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EAL – a two way street of communication

EAL – a two way street of communication

I want to celebrate this week all that is excellent about our English as an Additional Language (EAL) teachers’ and students’ achievements. It is very important indeed that this aspect of teaching and learning is upheld by our community if we value, as we certainly do, our international students. The school enjoys an extraordinary social diversity which surfaces on such occasions as the International Food Fair, the Boarders’ Concert and Chinese New Year festivities, as well as in more informal classroom discussions and as children and staff members get to know each other better and find out more about each other’s backgrounds.

Our diversity benefits the whole school community, by providing opportunities for all of us to become more familiar with the traditions, as well as the greetings and respectful behaviours, of different cultures. This is, of course, a two way street; by living and learning at our school in Cambridge, international students gain an invaluable insight into British culture as well as enhancing their English language skills, and by having such a diverse community within our school, each and every girl is able to befriend and learn from other students with backgrounds that may be dissimilar to their own, and also improve their own communication skills.

Those who have read our most recent issue of Accolade will hopefully have enjoyed gaining a deeper insight into our school’s impressive languages provision – which includes not only Modern Foreign Languages (MFL) and Classical languages, but the teaching of EAL too. I recommend reading the article written by Mrs Valerie Bevan (page 15), in which she explains the benefit to native English speakers of regular communication with non-native English speakers:

“our British students can also learn, if they make the effort to adapt their language to non-native speakers, not by simplifying it, but by speaking more clearly and a little more slowly, by becoming more aware of their own use of tricky (and often ephemeral) colloquialisms, and by being alert to the reactions of their interlocutors. Far from compromising their own communication skills, this will enhance them. The ability not just to speak, but to communicate, clearly and authoritatively, and establish relations across cultures in a context in which English is the lingua franca, will be an asset as they pass through the school, and go on to university. Beyond that, it will not only be crucial for those who are contemplating a career in international relations; medicine, science and business are all now international enterprises.”

It is in this spirit of valuing each and every one of our students that we can truly value our EAL provision, which underpins so much of the school’s educational offering for students for whom English is not a native language. Not only does it enable them to better access the curriculum, but it also supports them in accessing everything that our school community, and wider culture, has to offer – which in turn benefits us all.

In Mrs Bevan’s Accolade article she also explains the differences between teaching English as an Additional Language, to teaching English to native speakers: “The level of complexity we handle intuitively recently went viral when a passage from Mark Forsyth’s The Elements of Eloquence was posted on Twitter, and people were amazed by the revelation that we unconsciously order our adjectives thus: opinion-size-age-shape-colour-origin-material-purpose-NOUN. This is in the Year 9 grammar text book, but more as a curiosity than because any student could – or would have any need or desire to – learn and apply the rule to talk about ‘lovely little new round-toed pink French satin ballet shoes’, for example.”

This is just one example of how the teaching of EAL requires a different focus to the teaching of English to native speakers. Another is that whilst native speakers’ grammar is usually intuitive, they will be less able to explain the choices they make about the conjugations they use or the different parts of speech than non-native speakers, and non-native speakers will have a better grasp of spelling, yet native speakers will clearly have a better handle on pronunciation (in any number of accents). EAL teaching also differs from the teaching of MFL. For our EAL students, English is not a stand-alone subject – it is also the language in which all other subjects are taught, and it is the language in which they conduct daily transactions from socialising with English-speaking peers to applying for work experience positions or simply buying a coffee from the local Costa. Each of these transactions will lead to the students having much more of a genuine appreciation of the target language (English) than can be achieved by students studying a language remotely, which is then not often tried and tested in real situations.

So how does our excellent EAL department work? EAL support is tailored as far as possible to each individual’s needs. Each non-native English speaking student who joins the school will take an assessment to ascertain their level of proficiency, and current students take an International Students’ Test in the first two weeks of each academic year, to monitor year on year progress and to ensure our provision is still appropriate for the individual. Non-native English speaking students entering the school in Year 7 are integrated into mainstream English lessons, with an EAL assistant supporting them in the classroom if appropriate. From Year 8 to Year 11, students who do not take mainstream (KS3 or GCSE) English lessons are taught in dedicated EAL lessons, with Year 10 students working towards the Cambridge English: First (FCE) examination, and Year 11 students take the Cambridge English: Advanced (CAE) examination, while their native English speaking peers are taking GCSE English.

From Year 7 to Year 11, English language support may be provided for students whose English language level prevents them achieving the results they are capable of in other subjects, because these subjects are culturally and/or linguistically challenging. For instance, students might bring History homework, or Geography coursework to work on with their EAL teacher, so that they are able to improve the lexical and grammatical accuracy in their subject work. Students who are with us for the Sixth Form and who do not have an English qualification that meets university entrance requirements will spend their time preparing for the IELTS. Many Lower Sixth students take the IELTS examination in June, and do not attend further classes, while others continue into the Upper Sixth with the aim of achieving better results or giving themselves more time to improve.

EAL support is by no means limited to written work. Students will receive assistance in putting presentations together, in crafting their personal statements (a significant part of the UCAS application process), and  in preparing for interviews for courses ranging from Medicine, Speech Therapy, and Law to Art, Architecture, Fashion, and History.

As you will be aware, we work very hard to promote the very best teaching and learning opportunities at St Mary’s School, Cambridge. As such, our valued EAL department (and indeed the school as a whole) aims to provide positive, effective and enjoyable learning experiences, which will give students confidence in their ability to make English an alternative means of communication and way of being themselves and not just a means to an end. It is through communication that no man – or woman – is an island and in this day and age of growing isolationism it is vital that schools offer the space for productive and constructive dialogue.