Founder of ESL Reads
EAL Teacher and Curriculum Writer (Secondary)   

Why It's Important to Understand Your EAL Students' Education Journeys

February 19, 2023 by Lauren Piovesan

As we know, education is cultural. In any classroom, there are unquestioned assumptions made about how students should behave in a classroom, what’s an appropriate noise level, how the room should be set up, how students should respond to questions, how they should ask for what they need, and how they should interact with classmates and the teacher. The way that we see aspects of the classroom in Australia is not, of course, the same as in other countries. 

While completing my placement as a pre-service teacher in Nepal, my mentor teacher would speak at length about being a progressive educator. When I observed him in the classroom, he would read a line from the textbook, the students would copy, and he would continue. “Where is this progressive style?” I wondered. Then it was my turn to teach, and when I got students to work in pairs – well, what a hilarious sight! They sat in silence and stared at the work in front of them – no one moving. I realised at that point that I had absolutely no idea about the education system in Nepal because I did not understand their culture and values.

This is the same for our students entering an Australian classroom. My students could not read my mind when I asked a question and expected them all to put up their hands and respond. They did not understand that the
U-shape table set up is there so we could promote speaking (boy were they happy when I put the tables back into rows!) And some could not understand why on Earth we were wasting precious learning time with art, excursions and sports!

Image courtesy of:

We need to understand the types of experiences and educational background our students have had in order to comprehend how they respond to and participate in learning. Some factors which may affect their active participation in a class can include:

  • Type of prior education received – Where? When? How long? Style of education? (If they have received education).  
  • Parents/family member’s education history and attitudes towards schooling (if they have received education and if they could use their first language).  
  • Language use at home and throughout their educational history – spoken or written.
  • Home country having a focus on reading and writing skills rather than speaking skills.
  • Coming from strong oral language communities and countries where knowledge is passed down through oral traditions.
  • Gender rules in classrooms.
  • Roles and relationships between teacher and student including behaviour management strategies.
  • Culture shock.
  • Which subjects are seen as valuable in home countries?
  • Past negative experiences with being misunderstood (due to accent, limited English or learning difficulties).
  • Self-esteem and confidence.
  • Trauma.

Many of the EAL students that I taught often didn’t understand that mistakes were part of learning, that risk-taking was a valued learning skill, or that working with a variety of other students (no matter their gender) was the norm. And even when this is explicitly, or repeatedly told or taught, it doesn’t necessarily sink in, at least not immediately. A new culture takes time and careful observation to understand and adapt to. It can be helpful to open up this discussion with your students and talk about their learning experiences.
There are a few ways you can do this:

  1. Ask the students to timeline their educational experiences (and make sure you include educational experiences that are not formal for those who haven’t been to school e.g. learning a skill, working).
  2. Make a language map and have a discussion afterwards. Learn more here
  3. Using the resource, Taw Meh Can Speakor similar stories to open up a discussion with comprehension questions.
  4. Draw / find a photo of what school was like in your country.
  5. Compare your new school and your school in your home country using a venn diagram or graphic organiser.
  6. Partner interviews – what was your school like? What did students wear? Were there both males and females? What did you learn? What were the subjects? Etc.
  7. One to one goal setting can allow for a conversation about educational experiences. 
Screenshot 2023-02-18 163411

If most students in your classroom have never been to school, you might want to rephrase the questions:

  • How do people learn new things in your country? E.g. through speaking, storytelling, writing, from family traditions, religious teachings etc.
  • What do you think is the most important thing to learn at school? Why is this important to you?
  • Which jobs or type of people were most respected in your country?

I would love to know what your experiences have been learning about your students’ educational journeys and how these present in your classroom today. Please feel free to share any findings or strategies below. 

*Please note: I was a teacher and what I write about in this post comes only from my observations and experiences working with EAL migrant and refugee students with low literacy skills, which I communicate broadly here. 

6 thoughts on “Why It’s Important to Understand Your EAL Students’ Education Journeys”

  1. As always an excellent read..Lauren. you’re absolutely right about bringing the cultural aspect into the classroom, not only we bring it into the classroom, we have to embrace it. I believe the students feel much more comfortable and open and that’s when they actually learn. I love talking about cultural aspects in the class and I talk about my culture and learning experiences first and the shocks I’ve had coming to Australia ? and my students love it. We choose topics that brings their own identity into the class. Like once we were reading about Florence Nightingale and I asked them..was nursing a respectable profession in your country ? Has that changed.. However, one topic that never dissapoints is food. It has brought us all together in many ways.

    Keep writing,

    1. Hi Shveta, thanks so much for sharing your insights! I love that you share your experiences and culture shocks – I am sure that makes them feel less isolated and comforted in their experiences. I love that you use biographies as a springboard to ask about cultural takes on different professions, and that you use lots of ways to provide opportunities for students to share their cultural knowledge! Food is such a universal one – I love learning about it and talking about it and of course sharing and eating it!

      1. Oh there is no better medium than food to talk about culture! Sharing a plate can bring people together is many beautiful ways. We were studying instructional texts and recipes and I asked, tell me about your favourite dish.. and the students had such animated discussions, showing pictures, talking about ingredients and then cooking verbs and utensils, a great lesson which was student centric and student led!

        1. Yes! Very true! It’s a great topic to do with students. I always wanted to put together a class cookbook and extend oral skills by having students lead cooking demonstrations but ran out of time! I love that your students took such ownership over the topic in your lesson.

  2. Yes, I agree.
    Your take on this is so beautifully expressed as well.

    Only when faced with that light bulb moment (or stony silence and confusion from our students) followed by professional reflection, do we realise that sometimes our inherent assumptions as a teacher, have fallen so far if our intended outcomes.

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