Why Literacy is Different for EAL Pupils

‘Drawing on excellent subject knowledge, teachers plan astutely and set challenging tasks based on systematic, accurate assessment of pupils’ prior skills, knowledge and understanding.’ So relates the descriptor for ‘Outstanding’ teaching under the Ofsted Framework. Educationalists conscientiously tend to focus on the first part of the statement—their subject knowledge, planning and task design—to the inadvertent exclusion of the second—their students’ prior skills, knowledge and understanding.

In the larger urban areas, most of the students sitting in our classrooms will be English as an Additional Language (EAL) learners.  They come with varying degrees of fluidity in the language which is being used to assess their ‘prior skills, knowledge and understanding’—English. Multi-lingual immigrants now number half of the general population in some areas of Britain, with 1 in 4 people across London and almost a million nationally not speaking English ‘at all or well’ according the Telegraph reporting on the 2011 Census;  their children can comprise up to 80% of our classroom registers on a daily basis.

Literacy then looms as an ‘all-important’ teaching and learning approach in our subject areas, as evidenced Ofsted’s literacy focus. But a monolingual view of literacy may not give teachers the tools we need to ‘systematically and accurately’ assess our EAL students and move them forward. Do EAL pupils experience ‘literacy’ differently? The answer is ‘yes’, which is why a ‘one-glossary-fits-all’ approach will not bring about the required impact. An in-depth discussion of the various facets of literacy for bilingual children is needed. However, for the purposes of this article, a shorter list is offered here of some basic linguistic differences for a few of the ethno-linguistic groups which, nationally, remain fettered by low educational attainment and economic disadvantage.

Letters and Words

At its most fundamental level, literacy is the ability to match sound to written symbol, something which in turn depends on a nationally agreed written alphabet. That is not always a given for many of our lowest-attaining EAL pupils.

According to the Language Diversity and Attainment Report, published May 2012 by the Institute of Policy Studies in Education (IPSE), Bengali-speaking students, including (East) Pakistani and Bangladeshi pupils, still comprise one of the three lowest-attaining ethnic groups across England. This has not changed much. The Bengali dialect most widely spoken by London pupils, Syhleti, did not have an official written form until approximately 60 years ago, nor is the written form widely known or used among its speakers.

For literacy at word level, letters have to be arranged in a certain agreed order to create a word. Then, agreed spellings for common words need to be stable enough to become recognised by sight, i.e., what we know as the sight, frequent, most common or sometimes ‘Dolch’ words. In English, according to The Reading Teacher’s Book of Lists, we have 1,000 of them that comprise more than 65% of all written material; even they change slightly per English-speaking country.

The IPSE report mentions another large, low-attaining, language group, Somali speakers, now the third most-spoken language by London pupils and fifth most-spoken by school-aged pupils across England. Somali does not have a nationally agreed orthography between Northern and Southern dialects. In other words, spellings for the same word change depending on the dominance of city- or village-based dialects. Students from southern Somalia, in particular, can find the idea of fixed sounds and spellings for words challenging but benefit from learning the 1,000 most common sight words.

Key Vocabulary and Common Words

Teachers will often teach subject-specific vocabulary in their lessons as key words unaware that their students may be struggling with more common words like ‘only’ or ‘between’. Be aware of the common words your lesson aim requires and clarify those with your students. Prepositions, which often direct the key words in a sentence (before, under, in, to, from)  cause more problems than descriptive adjectives or verbs, especially for Maths, Science, Technology and Geography, all of which deal with processes and the order of events.

In some cases, prepositions (and other common words) required for fulfilling level descriptors are listed in DFE subject programme of study documents. Older versions of these, for example, the old APP descriptors for English,  Science and Maths give a description of the type of language students will need to produce to fulfil a level, for example, under ‘vary sentences’,  ‘shape’ or ‘investigation’. While these are considered outdated, they are useful reference documents for a past comparison.

For EAL pupils who have been educated in systems whose curriculums have been ordered differently (or not educated at all), it will be necessary to look at KS2 descriptors in your subject to discover the language and concepts implicit at the KS3 to KS4 levels. This is because your subject assumes these are already a part of pupils’ ‘prior skills, knowledge and understanding’ when, in fact, they may not be.  The old APP descriptors go down to Level 1 for Maths, Science and English and can be used to guide teachers in differentiating tasks and assessments, especially for new EAL arrivals. GCSE descriptors for Grades 1 and 2 are also helpful.

Punctuation and Tone Differences

Additionally, punctuation can beget its own problems, not because of the symbols themselves, but because of different use of tone across languages. This may contribute to why so many EAL pupils cannot consistently and correctly use more than basic capitals and full stops. While in English, a full stop indicates that tone goes down or a question mark indicates that tone goes up, English is not a tonal language. Tone is not used to change the meaning of words or the tense, like in many of the languages of the pupils we teach. For example, Lingala-speaking students (Congolese) are cited by the same IPSE report as being one of the lowest-attaining Black African ethnic groups across England; Lingala, as a member of the Bantu language family, uses tones, like Mandarin, Vietnamese or Cantonese, to change verb tense or meaning, not to mark punctuation.

In English, tone simply marks the emotion to be inferred from written punctuation. But the inability to interpret punctuation can leave pupils unable to answer questions about inference from text excerpts or to use a wider range of punctuation, thereby accessing higher levels.  Reading sentences aloud with special attention to tonal interpretation of punctuation will helpfully boost student awareness of text inference.

Activating Prior Skills, Knowledge and Understanding

Even if the student comes from a language background where the sound-to-symbol ratio is high, like in Spanish, or spelling and grammar are very regular and established across many countries, like Arabic, English is neither and can cause countless problems for EAL pupils. Literate EAL pupils who are trying to apply the regular home language rules that they know to irregular English can become frustrated and disheartened. British English is a surprising mix of different languages, the largest contributor of which at 60% comes from Norman French, for example ‘groyne’ from the Old French, groign. Viking (Thursday, skirt), Saxon (about, half). Latin and Greek also figure highly.

Bilingual pupils will, in most cases, automatically engage in ‘contrastive linguistics’, where they are constantly comparing English words with their own language and analysing them for similarities and differences in an effort to remember them. Educators can help this cognitive process by presenting the subject-specific words and common English words needed for both verbal and written answers as explicitly as possible. Two approaches are useful here.

Firstly, pre-topic vocabulary lists, sentence starters and writing frames should be used to scaffold graded answers and paragraphs for all bilingual pupils, even those who appear to be fluent. Critically, teachers will need to be clear about what constitutes Grade 1, 2 or 3 paragraphs in their subject (or higher) and to be able to explicitly model that language for their pupils.

Secondly, even a cursory knowledge of the language basis of the subject-specific vocabulary that we teach can help an EAL pupil to employ their prior language skills and knowledge. For example, the Latin-based words in Geography (abrasion, corrosive) and the many French-based words in English (justice, table, volley) can help Congolese students who usually have a mixture of French and Lingala. For these students, do experiment with French equivalents, but be aware that their dialect of French may not by equivalent to continental French. For Somali students who have some Arabic, the Arabic-based words in Spanish vocabulary (ajedrez, azafran) or in Maths (algebra, algorithm) can be highlighted. Other common words used in British English like ‘bungalow’, ‘pyjamas’ or ‘doolally’ originate from Indian languages. Do a few minutes of Internet research.

Don’t Explain. Show.

EAL pupils need linguistic input as previously outlined. More importantly, they need visuals to help them access key concepts which they hold cognitively in their home language or with which they have no familiarity. Once they recognise and understand what the key concept is, they can then learn the vocabulary–a process termed ‘hanging the language on the hook of understanding’ by Dr HR Arrigo, bilingual cognitive psychologist. This can also be summed up as ‘don’t explain, show’.

Most useful for EAL pupils are topic booklets, given at the beginning of each new topic, which provide not only key terms with definitions and space for translation, but also key visuals for on-going annotation. However, they will continue to need higher-level sentence structures, including adverbial clauses (When this happens, then that happens) connectives (nevertheless, on the contrary) and compound past tenses (would have done, had been given) to access Grade 5 and above.

More than Subject Knowledge

The IPSE research released on the on-going bleak national picture of the linguistic barriers experienced by Somali-, Lingala- and Bengali-speaking communities brings us sharply back to the Ofsted descriptors for ‘outstanding’. In reality, Ofsted is challenging us to become conversant with more than ‘excellent subject knowledge’ and more than a one-dimensional view of literacy. These groups are only a few of the ethnicities whose linguistic differences need to be considered if we are to successfully incorporate literacy into our subject lessons. Considering that EAL pupils routinely constitute a significant proportion of our low-attaining urban exam cohorts, it is both a professional and moral requirement that we redefine ‘outstanding’ literacy from their multi-lingual point of view.

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