The research team for the English Language Support Programme comprises David Little (principal investigator), Zach Lyons and Barbara
Lazenby Simpson (research fellows) and two PhD students (Rachael Fionda and Stergiani Kostopoulou).
The development team for the Language Support Activity Units comprises Zach Lyons, Barbara
Lazenby Simpson and Linda Richardson.
We would like to acknowledge the contribution of Áine Larkin, Peter Maguire and Micheál Tiarnaigh who played significant roles in developing the units and the website.
Finally, we would like to thank all the teachers who helped us trial these units and the website.
1.2 The Challenge
The challenge of ensuring that newcomer pupils and students can access mainstream education at post-primary level is particularly acute for three reasons:
- The older newcomer learners are, the more they must learn in order to catch up with their English-speaking peers.
- The post-primary curriculum is delivered by subject specialists whose formation has not prepared them to take account of ESL (English as a second language) students in their classes.
- Whereas the Department of Education and Science funds teaching posts at primary level, it only pays for additional teaching hours at post-primary level. In some schools ESL classes are assigned to teachers to do not have a full timetable, which can mean that ESL support is both marginal and haphazard.
1.3 Integrate Ireland Language and Training (IILT)
From 2000-2008 Integrate Ireland Language and Training (IILT), a not-for-profit campus company of Trinity College, was funded by the Department of Education and Science to support the teaching of English as a second language in primary and post-primary schools. IILT began by developing curricula – English Language Proficiency Benchmarks – that are based on the first three proficiency levels of the Common European Framework of Reference for Languages (Council of Europe 2001). The third level (B1) is the one at which the language learner is able to navigate his or her own course among native speakers of the target language, which seems an appropriate minimum exit level for ESL support. By specifying learning outcomes at three levels, the Benchmarks are intended to facilitate teacher planning as well as the placement of newcomer pupils/students who come to school with some proficiency in English. IILT then developed primary and post-primary versions of the European Language Portfolio (Little 2002) that contain checklists of “I can” descriptors derived from the “can do” statements that define learning outcomes in the Benchmarks. In this way the ELPs communicate the content and progression of the ESL curriculum to the learners themselves. Between 2000 and 2007 the Benchmarks, the ELPs and an ever-expanding range of teaching/learning and other support materials were mediated to teachers via a programme of twice-yearly in-service seminars. Regular interaction between IILT and ESL teachers ensured that the materials were appropriately informed and focused; it also provided feedback on the Benchmarks and ELPs, so that IILT was able to publish revised versions in 2003 and 2004 respectively (IILT 2003a, 2003b, 2004a, 2004b).
The number of primary teachers attending the in-service seminars increased rapidly year by year, whereas post-primary numbers remained constant. By 2006 IILT was offering seven primary in-service seminars in each round, but only one post-primary seminar. This may reflect the fact that many post-primary ESL teachers cannot be released to attend in-service courses because they are chiefly teachers of mainstream subjects. In 2006 IILT revised all the materials it had developed for primary ESL support and published them as a substantial teacher’s handbook entitled Up and Away (IILT 2006); the next year it did the same for the post-primary sector (IILT 2007). In 2007 IILT was obliged to suspend in-service provision for lack of funding and human resources.
1.4 Building on the work of IILT
The English Language Support Programme aims to build on IILT’s work in five ways. First, it will investigate the present reality of post-primary English language support with a view to identifying good practice as well as recurrent problems at organizational and classroom levels.
Secondly, it is intended to make the Benchmarks and the ELP more useful by adding a substantial subject-specific dimension. In addition, a fourth proficiency level (B2) will be added to the Benchmarks and the ELP before the end of the project to encompass the language skills students need to develop if they are to meet the challenge of the public exams.
The third task we set was to use our linguistic analysis of the linguistic demands of the mainstream curriculum to develop a large array of teaching/learning materials and make it freely available to schools via the internet. The fruit of this endeavour is to be found within the Language Support Activity Units on this website. These and other materials found here build on what IILT has already put in place and are designed to support teaching and learning at each of the Benchmarks levels, focussing explicitly on the different subjects of the curriculum.
Our fourth and fifth tasks are the compilation of a manual for post-primary English language support and the development of assessment instruments. Both of these lie in the future. To begin with we thought we should develop further IILT’s resource book for ESL support at post-primary level. Now it seems more appropriate to make organizational and pedagogical guidelines available on our website.
In January 2009 the Deparment of Education and Science published a suite of tests for ESL students that were developed by IILT and piloted with the assistance of post-primary English language support teachers. By the end of the project we hope to supplement these with additional assessment instruments, probably delivered via the project website.
1.5 Interaction with schools and teachers
Regular interaction with ESL teachers and their schools has been fundamental to the work of IILT. It is also fundamental to the work of the English Language Support Programme. In the autumn of 2007 we held briefing sessions at the Education Centres in Drumcondra, Blackrock and Dublin West. The focus group we recruited at these sessions subsequently provided us with essential information and acted as a sounding board while we planned the first phase of our survey and began to analyse the linguistic demands of the post-primary curriculum.
Such feedback is essential to the achievement of our overall aim: to make a difference to English language support in post-primary schools. Any post-primary ESL teacher who would like to be associated with the programme should contact Zach Lyons (firstname.lastname@example.org).