Cultivating language-aware teachers and language-rich classrooms

English Language Day took place on April 23; with this as a back-drop Catherine Doherty and Sally Zacharias, from the School of Education at the University of Glasgow, look at what schools can do to support teachers in today’s super-diverse classrooms

Developing new support structures will help to assist teachers in today’s super-diverse classrooms

Schools in the twenty-first century contain a lot more diversity than they used to. ‘Superdiversity’ is becoming the new normal. For teachers, the most obvious change will be the new faces in classrooms with unfamiliar names and different accents, who are learning English at the same time as they are learning the curriculum. For school leaders, it will mean building relationships with new communities, developing new support structures, and cultivating new competencies in teaching staff.

We can’t wait for overstretched specialist services and experts to provide what’s necessary

Students with English as a second language come with variety of needs from a variety of life circumstances and language backgrounds, so there will be no simple or uniform fix. Nor can we wait for overstretched specialist services and experts to provide what’s necessary. These learners will rely on their mainstream teachers above all else.

This means every teacher has to become language aware. We suggest that being language aware entails new attitudes, new skills and new knowledge.

A change in attitude

In terms of new attitudes, teachers need to understand that the language learner is someone with more language – not less. Having another language is a remarkable resource and children should be encouraged to draw on that resource for their learning. School leaders can help in this regard by encouraging first language support groups or buddy systems and inviting adults from the language communities to assist. Working together, the school and community can aspire to more than hoping that these students will just ‘pick it up’ as they go along.

‘Teachers’ talk’ is a major source of input

In terms of new skills, teachers’ talk will become a major source of input for language learners. Teachers should be encouraged to monitor, pace and choose their language carefully. They can also learn to focus on the language learner’s meanings and help them find new ways of expressing and sharing these meanings in English.

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Teachers can devise visual aids or use gesture to help them express and share meanings. They can learn to use feedback moments as opportunities for language learning. Teachers can plan for a variety of interactions to encourage and support language learners to use their new language resources.  Teachers can also learn to pause and highlight particular language points as a part of their classroom routines.

We need to understand that spelling, pronunciation and grammar are not the whole story

In terms of knowledge, teachers and school leaders alike should appreciate that language entails much more than spelling, pronunciation and grammar. Though necessary, these familiar aspects are not the whole story. Every subject in the school curriculum creates its own particular language demands in terms of how ideas are expressed through technical vocabularies, specific text types, and particular language conventions.

The same common word can take on new meanings in different subjects. Teachers can learn what demands their discipline makes and let learners in on these secrets. You can encourage your disciplinary groups to do a language audit and collect good models of required texts to help their language learners. Lastly, teachers can learn and demonstrate how the language of the playground differs from the language of school subjects, so one is not mistaken for the other.

These attitudes, skills and knowledge will take time to cultivate. Your role as a school leader can be to encourage the dialogue, sharing and reflection that cultivates language awareness and keeps the topic alive in staff development activities. Education is a language-saturated activity. We use language to teach, learn, express, assess and apply knowledge. Becoming a language-aware school, and planning for language learning in your mainstream classrooms will assist everyone.

The University of Glasgow is offering a free online course, ‘TESOL Strategies: Enriching Classrooms’ through our partner, FutureLearn. The course will run for three weeks from May 7. You are welcome to join us!

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