It’s happened to every teacher: you have an extremely bright, engaged and ambitious EAL student who loves to read aloud, answer your questions and complete extra work at home. You have the highest of hopes for this student… but as the exams draw nearer, they seem to hit a glass ceiling due to their first language not being English. So – what exactly is going on here? They seem so fluent in English, and yet language still seems to be an invisible barrier for them when they sit a formal assessment. Let’s have a look at what the research tells us:
Research suggests that it will take around 2 years of immersion in an English-speaking environment for students to develop ‘communicative language’. Cummins (1984) called this level of language ‘Basic Interpersonal Communication Skills’ (BICS for short). Be warned: BICS may make your student seem fluent in English because they appear perfectly capable of communicating with teachers and students in all sorts of scenarios. You will feel as if they have exactly the same understanding as your native English-speaking students (sometimes even deeper understanding due to their ability to access more than one language and more than one culture’s ‘library’ of references).
However, you might find that this same student then underperforms in written tasks or formal assessments. This can be extremely frustrating for you and the student because you both know that the student understood the topic or skill well within the classroom environment. This underperformance is probably because the students haven’t yet developed what Cummins calls Cognitive Academic Language Proficiency (CALP). This means that they have not yet mastered the complex nuances of academic communication. This is not surprising, as many native English speakers also struggle to master this! According to Cummins’ research, this academic proficiency can take five to seven years to develop. (Other researchers claim it can actually take much longer due to individual sociolinguistic factors such as their motivation for learning CALP, their background, their family circumstances and so on.)
For this reason, it is so important to make sure you know how long your EAL students have been speaking English and to provide them with academic support in the classroom, even when it seems like they don’t need it! Don’t wait until examination season to find out that your EAL students won’t be able to get the grades they deserve.
Let our team at Get My Grades help you along the way. Get My Grades acts as a great resource for EAL students. Students can spend as much time as they want revising complex academic concepts, without the buzz of the classroom to cloud their understanding. We have hover-over definitions for difficult vocabulary and Learn pages which take students through the material in logical steps, breaking up the learning into manageable chunks. Our content creators have also designed pages dedicated to structuring answers for specific exam boards, meaning that the academic proficiency your EAL students need is being developed as they learn!
In the meantime, check out my other blog post about quick wins for EAL students for top tips on how to support your EAL students in your classroom straight away!