To understand my view on ELL (EAL, ESL) and why I believe that Academic English should be placed at the forefront for any school wishing to assist students in accessing the curriculum, one must consider that I lived what many ELL students are experiencing as they enter a school and try to navigate their classes firsthand, albeit my experience occurred in a more unconventional way.
From the time I was in kindergarten and up until grade 9, I was in the French Immersion program and although my conversational English was excellent, it was academically weak, which is something I didn’t realize until I attended an English high school. Suddenly, I found myself sitting in Math, Science, Social Studies, etc., classes and struggling to understand many of the terms being used as I had never heard them in English. I also experienced difficulties writing essays in English because I was thinking in French and therefore my sentences and paragraph structures didn't come out quite right. As a result, my marks dropped significantly and I found myself struggling to maintain honors in my classes – not because I wasn’t capable, but because my academic English was weak. And it wasn’t just me: when I spoke to my former classmates, I discovered that we had all experienced similar issues to varying degrees as we struggled to adjust to switching from the French Immersion to the English program. I am not sure that ‘ELL’ would have been the right term to describe our issues since we were all native English speakers, but I do know that we all could have benefited from some form of Academic-English language support.
And so, if you ask me what I deem more important when setting up an ELL program where the goal is helping students access the curriculum – conversational or academic English – I would argue academic. Conversation can always be learned during recess, lunch breaks, play dates, social outings, movies, etc., but if your team isn’t supporting the Academic English being taught in mainstream and specialist classes you aren’t really doing your students any favors, as their inability to understand and communicate their ideas in class will ultimately impact their success at school.
Pondering the creation of a mother-tongue program for your school, but not sure where to begin? Here are some considerations to think about before implementing your program in order to make sure it is the best it can be:
The Aim of Your Program
Before pitching your program to your administration or to parents, the first thing you must be clear on is the intent of your program – will it provide a means for students to practice their mother tongue in conversational settings or academic – because this makes a difference.
Conversational: If you are setting up a program catering to conversational language, it could be as simple as offering times after school or during lunch hour where students can gather independently or with parent volunteers who speak the language to converse, play games, watch movies, etc.
Academic: On the flip side, if you are looking to set up a program for academic language purposes, then the following will require careful consideration:
The Size of Your Program
Once your vision for the program is clear, the next thing to consider is the number of students at your school who may be interested in such a program and the best way to do so is by sending out a survey to parents. Once you know the size of the program you are looking to build and the languages you will need to cater to, you will have a better idea of how to proceed.
With your objectives and your numbers on hand, this step entails figuring out when to schedule your program, which will be relatively easy to do if your program is conversational and you plan to offer it during lunch hour or after school. On the other hand, if your program is based on academic language, and it is something you would like to offer during scheduled class time, then you will need to determine if the mother tongue will be offered in lieu of another subject area, or if the number of students interested in the program is high enough that it may be considered its own subject area, comparable to a Modern Foreign Language class that students can opt to take.
Another idea to enhance your mother-tongue program would be to offer staff training on ways to incorporate the mother tongue into one’s lessons. In this way, not only are students offered the chance to practice their mother tongue during your program, but they can also do so in their classroom – a benefit for the students themselves and for their classmates as they will have the opportunity learn more about their language and their culture.
If you are looking for some easy ways that teachers can incorporate the mother tongue into their lessons at your school, check out the following article: Incorporating the Use of Mother Tongue in Your Classroom.
With the above considerations in mind, you should be well on your way to setting up the ideal mother tongue program for your school; that said, if you feel like you might need some further guidance, we are always happy to help. Contact us!
My career has mostly been centered around teaching language in some capacity; French Immersion, French as a Second Language (FSL) and English as a Second Language (ESL) and I have been fortunate to have taught grades from the Early Years to High School. As an international educator who has taught at various schools during my career, I never worked for a principal who had the same vision or way of doing things as the previous one. Because of this, I had to check my ego at the door and start at each new school with an open mind, letting go of what I thought I knew about teaching and learning new methods and approaches. From my time spent in Canada and abroad, these are a few of the lessons that still stick with me today:
Keep current, because education evolves, and as an educator you have to evolve with it. What you know coming out of university will not be the same mid-way through your career, nor at the end of it. Your knowledge about education and teaching is always growing, and you never stop learning.
Never Assume Understanding
Being a French Immersion teacher taught me never to assume that a child understands what you are saying. Too often teachers assume that because their students are native language speakers they understand everything. They don’t.
Structure is Key
I learned the importance of working at a school with a strong vision, structure and framework. The more organized you are, the more creative your staff can be!
Create Your Planning Tools Wisely
As Language Coordinator – I have learned the best way to lead a team of teachers is through a proper framework and planners that match the vision of the school. I have led Professional Development (PD) sessions and assumed that everyone understood what I said. They did not. All teachers have previous baggage from prior schools that leads them to interpret what they are hearing in different ways. Through planners, you can shift the thought process of teachers by changing the steps they take to plan. You can also see exactly how well they understand by looking at how a teacher fills out a planner.
See articles on the power of Educational Frameworks and Individualized Planners:
What is an Educational Framework?
A Vision vs. an Educational Framework
The Power of Planners
Individualized Teacher Planners: Do They Really Work?
Using Planners to Change Mindset
Include Specialist Teachers and Support Staff
Specialists and support staff are an important part of any school, yet too often they are left alone on their islands. Specialists and support staff should be included in team planning with mainstream teachers. The biggest impact I ever made on student learning came from being able to tie my ESL lessons into what mainstream classes were covering.
Above all else, ask questions and push boundaries – never remain stagnant in your career; never become ‘comfortable’!
Have any lessons you would like to share? We would love to hear them!