Monday, November 12, 2018

Planning for academic language acquisition

Over the past several years I have been fortunate to be involved with some thinking around the area of language acquisition. This originated at my previous school, where the student body was 98% non-English mother-tongue (L1), although it has carried over into my current school as we continue to explore the role that language plays in the development of international mindedness.

One piece that has emerged specifically from this inquiry into language acquisition in an immersed environment, was the desire to create a reference tool that would be useful for teachers - particularly when the support of EAL expert teachers was unavailable. We thought that there were several aspects of language acquisition were important to consider with regards to planning for learning but also felt that most teachers didn't have time to delve into the reams of resources that we'd collated. So our aim was to produce a format that was able to be accessed easily - 'a one pager'. Here is an example of what we're currently working with:
G5 HTWW by Dave Secomb on Scribd

The tool continues to evolve as different teachers use it - for example, we're currently looking at the best way to structure the vocabulary section. It's been particularly interesting to see the German department explore this model during this academic year.

You can see that the planner is separated into seven sections. The top three outline the broad context within which the inquiry will take place. We use First Steps as a common, though not exclusive, planning tool at my school so take the language features and text structure from there. This ensures consistency between the different classes for a particular grade without limiting everyone to a specific genre. We also identify a language objective that runs alongside the content understanding (central idea) of the unit. Again, we do this to ensure consistency across the grade in terms of what we are working towards with the students. After all, if achievement and progress in terms of the unit of inquiry is contingent on the acquisition and application of specific language features then we have a responsibility as educators to scaffold this learning with the students.

The following four sections are based on the key elements for an immersive model: Academic Language; Translanguaging Strategies; Linguistic Scaffolds and Differentiation. It is an expectation that all teachers across the school differentiate for their students so we acknowledge the importance of it but direct most of our energy into developing the other three sections. Academic Language can be looked as the building blocks of CALPS (Cognitive Academic Language Proficiency). Working alongside this, the linguistic scaffolds are the mortar which hold the bricks in place. Translanguaging strategies are ways of leveraging the learner's L1 proficiency to access the additional language(s) they're learning.

It is worth noting that this tool is not designed to constitute an entire language learning program for a school or grade. It is aimed at informing pedagogy in the 'Learning Through Language' focus. While it will inevitably inform practice in all three areas of Halliday's model, the primary aim is to help develop the students' proficiency in being able to use language as a tool for inquiry. We would advise that there should also be a dedicated focus on 'Learning Language' and 'Learning About Language'. It's also important to note that, although this planning tool was originally devised for use with EAL students, there will undoubtedly be some aspects that are effective for all students in the class, particularly with the focus on academic language. The IB addresses this point in their publication Language and Learning in IB Programs (pg. 24) when discussing CALPS:

"However, it cannot be assumed that even those whose first language is the language of instruction are familiar with academic language. Some may be fluent in a dialect or non-standard variety, may have had little exposure to reading and writing in the language of the school and may also need to be made aware of the types of discourse necessary for school."

Photo by Diomari Madulara on Unsplash