Interview: Supporting EAL Students

In the interests of keeping everything in one place, I have copied an interview here that I gave on the theme of supporting EAL students.

This issue of The Dulwich Lab focuses on English as an Additional Language. For all our schools, EAL learning is a challenge and an opportunity as we seek to grow and develop programmes for the increasing number of students joining us who do not have English as a first language. 

Developing our EAL programmes along with professional learning for our teaching staff is a key priority. In this interview with Mr McNamara, we explore the EAL challenge..

Q: Why did you choose to do a masters?

There’s a Dylan Wiliam quote that I really like in relation to education. “People make claims about having 20 years’ experience, but they really just have one year’s experience repeated 20 times.”

I think that sums it up for me.  As teachers, if we are passionate about learning, I really feel we have an obligation to keep up to date and keep learning about approaches and strategies that enhance our classroom practice. Teaching never gets easy. You can go into one lesson and come out feeling pleased as punch that everything couldn’t have gone better and yet when you return to the classroom the next day, or even the next lesson, and ask the children what they learned, they can give you 20 different answers. You never “crack” teaching, there is always something that you could be doing better and completing a masters is a good way of developing your professional learning and getting recognition for it through a qualification.


Q: How did you balance study with working full time?

It was a challenge but because I tied all the projects in closely with my school context, it became more manageable; collecting data and research information just became part of the job I was doing anyway. Over the course of the three years that I took to complete my masters programme, I did spend a lot of holiday time researching in the IOE library in London and writing up essays and analysing data rather than enjoying sunny beaches, but the sense of achievement that I got at the end means that I can now enjoy those sunny beaches all the more!

Q: What was the motivation for your EAL research / project?

Upon arriving at my first international school, it quickly became apparent to me that most of the students who attended were multilingual and many did not speak English at home. This creates a challenge in the classroom as English was not the first language for many of the students. So it seemed like the right opportunity to update my professional knowledge in this area. I wanted to get better at supporting EAL learners across the board, but especially those EAL learners where the language barrier represented a real hurdle to learning. It was 2010 and the school was going through the process of completing a CIS self-evaluation so I tied my project in with this process and I became the Chair of the EAL review group.

Q: What sources and literature did you review?

The title of the module I was taking at that time was Teacher as a Researcher and the real focus of the module was to train you to become competent at action research. Teachers sometimes think that completing action research is as simple as trying something in the classroom and then recording how you felt it went but that is not a robust enough approach. Your own personal bias towards a strategy, the way you collect data and the research tools can all have an impact on the quality of research. Creating a project worthy of sharing with others that measures a real impact on learning is an incredibly difficult thing to do. All action research is flawed to some extent because the researcher is so close to the context of the research, but it is about minimising and recognising those flaws as they arise. To update my own knowledge of EAL strategies before I undertook the EAL related research, I was able to use the now defunct “Teachers TV”. There were some excellent EAL related resources and lectures on there and the one that sticks in my mind was given by Maggie Webster from Edge Hill University. The film is still available on the web, please click here to enjoy it.

Q: What were your conclusions?

I tied the project in with the CIS self-evaluation process so the conclusions and recommendations drawn from the project were broad and related to the way that the school organised EAL support across the age ranges at the time. My main conclusion was that the EAL departments within the school (Early Years, Junior School and Senior School) should form a closer professional network, either by arranging scheduled official meetings at the start of each term or through more informal links; at the time there were three separate departments for each of the age ranges. I concluded that the lack of formal or informal links between the departments at the time were a missed opportunity to create consistency and share and explore new approaches to supporting EAL learners. I also concluded that the assessment procedures between the three departments were not consistent and therefore an opportunity for inconsistency in expectation existed between the three age ranges. I also concluded that the limited provision made by the school for relevant Early Years EAL staff training needed to be addressed.

My final conclusion was that because there were effectively three separate EAL departments in the school at the time, the differing approaches to EAL support between the departments was having an unknown impact upon EAL children’s attainment as they moved between the schools and that this would have provided a legitimate area for further research.

Q: Did the research highlighted in the literature hold true in the classroom?

Well, a lot of the work we did focused on the way the school organised EAL support in a general sense across the Early Years, Junior and Senior Schools but there were also some conclusions drawn that were relevant for the classroom. These are the top tips related to the classroom that I took away from the project:

  1.   Use verbal aids and non-verbal communication to support understanding.
  2.   Remember to put EAL learners in middle ability groups until you have effectively assessed their learning capabilities.
  3.   The barrier for an EAL child is usually language, so try and turn abstract ideas into concrete terms.
  4.   Use mixed ability groups and place the child with children who have a good grasp of spoken English.
  5.   Always try to plan context embedded and cognitively demanding work.
  6.   Have a Chinese to English and Korean to English dictionary available in the classroom.
  7.   Always consider where the child has come from and bear in mind cultural differences.
  8.   (UK related) If the child is a refugee, ensure you are sympathetic to the child’s refugee status and emotional needs.
  9.   Use interactive teaching techniques in all your lessons.
  10. Take time to watch EAL children at play, as this is where you will be able to begin to assess their level of language acquisition.

Q: How useful do you find the literature in relation to actual classroom pedagogy?

Some of the advice was obvious and a little generic but there were certain nuggets that certainly made a difference. Using relevant language dictionaries in the classroom was a useful innovation drawn from the project and since completing the project I have never put EAL learners arriving in the class into the “support” group – it can damage the confidence of EAL learners when teachers do this;  their level of English is not  related to their cognitive ability.

The table below has been particularly useful in helping me to reflect on the work that I set EAL learners.. The advice is that you should try to aim for box B with EAL learners:

EAL picture

Q: How did it change your own pedagogy?

I suppose that the main impact of completing the research project was that I became a lot more reflective about how I supported EAL learners in the classroom and a lot more sensitive to their needs. Above and beyond any individual strategy for supporting EAL learners, it was probably the most important point of the project.

Q:Have you had the opportunity to share your findings with others? Did it make a difference?

Because I chaired the EAL group as part of the CIS self-evaluation process, the findings of the action research I completed were incorporated into the CIS report and were shared with the entire school. I also got the opportunity to share some of the recommendations for class teachers, drawn from the project, with colleagues during a staff meeting the following year.

Q: Do you think it was worth doing a masters degree? Why?

Absolutely. My masters had a research focus and the whole process of completing lots of different research projects in relation to my practice helped me acquire an understanding of reliable research techniques that I still use to this day and put to use recently during the Curriculum Review initiative. Apart from anything else, completing my masters helped me to become a more reflective and thoughtful teacher and it represented a significant step in my professional life. Since I completed my masters I have developed a continued interest in education related research and I have discovered that there is now a whole movement of teachers in the UK who share a similar interest. ResearchEd is a UK based organisation set up by Tom Bennett that promotes evidence-based practice and their conferences are regularly sold out. I have become quite interested in the recent work that Dylan Wiliam has done in relation to formative assessment, as multiple evidence sources suggest that when teachers focus on developing their classroom formative assessment techniques, students make the largest gains in their attainment.

Q: Is there any particular research or professional reading on EAL that you would recommend to readers?

Well, I would certainly recommend the Teachers TV lecture I mentioned above. That stuck out as a particularly useful resource, but apart from that I’m going to cheat and duck this question because the EAL project I completed was in 2010 and although there was plenty of good research to reference from that time, things have probably moved on. The best source I can recommend for professional development is other teachers. That is probably a bit of a cliché but it really is true. My advice for any teacher wanting to keep up to date with EAL strategies, or with any other area of their practice, is to join Twitter and network with other teachers. Twitter is an absolute mine of resources and particularly great for sharing ideas with other professionals from around the world – just type in #EAL and you’ll be exploring away for days.


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