‘Inside The Black Box’ for EAL learners

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‘Inside The Black Box’ for EAL learners

Author: Isabelle Bridger-Eames, EAL Specialist

This article constitutes a discussion on key approaches to AfL, which schools, such as the British School of Kuala Lumpur, have been using to get the best possible outcomes for their learners in virtual and physical learning environments.

Effective AfL is ‘informed feedback to pupils about their work’ (Shaw, 1998). As Broadfoot et al (1999) discuss, there are five key ways in which we can enhance learning by assessment. These steps can be universally applied to all learning and all learners, and thus address the learning needs of EAL learners in physical and virtual classrooms. They are:

  1. Ensuring effective systems of assessment are set up throughout the school. For instance, is there consistency in assessment procedures across the school? (Black, P.J. and William, D., 1998)
  2. Ensuring that teachers use their assessment findings to inform the next stage of their teaching.
  3. An understanding of how feedback affects learners in terms of their motivation and self-esteem.
  4. The need for pupils to be able to assess themselves and understand how to improve.
  5. Ensuring learners have ownership over their learning and are taking charge of it.

As we can see, these five key ways to enhance learning are multifaceted and no single teacher can tackle all five alone. There must be a whole-school approach, with teachers working consistently on their whole-school assessment policy, with the aim of providing the best assessment opportunities for their learners. The Covid-19 pandemic has added the additional challenge for educators around the world of working out how to access their learners satisfactorily in a lockdown situation or during part-time schooling, when they are having significantly reduced contact and seeing much less of their learners’ work. Do educators have enough information about their pupils’ learning to allow them to find the best next steps?

Individual teachers can have a big impact on learning by creating useful AfL opportunities in their own virtual and physical classrooms. Creating a really effective environment for AfL definitely has its challenges, and these can be heightened when providing AfL for learners with EAL. How can learners have ownership over their own learning, assess themselves and understand how to improve if they have limited proficiency in the language of instruction? The lockdown situation has, moreover, flagged up further problems in terms of creating opportunities for effective AfL, such as limited engagement from and with the learner, and learners not having access to the relevant technology to access or engage with lessons fully.

Schools all over the world will be having vastly different experiences of this period. However, it seems likely that there will also be common themes and key questions to answer to improve learning and assessment in this time, such as how we can get the best engagement from our learners and how we can effectively assess our learners. Giving learners the tools of AfL can go a long way to improving engagement and empowering learners. Needless to say, it is vitally important for EAL learners to feel included, whatever their stage of English learning.

The following questions focus around heightening involvement in learning for EAL learners.


How can EAL learners assess themselves?

Many EAL teachers use the Learning Village to help with the assessment of EAL learners, while other educators make their own resources for assessment. The Learning Village is a blended learning platform for EAL teaching and learning. It works through a combination of independent and small-group teaching – using images – and has a range of learning and assessment options, with many tools to support educators and learners in AfL.

Many educators have found the Learning Village very supportive during this pandemic period, as learners can learn independently on the platform, with educators able to access assessment information to find out key indicators, such as the length of time a learner has spent on each lesson, what they succeeded at and what they need extra practice on. This gives educators crucial information on the next steps for learning.

The Learning Village can help to empower learners in their own self-assessment through its learning cycle for independent learning: learn-practise-assess. Learners have some leeway as to the pace with which they work through the ‘learn’ part of each lesson and can choose to move on to the next part of the learning cycle when they feel that they are ready.


How do we help EAL learners know how to improve?

Knowing how to improve is knowing what can be done better. Thus, learners must know and understand what they are learning in the first place, which can be a challenge for an EAL learner in a mainstream classroom. Teachers can provide EAL learners with a number of tools to help support and scaffold their learning. The use of images is important here: giving learners images associated with key language and language structures relating to the lesson can hook the learner into the lesson, providing the learner with a starting point for learning and therefore improvement. The Learning Village is based on learning through images.

Language models are also vital. These could take the form of simple sentences presented in a substitution table, so that learners can demonstrate the variety of alternative vocabulary or language structures they know (see sample substitution table in additional resources). The Learning Village enables educators to make their own substitution tables.

Furthermore, it can be useful to let learners know about future topics or areas for learning, so that they can participate in topic pre-learning. (The Learning Village has a whole learning journey dedicated to learning technical and academic language.) Educators have found many positives in giving their learners flexibility over their learning timetable during this Covid-19 pandemic – and providing learners with topics to learn at their own pace can be useful. Again, the learner could take ownership of the way in which this occurs. For instance, pre-learning in their own language could mean that they have a solid understanding of key concepts that they will meet in their future learning, whereas pre-learning in English may mean that they will be familiar with upcoming key vocabulary and language structures. Both pathways lead to the learner feeling more confident and knowledgeable in their lessons. Additionally, learners could have the option of learning their topic content independently, or in small-group teaching and learning situations – whether physical or virtual.


How do we give EAL learners ownership over their own learning?

Depending on the language competency of the learner, it may be useful to place them on an individual learning programme, such as the Learning Village, where they have ownership over variants such as the pace at which they work, the amount of content they cover in a session, the length of time spent learning and the amount of repetition they require, to name a few.

Other options could be to give learners a choice over the medium in which they work. For instance, if a learner feels more comfortable speaking than writing, could the learner record their ideas/findings/conclusions via audio or video software? To support learners in this, provide language prompts like sentence starters and substitution tables, modelled answers (providing structure and setting standards of expectation) and frames for speaking and writing. Graphic organisers, provided by the teacher or developed with the learners, enable learners to write or speak to a specific frame. They are useful for supporting the understanding of the text as a whole. Furthermore, learners benefit from paired discussion, preferably in their first language, before beginning written work or work that will be recorded using another medium. This might feel counterintuitive, but researchers such as Cummins (2001) highlight the benefits of EAL learners continuing to learn in their own language alongside English.


Summary

Whole schools, educators and families have had to reframe their thinking on what schooling is and looks like during this lockdown period. Needless to say, parents and carers are more involved in learning, and successes appear to be related to the level of engagement shown by parents, carers and learners. High interest seems to link to greater engagement. Thus, greater ownership over learning should equate to a greater engagement in learning.

AfL has the potential to make a real impact on learning and engagement. A whole-school approach is required to ensure consistency for all, but individual teachers are in a unique position to use AfL to make a difference to the EAL learners in their own (virtual and physical) classrooms. The key, as ever, is to know your learners, so that you can add value to their learning experience every step of the way.


Additional resources

The Learning Village

See below for an example of a substitution table to fulfil the learning objective of ‘What do plants need to survive?’


References

Assessment Reform Group, 2002, Assessment for Learning: 10 principles. Research-based principles to guide classroom practice. London: Assessment Reform Group.

Black, P.J. and William, D., 1998, Assessment and Classroom Learning. Assessment in Education, 5(1), 7-74. Page 5 T.

Broadfoot et al, 1999, Assessment for Learning: Beyond the black box. Cambridge: University of Cambridge School of Education. [Accessed 27 Feb. 2020].

Cummins, J., 2001, Language, Power and Pedagogy: Bilingual pupils in the Crossfire. Clevedon: Avon.

National Curriculum Task Group on Assessment and Testing (TGAT), 1988, A Report. [Accessed 27 Feb 2020].

Shaw, T., 1998, Chief Inspector for Northern Ireland, when launching the School Improvement Plan for Northern Ireland.

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