By Coco (Yitong) Bu, Education student and tutor, University of Queensland.
Originally posted on 5 August 2017.
Recently, I realised that as a Chinese student studying in an English speaking country, I am identified as an English as an Additional Language or Dialect (EAL/D) learner. What’s more, I am a pre-service teacher studying for an Education degree. Throughout my teaching career, it is highly likely that I will teach in schools where there will be many EAL/D students. When I did my first practicum teaching Mathematics in an all-boys college, I noticed that overseas students who did not speak English fluently felt reluctant to respond to questions in class. They also had trouble understanding the content, justifying the solutions, and developing high-level reasoning because of a lack of specific language skills.
This is not just an issue in schools. In my university, the University of Queensland, more than a quarter of the students (currently 26.1%) are international students. In fact, we find considerable cultural and linguistic diversity in all Australian universities. How can we, as educators, assist EAL/D learners to develop proficiency in English, and at the same time, achieve the learning outcomes for their subjects? What can be done?
Researching this topic, I found some promising strategies, which I think could help not only the EAL/D students in my maths class, but also perhaps, students studying other disciplines, in schools and universities. Here are three suggestions, based on my own understanding and experience as an EAL/D learner and as a emerging teacher.
Integrate concepts with relevant language practices that target all four macro-skills (reading, writing, listening and speaking).
For example, in maths, when teaching the Cartesian coordinate plane, the objectives may be that students can not only correctly mark the point or the graph on the plane, but also describe and explain the positions orally. This exercise will develop EAL/D learners’ English speaking skills, which are essential for overseas students to communicate with people in an English speaking country and integrate into a new life style.
Universities place a strong emphasis on developing students’ ability in oral communication and collaborative work by designing assessments that involve group discussion and presentation. Mixing native English speakers and EAL/D learners in one group can be a win-win situation where EAL/D students have the opportunity to practise language skills within the subject area, while native English-speaking students can deepen their understanding by verbally explaining the task and their reasoning to EAL/D students, and develop skills in communicating in multi-lingual environments – an increasingly important skill in our multi-cultural society.
Modulate the pace and complexity of your speech based on EAL/D learners’ English proficiency, and seek advice from literacy specialists.
As a native Chinese speaker and teacher of Chinese, I didn’t realise that I spoke Chinese too fast for my students – until they looked at me blankly. I have learnt to speak the same content more slowly, while using gestures to interpret Chinese words that are not familiar to my students to help them understand what I said. A lot of the times, I find it difficult to evaluate the level of my students’ ability in Chinese. They can be very good at reading, but not so good at speaking, just as is the case when EAL/D students are learning English. We generally do better at listening and reading, than speaking and writing.
My understanding is that the first two components involve less active learning than the latter two; with reading and listening, students are provided with input, and can easily improve with practice, whereas with speaking and writing, students need to actively produce their own language output. Therefore, for some EAL/D students, the situation might be that they can understand what the lecturer is talking about, but when a question is proposed, they are not able to give a fluent verbal response. Or they might be able to understand the questions written on the exam, but they can’t express their answer clearly in writing. Having different proficiencies in different language areas makes it more difficult for educators to identify students’ English level. It might be reasonable to suggest disciplinary experts to collaborate with or seek guidance from literacy specialists to design more targeted assistance that best suited to their language level/levels.
Be sensitive to cultural differences and create a safe learning environment where students who express different opinions are praised, encouraged and respected.
Some EAL/D students may not be comfortable or willing to express disagreement or a different viewpoint to their teacher’s – they may not have had experience of this previously. Expressing disagreement openly in a classroom may be at odds with some students’ cultural values, and understandings of teachers’ and students’ roles. I did my entire primary and secondary education in China, where teachers spent most of the class time trying to explain each question in detail. Although I remember asking and answering questions in class, most of the time, the class was silent. The reason for having this kind of classroom atmosphere might be partially caused by our exam-oriented system where both the teacher and students need to look for a fixed standard answer, and partially caused by the hieratical power structure between the teacher and students. Many of my classmates saw teachers as the authority and the truth, and didn’t want to question the teacher in public. So some chose to not ask their questions or ask the teacher privately after class. For me, I felt I benefited from being active in classroom, so when I came to study in Australian university, I wasn’t afraid of expressing my opinions in class. Therefore, my transition to the western academic culture was quite smooth.
As a beginning high school teacher, when I was on my placement or doing tutoring at the university, I sometimes felt I talked too much due to the influence of the teacher-centred classroom style. I have had to constantly remind myself to slow down, let students do the work, observe their progress and try to understand how they learn when they are taking control of their learning. I always give positive reinforcement to my students who answer questions regardless of their answer is right or wrong. For me, their engagement, participation and willingness to share their opinion with others are more precious than a right answer. I know that in order to be a more effective teacher not only for EAL/D students, but also for all students, I need to be student-centred and work in partnership with my students.
 The following strategies are mainly drawn from: Short, D.J. (2017). How to Integrate Content and Language Learning Effectively for English Language Learners. EURASIA Journal of Mathematics Science and Technology Education, 13(7b), 4237-4260.
 There are four phases of EAL/D learning progression identified by the Australian Curriculum Assessment and Reporting Authority: Beginning, Emerging, Developing and Consolidating. Full document can be found here: https://acaraweb.blob.core.windows.net/resources/EALD_Learning_Progression.pdf .