By Fran Jones, @CameraManFran
For many educators, the task of teaching EAL students in the
mainstream classroom is one that brings a wide range of concerns. Correcting
spoken and written errors, while helping to improve fluency and accuracy across
the four skills of reading, writing, listening and speaking (whilst 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 tricky area of how to educate EAL students
alongside 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 able-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.
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
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
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
To sum up: collaboration 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 merely 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 up this particular activity as it's one I can remember
seeing presented at a training session during my very first week of teaching
EFL way back in 1990. On this occasion, a volunteer teacher had arranged around
twenty Cuisenaire rods in formation before them, whilst a 'blind' partner,
facing in the opposite direction, followed instructions, striving to
replicate the pattern.
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 the content.
In the latter activity, however, we use 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 rod that's lying in the middle of the frame etc).
Here, 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
It's not a huge leap to imagine that, by introducing such an
activity to a group of able 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
Strapline: 'To learn more about how you can create the
language-rich classroom,' check out my course Teaching EAL Pupils in the
Mainstream Classroom at http://www.dragonfly-training.co.uk/view/course/375