EAL/D literacy and numeracy

Who are EAL/D learners?

In NSW Public Schools, more than one third of students come from a Language Background Other Than English (LBOTE). This means that a language other than English is spoken at home. The student, one or both of their parents, or another primary caregiver may use the language. EAL/D learners are a subset of LBOTE students. Around one quarter of all students are learning English as an Additional Language or Dialect (EAL/D). These students require additional support to access the curriculum and develop the academic English language proficiency required for success at school. EAL/D learners include Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander students who speak Aboriginal English or an Aboriginal language at home, students who were born in Australia or come from overseas as migrants, international students and students from refugee backgrounds. EAL/D learners may begin school in Australia at any age.

EAL/D learners come from a range of backgrounds, prior schooling experiences and levels of academic ability, as explored in this short video.

Diversity of EAL/D learners

In NSW Public Schools, we collate data about the backgrounds of our students as this information helps us know our learners and the school community.

More than one third of NSW public school students come from a background in which languages other than English are spoken in the home. LBOTE students are those students who speak a language other than English in the home, or have a mother, father or guardian who speaks a language other than English in the home. These students are identified as LBOTE students – Language Background Other Than English.

Many LBOTE students use standard Australian English in social and learning contexts.

EAL/D learners are a sub-set of LBOTE students. They are students whose first language is a language or dialect other than Standard Australian English, who require additional support to assist them in developing English language proficiency.

They are students who have been assessed on the EAL/D learning Progression as Beginning, Emerging, Developing or Consolidating phases of English language proficiency. These students require explicit and systematic support in English language learning. Approximately 24 percent of NSW public school students are EAL/D learners.

Diversity exists within EAL/D learners as it does within all student groups. EAL/D learners may have been born in Australia or overseas, be here permanently or temporarily. They may be Aboriginal and have Aboriginal ways of using English or speak a traditional language or Kriol.

EAL/D learners come to our classes with a wide variety of home language proficiency and education levels.

Some EAL/D learners have a strong educational background and well-developed first language skills. Some may be high potential and gifted. Other EAL/D learners include students with a disability or learning difficulty. Some have disrupted or little education, and low levels of literacy in their first language. Some EAL/D learners have experienced trauma and loss.

These students join our classes in any school year and can be at any stage of learning English and on any phase of the EAL/D Learning Progression.

All EAL/D students bring into our classrooms rich experiences, abilities and knowledge developed in their first language and cultural background.

The diversity of our LBOTE and EAL/D learners is a strength for classrooms and schools, a resource to be harnessed as we program, plan and implement teaching and learning experiences.

Learning English as an additional language

English language learning takes time. Learning academic English requires support and significant time, up to 12 years if the student has limited education in their first language. English language acquisition is explored in this short video.

English language acquisition

Most children, from the moment they are born, are surrounded by spoken language.

As children grow, they hear and participate in increasingly complex conversations about objects, their feelings, behaviours, rules, responsibilities and so forth, continually augmenting their vocabulary and conceptual understanding. Many are exposed to print and develop an understanding of the relationship between print, spoken language and meaning.

Students whose first language is English enter kindergarten with 5 years of oral English, the foundation of their development as readers, viewers and writers of English.

The English language learning of our EAL/D students may not resemble this process of language acquisition.

EAL/D learners enter NSW public schools at any age and into an age-appropriate stage.

EAL/D learners, at any stage of their schooling, are learning the language modes – speaking, listening, reading, viewing and writing – simultaneously. These students are learning English, while learning about English and learning curriculum concepts through English.

Thomas and Collier’s research suggests it takes up to 7 years to acquire full proficiency in academic English, and potentially longer if the student has had disrupted or little schooling.

All EAL/D learners bring to the classroom linguistic resources from their first language. Proficiency in first language assists EAL/D students to develop proficiency in English.

In planning teaching and learning activities, it is important to factor in that EAL/D students are learning all language modes simultaneously, while learning English, learning about English and learning through English. It may take a considerable number of years for students to become proficient in academic English.

There is a difference between conversational or Basic Interpersonal Communication Skills and academic English or Cognitive Academic Language Proficiency. This short video explains the difference.

Basic interpersonal communication skills (BICS) and cognitive academic language proficiency (CALP)

Why may it be that your EAL/D learners speak well in conversations yet don’t demonstrate the same level of English language proficiency when discussing school work and curriculum concepts?

Canadian academic Jim Cummins was struck by EAL/D students’ varying English language proficiency as well. His research into how children acquire and use language led him to develop a continuum representing two kinds of language proficiency: BICS and CALP.

BICS is an acronym for basic interpersonal communication skills, and CALP, an acronym for cognitive academic language proficiency.

Put simply, BICS is conversational fluency – the ability to talk about an immediate object or experience. On the other hand, CALP is the oral and written language needed to succeed in school subjects. Students usually master BICS within one or two years of learning English, while mastery of CALP can require up to 7 years with English language support. Or even longer for those students who have experienced disrupted schooling.

Students’ acquisition of English is related to their proficiency in their first language. In the classroom, we may not see all the linguistic and other skills students bring to the classroom because they are obscured by their low level of English language proficiency.

Equally important to note is that a high degree of mastery of BICS may disguise a low level of proficiency in CALP. Cummins’ framework is a conceptual pathway to develop teaching and learning activities to harness EAL/D learners’ proficiency in BICS, the language of the everyday, to develop CALP, the academic language required to succeed at school.

An effective teaching and learning sequence harnessing proficiency in BICS would commence in quadrant A in which the task and language are high in context and low in cognitive challenge. Matching words to pictures from a video which the students have just seen would be an example of this. The next task, with its increasing cognitive and linguistic demands, moves students to quadrant B. In this quadrant, the task and language are still very much embedded in an immediate context but the cognitive demands have increased. A cloze passage relating to the video, for example. When formative assessment indicates the students are ready, the language and tasks move to quadrant D, such as writing independently.

Cummins’ work on BICS and CALP allows us to plan and implement targeted English language support to assist our EAL/D learners achieve syllabus outcomes. Our students may be fluent conversational speakers yet require tailored support to speak, read and write academically in each KLA.

Supporting reading skills

EAL/D elaborations on the Reading rope explores reading skills and how to support the specific learning needs of EAL/D students in reading

EAL/D elaborations on the Reading rope

Reading is a complex cognitive process, requiring students’ brains to make new connections between the parts designed to enable oral language and the parts which process visual information. Learning to read requires explicit instruction in order for the brain to make those new connections. As they are learning to read in an additional language, EAL/D learners require a higher degree of explicit instruction.

Scarborough’s Reading rope (2001) develops Gough and Tunmer’s Simple view of reading (1986), and uses the metaphor of a rope to illustrate the intertwined skills which comprise skilled reading. In Scarborough’s visual metaphor, all of these aspects of reading are woven together. Skilled reading is the ‘fluent execution and coordination of word recognition and language comprehension.’

How might we understand reading when we consider EAL/D learners? EAL/D students are learning English, learning about English and learning through English simultaneously. They come to our classrooms with less oral English than their peers, so have less English vocabulary knowledge to build reading skills.

Some EAL/D learners have strong literacy skills in their home language, and can use this knowledge, as well as background knowledge, to help learn to read in English. Other students may have limited literacy, and need to develop print concepts and literacy knowledge while learning to recognise words as well as develop their English language vocabulary.

EAL/D learners will be building word recognition skills throughout their school years. They may arrive in our class without an understanding of the alphabetic principle and need to develop phonological awareness. They may have a narrower range of word recognition than their classmates, resulting in higher cognitive load when reading and slower reading rates.

School may be the only place EAL/D learners hear, speak, read and write English, particularly academic English.

What are the EAL/D considerations for background knowledge? EAL/D learners will possess different and varying background knowledge due to their culture, language and schooling. They may have little or no background knowledge in some topics and subject areas. EAL/D learners’ cognitive load can be reduced by explicitly teaching the assumed background knowledge in topics and text.

Research shows that reading vocabulary develops out of oral vocabulary. EAL/D learners will be developing their English language vocabulary throughout their schooling, and may need to be shown how to connect written and spoken words. They will be building and consolidating vocabulary that their peers may already possess. Explicit teaching of vocabulary before reading is essential as at least 95% of vocabulary within a text must be familiar for comprehension.

EAL/D learners will have differing understandings of language structures. Thus, the structure of English across a range of types of texts and KLAs will need to be explicitly taught, as will the links between spoken and written English in a range of contexts.

Verbal reasoning entails making a mental model of the text, and employing repair strategies when that model breaks down. Cultural and background knowledge plays a crucial role in verbal reasoning, as do different ways of reading, using inference, for example. Inference relies on a deep understanding of culture and language, and therefore should be explicitly taught to EAL/D learners, along with various reading repair strategies, such as re-reading or reading on. This explicit teaching should be implemented across all KLAs and genres of texts as the kind of verbal reasoning you bring to the text will change according to context, audience and purpose.

EAL/D learners will bring varying literacy knowledge to the classroom as texts are structured differently in different languages. Some will be familiar with a wider range of texts, types of texts and text conventions, while others will need more explicit support as they build their English language literacy knowledge. A student may have familiarity with some religious texts, for example, but not with picture books, websites or science reports.

Skilled readers combine all these facets of reading, and over time develop word recognition which is increasingly automatic. That is, the reader can attend to language comprehension, and the meaning of the text overall. With EAL/D learners, word recognition may take longer to become increasingly automatic as they are still learning English. Likewise, language comprehension may never become increasingly strategic, as students may still be developing language comprehension strategies, or be using strategies which may not work efficiently in the English language.

EAL/D learners may not demonstrate the same intertwining of the skills elaborated in the Reading rope as their English-speaking peers. At school, EAL/D learners will encounter texts of different levels of complexity, assumed background and cultural knowledge, vocabulary and content, and how they comprehend these texts intersects with their home language literacy and English language proficiency.

To help our EAL/D learners we need to carefully assess their reading skills using the EAL/D learning progression in conjunction with the National Literacy Learning Progression, and plan sequential, explicit steps in supporting the skill and knowledge development required for skilled reading in the context of NSW syllabuses.

EAL/D resources

The following web pages provide additional resources relating to:

Further information on EAL/D students and resources to support them can be found at the department’s Multicultural education English as an Additional Language or Dialect (EAL/D) web page.


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