What actually happens in 'EAL' classes?
This is the third in a series of four blog posts about EAL. The first is 'Why is EAL so complex?' and the second is 'Advocacy: Whose job is it?'. In this third post I am going to explore why EAL provision remains so mysterious to so many.
When I go into a school to do a review, my first question is always 'describe your EAL provision to me'. Depending on who I am asking, this question either leads to great consternation, or to an answer that may still be going 15 minutes later... Why is it that EAL is so hard to describe? I think the answer is that in many (most?) schools, EAL suffers from a lack of systematicity and transparency.
This is in large part because of a lack of a clear EAL programme in most schools. As I mentioned in my first post, there is no 'off the shelf' EAL programme that schools can purchase and use. That doesn't mean, however, that we can or should be without a clear programme; it just means that we need to make it ourselves! The idea of creating a consistent and deliverable programme can seem a daunting task, but without a programme our EAL provision becomes mainly reactive rather than proactive. Like any other curriculum area (and EAL is a curriculum area, not a support service), we need a roadmap to follow, with benchmarks and entry and exit points clearly delineated. Without this, we are never able to clearly state what any one student has received in terms of EAL teaching, therefore we are not able to accurately assess and report on progress. The EAL programme should be developed in a similar manner to any content class, as a document that can be used to implement a consistent programme with much-needed transparency. This will help avoid the kind of back and forth I often see, when teachers are not in agreement which students should/should not be in EAL, because there is no clear guideline as to what EAL actually is and when students have finished the programme. That said, the EAL programme should not be prescriptive in terms of time for delivery; we know that there is significant variation in how quickly/successfully students develop English at school, linked to individual differences in second language acquisition (age, first language, aptitude, motivation, personality factors, etc.). When students arrive they should be assessed (English and first/home language) and placed into the appropriate group, and then their progress should be tracked until they have met the objectives of the programme. This systematic approach will render transparent the scope and objectives of the EAL programme, and make clear what it can and will do, and what lies outwith its remit (NB outwith is a real word in Scotland that I have decided is too good to not use), clarifying for all involved the role of the EAL department and programme.
In terms of place, EAL should be at the heart of a school, not on the periphery. Scheduling of the EAL programme should be of central importance for emergent learners (Band A-B on the Bell Assessment Framework or equivalent). Supporting and accelerating their English language development through an explicit and well-planned programme is key to their ability to access classroom learning more quickly. There is often pushback against 'taking children out of class', on the mistaken assumption that this means they are 'excluded'. In fact, a child with emergent English is not included in the classroom fully, and they are not able to learn effectively anyway. Taking some time for an intensive boost for their English will aid them in accessing learning more quickly, whereas if they are left to learn it through an immersion approach in class, it will take much longer. A useful framework is to keep in mind that language acquisition happens well when children are hearing a level above their current proficiency level in English (we call it i + 1, which is the language acquisition version of Vygotsky's zone of proximal development). This means that a 3-year old in a nursery class will be hearing a lot of language at an appropriate level, but an English beginner in a Y5 class will be hearing very little language at a level they can access for development. The EAL programme is one place where EAL is developed, but it represents only a small amount of a student's time. Therefore, EAL also has to be supported in the mainstream classrooms, by mainstream teachers. This is what we mean when we say 'every teacher is a language teacher', which is more often fiction than fact...
This brings me to the final element: people. The EAL team, and the EAL coordinator or languages coordinator (yes, you need one) plays a key role in ensuring that understanding of the development (not *needs*) of students with EAL is shared across all staff. The EAL team may be responsible for delivering the EAL programme, but every teacher also needs to be delivering their curriculum/subject in ways that are not only accessible, but that support the acquisition of academic English for their subject. Every teacher (and admin/leader) is one of the people responsible for the success (or lack thereof) of students with EAL. And therein lies one of the greatest hurdles to strong provision for working with students with EAL; most of the people involved don't have the knowledge they need to do their jobs well. A school can have an amazing systematic and transparent EAL programme, but if provision for EAL is not systemic throughout all classes, the EAL programme will make a modest contribution to language growth, mainly in the early phases of language development. Schools need to invest in their people - EAL team and classroom teachers (and school leaders!) to make sure that everyone understands how to deliver a language-enhanced curriculum that allows equity in access and assessment for all students, regardless of their level of English. If you accept them into your school, you must ensure that you have provisions in place to allow them to thrive: academically, linguistically, socially.
In the fourth and final post in the series, we will look at the importance of partnerships for developing strong EAL provision. Stay tuned!