For many educators, the task of teaching EAL students in the mainstream classroom is one that brings a wide range of challenges. Correcting spoken and written errors, whilst helping to improve fluency and accuracy across the four skills of reading, writing, listening and speaking (whilst also teaching the syllabus to them and a class full of able English speakers) certainly seems like a tall order; particularly for those without any experience of teaching EFL or Modern Foreign Languages.
There's also the problem of balance. On one hand, teachers want to make sure that EAL students have grasped the key information which will enable them to participate fully in the class: on the other, continually checking for understanding, plus asking for verbal contributions in the form of answers that are often delivered in slow and faltering English, can not only hold up the class but can have native, and more able English speakers, becoming restless, a fact often picked up on by self-conscious EAL students themselves.
Research into the area of how to educate EAL students alongside native English speakers throws up many questions, and, happily, many answers. A synthesis of the findings of three eminent practitioners in the fields of education and language acquisition advocates a very clear pathway which is easy to understand and not difficult to implement. What's more, the methodology commonly agreed upon not only works towards improving EAL learners' language abilities, but also towards native-speakers being able, simultaneously, to understand and retain information more effectively. This is a happy balance that sees both parties catered for, with the added bonus of improved cognition for both groups of students.
So what does the theory tell us? Presenting the main tenets in as brief a form as possible, it can basically be distilled into four key points.
- Merely placing students in the mainstream classroom cannot be assumed to provide optimal language learning opportunities as a matter of course. Teaching programs in all curriculum areas must therefore aim to integrate 'language' and 'content', so that a second language is developed hand in hand with new curriculum knowledge." Gibbons 2002.
So, osmosis is not the answer. It is up to teachers to bind language and content purposefully, so that each feeds, and feeds off, the other.
- One of the generally accepted central principles of language learning is that in order to learn a second language, it is essential to use it in interaction with others." Swain 1995.
Simple. Spoken collaboration is essential for language learning.
- The social view of teaching and learning recognises this (the previous point) by foregrounding 'the collaborative nature of learning and language development between individuals, the interrelatedness of the roles of teacher and learner, and the active roles of both in the learning process.'" Gibbons 2002.
Collaboration is essential and the teacher has a vital role to play in this, particularly through effective scaffolding.
Then there is the point made by Soviet psychologist Lev Vygotsky, whose socio-cultural theory sees human development as intrinsically social rather than individualistic. He saw the development of cognition as a result of of participation with others in a goal-directed activity, facilitated by a more skilled expert, which sees them reaching a point beyond what they are capable of alone.
To sum up: collaboration and effective scaffolding is essential for all learning. In all the above points, speech is essential in improving learning, cognition and language development.
An example of the kind of activity that enables us to cover all these bases comes in the form of a simple back-to-back activity that I've helped to deliver whilst co-presenting the Dragonfly course, Improving Classroom Performance over the past eight years or so.
This activity sees delegates working in pairs and taking turns to describe to one another a labelled cross-section of a human eyeball. It's a task that's presented as an effective way to learn the details of the cross-section, and one which, as opposed to the more passive act of copying the information into one's book, gives students a much better chance of solidifying the information into the long-term memory. Certainly, the thinking skills involved - describing irregular shapes to a 'blind' second party, synthesising the spoken information, visualising that information and replicating it, whilst also quickly filling in vital words and images when roles are swapped every sixty seconds - place real demands on participants, as the thousands of teachers to whom we have introduced the task will testify.
I bring this particular activity up as it's one I can remember participating in during a training session at the end of my very first week teaching EFL, way back in 1990. On this occasion, a colleague had arranged around twenty Cuisenaire rods in formation before her, whilst I - the 'blind' partner - faced the opposite direction, following her instructions as I strove to to replicate the pattern she'd constructed.
But, while this was exactly the same kind of task as our 'eyeball' activity, the emphasis was completely different: in the case of the eyeball, participants used language to share and learn content. In the latter activity, however, we used content as the tool with which to practice and hone language - in this case, imperatives, adjectives and locational prepositions (take a small red block and place it above the long, medium-sized blue rod that's lying in the middle of the frame etc).
In the EFL back-to-back, the information can be discarded and forgotten about at the end of the activity. In the former case, though, language is merely a vehicle which carries the content, the focal point of our interest which must be retained. Important to add here is that even thought the information in the EFL version is surplus to requirements, it is retained - I can even now remember the very shape I reconstructed on that day three decades ago (my colleague had made a yacht shape with her rods).
It's not a huge leap to imagine that, by introducing such an activity to a group of native English speakers, and EAL students, we can cater for both groups by using language to focus on subject-specific material which will provide an extra benefit for the latter group in the form of content that must be retained, as opposed to it merely being a carrier that allows us to hone language alone.
To learn more about how you can create a language-rich classroom, click here.