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EAL in the Mainstream: Passionate Vision or Matter of Fact?

By Virginia P. Rojas
EAL in the Mainstream: Passionate Vision or Matter of Fact?

Recently, I asked a group of Grade 7 students at an international school how many of them spoke more than one language in their homes. Almost all of their hands excitedly shot up, and as I listened to the students describing what language is used for what purpose, and with whom in their homes, I silently thought to myself that the overwhelming majority of these students were indeed English language learners, though only but a handful were officially identified as such.
At that moment, the mantra "all teachers are teachers of English learners," more often spoken than put into classroom practice, reaffirmed that the Teacher Training Center's (TTC) "EAL in the Mainstream" course is fundamental to the work of international schools; not only for all classroom teachers, but also for current or future administrators.
One very immediate goal of the EAL course is myth-busting. Participants are provided with current second language acquisition research, to dispel longstanding beliefs surrounding language in general and English language in particular. Examples include whether or not English learners should be allowed to study the host-country language while acquiring English; the role of English learners' home languages; the effectiveness of different types of EAL programs; and the number of years needed to achieve academic English proficiency.
The intent here is for participants to return to their schools with the research needed for the school community - including parents - to make informed decisions. Fortunately, much is known about how to teach English learners responsively. Unfortunately, longstanding beliefs and traditions sometimes prevent best practices from becoming reality, even as international schools work hard to continually improve their efforts.
A related goal of the course is to clarify ambiguous terms, which ultimately impact the approaches adopted for and by the English learners. Some of these terms derive directly from research on second language acquisition, and as such have policy implications; for example, the differences between language learning and language acquisition or subtractive vs. additive bilingualism.
Others terms require conceptual clarification, enabling participants to elaborate instructional strategies based on research rather than on assumptions. Critical examples include the differences between modification, accommodation, differentiation, and language scaffolds. Generating this typology of instructional approaches enables participants to make concrete decisions about what kind of instructional strategies to use with which kind of learners, with the end goal always that of progression forward. The progress should be both in terms of English language development and academic achievement across all subject areas.
The majority of instructional time in the "EAL in the Mainstream" course concentrates on research-based instructional strategies. Using the six key principles for ELL instruction published by Stanford University in January 2013 as a framework, the strategies are presented in three categories. First. there are such-time honored strategies as building background knowledge and scaffolding meaning; examples include providing clear explanations of academic tasks with models, contextualizing meaning through visual support, using a graphic organizer on the overhead while lecturing so students can follow conceptually, or explaining concepts in the primary language (i.e. a peer, an aide, a dictionary, translated material).
Sample lessons are modeled in different languages, which range any summer from Chinese to Turkish to Spanish so that participants experience immersion lessons with and without scaffolds in order to help them make meaning.
Another category of instructional strategies focuses on the development of academic language and literacy. Participants develop a knowledge of the disciplinary vocabulary, language functions and discourse that English learners ultimately need for success, and then learn how to structure multiple opportunities in subject-area classrooms for English learners to practice and acquire language.
Depending on grade level, participants practice strategies to grow English learners' competencies with tasks such as gathering information, constructing explanations, or building arguments. The goal is for participants to become intentional and masterful about the use of academic literacy strategies, enabling English learners to work at grade level even if their current English proficiency levels are not.
Delivering effective instruction happens when teachers have the capacity to differentiate instruction. While standards or what we want students to know and be able to do remain the same, the organization and management of a variety of learning experiences and opportunities for multilevel classes may not. This differentiation of instruction - whether the range responded to is learning styles, multiple intelligences, or English language skills - provides ways for students to work together on specially-designed tasks that have mutual learning outcomes.
The model is simple: sometimes the materials and the tasks are the same for all students, sometimes the materials are the same but the tasks are different, sometimes the tasks are the same but the material is different, and sometimes both the material and the tasks are different for groups of learners. Differentiated instruction is good practice for diverse learners, and that diversity is just as evident in classrooms featuring native English speakers.
In order to apply these tools for use in their classrooms, participants plan lessons or a unit of instruction using the backwards planning curriculum model. Starting with grade-level standards aligned with formative and summative assessments, participants work together to plan effective and responsive learning experiences using their scaffolding and differentiation mindsets. There are literally hundreds of strategies available to use in linguistically-diverse classrooms, but none can outweigh purposeful instructional planning.
Participants make final choices about other tools they may take back to their schools. Some options include a walk-through checklist to be used by groups of teachers as they carry on sustainable professional development opportunities themselves; an EAL action plan focused on engaging all teachers in step-by-step implementation of EAL strategies across all grades and subject areas; writing continua to be used across grades; and an array of APPS available to scaffold and differentiate instruction for English learners.
Whatever the choice, all intend to further the development of an EAL growth mindset, which inherently sees English learners and their teachers for what they can do in the future, as opposed to what they seemingly cannot do in the present.
Dr. Rojas is a language education consultant, and a member of the ASCD faculty.

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