In an ideal world, the mainstream classroom is the best learning environment for children learning EAL. This is because it provides the content needed for meaningful language use and opportunities for extended discourse.
However, beginners to English are unlikely to get much out of this if they aren’t able to communicate in the first place, so EAL pullout is vital for beginners. Maurice Carder, drawing on evidence from the research of Thomas and Collier, recommends that this pullout be content-based rather than grammar-based. Whatever form it takes, the aim of a beginners course should be:
- to rapidly enable beginners to be able to engage in school life, both in the classroom and in the playground, through the medium of English
What beginners need, then, is an accelerated course in English, a course which is generally not available in commercial English coursebooks. These coursebooks generally seem to follow a steady, incremental approach to English language learning, one which may lead to proficiency within a few years. But what English beginners at an international school is the ability to listen and communicate within a few weeks.
This course might only be an intensive, accelerated 6-8 week course that provides them with survival English, the basic building blocks of the language (e.g. high frequency words), an understanding of phonics and the development of active listening skills. Emphasis should be on oral communication with a little bit of writing. This should be done in small groups, ideally one-to-one but no more than three in a group.
The Mainstream Classroom
Just saying that the mainstream classroom is the best language learning setting isn’t enough. Just plonking EAL children in a mainstream classroom doesn’t necessarily lead to effective language learning. What counts is not the mainstream classroom per se, but what you do in the mainstream that really counts.
Interaction must be central in an effective second language classroom and a particularly effective way to ensure this happens is to organize paired and small group, collaborative activities. This encourages interaction (which increases the amount of feedback a learner receives), as well as increasing opportunities for extended discourse. Such discourse can form the basis of written work (for example, Talk For Writing and teacher-guided report-backs). The feedback within interaction (both with the teacher and other learners) should act as a focus on form.
Research suggests that small group work is especially useful for learners if it contains a mixed ability groupings, because this creates an expert-novice situation. However, this is only if the more advanced learners are not placed in dominant positions.
Learner talk is absolutely vital. For one thing, talk reduces the cognitive burden when learners are faced with written work. Talk For Writing is an effective practice prior to writing stories, etc, because it makes new grammar and vocabulary available to the learner, stretching their interlanguage.
What the research suggests is that taking the time to do small group collaborative tasks and teacher-guided reporting is effective, much more so than using the time to do explicit grammar lessons.
In a classroom where the teacher does all the talking and the children do all the listening, language learning opportunities are limited because, while receptive skills may develop well (especially listening), productive skills will not reach anything like native-like accuracy.