Founder of ESL Reads
EAL Teacher and Curriculum Writer (Secondary)
Don't Rush the Process; Language Acquisition for EAL/D Learners
May 17, 2023 by Lauren Piovesan and Lynette Lingard
In an interview with Lynette Lingard, an EAL consultant with 26 years in the field, I ask her for her number one piece of advice for teachers who are new to teaching EAL students. Her advice was, “Don’t rush the process.” In this blog, I will unpack this concept in more detail so that you may gain more of an understanding of what is needed to move a student from novice to fluent.
What do you mean by, "Don't rush the process?"
Have you ever tried to learn another language? Perhaps you did a language subject at school or in university. Do you remember how long it took you to learn and remember certain phrases and topics? Please know that language acquisition takes time; many years in fact! As a guide, it is said that students develop conversational English in 2-3 years, and academic fluency in 7-9 years, and this is not taking into account the huge variety of circumstances that EAL students bring to your classrooms! These can include, but are not limited to:
- Reasons for relocation to Australia.
- Trauma in their home countries or as a result of settling in Australia.
- Level of stimulation and nutrition available during time in a refugee camp (for refugee students).
- Interrupted or limited formal schooling for the student or their family/carers. Students may have gone to school in a few different countries as they needed to move several times, or may have had to work from an early age.
- The language of instruction in their school/s; this could be in the student’s 2nd or 3rd language, rather than their native tongue. They may not have been allowed to use their native tongue in some places.
- Family support and location; are they with the student in Australia or back in their home country?
- Family attitudes to education.
- Different styles of education globally; how did students show their learning in their home countries?
As you can see, depending on the above circumstances, each student’s journey and timeline to develop their English language proficiency will vastly differ. We also need to remember that our students aren’t simply learning English! They’re learning how to communicate in a new language, while also learning about the structures and features of that new language (the grammar), while simultaneously learning the curriculum content (for Science, Maths, PE, Art, etc.) in their new language. What an incredible feat our students are trying to accomplish!
What should progress look like?
At times, it can be disheartening teaching EAL students as you may only see small steps and wins over the time that you have them in your class. That is okay! As a guide, here is what progress might look like for a post-beginner student (approx. 1 – 2.5 years in Australia):
- Speaking and Listening: Typically, you might see them develop speaking confidence and move from short utterances to having slightly longer and more engaging conversations. That is demonstrating progress.
- riting: You might see that the student is able to use topic sentences, they may experiment with presenting their own ideas, even though they will still make grammatical errors, and they may now use simple connectives.
- Reading: It is a lot easier to see the progress in this mode. You will witness students being able to decode more words and gain a greater comprehension of texts.
What can I do if I am not seeing much progress?
In some situations, you might notice that you are not seeing much progress at all. For example, students may not be moving forward on their EAL Levels (on whichever state framework you are using), and while you might see incremental improvements, you cannot yet award them the next level of achievement. “Some levels can take 2 years to achieve,” explains Lynette. Here are some things you can do if you are concerned that your EAL student is not progressing in a way that you would expect:
- Provide the student with more explicit teaching to develop the skill that you’re concerned about.
- You might see students progress in one English mode (speaking and listening, reading, or writing), but not in the other modes. Generally, you might see students speaking and listening skills take off, but their writing progress stagger and stagnate. This is not unusual. In this case, target that particular skill by providing the student with episodes of targeted explicit teaching, additional strategies or scaffolding around it.
- Investigate whether or not there is a learning issue. One way to do this is by checking their academic reports and results in their home countries (if you have access to this and they have had continuous schooling) to determine whether they were having difficulty achieving in their first language.
- If students have had interrupted schooling and you don’t have access to their reports, see if you can learn more about their educational history; how many years they attended school in their home countries? Where they were educated? In which language (this might be the student’s 2nd or 3rd language, rather than their mother tongue)?
- Have a chat with the EAL specialist (if there is one in your school) or the Learning Support Teacher.
- Check whether there is an issue with motivation and engagement. It may be helpful to speak to the student’s parents/carers to determine whether they are seeing similar patterns of behaviour or dips in motivation.
- This one seems a moot point as they’ve identified that the student has had the time. So I’ve added to it.
So, all in all, it is important to know that picking up a new language in a new country will take your EAL learners time. Just because you may not see huge leaps in language use and language production, it doesn’t mean your students aren’t progressing, or that they don’t know anything. Our EAL students know a great deal, and need time, explicit language teaching, scaffolding and practise to be able to express themselves and show their understanding. Be patient with your students, and with yourself!
Lynette Lingard is an EAL/D and literacy specialist who has 26 years of experience working in the field of EAL/D in Queensland. She is incredibly passionate about supporting schools and teachers to understand and cater to the needs of their EAL/D students, while also implementing strategies which help all students. Throughout her career, Lynette has worked as a classroom teacher, EAL/D specialist, EAL/D Principal Advisor, and consultant. She is currently a consultant for her own business called Focus Literacy and for Lexis Education.
Please note: The recommendations made in this blog are based on Lynette’s and Lauren’s own research or experience, and are not endorsed by the authors, illustrators or companies that feature here.