EAL vs ESL

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In my job, I’m often asked to explain the difference between EAL and ESL, especially around this time of year – report time! Parents are keen for their children to make the transition from EAL to mainstream English and understandably so! My job is to make them see that EAL lessons are not a necessary evil, rather the best way forward. (Yes, we stream as well as provide in-class support as much as possible.)

Photo by Jerry Wang on Unsplash

One of the most common questions I get from parents during parent-teacher conferences is whether their child could be in the first or second language English class if they signed them up for extra English lessons after school, i.e. ESL classes. I spent more than a decade as an ESL teacher and I see nothing wrong with extra English lessons, obviously! They are a wonderful resource; however, I believe that the EAL support that my team is providing in-school caters more to the needs of our students. Why is that?

  • We take time getting to know our students and their specific (academic) needs. This is a lengthy process and one that we take very seriously. It involves an initial placement test, an informal one-to-one interview with the student, as well as one or many classroom observations. We also talk to the homeroom teachers and form tutors, in fact, we have regular discussions to make sure that we are all meeting the student’s needs to the best of our abilities. This way we won’t only know what topics the student is interested in, but also what causes them particular difficulties in say, a Science class.
  • We work as a team. There is more than one EAL teacher in our school and luckily, we are growing in number. We work closely together and plan together so that the EAL curriculum is as unified across the key stages as possible. As mentioned above, we also work closely with our colleagues who teach the other subjects. We communicate about topics, anticipated difficulties, assessments, attainment threshold, etc. We also run training sessions so that we learn from each other’s best practices.
  • We have a whole-school EAL approach. Or at the very least, we are working towards one. What this means is that the importance of EAL permeates the school and isn’t only limited to withdrawal lessons. We believe that what’s good for an EAL learner is beneficial for all students. For instance, in Secondary we have started a language initiative that helps our KS3 and KS4 learners become more familiar with the Cambridge Command Terms, which are obviously challenging for EAL learners. By dedicating time to these in every English class, all of our students are benefiting.
  • We provide in-class support. We go into other classes, e.g. Humanities or Maths, to support EAL learners. We work closely with the subject specialists to make the lessons accessible to EAL students by providing small-group support, individual tutorials, and access to self-study materials designed for these learners. Unfortunately, at the moment this is proving to be an operational challenge, what with virtual learning and staffing issues; however, this is something that we will dedicate more resources to from the start of the next academic year.
  • We celebrate being EAL! One of my colleagues came up with the lovely idea of dedicating a day to EAL awareness so that we shift the focus from ‘struggling with English’ to being ‘able to speak more than one language’. So a few weeks ago we had our first ever EAL Awareness Day and it was a great success. The students got to explore the different languages they are able to communicate in, reached out to their teachers to find out about their linguistic backgrounds, and showcased their traditional attires and foods. The only way this day could’ve been better is if we had been allowed to celebrate in school.

To any parents out there, if your child is receiving EAL support, be grateful for the help they’re getting. Reach out to your child’s teachers to better understand what specific needs your child has when it comes to learning English. Don’t be disheartened if you are told that your child needs EAL support for yet another term – all students learn at different rates and learning a new language is hard. It is especially hard when you are expected to perform at the level of native speakers in academic subjects! Give them the time they need to succeed!

About Adri

Adrienn Szlapak is currently the Head of EAL at Straits International School Rawang, Malaysia. She is an experienced English Language Teacher and academic manager with a passion for transforming education. A life-long student and a reflective classroom practitioner, she actively looks for ways to develop her skills set and help others do the same.

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