For the love of language

Transcript of interview with Madonna King, Dr Jennifer Alford and Gai Nastasi

Madonna: Welcome to season two of Podclass, a series of conversations that delve deeper into the world of educators. I'm Madonna King and I'm excited again to be unpacking some of the important issues that face teachers and parents today.

Intro: Teachers help shape our children for the future. They develop the next generation of leaders, thinkers and innovators and they know better than most that learning never stops. Even for themselves.

Dr Chris Blundell: Technology is viewed as being part of learning now and so schools are moving in that direction. It's valued as something that's essential.

Alison Quin: It's certainly an Aboriginal Torres Strait Islander way of seeing the world where country is foundational.

Intro: This is the podcast for educators by educators.

Dr Lyndal O’Gorman: I think it's about communicating and understanding meaning, then that helps to step up our understanding of what art can do in education.

Dr Jennifer Alford: There could be 30 languages represented. Teachers don't need to feel that they need to speak all of those languages.

Dr Jenna Gillett-Swan: I think what are the key things is ensuring that students have an equal seat at the table.

Intro: This is QUT Podclass, and we look forward to diving into season two with you.

Madonna:  What plays a role in success in the classroom? What challenges do teachers face and what new opportunities can they embrace? There are so many important topics to cover. But today's episode is all about new learnings in language. Dr Jennifer Alford is a Senior Lecturer and a research group leader in the Faculty of Education at QUT. Jennifer, hi.

Jennifer: Hello Madonna.

Madonna:  So what's your specialty or what do you do at QUT?

Jennifer: Well my role is to work with pre-service teachers and in-service teachers to help them to understand the relationship between their curriculum content and language.

Madonna:  So it was a pretty circuitous route to here. You're a teacher in North Queensland, with lots of children I think from migrant families and then at Milpera, several schools. Why has this always held such interest?

Jennifer: Well, I grew up in a fairly privileged family, I had no trouble at school, I was good at English. I enjoyed my schooling years and then when I came to Brisbane to study for my BA and Diploma of Education, I met a lot of refugee people in West End where I was living. They were my neighbours, most of them were Vietnamese people and I started to get to know them and taught them some English and I absolutely loved it. And I could see that it would make a difference in their life. And so that's when I chose to become an EAL teacher.

Madonna:  So is this important to all teachers like a science teacher, who has an Italian child in their class? Or for those specifically teaching English as a second language.

Jennifer: It's actually for all teachers Madonna, absolutely. And that's because once upon a time we used to withdraw EAL students, or English as an additional language students, out of the classroom and people would teach them separately. But now the policy is mainstreaming. So that means that these students are all in, all sorts of different classrooms all across the state and across the country. So mainstream teachers of content like history teachers, science teachers, can often have English learners in their classroom. And so they're learning the content of science or history and also the language of the content.

Madonna: Does that mean you're teaching children to be critically literate?

Jennifer:  Well, that's part of it. So my other special area of interest is critical literacy, so that involves, not only reading literally what's on the page but understanding that language; it has power. So different words can position you as a reader in different ways.

Madonna: Give me an example – are you talking about metaphors and similes and onomatopoeia and the like.

Jennifer:  Well, those are kind of poetic devices, which of course can persuade and position you in different ways, but even just general vocabulary and grammar. The way people use language can manipulate you and position you into thinking certain things and believing certain things and so readers need to be aware of that.

Madonna:  So at what age can a child really develop critical literacy skills?

Jennifer:  Well, the research shows very clearly that children from a very young age can actually learn to be critically literate. You can look at picture books and look at images and words that are used in in children's literature and you know think, well what's missing here, you know is my family represented in this text - in this piece of literature - or am I really not visible here?

Madonna:  And it's about comprehension too isn't it? Presumably this is a quality our high school students really need going forward.

Jennifer:  Yes, so critical literacy includes comprehension, but doesn't stop at comprehension. It takes it much further into looking at how cultural assumptions and values are embedded in language. And those things are really important for English learners to be able to unpack.

Madonna:  So if we walked into a year 11 class this afternoon, what would be the difference in critical literacy skills across that classroom. Is it that most children have those as they travel through high school, or is it that some children are graduating with being literate but not being critically literate?

Jennifer:  Yes, I think that we are – we’re in a different kind of phase of curriculum development now where we've been through lots of different iterations of curriculum and syllabuses. And I think now we're at a place where there are critical literacy concepts embedded into the curriculum, but it's not very overt. And so takes a lot of skill as a teacher to be able to identify where the critical literacy bits are in the curriculum.

Madonna:  Teachers have a difficult job don't they.

Jennifer: We do.

Madonna: Can you separate language from culture?

Jennifer:  No, I don't think so.

Madonna:  So this is a tricky space. Let's say a 15-year-old child arrives from Africa today. He might not read a language, but he might speak multiple languages. In the same class, you might have a Chinese student who might be fully fluent in their own language, but not others. Where does a teacher even start there?

Jennifer:  Well, my go-to rule is find out as much as you can about the learner. It's really all about the individual learner, because they all have individual language and education trajectories, depending on where they're from.

Madonna:  Different support structures at home different passions in terms of reading and the like.

Jennifer: Absolutely there like any student, you know, every student has a story and it's important to find out what that story is.

Madonna:  How many languages can there be in a classroom? And how do you navigate that?

Madonna:  Well, that's a very good question. So in some context I think there can be you know, 30 to 40 languages in one classroom. I know for example, in the schools that I've taught in and done research in there could be 30 languages represented, at least in the school and sometimes in the one classroom. Teachers don't need to feel that they need to speak all of those languages; the teacher needs to be confident and comfortable that they speak English well.

Madonna: Yes.

Jennifer: And hopefully they can teach the language well. In terms of critical literacy, that's definitely something that English teachers are equipped to do, we teach them at QUT anyway. We teach them how to teach critical literacy. It's very much part of what we teach them. And also we have wonderful professional associations that help teachers to learn how to do that.

Madonna:  We might come to that in just a moment, but is teaching English easier if the child already understands the subject matter, let's say science or maths well?

Jennifer:  Yes, so it does definitely help if there's some conceptual development in the content area because when you're teaching language of course, language and concepts are connected, so if this if the child has say uninterrupted schooling in their background, then of course, they're going to bring a lot of that conceptual knowledge to the learning in the classroom. And sometimes it's a matter of transferring that from first language into English.

Madonna: Is English harder than other languages is to learn?

Jennifer: I think it depends on the language that you speak first. Some languages are very close to English and sometimes that can be an advantage. And then if you have a language that's very different from English say in terms of its script, like Chinese or maybe Greek or Russian. Then you've got an extra load because you're learning a whole new way of putting the meaning on the page through the script. But sometimes too if the language that you first speak is very similar to English there can be confusion.

Madonna:  Do our schools do this well now?

Jennifer:  I know a number of schools that do this very well and those schools tend to be the ones where there's a whole of school commitment to the provision of high-quality pedagogy and resources for EAL learners.

Madonna:  Are you saying the Principal is really important, the leadership of the school?

Jennifer: Yes, definitely. We've just done some wonderful research that we're starting to publish and in that study, we actually went in and looked at all the programs that the school was providing and we talk to teachers we talk to students and we've really come away with a strong picture of what it takes to provide excellent EAL pedagogy and resourcing in high school. So we'll know how it's done.

Madonna: Well, tell me what does it take?

Jennifer: Well first and foremost, as you said it really is about the leadership being EAL aware, so we have to understand the different needs of English learners in classes. There's a whole suite of programs that can be offered, there's team teaching, there's specialist teaching. There's providing differentiated resources for students…all manner of things, probably too much to go into here, but perhaps we can put a link to the research.

Madonna: Certainly, we could put that in the show notes at the bottom of this Podclass; but did you see a real difference in the level of resources between schools?

Jennifer:  Well in this particular study, we looked at one school in depth, to get a really good sense of what was going on there because we knew it was working. Just anecdotally though, I've been to many schools to do professional development and you can always sense when you walk in whether the school has that whole-of-school approach. But having said that teachers are doing the best they can, it's a difficult job.

Madonna: You mentioned professional development is there much in this space, does QUT offer specific PD in this area?

Jennifer: Yes, we do. We have some short courses. We have the Graduate Certificate in TESOL, which is a relatively new entry course and it's gaining traction well. And we of course we have the Masters of Education in TESOL.

Madonna:  And is that aimed at new teachers or teachers who have been out for a long time; teachers who find themselves in a classroom where there are lots of different nationalities?

Jennifer: It's aimed at any teacher really. Historically we offered the masters mostly to practicing teachers, but we're seeing people without an education background even coming in to do these courses. They might want to change direction in life; so I can highly recommend those.

Madonna:  That's Dr. Jennifer Alford from QUT. And today we're joined by Gai Nastasi. Thank you Gai.

Gia: Thank you Madonna.

Madonna: Gai’s been with the Department of Education as an English as an additional dialect teacher I think for 37 years across seven different schools.

Gai: That's right. Yes.

Madonna: So what do you see in the classroom is the biggest issue to what we're talking about?

Gai: I guess and I'll pick up on some of the things that Jennifer spoke about, but I guess the biggest issue is maybe teachers not realising that they do need to teach the language of the content area and not just content, because language and content go together. You can't express the ideas of the content without the language to do so.

Madonna: Give me a concrete example.

Gai: So for example, you know, we could talk about science, where you have a body of vocabulary, for example, such as should I say photosynthesis, electrons, ions, atoms. They're all very specific to the subject of science.

Madonna: Yes.

Gai: And then in terms of writing and science, you know, they're expected to do an extended experimental investigation, which is very different to the kind of writing that's done in English, for example, where you may write an analytical essay. So the people best placed to teach the style of writing or that particular genre or text type, is the teacher of that content area. So, you know, the text type, the language, the vocabulary, even things like the grammatical forms. So for example, the use of passive voice in science.

Madonna: Yes.

Gai: Which is not necessarily true in English or to a lesser degree in English. You know, those forms are part of that content area and it’s really the teacher who should be teaching that specifically.

Madonna: How important is it for you as a teacher then to really understand the background of individual students?

Gai: I think it's absolutely crucial. I think, you know, students come, we really shouldn't make assumptions about who they are or what they bring to the classroom. But I do think if you want the best outcomes for any of your students, regardless of who they are what their background is; it really is up to you to actually know and understand the background of that student. And that can come in many ways, so for example by looking at data that's available; in speaking to specialist teachers and actually trying to understand what's there.

Madonna: I'm Madonna King and this is season 2 of Podclass with QUT’s Dr Jennifer Alford and teacher Gai Nastasi. So can we make this concrete and in a bid to provide some tips to those standing in front of our classrooms? Let's say we're doing Shakespeare's Macbeth in year 10 and Gai can I start with you. Where do you start with English as an additional dialect or language in addressing Macbeth?

Gai: I guess I mean Macbeth is a great text. I know people are very scared of Shakespeare, but the beauty of a lot of Shakespearean plays and particularly Macbeth, is those universal themes. Which a lot of students really respond to.

Madonna: All right, but how do you teach that?

Gai: So how do you teach that? I mean, I think first of all if I were doing it, I would really make sure I build up the understanding of the main concepts and the language associated with those concepts. So whether we're looking at power, ambition, you know, we would spend a lot of time maybe doing some exercises beforehand really trying to grasp what those ideas are. So, how do we understand power? How do we understand ambition? How do we understand control? How do we understand the supernatural or fate?

Madonna: So how might we do that though? How do you explain the supernatural for example? Do you use visuals, is song important?

Gai: I love visuals; I think visuals are important. We could do some personal things, as in have you heard of witches, do you believe in the supernatural? You know, just to kind of like just seeing where they are personally with this. If they don't understand that when talk then we would unpack the word supernatural; what does that mean?

Madonna: This is very difficult for some students and I picked Macbeth because my daughter is doing it at the moment and even as someone who has only ever spoken English; it is a different language explaining to her what ‘thou art’ might mean. So where do you begin in terms of English as a second language?

Gai: Yes, so I would actually introduce the fact that English is different.

Madonna: Yes.

Gai: And that it has changed over time. We would look at things like ‘thou art’, ‘thou hast’ and what I've done with my classes is not just shown them but actually got them to do grammar exercises. So they're actually in engaging with it and through engagement they actually learn and understand a lot better than simply being told by the teacher.

Madonna:  So what you're saying is taking the text and bringing it to life. So you could use costume, you could use song, you could use visuals, you could go on an excursion. The sky's the limit in terms of ideas. So Gai, mentioned photosynthesis; so I'm going to actually come back to you Jennifer. Let's say you were teaching photosynthesis to a year eight class. Give me an example of how you might approach that.

Jennifer:  Okay, so it would probably come a little bit earlier in the curriculum than year eight. But with the EAL Learners, it's all about context embedded learning. So you have to kind of recreate the context, to look at abstract concepts such as photosynthesis. It's very difficult, because you've got nothing to ground it in. So you would bring plants into the classroom, you would be watching, you know, seeds germinate and you would be watching videos that have transcripts that students can watch again and again and read along with. You would have diagrams with labelling exercises, you would have short descriptions of the process of photosynthesis, with work keywords missing, that the students can select from a bank of words and pop them back in the gaps. So what you're doing there is you're actually really helping them to understand the content, but also how to express the content in language.

Madonna: Gai, do children in your classrooms from some nationalities actually find this much easier than others?

Gai: Some will, a lot of this depends on their prior experience of education. So for example, if they have had a very strong, consistent education in their first language, because they have been learning consistently since, you know, there were four or five or six.

Madonna: So it's based on their learning, not necessarily the language where they've come from.

Gai: No, not necessarily.

Madonna: Jennifer, how long would it take to achieve academically in a second language?

Jennifer:  We've just done some research recently at QUT, a study led by Associate Professor Margaret Kettle, that I had the pleasure of being an investigator on. And we looked at EAL learners in the southeast region of Queensland and we compared their reading trajectory, academic achievement in reading, across a number of the NAPLAN reading tests. And the students that we are most concerned about as a result of that study are the students who come into high school around years seven/eight and then have to slot in with, you know, high academic language.

Madonna: Yes.

Jennifer: Very complex concepts and really hit the ground running and acquire enough English fast enough to get through to senior and out the other end, you know, successfully.

Madonna:  I'm putting you on the spot here, is there an obvious solution to that?

Jennifer: Well again, the research that we're doing is really trying to look at, what makes the difference for academic achievement in schools. And the point we raised earlier was around that whole-of-school approach, that very targeted approach and I have to say, for me the visuals are great, but it's got to be more than the visuals. We've got to get right to the heart of language and academic language, because that's where our particular learners, English as an additional language learners, really get tripped up.

Madonna: Jennifer, you teach pre-service teachers, what are they most struggling with in this area?

Jennifer: I would have to say it's getting their heads around the language of the content. So I work with, you know, wonderful pre-service teachers who are going to be math teachers or science teachers or history teachers and they think around their teaching as a maths teacher. They haven't Been asked to think about it as a language of maths teacher.

Madonna: So you're wanting pre-service teachers to graduate believing they're not a maths teacher or a science teacher; but a teacher of the language of maths or science.

Jennifer: I think ultimately I want them to graduate thinking that they teach human beings, that they teach people, and if that requires understanding the language of science or history or maths, then that's what it takes.

Madonna: Gai, you’ve been a teacher for I think 37 years?

Gai: Yes.

Madonna: How important is reflection here? Do you sit back, critically analyse what might have worked, what worked three years ago, but didn't work now?

Gai: Absolutely, it’s absolutely crucial. I believe if you want to really have the best possible practice in the classroom. It is absolutely essential that people reflect on what they're doing. Think about how they can improve; and every cohort of students is different. So what worked for this cohort in 1997 may not work for this cohort in 2017.

Madonna: So how different is this space to say 20 years ago?

Gai: The Australian curriculum has really, I guess, shaped and changed. I mean, possibly 20 years ago, you know, you might have classes all doing different things.

Madonna: Yeah.

Gai: A little bit of a choose-your-own-adventure, a choose your own journey kind of approach to teaching; now with the Australian curriculum, which has been a huge factor I think in bringing some consistency across classes and across schools, that has changed. The Australian curriculum also includes those underpinnings. I mean they do talk about the language that's required, the concepts, the understandings that students need to have in order to be able to master the content area, the subject matter.

Madonna: I would imagine some teachers would find this so scary; the onus of responsibility, the understanding of their individual students. Do you understand it could be quite fearful, or have you got any pieces of advice for people listening there?

Jennifer: Look it can be terrifying, and you know, as someone who was a high school EAL classroom mainstream and EAL teacher, I totally understand what it's like to walk in and have to then somehow differentiate for all these different students or at least groups of students, you know, to make it work. But I guess a piece of advice would be, to tap into the resources that are already there. So many schools have an EAL teacher or any EAL visiting teacher, what we call an AVT, an advisory visiting teacher within your region; there will definitely be people that you can contact; people like Gai in the metropolitan region and others. There are lots of resources to be accessed even through the Australian curriculum and there's some very good material in the curriculum as guidelines to support teachers.

Madonna: And tell us have either of you got a really good success story.

Gai: Well, I do have a lot of success stories. And I guess this year my most heart-warming success story was a young Sudanese girl that came to us, came to my classroom at the end of your nine straight from Africa. And she did have a reasonable level of English, but had had a fairly fractured upbringing; and just a few weeks ago she graduated as a doctor.

Madonna: Oh, that's beautiful.

Gai: I was just chuffed because you could just see how hard she worked. She was a very intelligent young lady and it's good to think that in some way we, I guess helped her on her journey. I mean the hard work is hers.

Madonna: Yes, absolutely. But also she's not the exception to the rules, as you say is happening every day through opportunity and through good teachers.

Jennifer: And also, I think it's important to remember here that EAL learners will improve with time.

Madonna: Yes.

Jennifer: They don't have a learning disability.

Madonna: Yes.

Jennifer: They may have one, but it's not a given right; and you need to differentiate that. But you know, given the right support and time they can succeed.

Madonna: So I want to ask you about the three best tips you have for teachers listening and I might start with you Gai if that's okay. What do you think teachers should really take into account after listening to us?

Gai: Okay, I guess, you know reflecting on my story of the young Sudanese girl who's now a qualified doctor. I guess one thing is don't make assumptions about the students in front of you. You know, and this is where knowing your student is really powerful and tapping into what that student has; and helping that student to develop what they do have. So another tip I'd like to, I guess share with teachers is a lot of our students will be very shy or very quiet in the classroom; that doesn't necessarily mean they don't understand. Some students need time to actually feel comfortable in a classroom and I think if you really want students to be, to participate, to really be a part of the class, you need to create an environment of warmth and low threat that will allow the student to take that risk to contribute to the classroom. I think the other thing, and I touched on this earlier is that ability to speak is not necessarily an indication of ability to read and write. So a person, may be able to speak really well and really fluently; what about their reading? What about their writing? A quiet student may actually be better at those skills than a more verbally competent student. So again, don't make assumptions.

Madonna: A terrific three tips. How about you Jennifer?

Jennifer: Well, my first tip follows on beautifully from what Gai just said there; and that is to actually find out the student’s reading and writing English proficiency levels, and you can do that through the bands scales. So we have the Queensland band scales and we also have the ACARA language learning progression. So there's two tools that teachers can access. You can also get specialist assistance to do the band scaling in your school; so that would be the first point, is actually find out what is their English proficiency in reading and writing in particular. The second tip that I would have, would be to really learn about how language works in your curriculum areas. So teachers really have start to unpack how language behaves in the content area. And again, there are courses that teachers can do and there's assistance that can be given. The third area would be to learn some really effective high-challenge, high-support teaching strategies. We actually need to be developing a repertoire of practices, pedagogic practices, that actually get to language. How do you unpack, for example, to go back to photosynthesis the description of a process? It's a particular genre that has particular grammar, particular vocabulary, passive voice etc. All sorts of different language and it's actually quite complex. But we ask students to read and write those things from quite an early age in Australian schooling. So I think it's about learning those absolutely gold kinds of strategies to use and you can use them again and again.

Madonna: I've got you both in front of me. You've been teaching, I think combined, something more than 70 years. What haven't I asked, that I should have?

Jennifer: I think reach out for help. If you need help, if you have EAL learners in your schools, don't be afraid; there is help. Gai, for example, I shouldn't speak for you but Gai being the metropolitan region EAL coordinator; she's the perfect go-to person. She can help plug you into the right help.

Madonna: Gai.

Gai: Yes, so there are three of us actually in metropolitan region and we have other people, but AVTs, who can also go and support teachers particularly in the southeast corner. And other regions do to. There are also PD opportunities, so for example, Jennifer mentioned, you know, what QUT does. We have a professional organisation – QATESOL, the Queensland Association of TESOL Teachers, and we also run PDs which are accessible to any teacher, not just EAL practitioners. And we do touch on things like band scales, or the senior syllabus, or how to use different strategies in the classroom and we can be found on Facebook or simply online.

Madonna: So help is there if you ask. Dr. Jennifer Alford, Senior Lecturer and a research group leader in QUT’s Faculty of Education and teacher Gai Nastasi – thank you.

Gai: Thank you very much.

Jennifer: Thanks Madonna.

Madonna: I'm Madonna King and remember, the more you learn, the more they learn.

Madonna: Thanks for listening to this episode of Podclass. I hope you got as much out of it as I did. For a little homework, links to further information and insight on this topic, see the details provided in the show notes. Or to continue broadening your thinking in the classroom, listen in to the other season 2 episodes.

Outro: Podclass is an initiative of the QUT Faculty of Education. To take your teaching potential to the next level, explore their range of professional development and postgraduate study options on offer. Because the more you learn, the more they learn.