One of the biggest challenges in international schools is the high number of language learners. In many schools, the number of students who do not speak the school language as their dominant language is often higher than the number of students who do. While it can be easy to focus on the new arrivals; students with little to no school language, in fact this approach does not provide adequate support for language learners. We have know for many years that students can acquire conversational fluency (Basic Interpersonal Communication Skills, or BICS) within a year or two, acquiring academic proficiency (Cognitive Academic Language Proficiency, or CALP) can take much longer. There is no fixed time frame, but estimates vary between 3-9 years to reach full CALP. The big question then is:
Do schools need to provide up to nine years of EAL support?
The answer is yes, and no. It is definitely the case that some students need additional support connected to language development and content mastery for several years after beginning in a new school language. This doesn't mean, however, that they need to be in EAL classes. Indeed, it is better for them to be supported through differentiated teaching, learning and assessment in the classroom than to be isolated in an EAL classroom. There is a case to be made for a stand-alone EAL induction period for students arriving at school with no prior exposure to English who are joining after the age of literacy. These students can use a focused boost to allow them to be able to access the classroom and to help them transfer their L1 literacy skills to English. Outside this circumstance, students progress better in a programme that provides them with support for content learning (in their dominant language) as well as overt and continuous support for language development through the curriculum.
It is important for schools to have an EAL department, with the appropriate education and expertise. These designated subject experts will be able to guide the development and implementation of all EAL interventions, whether they be stand-alone or classroom-based. It is both unfair and unrealistic to expect classroom teachers to be solely responsible for supporting EAL students when numbers are high and language backgrounds diverse. A solid EAL team can help with planning, differentiation in teaching and resource building. They can also provide professional development for staff, as well as support for parents.
Every school that welcomes language learner students must be prepared to meet their language needs as well as their academic needs, whether it is for one year or until graduation. This requires the commitment and support of leadership, the expert knowledge of the EAL department, and the dedication of all teaching and support staff.