Book language as a foreign language — ESL strategies for Indigenous learners

McTaggart, Robin, and Curro, Gina (2009) Book language as a foreign language — ESL strategies for Indigenous learners. Report. Queensland College of Teachers, Toowong, Queensland.

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This study addresses the belated realisation that educators are unaware that many Indigenous Australian students speak very little Standard Australian English outside classrooms. This important educational issue is prominent in communities and schools where creoles and related language varieties, including Indigenous Englishes, are spoken. It is likely that many teachers have not recognised the issue or been trained to respond to it with changes in their teaching. Many Indigenous parents mistakenly think that they and their children speak Standard Australian English. Parents have not been shown how Standard Australian English differs from their 'home' languages, including creoles and related language varieties. As a result, they cannot foresee or recognise the difficulties students might have in school. Many Indigenous learners simply do not speak English. Australian school learning and teaching practices all assume aptitude in Standard Australian English. Indigenous learners therefore are expected to learn English as a foreign language incidentally and without appropriate teaching. A small number of educators have recognised this and are employing and adapting principles and practices derived from the field of Teaching English as Second Language (TESL ).

It is difficult to evaluate how the use of TESL principles and practices is affecting student achievement in the long term, but there was sufficient anecdotal evidence to do two things: to collect advice from teachers who were trying the ideas out; and to collect existing documented and well justified examples of teaching practice which might be used to inspire other teachers to try TESL strategies in their own teaching of Indigenous students. As it turned out, finding sound examples was extremely difficult to do within the resources available for three reasons:

i. in the public domain there were no readily accessible case studies of the use of TESL strategies with Indigenous students, an observation confirmed by several key informants;

ii. examples presented in commonly used teaching resources were not likely to be interpreted appropriately by teachers in isolation from the theoretical frameworks they were being used to illuminate and exemplify;

iii. teachers and professional development staff were adamant that considerable theoretical understanding and explicit demonstration, coaching and mentoring in their own classrooms was necessary to bring about appropriate changes in practice.

Early in the study it became apparent that the relevance of ESL for Indigenous learners is being swamped by other discourses — cultural differences, behaviour management, morale, literacy, attendance, hearing disability, traditional language maintenance, socio-economic status, and NAPLAN scores. There are ideas about Indigenous education in abundance, but few resources to support the use of ESL strategies are readily available. Because of the dearth of examples, the difficulty of teasing out ESL work, and the lack of faith among informants in the usefulness of examples, the study focused on the staff development designed to help educators to improve their language awareness and to adopt TESL principles and strategies in teaching and learning for Indigenous students. The participating teachers and principals came primarily from a broad selection of schools collaborating with the Far North Queensland Indigenous Schooling Support Unit (FNQ ISSU).

It is well known that action research approaches are especially relevant in bringing about changes in practice, particularly in cross-cultural settings. The study shows how the recent work on the theory and practice of action research can be used to develop stronger communities of practice working on the adaptation of the principles of Teaching English as a Second Language to assist Indigenous students. Using an action research perspective, the study interpreted information gathered from the literature and informants to outline an approach to monitor and consolidate changes in educational practice. This involves establishing 'public spheres' (analogous to 'communities of practice' (Wenger, 1998)) ranging inside and outside of the system, school and classroom levels of educational practice. Ways of monitoring change in the relevant aspects of practice are described using information gathered in the study to facilitate reflection and action.

The study confirmed that the ESL educational needs of Australian Indigenous students are not adequately recognised or met. Teachers who have improved their language awareness and adopted ESL strategies reported major changes in the engagement of their Indigenous students, and improvement in their use of Standard Australian English. However, they warned that language learning takes time and that students will need support in other areas too. Incidentally, ESL strategies were also working well with non-Indigenous students. There is urgent need therefore to improve the TESL skills, understandings and values of teachers and to provide proper support to them, theoretically, practically, and organisationally. This must be done in pre-service teacher education (at least 0.125 EFTSL of instruction plus curriculum integration within the first three years). For existing teachers, extended professional development is by far the most important thing to focus on. Stronger relationships between the ISSUs and initial teacher education and continuing professional development are important. Further study at Master of Education level should be integrated with short term professional development. It follows that there are staff development and resource development needs for both universities and teachers — ESL consciousness and Indigenous language awareness needs to permeate right through the KLAs, the curriculum in teacher education, and educational research practice. There is a need for universities to establish more contact with accomplished Indigenous teachers who speak and know the linguistics of Indigenous languages, creoles, and related varieties. Opportunities for speakers of Indigenous languages to improve their knowledge of teaching and learning English as a foreign language are also needed urgently.

It is regrettable that we have to report that fairly recent graduates have commented on persistent and sometimes very hateful racism among teacher education students with whom they attended university. This issue is recognised in the universities, but more needs to be done about it. It may be that greater wisdom about Indigenous languages will help, but an important concern is not to make racism worse. There is continuing need for teachers learn more about Indigenous Australia and about appropriate strategies for teaching Indigenous students. The Queensland College of Teachers is in a very strong position to bring together teachers, employers, parent and Indigenous representation, teacher educators and educational researchers and government to negotiate into life significant improvements in the skills, understandings and values of pre-service and experienced teachers to assist Indigenous Australian students to receive and appropriate education for life, employment and the forging of robust personal and collective identities.

Item ID: 5572
Item Type: Report (Report)
ISBN: 978-0-9803645-0-7
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Date Deposited: 12 Nov 2009 01:29
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Last 12 Months: 32
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