Teaching Advanced Bilingual Learners

I recently delivered a CPD session entitled ‘Approaches and Strategies to Teaching Advanced Bilingual Learners (ABLs)’ and whilst conducting research I discovered a number of things to consider. From my own experiences of teaching in the UK education system what I find interesting and frustrating about teaching ABLs is that mainstream teachers often don’t recognise them as still being EAL and therefore still benefiting from explicit EAL approaches and strategies. As a result, ABL’s progress can falter because they do not receive direct language instruction that is related to the content they are learning.

According to Ofsted (2005) advanced bilingual learners (ABLs) are ‘pupils who have had most or all of their education in the UK .’ From my own experiences this is not entirely true. I have taught ABLs that have only been in the UK for a short period of time but who are at the ABL level of English proficiency. They also state that ABLs often have ‘oral language proficiency comparable to an English L1 speaker. This indeed is true and is a reflection of the research by Jim Cummins into Basic Interpersonal Communication Skills (BICS) which Cummins states take 1 – 3 years to acquire. On the other hand, Cognitive Academic Language Proficiency (CALP) can take between 5 – 7 years to develop according to Cummins. It can be easy to not identify ABLs as still needing support to develop mastery of the language because many have developed BICS style language but are still developing CALP level language.

ABLs could have been in the education system (UK) all their life or they may have attended an English Medium Instruction school in their own country. This is why it is crucial to get as much information from ABLs as possible about prior education so that we can better understand possible stages they will be at in terms of language proficiency. ABLs may be fluent in BICS level language and as previously mentioned will still be acquiring CALP. It is vital that we develop ABLs CALP through our mainstream classrooms because CALP is crucial for success in the mainstream / content classroom.

Cummins quadrant model highlights the types of instructional strategies and tasks we need to be setting our ABLs. We need to be moving our ABLs from zone B which uses cognitively demanding tasks that are high in context to zone C where tasks are still cognitively demanding but are more abstract. What does this look like in the classroom? Well in zone C we are setting tasks that include evaluating critically, predicting results, analysing and suggesting, justifying opinions and arguing a case. Tasks such as these demand more of a learner cognitively and are more abstract in their context. These tasks develop language that is CALP in nature.

When we are developing our ABL’s CALP we need show them how language changes from more spoken like to more written like. To consider this it is worth thinking about The Mode Continuum (Gibbons, 2009) which shows how language moves along a continuum from more spoken to more written like in its nature. Showing learners how language shifts depending on the context e.g. CALP for the mainstream and that we modify our language as a result can ensure that CALP is being developed. There are a wide range of activities you could use to identify and develop CALP on the continuum and some of these include

  • Students placing different words or phrases along a continuum to show how certain words are more academic and formal e.g. get by – survive OR provide – inform.
  • Identifying formal academic writing in a model text can help to develop CALP level language.
  • Dictogloss is a great strategy to develop awareness of more CALP like language.

Cameroon & Besser’s (2004) research into Writing at KS2 and available through NALDIC here highlights a number of problems that ABLs face. These include subject / verb agreement errors, keeping control of genre and register, difficulty in findings ideas from reading for writing and using the correct endings for things such as person and tense. Therefore, in the classroom we must be using approaches and strategies that develop ABLs awareness of these errors. Feedback and marking should comment as much on language as it does on content. To support our ABLs in writing Cameroon and Besser highlight that there needs to be exposure to good models of language across a range of genres, ABLs need to deconstruct these good models, the models need to focus on common or particular language features conventional to the genre. In addition, ABLs need activities to that extend their vocabulary the Frayer Model / Four Square Strategy can help with this. Cameroon and Besser also state that an explicit focus on modeling and teaching the writing process can support ABLs in becoming more successful writers. They also benefit from working collaboratively with peers to develop more academic language.

When considering genres of writing it is worth remembering that each genre has particular features and is organised in a particular way and that ABLs need to complete activities which model this. Control over a relatively limited number of genres can greatly enhance progress and success in the mainstream. This is because in schools there is a relatively limited number of genres that learners are expected to use and by identifying this limited number we can teach and learners learn the features of the genre to ensure successful communication. ABLs benefit greatly from an explicit focus on teaching language through the genre they are expected to write in. We can also use genre based teaching to introduce our ABLs to more advanced grammatical structures (such as perfect tenses or the passive voice) and a wider range of cohesive devices to make writing more coherent and cohesive. I find dictogloss one of the most effective strategies for teaching the language features of particular genres.

Finally, ABLs benefit from specific vocabulary instruction with a focus on tier 2 and tier 3 vocabulary. Tier 2 vocabulary refers to vocabulary they may encounter in a range of their subjects and words that might have different meanings depending on which subjects those words are being used in, for example, factor in Maths means something different in Geography as it does in English. ABLs benefit from a wide range of ways to interact with new vocabulary and some research suggests that to learn a new word you need to encounter it at least 15 times in various different modes. A variety of instructional activities can support the development of vocabulary for ABLs. You will find a range of vocabulary strategies that can help with this by clicking on the link here.

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