbook is also suitable for schools in other sectors. It covers topics such as:
- Whole-school approaches to EAL programming and provision
- EAL policy development
- Staff roles in EAL provision
- The development of a specialist EAL program
- Assessing student learning needs
- EAL program options
- Catering for EAL student needs in mainstream classrooms
- Staff professional learning
- Case studies of primary and secondary school EAL programs.
EAL students are recognised in curriculum and assessment frameworks such as the EAL Companion to the AusVELS which describe the patterns of English language development of EAL students in schools.
The EAL Developmental Continuum P – 10 provides a more finely tuned description of performance indicators of student work, along with annotated written and video samples of the work of EAL students in the stages of the EAL Companion to the AusVELS in the years Prep/Foundation to Year 10. These frameworks should be used to map the English language development of EAL learners until they reach a point where mainstream English curriculum stages and descriptions apply more accurately. Once an EAL student has reached the ‘at standard’ level of their respective A, B or S stage in all three modes of Speaking and Listening, Reading and Viewing and Writing, they can be transferred to the Victorian Curriculum F – 10 English for assessment and reporting purposes.
The EAL Companion to the AusVELS and other EAL assessment frameworks are divided into three stages of schooling (lower primary, middle and upper primary, and secondary), so the stages of development are related to the cognitive and social development of students of different ages, and the expectations of their learning at different levels of schooling. Use of such frameworks will give schools a more finely tuned and accurate picture of the progress and achievement of EAL learners in their English language learning than use of mainstream curriculum frameworks alone. In primary classrooms, use of an EAL assessment framework will assist teachers to better plan their teaching. In secondary schools, teachers taking responsibility for the overall English language development of EAL students should work with an EAL assessment framework. These frameworks can also be used by teachers who are not specialist EAL teachers, in order to understand the kind of English that students at various stages of EAL development will be able to understand and use.
In learning across the curriculum, curriculum frameworks acknowledge that EAL learners’ language proficiency will influence how EAL students learn, and how they are able to communicate about their learning in different subject areas. EAL students who start school in Australia with age-equivalent education in their country of origin will have subject knowledge in the subjects they have studied, even if they cannot communicate it effectively in English.
In subjects like science and mathematics, where there are fewer cultural differences in what is taught, EAL students may have similar knowledge and skills as their peers. In subjects like social sciences, history and geography, the learning activties may have been quite different in terms of content, but the underlying concepts and ideas may be similar to what has been taught in Australian schools.
EAL students need to continue in their subject learning while they are still in the process of learning English. Learning the language of their subjects is an important part of the overall language development of EAL students, and is the responsibility of subject teachers. More effective learning outcomes can be achieved if subject teachers are supported with strategies in the following areas:
- making subject content accessible to EAL learners in language and formats compatible with EAL students’ current level of English proficiency
- helping EAL students collaborate with peers to discuss, explore and extend their subject learning
- adapting assessment activities so EAL learners can demonstrate their subject learning in ways that are cognisant of their current level of English language development.
Newly arrived EAL students will benefit from participation in a new arrivals program where access to support is available, unless prior learning of English has given them sufficient proficiency to participate in regular mainstream classes. Contact your local EAL Regional Program Officer to see what kind of support is available.
After experience in a new arrivals program EAL learners will benefit from being placed in mainstream classes, as long as there is in place a program for monitoring of their English language development and overall learning, preferably by an EAL qualified specialist. Teachers can use strategies relevant to their level of schooling to support EAL learners in their classes.
Teachers can use a range of strategies to support EAL students in subject classrooms, including:
- pairing an EAL student with limited proficiency with another student or students who share the same L1, and asking those students to check the students understanding and explain important learning in the common language;
- using visual prompts, gestures, and diagrams to support explanations of content
- systematically teaching important subject vocabulary (spoken and written form, and meanings)
- explicitly modelling the styles of language and types of texts expected and used in the subject and in the completion of assessment tasks.
Have discussions with EAL students and their families, to find out what they might already have learned about and can do in their different subjects.
Obviously, English language assessment for EAL learners needs to be informed by and related to an EAL curriculum framework, such as the EAL Companion to the AusVELS.
In other subject areas, assessment of EAL learners through the medium of English raises significant issues about the validity and accuracy of assessments of EAL students’ subject learning. The current stage of English language development may limit an EAL learner’s ability to complete an assessment task, or to meet criteria written for English-speaking students. Completion of a task affected by language limitations and evaluation of a task based on inaccurate assumptions of language proficiency does not provide an accurate and valid assessment of a student’s subject learning.
It is possible to devise assessment tasks and strategies to more accurately assess the subject learning of EAL learners.
More adaption is required for EAL learners in the early and intermediate stages of English language development (EAL Developmental Continuum P – 10 stages: A1, BL, B1, B2, SL, S1, S 2 and S3). While EAL students who are approaching the language proficiency of their English speaking classmates (stages A2, B3 and S4) may be able to be involved in assessment that is close to usual mainstream practices, their completion of assessment tasks should be carefully monitored to see where gaps in their language skills have affected their performance of a task.
Where modifying assessment activities and practices is required, the following strategies may be useful:
- using an EAL student’s first language to assess subject content learning, where the school has access to multicultural aides or teachers or another responsible adult who can act as an interpreter or translator, who may speak the same language as the student
- using highly visual stimulus to prompt a student to show (for example, on a diagram or map) what they understand of it, and getting students to show their understanding with minimal language, by drawing or demonstrating
- assessing mainly for evidence of content learning, and except where subject specific vocabulary learning is the focus of assessment, accepting errors in vocabulary use, grammar, spelling and punctuation
- modifying assessment tasks to simpler language that is accessible for the EAL learner and is acceptable for the completion of the task, for example by providing a comprehensible prompt.
By using appropriate assessment strategies with EAL students in subject learning, accurate information can be obtained. In this way EAL students can be assisted in their subject learning while their English language skills develop.
Subject faculties and groups of teachers can be supported to build banks of assessment tasks for EAL learners. These can include modified assessment procedures that take account of different levels of English language development, and modified criteria that take account of English as an element of the task. If there are qualified EAL teachers in the school, they have useful expertise that will enhance assessment programs and practices for EAL students. Sharing of these resources is an efficient and effective way to use resources.
As EAL learners may already have age-equivalent learning in subject areas even before coming to Australia, they may be able to match their English-speaking peers in learning outcomes where English language skills are not a significant factor, such as completion of Maths algorithms, Phys Ed activities, or use of visual arts techniques, even when they have little English. Schools and teachers should be alert to these possibilities.
However, in most subject areas and assessment tasks EAL learners only gradually move towards matching the learning outcomes of their English-speaking peers. The use of modified assessment tasks and procedures will help schools to monitor the learning and development of EAL students across curriculum subjects, as well as their English language learning.
Parents need to understand the reports and information they receive from schools if they are to be effective partners in their child’s education. For schools with EAL students this may mean that reports and information can be translated into the languages spoken by parents if their English language proficiency is limited. But remember, in some cases, parents of low literacy EAL students may not be literate in their first language. Use an interpreter to communicate with these parents in parent teacher interviews, rather than written notices or reports. Interpreters also need to be provided for parent-teacher meetings and interviews involving any parents with limited English proficiency. For more information, see: Use an Interpreter or Translator
As many parents of EAL students are relatively new to Australia, you need to make sure communication involves information about expectations of learning, and what students need to do in order to improve, as well as information about students’ levels of achievement.
Parents of EAL students may be used to relying only on the judgment of teachers and single number scores or percentages as measures of learning. Schools need to ensure parents are informed about ways in which assessment in the school provides information about learning progress, which is more important than simple measures such as averages. It is important that parents understand it is not appropriate when comparisons are made between an EAL student and English-speaking students’ progress, particularly in English language learning. Showing samples of student work and how they have improved over time can be a useful way of reporting to parents. It may also be possible to discuss with parents how they can actively be involved in assisting their child’s learning, such as through student-parent conferences.