Kamil Trzebiatowski, an EAL teacher from Hull, has examined his students’ writing to find out what priority should be given to different language features.
It’s frequently heard in schools across the country that EAL learners ‘need to learn English’, but the precise language features are rarely specified. As far back as in 2001, Leung (2001: 35) reminded us that there was no dedicated curriculum for EAL (there still isn’t) and that there has been ‘relatively little discussion on what language should be learned – a detailed EAL curriculum specification of grammatical and discursive features is virtually unheard of.’
So how do teachers know what language features to teach? To try and find out , I conducted a small-scale research project, in collaboration with the English department at my secondary school. The school is mainstream, girls’ secondary and, at the time of the research, there were 31% EAL learners at the school.
We took 40 independent creative writing samples from students in KS3 and KS4, covering all ability sets. Half were from EAL learners and half from English-first-language pupils. The EAL cohort included learners on Stages B to E; at this school, learners st Stage A are educated outside the mainstream. The language was analysed by myself using The Diagnostic Writing Tool (CPDM2 – Analysing Writing, from the National Strategies. Please scroll down to pages 29-30 to see the tool if you follow the link).
The Diagnostic Writing Tool tests a range of language features (including those at text-level, sentence-level and word-level). In this project, we looked for those key features in the students’ writing. We assigned 2 points if a language aspect was ‘done well’ (used accurately and consistently), 1 point if it was ‘done, but not well’ (used inconsistently), and 0 points if there was no evidence of the language feature being used. I found the Tool to be particularly useful for classroom research: it drills down from the broader organisational level, through sentence level (e.g. tenses and use of passive voice) to word level (such as looking at the use of delexical verbs).
What did we find out?
On average, English-first-language learners achieved 81% of all the available points, compared with 69% for EAL learners. I’ll look first at what all the students did well, before looking at what was less successful.
What gets done well by both EAL and non-EAL cohorts
A lot of the features that all learners produced consistently were those that are taught almost mechanically by teachers: adding –s for plurals, full stops and capital letters, and presentation. It could be argued that these are less about grammar and more about the ability to present the material logically. Other features (including the present perfect tense, gerunds and the use of auxiliary verbs) are not a part of layout or punctuation, but they do determine the quality of sentences.
Significant issues for both EAL and non-EAL cohorts
Here, perhaps nothing is more striking than the use of comparatives. Neither myself nor our English teachers expected this – we knew our learners struggled with areas such as passive voice, nominalisation, and punctuation such as dashes or semi-colons, but it had not occurred to us that that comparing was an issue. In most schools, teachers will insist on the use of adjectives in students’ writing as it is often an element of marking for literacy across the curriculum – but when was the last time you heard a teacher insisting on using comparative adjectives or any other phrases to compare? The other items on this ‘not done’ list show that more complex grammar and vocabulary are rarely used. In most cases there was little difference between the EAL and non-EAL cohorts, although passive voice is clearly more of an issue for EAL learners (but there was a 30 percentage point difference between the EAL and non-EAL groups).
Here, we see students who use key language features well but inconsistently. ‘Reader engagement’ includes techniques such as rhetorical questions, beginning a story with a contradiction and the use of powerful verbs and adverbs. These are underpinned by a rich and broad vocabulary that includes familiarity with key features of different narrative genres. EAL learners will often have this vocabulary in more than one language, and it is important to help them transfer their existing knowledge to English.
In turn, having more vocabulary at your disposal and being secure with asking questions using different tenses will make it considerably easier to develop the ideas you might have in your head and put them in writing in a clear way that is more effective with your intended audience.
These findings suggest that EAL learners did try to engage their reader, use a wide vocabulary or vary their sentences, but that they did so less consistently than non-EAL learners. We know that most EAL learners read (and often write) in other languages, so this finding is unlikely to be due to a lack of vocabulary or language development in general.
The conclusion we have drawn is that these key aspects of English are less well taught.
The conclusion we have drawn is that these key aspects of English are less well taught. We regularly insist on accurate punctuation and spelling, use of plurals and pronouns – especially through our marking. From the first table, above, we can see that this is done well across the board; but when it comes to the key features of academic text (such as passive voice or nominalisation) or wider vocabulary and varying sentences, this is done less well, particularly when it comes to EAL learners. The more academic structures are also less frequent in the texts that learners encounter. The combination of less exposure and greater complexity of these structures means that learners struggle to develop them fully. More practice and repeated opportunities to notice and use these structures meaningfully is required in order for this situation to change.
We ourselves took the view that we should teach the aspects that were not done at all by most students – this being a good springboard for our English teachers who would be able to teach these aspects to all learners in their classrooms rather than isolating just EAL learners for English language teaching in their classrooms. As was echoed by one of our English teachers, ‘EAL teaching is certainly good for all students!’.
Thus, the English department is going to be considering how to focus on complex punctuation, use of comparatives and nominalisation – all of these are expected to be grasped from the English literacy point of view at the end of primary school (see DfE’s National Curriculum for English), but we have decided to start with the use of comparatives first (seeing them as the least grammatically complex), teach complex punctuation next, and leave nominalisation for the last (as the most complex).
For our context, we know where to start. We’ll consider teaching strategies for these three areas that can be applied in the teaching of English.
Leung, Constant (2001). English as an Additional Language: Language and Literacy
Development. Royston: UKRA.
The EAL Journal is published termly by NALDIC, the subject association for EAL. Visit www.naldic.org.uk to become a member.