I recently attended an EAL conference through IG Schools in the UK, and while I learned a lot from the presentations, what struck me the most was this notion of a bottom-up approach to identifying and addressing issues, instead of a top-down approach. And what’s the difference between the two, you might wonder?
A bottom-up approach is focused on figuring out the types of learners entering an EAL program and identifying their needs first. Throughout the conference, there was a strong focus on whether we needed to rethink how students are labelled – perhaps EAL is too broad a term; perhaps if we could nail down terms to describe specific types of English language learners we could better meet their needs. For example, if we had different terms for a student entering the program with no English, a student entering with minimal English, a student entering with some conversational skills but limited academic skills, etc., perhaps then we could better support their needs. In addition to the question of relabelling learners, the question of student background and ethnicity being a factor in language acquisition was also one that was heavily explored – i.e., perhaps if we could better understand nuances in a learner’s mother tongue, we would be able to better assist them in accessing the curriculum. While both are valid points, attempting to solve these issues first is like trying to sail a ship with holes in it – it can be done, but not very easily.
In contrast, a top-down approach focuses on straightening out a school’s pedagogy first, before looking into addressing specific learner needs. This means outlining a consistent approach for how language will be taught throughout the school across all subject areas, including specialist classes, and then developing strategies for the EAL program to match and support methods used in classroom learning. It also means providing both the planning time and collaborative tools to the staff so that the EAL team can easily access the curriculums they are meant to support. In other words, making sure you have a solid ship before you invite others on board and sail away.
And in a school taking a top-down approach, what are the advantages for EAL learners? First off, the transition between curriculums will be a smooth one for them, and secondly, the support they receive from the EAL team will be in direct correlation with lessons taught. And the advantages for the EAL team? When it comes to how support should be offered and for what, a clearly defined program will be outlined for them to follow. And with a solid ship in place specific learner needs, such as how much support is required and what type(s), can then be looked at with confidence, as whatever strategies are proposed will directly align with the school’s vision for language learning.
While taking a top-down approach may seem like an impossible task as it requires aligning all staff and curriculums, it really isn’t, and it can be achieved through the development of an educational framework and accompanying individualized staff planners. To learn more about frameworks and planners see the following articles:
If your school interested in exploring any of these options, contact us. We can help!