The benefit of ‘joined up’ thinking when teaching EAL

“EAL departments need to be seen less as stand-alone departments and more as departments encompassing and integrating all aspects of a school’s academic life”

 It seems common sense, but how often in schools and colleges across the country is EAL development held back due to a lack of communication between EAL teachers and their colleagues teaching other subjects?

As Pete Collier, Head of EAL at Kings College St Michael’s says, “if a student is performing a science practical it seems logical that in the preceding (EAL) support lesson they should receive vocabulary related to common laboratory equipment. Although a seemingly simple and obvious philosophy the lack of communication between departments often causes this approach to be neglected”.

Pete calls for EAL departments to be seen less as stand-alone departments but more as departments encompassing and integrating all aspects of a school’s academic life.

This is additionally important as some, often very academically focused, students do not see the ongoing relevance of specific EAL lessons, as they are so focused on making progress in their favourite academic subjects. Gareth Collier, Principal of Cardiff Sixth Form College, highlights this as a particular concern:

“Too many highly capable academic students underperform in their academic English or IELTS achievement, so limiting the institutions and universities to which they may be academically suited. Creating awareness of the need for strong writing, reading, listening and speaking skills, as well as access to a tailored programme of instruction, is essential to best prepare students for their onward education”, he says.

It is therefore essential to ensure EAL lessons remain relevant at all times to maintain pupil focus: “teachers must ensure that what is being taught in EAL lessons is relevant and of (almost) immediate use to the students in their subject studies. Teaching a more general English syllabus or, for that matter, a vaguely subject centred English syllabus will only serve to further frustrate students as they question the effectiveness of what they are being taught”, adds Pete Collier.

At Bosworth College the process of integration of EAL across other subject areas has been a major focus in recent years, as Principal, Fiona Pocock, explains:

“Each of our large faculties such as Maths, Humanities and the Sciences has a link teacher from the EAL department who listens to the specific needs of the specialist teachers and conveys these to the EAL team.  The content of the EAL teaching is then adapted to be more immediately relevant to the students, focussing on the subject-specific vocabulary and even the different registers of language appropriate for different sorts of written responses to examination questions”.

” A structured, coordinated approach between academic and EAL departments is clearly the best approach to supporting non-native speakers”

Bosworth has found that, since implementing this new system, first-year A-level students are better engaged in their EAL classes as they can see the more immediate relevance of what they are being taught to specific subjects.

The College has also noted that students seem more confident to take risks when reading, seeking the gist of a text rather than using an electronic dictionary laboriously to look up every word unnecessarily.

Fiona provides a good example of this; a recent example in an AS exam required students to consider a ‘galvanized steel cylinder’:

“Having been taught that key shapes such as ‘cylinder’ or ‘sphere’ are critical to know, the candidates were better-placed to disregard the superfluous detail that the exam cylinder happened to be made of galvanized steel. They felt confident that this information was not important to understand the whole question in order to pick out the key facts such as the height, radius or circumference of the cylinder to answer the question correctly”.

The link teacher had a background in Mathematics and so was well-placed to understand what Maths teachers consider vital to know.

The move away from textbooks towards relying on these in-house resources has not been without its difficulties, but the College has found that as the stock of internal resources grows the EAL and subject teachers become more confident in using this approach.

Caroline Nixon, General Secretary of BAISIS, adds, “a structured, coordinated approach between academic and EAL departments is clearly the best approach to supporting non-native speakers. It’s not easy to achieve, but the benefits to pupils at all stages of their EAL development, regardless of their academic ability, should not be underestimated as it will directly impact on their overall academic progression within the UK education system”.

About the author:  Pat Moores is director and co-founder of UK Education Guide.