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EAL Departments as Centres of Expertise

Sarah Porter is EAL Co-ordinator at the British School of Bucharest.

Last year, I was thrilled to be asked to contribute a chapter to the book ‘Second Language Learners in International Schools’ by Maurice Carder. The book, now published, presents a clear vision for the teaching of ESL / EAL students, and one key part of this model is the establishment of ESL departments as ‘centres of expertise’.

But what does this mean? Surely all academic departments should strive to be centres of expertise? However, for ESL departments this path can be trickier to follow. Many people, myself included, find themselves teaching ESL as a result of being the ‘trailing spouse’ because there is no room for them elsewhere in the school at that time. They then often end up moving quickly out of the ESL department when a vacancy becomes available in another department and the next candidate is moved in, thus perpetuating a vicious circle of inexperienced teachers who ‘do a bit of EAL’. However, will this ensure the best possible deal for our ESL students?

To become a centre of expertise, and thereby give ESL students the best possible education, we need to fill ESL departments with qualified staff who are committed to teaching ESL and who will stay. Fortunately for me, I fell in love with ESL teaching, have been in my school’s EAL department for five years now and am starting an MA in Applied Linguistics this year in order to be able to lead our department as best as I can. ESL departments as centres of expertise must be managed by a qualified ESL professional who is passionate about their subject and about delivering consistent and high-quality lessons. Our ESL students deserve nothing less, after all.

A further, major step is to ensure that as well as teaching English grammar and vocabulary, a content-based approach is taken whereby ESL students are taught academic language linked to the schemes of work they are following in their academic subjects. The ‘Second Language Learners’ book regularly discusses the difference between BICS (Basic Interpersonal Communication Skills) and CALP (Cognitive and Academic Language Proficiency); phrases coined by Jim Cummins in 2001. Bearing in mind that it takes between one and two years to achieve BICS (being able to chat to friends, for example) but up to seven years to achieve CALP (academic language competency), ESL teachers must ensure that they devote a significant amount of time to teaching academic vocabulary and helping students to use it confidently in a variety of contexts.

It can, however, be difficult to find and to build up a base of content-based resources that focus on the language rather than the content itself. When we compare this to the absolute wealth of ‘pure ESL’ resources that are available today, we can see why many ESL teachers may turn away from teaching content language. Departments staffed with professional, long-term ESL teachers are in a much better position to develop, maintain and teach a content-based scheme of work. It made it all worthwhile recently when a smiling Year 7 student arrived at his EAL lesson saying ‘We just learned the types of energy in Science, and I knew all the words already!’ All ESL students deserve to be instilled with confidence in academic language; as Janzen writes, ‘The academic uses of language as well as the meaning of individual words needs to be explicitly taught for students to…understand the material they encounter’ (Janzen, 2008: 1030, quoted in Scanlan and Lopez, 2012: #601).

It is all too common for ESL teachers to hear comments such as ‘She chats away to her friends in English with no problem, surely she’s ready to leave EAL lessons?’. By recognising the amount of time needed to attain academic competency, ESL teachers are in a much better position to fight against ‘premature exits’ of students from ESL. In many schools, Level B1 (PET) is seen as the exit point from ESL lessons. Too many times this can lead to students becoming disillusioned as they struggle to understand academic language or to use it to produce a piece of homework. An ESL centre of expertise with qualified staff would help students to remain in ESL lessons for the correct length of time, since the ESL staff will be in a position to give a clear argument in favour of this. The transition from Key Stage 3 to Key Stage 4 brings its own linguistic challenges, and exiting ESL too early could result in students achieving one or two (or, sadly, even more) grades below what they could have achieved at IGCSE.

It could be argued that the importance of having ESL departments as centres of expertise is even more important than for other departments, given the overarching nature of ESL in the whole school curriculum.

Second Language Learners in International Schools, by Maurice Carder with Patricia Mertin and Sarah Porter, published by Trentham Books, UCL IOE Press. Please visit the UCL IOE Press website to order paperback, eBook and inspection copies.

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