International schools face a unique set of challenges. Not only do they operate in incredibly diverse educational and cultural contexts, but they also cater to large numbers of children for whom English is not their first language. When it comes to assessment, which often relies on verbal skills, this can be a problem.
Whatever obstacles students with EAL face, though, it doesn’t mean their learning performance and needs cannot be reliably identified. As Ofsted says of EAL learners in the UK, their “conceptual thinking may be in advance of their ability to speak English” but it doesn’t believe the ‘cognitive challenge’ should be reduced to take account of that. Most professionals would agree.
Another issue is that, with EAL students, there is always the danger that teachers jump too quickly to the conclusion that language is the main barrier to learning when in fact it could be something completely different. So we need to look more closely at what’s going on under the surface.
Matthew Savage, the Acting Principal of the International Community School in Amman, explains it well. He compares understanding the potential and needs of EAL students to the Uluru in Australia; everyone thinks they know the rockberg but all they have seen is its famous red tip and there’s much more that lies beneath.
We asked teachers in international schools in Europe, the Middle East, India, China, Africa and the Asia Pacific region if they thought that the identification of a child’s need or potential was sometimes hampered by the fact that English was not their first language. The overwhelming majority (85%) thought it was; only 13% said it was not.
However, when it came to identifying children who were gifted and talented, respondents were far more divided. Well over two-fifths of teachers (44%) agreed that their schools didn’t do enough to identify gifted and talented children with only slightly less (41%) saying that they did.
As Nicola Lambros, Deputy Head of King’s College, Madrid points out, high learning potential may easily be masked by having English as an additional language. And older learners in particular can be hard to assess, according to the British Council, which recommends non-verbal and maths assessments, though it warns that “someone may be gifted and talented in other ways but not very good at maths”.
Fortunately, there are solutions. Understanding generally precedes speaking and writing, so it’s a good idea to include receptive as well as expressive language measures in any assessment. Embedding assessment in classroom practice on a regular basis will also help students with EAL, as will a proper understanding of prior attainment. Then there are cognitive ability tests, which assess reasoning and may be better indicators of ability and potential for students who struggle with English.
The excellent work done by the Council of British International Schools (COBIS) to highlight the differing needs of students is especially noteworthy. Its Patron’s Accreditation and Compliance scheme asks participating schools to ensure curricula benefit children with learning difficulties as well as those who are gifted and talented. The fact that many teachers in our survey, particularly in the Middle East and Europe, thought their schools identified and met the needs of these groups of students is testament to its efficacy.
The evidence from the UK and elsewhere is that any disadvantage EAL students may have in a curriculum delivered in English is soon nullified if their needs and potential are accurately identified. Indeed, in the UK, gaps in attainment are generally diminished by the time students take GCSEs. But nobody should be in any doubt that smart, well-targeted assessments are essential if the potential of widely differing students is to be realised.
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