One in four Australian students are learning English as an additional language or dialect (EAL/D). But teachers often aren’t trained to meet their literacy needs. We asked Monash University Education Lecturer, Dr Melissa Barnes, who has shaped her ESL teaching career in the US, Germany, Vietnam, and Brunei, to help us unpack this complex issue.
EAL/D learners are not a homogenous group; they come from diverse cultural backgrounds and include Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students, migrants, refugees, and international students born overseas. They don’t just differ culturally, they also have different educational, linguistic and literacy backgrounds. Students can fall into any of the following groups:
Here’s something else to keep in mind. Australia welcomes many refugees from Sudan. Multilingualism, limited mother tongue literacy, unfamiliarity with English, and interrupted schooling are common to many students in the ‘African refugee cohort’, but it cannot be assumed that this applies to all students within the cohort. This is because Sudan itself – one country in the African continent – is comprised of over 400 ethnic groups, which means that even students from within the same country can be culturally different and have different educational needs.
Get to know what students know and what they don’t know
Due to this level of diversity, creating individualised learning opportunities for EAL/D students in the classroom is highly important. According to Dr Barnes, this is probably the biggest challenge for educators.
“While there’s an increasing focus on differentiation in Australian schools, I think many teachers still struggle with knowing how to identify specific language needs and modifying classroom work accordingly.” she says.
Research in this area suggests that when age, length of residency, country of origin, and year level are not clear indicators of ability, then the only way for differentiated learning to begin, is via formative assessment.
Dr Barnes agrees: “Assess often and in a variety of ways. Document progress and process rather than focusing how far away students are from the ‘standard’. It’s important to identify, with as much accuracy as possible, where students have been, where they are now, and where they need to go.”
Get to know their culture too
Identifying your students’ literacy skills is important, but to assess them accurately, you need to get to know them and develop some knowledge around their culture, too. This can help you understand the behaviours they bring to the classroom. Take listening, for example. “In Australia, good, active listening is often signaled by eye contact, but in some cultures eye contact is disrespectful. So, at times, teachers require cultural understanding to assess how well students are listening.” says Dr Barnes.
She also explains that for students who have experienced trauma and/or interrupted schooling, a lot of settling in may need to take place before language gains are evident. “Knowing the background of the student and keeping it in mind is very important when assessing their progress.” she says.
Techniques to support the literacy development of EAL/D students
It’s helpful for teachers to invite EAL/D learners to share their cultural and linguistic knowledge and experiences. This creates an inclusive classroom environment, allows teachers to get to know them, and provides intercultural learning opportunities for the entire class.
Parent-teacher relationships are crucial too. According to Dr Barnes, for many EAL/D students, who they ‘are’ at school becomes a very limited version of who they truly are. Bridging home, community and school allows teachers to see the student beyond their limited language proficiency and as a son, big sister, or soccer player.
Here are five classroom techniques you can use to meet the needs of your EAL/D students. This list provides a starting point, but ideally, each technique would be modified to match the English-speaking proficiency of EAL/D students in your classroom.
1. Allow use of first language (L1)
“L1 literacy skills are a great resource for EAL/D students – more so than an interference, as some might argue. When a child learns to read and write in their first language, they may look at a word in its written form but do not recognise it until someone says it out loud. The child will make the connection between what is written and what they hear because they already know the word aurally, but not in written form. That is, they use their aural understanding of words to help support their reading of new words. Similarly, EAL/D students can use their L1 as a resource to support their English learning, by connecting new English words to known L1 words.”
L1 can also help with writing. “EAL/D students who struggle to communicate basic needs, find it difficult to even think about writing. In this instance, they can start by copying words and sentences in English and/or using a mixture of their home language and English to communicate their ideas in written form.” says Dr Barnes.
EAL/D students should also be encouraged to read widely in the languages and literatures of their home cultures, as well as English. For example, when asking students to conduct research for an information report you might permit EAL/D learners to seek out and use texts written in their L1.
2. Shared writing
“Collaborative writing as a class or in small groups that is led by teachers allows EAL/D students to watch and then copy what is written. This gives them an opportunity to practise fundamental skills, such as letter formation, spacing between words and punctuation. Other forms of shared writing, such as group shared writing can also be helpful, but groups need to be created carefully, and potentially a checklist used, to ensure that everyone is participating and collaborating to some extent.” says Dr Barnes.
3. Stress, intonation and phonics
Explicit teaching of intonation (rise and fall of speech) and stress of words is imperative. When EAL/D students have good pronunciation, they are more easily understood by listeners, and this leads to increased confidence when speaking in public. The word syllable for example, is stressed on the first syllable, but a student may say syllable or syllable instead, making the word more difficult for an audience to comprehend.
Phonics should also be explicitly taught – but in the context of words that EAL/D learners already understand. So, the meaning of the word in the context of the text would ideally be taught first. Then the phonemes of the word can be unpacked. Isolating the phonemic parts of words in this manner can help with writing, reading and pronunciation.
4. Managing silent periods
When learning to speak and listen in their first or second language, many children go through a ‘silent period’. But just because an EAL/D learner is not speaking, it does not mean that they’re not paying attention to the new language.
“For many EAL/D learners, there’s a lot of fear in using English incorrectly and they would rather be silent than incorrect. A positive learning environment, which allows students to feel safe about making mistakes in the classroom, while providing opportunities for them to be successful, is important.” says Dr Barnes.
She also stresses the importance of allowing EAL/D students to adapt to new school routines without the added pressure of feeling rushed to produce the language. There are simple ways to make their classroom experience more comfortable.
“Instead of randomly calling on an EAL/D student to answer a question in class, you can use paired and group sharing first. This gives them additional processing time to think through how they might answer a particular question.” says Dr Barnes.
According to Dr Barnes, technology is a great tool for EAL/D students particularly those that are falling behind. And it’s useful for promoting listening.
“Games that require students to follow a set of procedures are really helpful and fun. Certain games can also help build a student’s vocabulary – and this will help them understand different words as they hear them. Any games that help students link new words with pictures they recognise are useful.” she says.
Good teaching needs good support
In an ideal world, principals would allocate funding for the hiring of specialist teachers to support mainstream teachers in the classroom, and provide specific support to EAL/D students. Dr Barnes acknowledges that funding can be hard to come by, but there are other ways principals can help.
“Principals can promote a strong parent-school relationship by hosting parent information nights and workshops. These sessions can provide a valuable learning experience for parents, and teach them how to support their child’s literacy development.”
At the end of the day, all students deserve differentiated instruction. But this is not something teachers can achieve alone. Ideally, there needs to be an all school approach to help each student progress.
“There needs to be a school-wide understanding of the learning continuum through which EAL/D students need to progress in order to achieve. This allows teachers to collaborate and work together to better support EAL/D students.” says Dr Barnes.
Dr Melissa Barnes is a lecturer in the Faculty of Education, Monash University, Australia. Melissa's research includes Teaching English as a Second Language (TESOL), Second language assessment, English as an International Language (EAL/D) and language and literacy development.