What does good EAL teaching look like?

Naomi Flynn, Associate Professor of Primary English Education, University of Reading

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We know from research, and from our practical experiences, that children with EAL need vocabulary-rich classrooms and opportunities to speak in their new language. But that can be hard with our assessment-driven curriculum and it’s not always obvious how to make our lessons talk-based in ways that suit children with differing levels of English proficiency. A recent trip to the US has given me some insights into how things might work.

My current research activity involves a pilot project in which a group of us interested in teacher education and the teaching of children with EAL have been observing good teaching in the US, the UK, Germany and Finland. Using a tried and tested observation rubric we have had the great privilege of sitting in classrooms where teachers are doing wonderful things.

Analysis is still in its early stages, but I tell everyone I meet about two particular US primary school teachers whose lessons were vibrant with rich discussion and high expectations of English language learners.

Teacher 1 had a class of 26 5th grade (Year 6) children of whom 19 had EAL. As we walked in the children were totally engaged in active, small group discussion of novels they were reading together. The lesson – based on Literature Circles – demanded: that children spoke using the features of Socratic dialogue; that they came to their group having read a chapter in which they had used sticky notes to make annotations about interesting vocabulary and raise questions; that they taught each other something new; and that they set homework for next steps together. Teacher intervention was restricted to reminding one boisterous group to keep interaction respectful and the level of discourse between the children, some of whom were still developing proficiency in English, made our jaws drop.

Teacher 2 had a mixed mono and multilingual class of 25 2nd grade children (Year 3) and we loved her use of the ‘fishbowl technique’ to get her young learners to reflect on their lesson. Using multiple sentence starters and other ‘listening behaviours’ that were brightly displayed, and which they had been trained to adopt, children sat in a circle with three ‘fish’ at the centre. The fish pursued an independently managed conversation around what they learned and what they had found difficult which had them building sentences and making meaning together in ways we would be happy to see in much older children.

Seeing these two teachers made me reflect on how liberating life might be without the phonics screener, SATs and SPaG. However, these teachers also had strict state-imposed assessment criteria to meet and the children’s targets were focussed around the sorts of things we see in England’s grammar curriculum. They had just made a choice to do things differently, and in doing so were maximising their pupils’ prospects before our eyes. So good EAL teaching is about a vocabulary-rich classroom but it’s also about having the confidence to give children time to talk in ways that are genuinely life-enhancing.

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