4 – Teaching EAL Students: Children of Two Language Worlds

Karun Mann

Canada’s vibrant diversity, often recognized as its intrinsic wealth, comprises Indigenous Peoples, settler communities, and newcomer populations. Globalization, an increased diversity in immigration, and a large inflow of refugees have significantly contributed to the existing pluralism of local populations. This, in turn, has resulted in a noticeable change in the student demography of Canadian classrooms ― making them quite heterogeneous. For newcomer students, learning a new language (English) is generally a requirement for communicating and integrating into the Canadian educational system. However, in their efforts to learn English in schools, these children suffer a loss of their heritage language(s), resulting in consequences such as a language gap between them and their families.

As an immigrant, a parent of two EAL (English as an Additional Language) children, and a future educator in Canada, I believe that schools should formulate policies to nurture the linguistic advantages of EAL students. To facilitate the integration of EAL learners into a new culture, educational institutes should promote cross-cultural orientation by appreciating the linguistic and cultural differences. This approach can also benefit many Canadian-born students belonging to a non-English speaking background, such as Indigenous and Hutterite students. Educators must step up for EAL students by supporting English for academic success and recognizing their bilingual potential. This can be achieved by restructuring teacher education programs to better prepare educators for teaching a diverse student body population, increasing diversity in the teaching staff, adopting culturally responsive pedagogy, and implementing linguistically and educationally appropriate teaching practices.

Teaching EAL learners who are in the process of adding English to their language repertoire is considered one of the biggest challenges by mainstream teachers. Bruce Garnett (2012) attributes this to the teachers’ “inadequate training” (p. 18) and “belief that ESL students are not their responsibility” (p. 18). Nina Webster and Angela Valeo (2011) also stress the importance of teacher preparedness in teaching EAL students. In their article Teacher Preparedness for a Changing Demographic of Language Learners, they emphasize that “well-intentioned teachers lack the competence necessary for effective classroom practice” (Webster & Valeo, 2011, p. 105). Through this article, the authors confirm that current education programs are increasing teachers’ awareness about EAL learners and inclusive mindsets, yet much more needs to be done to prepare educators to teach in classes flourishing with diversity.

Due to a lack of emphasis on EAL-specific content in the training process, it is not surprising that most pre-service (PT) and in-service teachers feel unequipped to handle classroom diversity. In addition to the scarcity of teachers prepared to respond to the needs of EAL students, a lack of professional training leads to creating biases towards students whose cultural and life experiences are different from those of their teachers. Sheryl Taylor and Donna Sobel (2011) discuss these biases and claim that most PTs regard diversity as a problem rather than an advantage. The underprepared teachers believe that students of color are deficient, low in ability, and have limited potential for success (Sobel & Taylor, 2011, p. 15). The misconceptions regarding EAL students and the constant misinterpretation of their abilities and behavior adversely affects their personal, linguistic, and academic growth. An increase in EAL content and field experience in education programs can enhance teacher confidence and competence towards teaching EAL students, and diminish biases.

In addition to voicing the need for effective teacher training, Elizabeth Coelho (2012) in her book Language and Learning in Multilingual Classrooms: A Practical Approach, calls to attention the benefits of increasing teacher diversity in multicultural classroom settings. She identifies a lack of diversity in the teaching faculty and points it to be significantly lesser than student diversity (Coelho, 2012, p. 141). Coelho (2012) recommends that while recruiting staff members, teachers who speak community languages and share a similar cultural background with students should be considered as an asset (pp. 204-205). A lack of diversity in the teaching faculty results in a cultural mismatch between teachers and students. Taylor and Sobel (2011) assert that in order to teach students from diverse backgrounds effectively, schools require teachers who “understand the impact of students’ home and community cultures on their educational experience and who have the skills to interact with students from a range of backgrounds” (p. 5).

It is undeniable that the teachers’ approach to classroom management and instruction is highly influenced by their cultural perspectives. A lack of knowledge about the students’ cultural beliefs can affect the teachers’ selection of course material, examples, and analogies that are relevant to the students’ experience. Ana Villegas and Jacqueline Irvine (2010) provide research-based rationales for diversifying the teaching force. Their findings suggest that minority students benefit from pairing with teachers from the same ethnic backgrounds and from attending schools where teachers of “minority groups are equitably represented” (Villegas & Irvine, 2010, p. 187). Increasing teacher diversity can promote a “color-blind approach to instruction” (Sobel & Taylor, 2011, p. 18) and help in reducing prevalent cultural biases and misperceptions. More teacher diversity improves cross-cultural interaction amongst academic faculty which, in turn, can facilitate the development of strong teaching strategies for anti-racist and anti-oppressive education.

Another significant contributor to the overall academic and linguistic success of EAL students is a culturally responsive pedagogy. Rooting from Lev Vygotsky’s theory of sociocultural learning ― which highlights the influence of culture on learning and behavior, culturally responsive teaching appreciates the cultural knowledge and skills that learners from diverse ethnic backgrounds bring into schools. The current dominant educational practices, based heavily on the Eurocentric frameworks, do not pertain to all students due to “cultural blindness” (Gay, 2000, p. 21). Geneva Gay (2010) defines culturally responsive teaching as “using the cultural knowledge, prior experiences, frames of reference, and performance styles of culturally diverse students” (p. 31) in order to construct effective learning and teaching strategies. In simple words ― classroom instruction should incorporate diverse cultural values and aspects in texts, assignments, tasks, and activities. Such an approach provides EAL students with a sense of belonging and a feeling of being valued in their classrooms.

Culturally responsive teaching enhances the linguistic skills of EAL students by stimulating their interests to actively participate in classrooms. Sylvia Helmer and Catherine Eddy in their book, Look at Me When I Talk to You, recommend various ways of encouraging participation of EAL learners in classrooms. Through these interactions, teachers can learn about a “student’s language capabilities” and “monitor [their] capacity and growth over time” (Helmer & Eddy, 2012, p. 63). Moreover, by promoting cross-cultural knowledge, culturally responsive teaching eventually benefits the whole student body population and not just the EAL students. With increased globalization and an emergence of multicultural societies, culturally responsive pedagogy fits best with the multicultural education. Students’ intercultural understandings are becoming vital for current and future job markets, building a strong and viable economy, democratic decision making, and working towards social equality.

As globalization is creating a high demand for bilingual/multilingual individuals, assimilative and supportive teaching practices with monolingual focus are becoming “erroneous and outdated” (Chumak-Horbatsch, 2012, p. 43) in rapidly transforming multilingual work and trade environments. Unlike the assimilative practices, supportive practices acknowledge the importance of home language but still, treat the classroom language learning as a priority. Inclusive teaching practices which aim at the “promotion of bilingualism are in line” (p. 43) with the linguistically and educationally appropriate practices. By including students’ home languages in the curriculum (p. 39), inclusive methods aim to promote “dynamic bilingualism” (p. 53) in EAL learners.

Linguistically appropriate practice (LAP), an approach developed by early childhood specialist R. Chumak-Horbatsch, operates through the research established language acquisition principles. LAP recognizes “bilingualism as a positive force in children’s cognitive and linguistic development” (p. xi) and claims that “conceptual and academic skills transfer across languages” (p. xi). It dispels those myths which consider home language to be confusing and interfering with the acquisition of a new language. Instead, LAP’s research-based philosophy believes that each language supports the other and that there is a positive correlation between “home language promotion within the school and development of academic skills in the majority language” (p. xi).

Teachers who practice LAP neither consider an EAL learners’ lack of understanding of the English language as a disadvantage, nor profess the superiority of the classroom language over home languages. Instead, these teachers treat EALs as the literates of other languages and value their literacy skills in those languages. Such educators acknowledge that learning a second language is not an easy process and that it requires acquiring new linguistic skills on social as well as academic levels. LAP considers “language mixing of bilinguals” (p. 29) or translanguaging and code-switching as a normal part of dual language learning process. Translanguaging is an even more complex skill than code-switching as it involves crossing linguistic borders during the course of conversation (Lasagabaster & Garcia, 2014, p. 558). Code-switching, on the other hand, refers to the use of “two languages as two separate monolingual codes” (p. 558) by a bilingual speaker. Elizabeth Coelho (2012) considers “bilingual instruction” (p. 201) to be the most appropriate strategy for teaching bilingual EAL students.

The success of linguistic and educationally appropriate practices is based on adapting instruction and assessments to meet the needs of new language learners while achieving curricular outcomes. Nadia Prokopchuk (2014) discusses the usefulness of “differentiating instruction” (p. 83) and “assessment using strategies that are most effective with learners of EAL” (p. 83) in inclusive classrooms. Assessment of the progress of language learners is essential for adapting instruction and planning language support. Using the curricular outcomes and assessment tools specifically developed for the native speakers of English is not only unfair and inappropriate for EAL students but can also be misleading. Use of a developmental continuum such as the Common European Framework of Reference (CEFR) reveals the stages in a student’s gradual progress with second language acquisition. Teachers can also adapt the CEFR according to the age of the EAL students. EAL students may also require “revised alternative outcomes” (Coelho, 2016, p. 295) until they have developed language proficiency to achieve grade-level outcomes. The assessment strategies which are adapted by reducing the language demand enable the EAL learners to demonstrate their content learning in an effective way.

Similar to Jim Cummins and Margaret Early (2015), I believe that a “home-school language switch becomes an educational disadvantage only when the school fails to support students effectively in learning the school language” (p. 26). Cummins and Early (2015) believe that the home language can be used as an advantage by “[activating] students’ pre-existing knowledge so that they can relate new information to what they already know” (p. 27). There is no dearth of research findings which corroborate that home language does not impede but rather supports the acquisition of more languages. Alongside, more and more research is indicating the benefits of bilingualism, such as the “increased cognitive abilities, flexibility, and [a] more advanced metalinguistic understanding” (Hoy et al., 2016, p. 164). In the past two decades, there is a noticeable growth in literature stressing the need to reduce the “cultural split” (Ioga, 1995, p. 107) by validating the heritage languages and cultural diversity in schools. Hence, educational institutes are moving towards a paradigm shift from ‘English-only’ to ‘English-plus’. As a mother of two EAL children, I view them and other EAL students as “emergent bilinguals” (Chumak-Horbatsch, 2012, p. 23). I believe in teaching my bilingual EAL students with the perspective that they can successfully navigate in two languages.

In conclusion, teacher preparedness is essential for developing confidence, skills, and the mindset to teach in classroom settings enriched by diversity. With a desire to become a future EAL educator, I chose ECUR 415 as an elective course to enhance my knowledge on the issues regarding EAL teaching and learning. Additionally, the course content enabled me to see myself, a teacher of color, as a contributor to teacher diversity. I now consider myself to be a teacher that numerous EAL learners can depend on and relate to in terms of ethnic background, language, and cultural experiences. I feel better equipped to make efforts to bridge the gap between the “two worlds of home and school” (Ashworth, 1988, p. 131) in the lives of EAL learners through culturally responsive pedagogy. I can creatively design and effectively implement various linguistically and educationally appropriate teaching practices in my classrooms. Furthermore, I can adapt my instruction and assessment methods to maximize the bilingual potential of the EAL students. As a future teacher in Saskatchewan, I hope to make my classroom a safe learning place where cultural and linguistic diversity is welcomed, and every student feels valued.



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