From EFL to EAL: Subject teachers and staging tasks

There’s plenty of content from my initial TEFL training (2006 – wow) that is still relevant to my everyday practice as an EAL teacher. Here’s one example.

If you have undertaken initial teacher training in EFL (such as a CELTA or CertTESOL course), you may be familiar with common frameworks for lesson planning. Here is a reminder of the framework for planning a receptive skills lesson, which is a good starting point when considering co-planning for reading/listening/viewing tasks.

Framework for a receptive skills lesson

Lead-in – Generate interest in the topic / text.

Orientation to text – What do you need to tell the students about the text to prepare them for reading/listening? This could be text type, text source, speakers’ accents, etc. Whatever is relevant.

Gist task – set a short task based on general understanding of the text as a whole. For reading texts, the gist task is often timed. Students compare their answers together (pairs/groups) first before class feedback.

(Optional) Pre-teach vocabulary – Teach any ‘blocking vocabulary’ needed for the detailed task

Detailed task – set a task based on detailed comprehension (formats might include gap fills, ordering events, true/false, etc). Students compare their answers together (pairs/groups) first before class feedback.

Follow-up activity – do a speaking/writing activity based on the text.

Adapted from CELTA notes from IH Budapest. See more frameworks here.

This basic framework is for an MFL-type lesson, and addresses skills practice more than skills development. Following this planning framework step-by-step might not seem relevant to EAL: there may not be time to go through this whole process in mainstream subject classes, there may be less need to do so for the class as a whole, it may not align with the overall objectives of a lesson, and a lot depends on the purpose of introducing a text (e.g. is it meant just for context building?). However, the earlier stages in this framework (in particular) are a good reference point for subject teachers, who may be unfamiliar with the level of support language learners often need before undertaking a receptive skills task.   

I’ve seen some subject teachers set up reading/listening/viewing tasks REALLY well, but it’s not always the case. Here are some examples of task set-up from subject teachers that led to challenges for EAL learners:

Example 1
In Science, learners were told that they would watch a 10-minute video on artificial insemination (no subtitles provided). There were no pre-task activities, no note-taking or comprehension task to do while or soon after watching the video, only a pair discussion immediately after the video exploring the ethics of the procedure. During whole class feedback after the pair discussion, one student (first language English) asked ‘what exactly is artificial insemination?
Example 2
In a Geography lesson, learners given a reference text on ‘World Climates’. The text had no visual support such as diagrams, images, text enhancement and so on. The topic title was displayed on the board along with a series of pictures of ‘different climates’, although this is not specifically referenced. The teacher explored the topic beforehand by asking a series of whole class questions. Approximately 20% of the class were called on to answer, not of which were EAL learners. Learners were instructed to read the text and create a table in the notebooks (as displayed on the board) summarizing information about 5 main climate types. Headings in the table were not concept checked, and an example is not given. After the task, learners use the information to create a poster on climates around the world.
Example 1 task set-up:

Lead-in: None.
Orientation: Learners were told they would watch a video. No discussion around the content.
Gist task: None.
Pre-teach: The key concept of ‘artificial insemination’ is not clearly defined and checked beforehand. The teacher relies on the video to provide clear enough examples of the concept.
Detailed task: None.
Follow-up: A discussion on the ethics of artificial insemination.
Example 2 task set-up:

Lead-in: Whole class questions with limited student participation.
Orientation: Some visuals are presented to learners, but no attention is drawn to them. The questions orientate to the text.
Gist task: None.
Detailed task: Learners create a table and draw out key information from the text. Examples are not given and headings not explained.
Follow-up: Learners create a poster. During the lesson, EAL learners had no opportunities to discuss this content, either before or after the reading task.

Some thoughts…

As a language specialist, I guess I’d say that:

  • lack of orientation and ‘readiness’ activities before approaching a text (such as discussion, activating prior knowledge, etc) can result in confusion, lack of cognitive engagement, anxiety, and so on.
  • approaching a detailed task without having the chance to ‘take in’ the text as a whole, understanding the overall purpose or message of the piece, can be cognitively demanding.
  • failing to pre-empt difficult vocabulary in the text which may block learners’ general comprehension of a topic can be frustrating for a learner, yet it is very solvable from a teaching perspective.
  • giving learners a while-listening/reading/viewing task provides clear focus. Depending on the task, this can set a clear expectation for type of information learners will gather from the text, and what they may do with that information afterwards.
  • we can present texts in ways that may increase the chances of learners comprehending them, or of them noticing certain content and language which is important for the topic.

Despite this, mainstream learning sometimes plays out in ways which we see as detrimental to the chances of EAL learners accessing the content.   

In Example 1, learners did not explore this topic before watching the video. The video was introduced, but the content perhaps not framed in a way that allowed learners to call on prior knowledge. The key concept itself was not explored, and the lack of a while-viewing task made the learners passive observers for general interest. The follow-up task was extremely challenging without effective staging and support, and the concept clearly wasn’t understood by some members of the class.

In Example 2, the lead-in activities failed to exploit the teachers planning (the visuals presented). Teacher-led questioning wasn’t inclusive, and a Think-Pair-Share approach would certainly have enhanced this stage. It may have helped EAL learners to preview the text and identify the purpose as a reference text – this would set the expectation that they are identifying factual information. Headings in the table were not concept checked, making it unclear whether EAL learners know exactly what they are looking for (no examples given). The follow up could perhaps include a speaking stage given that learners have had limited opportunities to draw on personal experiences related to the topic.

This is certainly not meant to be an exercise in critiquing the practice of subject teachers. Far from it – in both instances this was more a moment of realisation which shaped the teaching and learning for the better.

While the task set-up in the two examples could have been more effective, both subject teachers actually recognized that they’d not provided enough support for the learners. They doubled back, offered more in the way of scaffolding, and made ‘on-the-run’ decisions which helped the learners access the content and the task. They did so in collaboration with the EAL specialist during the lesson.

Later, when planning another reading task, the Geography teacher asked me for advice on how to stage the activity. This led to a productive co-planning session in which the importance of pre-reading/listening/viewing tasks was discussed. I made additions to the subject planning of the new reading task to add more pre-reading stages, including a discussion and a short pre-teach, which supported learners in accessing the content.

In practice, both examples were a step forward for both subject teachers in shaping their planning expectations with a relatively new group of learners, and in recognizing that perhaps they should seek input from language specialists during the planning stage. For me, it this was a good reminder that there’s plenty we can take forward from our TEFL training into an EAL role. Also, it’s a reminder that while we may see certain planning processes as standard practice, subject teachers may not have been trained in how to plan with language learners in mind.

Image by Manfred Richter from Pixabay

Categories: General, reflections, teacher development

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