Can You Really Motivate Someone to Learn a Language?

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By Olessya Akimenko

Motivation is generally considered to be an important factor that can affect a learner’s success in English as an additional language (EAL). On the internet, you can find countless articles about how to motivate your EAL learners. The authors of these articles suggest multiple ways how this could be done, ranging from “triggering students’ interests” (Lesley University, n.d.) to “giving them a little friendly competition” (Pesce, n.d.) However, is it really possible to motivate a learner if they are not really interested?

First of all, let’s define motivation. According to Dörnyei and Skehan (2003), “motivation is responsible for why people decide to do something, how long they are willing to sustain the activity, and how hard they are going to pursue it” (p. 614). Speaking from my personal experience, as an EAL teacher with 10+ years of teaching experience, I don’t think it is possible to motivate someone to learn, unless they are already motivated. I believe that either a learner already comes motivated to learn or they don’t. The only thing that the teacher can do is not to let the learner lose this precious motivation. If they aren’t already motivated, there isn’t much that could be done.  

In this essay, I’d like to talk about how we as EAL teachers can create an environment for the learner, so they wouldn’t lose the motivation that they already have to learn a language. First of all, we do this by letting each and every learner contribute to the classroom practices and activities. It’s easy to lose motivation if you are not given an opportunity to actively participate. For example, Norton (1997) in her article “Language, Identity, and the Ownership of English” describes the experiences of an EAL learner who mentions how frustrating it can be to listen to only one student speak throughout the whole lesson. This student eventually drops the course feeling that she “didn’t learn at all”.

Second, we make sure that that the needs of all learners are addressed. People come to language classrooms with various needs, such as to get a (better) job or pursue post-secondary education, and those needs should be the main priority for the teacher. This, of course, might be harder to do in larger classrooms, but maybe this means that the classrooms do not need to be large.

Norton (2015) also suggests that classroom practices need to draw from and legitimize learners’ cultural capital, i.e., their prior knowledge and experience. Therefore, it is important to choose materials and activities that learners can relate to. Canada is a multicultural and multilingual country. However, do the learning materials for EAL students always reflect this cultural and linguistic diversity?

These are some of the ways that I believe can help teachers retain the motivation of their EAL students. And I am positive many teachers are already applying them. However, if you don’t, it’s probably high time to start.

Now, going back to my original idea that a learner either comes motivated to learn or they don’t, you may ask then why people come to learn a language if they are not really motivated? Can you really motivate them to learn? Well, this is something I’d like to hear your ideas on!

Olessya’s Bio

Olessya Akimenko is a PhD Candidate in the Languages, Cultures and Literacies program at SFU. She is currently conducting research for her thesis related to the professional identity negotiations of teachers of English as an additional language (EAL). Her other research and educational interests include dialogic pedagogy and the pedagogy of multiliteracies. Olessya also teaches at the Faculty of Education at SFU. Prior to starting her PhD program Olessya worked as an EAL teacher in Kazakhstan for more than 10 years.

References

Dörnyei, Z., & Skehan, P. (2003). Individual differences in second language learning. In C. J. Doughty & M. H. Long (Eds.), The handbook of second language acquisition (pp. 589-630). Blackwell.

Lesley University. (n.d.). 3 strategies for motivating ESL students. https://lesley.edu/article/3-strategies-for-motivating-esl-students

Norton, B. (1997). Language, identity, and the ownership of English. TESOL quarterly, 31(3), 409-429.

Norton, B. (2015). Identity, investment, and faces of English internationally. Chinese Journal of Applied Linguistics, 38(4), 375-391. Pesce, C. (n.d.). How to motivate ESL students: The 10 best ways to increase teenage student motivation. Busy Teacher. https://busyteacher.org/3644-how-to-motivate-esl-students.html

Everyone has an Accent

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By Tara Toroghi

According to the Cambridge English Dictionary, the term “accent” is defined as “the way in which people in a particular area, country, or social group pronounce words” (2022). Some examples of accents include Canadian, British, American (such as Southern or Boston accent), French, Italian, Spanish, Indian, Persian, Jamaican and so much more! The latter highlights that while we may think differently, everyone who speaks English has a distinct accent, including Canadian, British, and American individuals. For example:

  • Canadians say “about”as “a-boot”.
  • British citizens say “British” as “Bri-ish”.
  • Southern Americans say “you all” as “y’all”.

While these different pronunciations show that everyone has an accent, some accents are seen as “inferior” which impacts people’s experiences when speaking English. As a result, accents bring up different emotions for different people. It can make someone feel confident in their ability to speak a language aside from their mother tongue. It can also be a reason why someone feels embarrassed because their accents are preventing others from fully understanding them.

I have experienced a few uncomfortable situations firsthand by speaking my first language – Farsi. During my early teenage years, I was teased by family members for pronouncing words in Farsi with an accent. I was mortified, uncomfortable, and from that moment, I decided to limit speaking Farsi out of fear. A few days later, I witnessed my mother experience a similar situation while speaking English in a grocery store. I noticed that the encounter did not stop my mother from speaking English despite her accent. Watching my mother remain confident made me realize that having an accent is a strength as it shows one’s ability to persevere and learn.

Today, I believe having an accent is something that one should be proud of because whether they have taken the time and effort to learn a whole new language or it’s a part of their mother tongue, their accent is a part of their identity. I had the opportunity to interview a few who use English as their Additional Language regarding their experiences associated with their accent as well as if they believed there is a correlation between accents and fluency.

Q: When was the first time someone mentioned your accent to you and how did that experience impact you?

  • “Although I am proud of myself for learning a completely new language, when my accent was pointed out, I felt self-conscious. However, I did not allow that to stop me from speaking English because practice makes perfect.”
  • “Everyone has an accent. The first time someone mentioned my accent was when I traveled to Seattle for a conference after living in BC for a couple of years. This surprised me and made me question myself during presentations and job interviews, however, I did not allow that experience to hinder my growth.”
  • “The first time someone mentioned my accent was in the fourth grade. One of my classmates made fun of me when I was presenting a skit. From that moment, I have been self-conscious of the way I speak, especially with my pronunciation. Experiencing this at such a young age has made me doubt my abilities when it comes to speaking English.”
  • “The first time my accent was mentioned, I was four and baffled. One of the parents at my school told me I had an adorable African accent, and I couldn’t help but be confused about what that meant. It would be like saying someone has a European accent. German? French? What does that even mean? But I was four, so I said thank you then learned to tie a shoelace.”
  • “My mother sounds distinctly British. Which means that sometimes… I sound distinctly British. People seem to find that incredibly distinguished, posh, intelligent even. When I get excited, however, I might find myself sliding into more AAVE, which has almost the direct opposite effect on people then when I sound British.”

Q: In your experience, are accents and fluency related or unrelated?

  • “In my opinion, there is no correlation between having an accent and fluency. One can have an accent when speaking English but they can be as fluent as an English First Language speaker.”
  • “I believe that accents are more fluency based. I focus on whether I can understand the person speaking rather than judging their accents.”
  • “Accents can affect fluency of communication; however, rather than focusing on people’s pronunciation, I believe that listening skills need to be improved if one is unable to understand someone speaking with an accent.”
  • “In my experience, fluency has nothing to do with accent. Fluency is about being able to speak on a topic while accents depend on one’s geographical location.”
  • “In my experience, accent and fluency have almost no correlation. Though, clarity is occasionally an issue (just go to Newfoundland). However, I’ve found that an accent can change people’s perceptions of fluency and ability.”
  • “I’ve found that the way we interact with people, fluency or not, has more to do with perceptions of the accent they use than with how well they speak our language. I’ve also found that it’s easy to forget, when surrounded by people who speak like us, that there is no such thing as not having an accent. Everyone’s from somewhere after all.”

As mentioned above, everyone has an accent, and based on the answers given for their personal experiences, most interviewees felt shame when their accents were mentioned. However, all of them continued pursuing the language for personal, educational, and professional goals. Regarding the correlation of fluency and accent, there were mixed views as some believed that accents affect fluency while others said that there is no correlation between the two. Something that stood out to me was how some interviewees mentioned that people should further exercise their listening skills rather than judge someone for their accent.

What is an experience that impacted your view on accents? Did this blog change your view on accents? If so, how? Feel free to share your thoughts and leave a comment below!

Remember, your accent is a sign of intelligence. Speak loudly and speak proudly!

Reference

Cambridge University Press. (2022). Accent. Cambridge Dictionary. https://dictionary.cambridge.org/dictionary/english/accent

Author’s Bio
Teacher, writer, and free-spirit, Tara is someone who encourages people to embrace their authentic selves and live their life’s purpose. Growing up in an immigrant household, she witnessed and experienced judgment when it came to accents when speaking English and Farsi. Writing about this topic is Tara’s way of spreading awareness and showing acceptance of accents.

Start the New Year with Learnings from 2021

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Happy New Year! We asked our board and committee members to share with our readers their learnings from 2021 which they will carry forward to 2022 .

Self Care

Self care definitely stood out among all the themes occurring in what we learned: “…there is nothing wrong with making time to take care of yourself” (Jennifer Cummins), and “It’s important to take care of myself, first. It’s like the oxygen mask in the airplane: Put your own on first” (Cindi Jones) and “to encourage others to take care of themselves, too!” (Taslim Damji). 

We also learned to give ourselves permission to take a step back. For Mercedes Bueno, it’s about disconnecting from work periodically: “…the mind needs to disconnect from work regularly in order to be more productive weekly. Working online doesn’t have to equal being available 24/7.”  For someone who experienced uncertainty and significant changes, they may find Karen Aughtry’s wisdom resonates with their learning: “I have learned (am learning) to float with the ebb and flow of life. …This year I’ve been experiencing all types of conditions on ‘the sea’. I’m learning to choose what suits my capabilities (I don’t mind learning new things, though) when there are many tugs of options on my line, and I’m learning to chill when there aren’t any. I will keep doing this in the unknown of 2022!”

Through the challenging times in 2021, as devoted and caring educators we realized the importance of self care, so that we can be a strong support for our students, coworkers, family and friends. We learned to slow down, ground ourselves, take breaks, care for our own needs, prioritize our own wellbeing, and let go of the things we are unable to control.

Supporting Others

While we learned to take care of ourselves, we also learned and kept improving the ways we try to take care of others and their unique needs. “…Each person deals with adversity in a different way, and the challenge is to provide the kind of support that is unique to each individual. To demonstrate true care involves giving the ‘cared for’ what they need, not what I think they need” (Karen Densky). Shirene also shared that “…socializing in small groups or one-on-one allowed me to spend more engaged time with the ones I love”.

As we are busy preparing for learning opportunities and supporting our members, Azzam learned not to “put off things for tomorrow as there are always fires to be put out then” – It is also a snapshot to show you how hard our board, committees and volunteers are working to bring you more professional development opportunities! 

Through the Challenges of 2021

In 2021, we experienced challenging wildfires and flooding amongst the continuing pandemic; however, we did not stop learning. As Fedha Muema summarized: “…In 2021 I finally began to understand what it truly meant to be a lifelong learner. … [Learning is] not just someone who takes college credits for fun well into their twilight years; it’s not just the student in the classroom or the Dojo or the dance studio. It’s also all the little things you accumulate in the most unexpected places. … In 2021 I learned that education is a conscious choice to be open to discovering something new, and to never stop reaching for more. “

What is one thing you learned in 2021 that you will bring with you to 2022?

Enriching Language Learning With Authentic Local Interactions

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by Yukie Ueda

[This article was first printed in the Winter 2019 issue of TEAL News.]

This summer, I had a chance to participate in a university course to learn about additional language acquisition. Throughout the course, the question of what makes language learning effective repeatedly arose, making me stop and look back on my own experiences. Reflecting on my history of learning English and Danish as a student, and also my history supporting international students as a student counselor in Japan, what came up in my mind as a key component in language learning was the involvement in local communities through interactions and cultural experiences. These interactions and experiences seem to speak not only for me but the majority of students who I’ve met. Many students often find their learning further enriched when they have more interactions with local people through various activities. This interaction also promotes intercultural understanding, which is typically one of the reasons people learn a language. So here, I would like to introduce my story of learning languages through local experiences as well as the various activities which have helped international students I’ve worked with in the past.

I started studying English at the age of 13 at a junior high school just like other Japanese kids. The English class was delivered in a traditional lecture style, focusing mostly on grammar and reading comprehension. I enjoyed the class, and without any other chance to study English outside the classroom, I thought this was the way people learned a new language. This view was completely broken when I went to Denmark as an exchange student during high school and participated in English classes in the local school. Once, I was given 10 pages of an article discussing the topic of genetic engineering. I had never read that long of an article before, so it took me a whole night just to look up new vocabulary and manage to grasp the gist. During class, I was proud of myself having read the whole article, waiting for my teacher to ask me about the grammar used in the article. Finally, I was picked, but then the teacher asked me to present my opinion about genetic engineering. I froze. Not only because of my English limit, but also because I had never thought about giving my opinion. For a long time, understanding the grammar and story had been the final purpose in the English classes I had attended. While I struggled in producing a word, my classmates started an active discussion. It was a shocking experience, but at the same time, a transformative moment for me, giving me a real drive to learn the language and communicate my ideas with others over the barriers.

During my time in Denmark, I was given many opportunities to get to know the community and its people. There were locally organized events every two months, meeting local people and other exchange students from different countries, sharing food, playing games, and watching movies. Most exchange students, including myself, knew only a few words in Danish when we arrived, so when we saw each other at these events, we always checked out who had improved their Danish the best. There was an idea among exchange students that all of us would improve our Danish dramatically over the Christmas holiday. This belief was because each student spent most of their time with their host family and friends, preparing for Christmas together and joining in parties. In fact, I had no time to stay in my room alone, and I was always out either in the kitchen or living room, learning how to cook roast duck and Christmas sweets, preparing mulled wine, and making handcrafted Christmas decorations, which I had never experienced in my home country. These experiences were the cornerstone of my time in Denmark. I felt my Danish was improving day by day. Moreover, as I started to have more common things to do and talk about, I finally felt I was speaking the same language as my family and friends, becoming a part of them.

After graduating from university, I started working as a coordinator at a worldwide non-profit organization which promoted international exchange programs for high school students. Some distinctive characteristics of the organization were that the programs were designed to promote intercultural understanding among youth, and local volunteer-staff played extremely active roles in organizing cultural learning activities. For example, they organized cooking clubs to show students how to cook sushi, and in exchange, learned about the students’ home food. The students also celebrated traditional seasonal events such as Japanese New Year, rice-cake making, and calligraphy together with local kids. Some students visited a ramen noodle museum or joined a ninja tour to learn about local industries, and others experienced a Japanese tea ceremony with traditional confectionery that they had made. Similarly, when I was working in a team at another job at a university that organized study programs for students from the United States, various field trips and activities were merged with Japanese language classes, offering students opportunities to learn about Japanese culture, history, and traditions. The students visited a Noh theatre (Japan’s oldest form of theatre), played traditional musical instruments, and also visited temples to experience Zen culture by participating in meditation and other cultural activities.

Throughout my work in the education sector, I have received a lot of feedback from both Japanese students studying abroad and international students visiting Japan, saying that those experiences helped them understand the places they visited and local people in breadth and depth. Especially, participating in those activities together with local people enabled them to gain different perspectives on the place, often changing the stereotypical ideas they had before. Students also gained a stronger sense of belongingness to the community as they had more authentic interactions with locals, which further promoted their integrative motivations to acquire the language. Observing those students, language development seemed to be inseparable from sharing common experiences and knowledge and for gaining deeper cultural understandings. The reason for additional language learning must differ from one person to another and everybody has different preferences about how they learn. However, I cannot overemphasize the values and pleasure that authentic interactions and cultural understanding can bring to learning an additional language.

This article is licensed under a

Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License.

Original reference information:

Ueda, Y. (2019, Winter). Enriching language learning with authentic local interactions. TEAL News. Retrieved from https://www.bcteal.org/wp-content/uploads/2020/01/TEAL-News-Winter-2019-v3.pdf

Exploring Tutors’ Work with English as an Additional Language Students in a Writing Centre

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by Maya Pilin

[This article was first printed in the Winter 2019 issue of TEAL News.]

According to the Canadian Bureau for International Education (2018), Canada is considered one of the top five countries for higher education by international students. The latest statistics note that there is a total of 494,525 international students holding a valid study permit in Canada as of 2017. British Columbia ranks second in the country, after Ontario, as a destination, with 24% of Canada’s study permits (Canadian Bureau for International Education, 2018). In fact, enrollment in B.C.’s post-secondary system has almost tripled over the past ten years (Heslop, 2018). As international students predominantly originate from countries where English is not the primary language, English as an Additional Language (EAL) services have become integral to British Columbia’s universities. For example, writing centres are a resource to which EAL students can turn for assistance with writing assignments. However, tutoring sessions with EAL students may differ from other tutoring sessions in a variety of ways, including the teaching style (Thonus, 2004), communication styles (Moser, 1993), and students’ concerns (Winder, Kathpalia, & Koo, 2014). Despite these differences, few studies have examined the unique aspects of tutoring sessions with EAL students from the tutors’ perspective. The goal of the current study was to determine students’ expectations and tutors’ identified competencies and challenges in working with EAL students.

The Study

The current qualitative study included a sample of 12 undergraduate and graduate writing tutors at a research-intensive public university in Western Canada. The tutors worked at a writing centre whose goal was to help both EAL and non-EAL students improve their writing skills by clarifying arguments, grammar, and teaching proofreading strategies. Tutors completed an online questionnaire designed by the research team. After questionnaires were completed, tutors’ answers were coded by two researchers, working alone first and then in collaboration. Data was examined for units of meaning as well as emerging themes.

The Findings

Unique Aspects of Tutoring Students Using EAL

Differences between tutoring students using EAL and other students vising the writing centre arose in terms of the session focus, communication styles, and teaching pace. The most common was the focus of the tutoring session. The majority of advisors noted that the session focus with EAL students would predominantly be on grammar as opposed to other topics. Aptly summarizing the differences, one advisor wrote:

With English speakers, I critique the structure of their papers and the evidence they provide. Often I don’t have time to get this far with EAL students; we get stuck on the small stuff.

Advisors also noted that often the communication style would differ in appointments with students using EAL. One advisor stated “I may slow down when talking and try not to use many idioms or slang words…” Furthermore, the pace of the appointment itself would also slow down to accommodate the students, with one advisor writing “I do find myself working slower and more carefully with EAL students. I want to make sure we are working/learning together.”

Student Expectations

Participants felt that students expected them to be editors, take a leading role, and provide expertise during a tutoring session. The predominant theme that emerged above all others in the participants’ responses was related to editing. One advisor wrote: “[EAL students] often seem to have expectations that I’ll correct their paper for grammatical mistakes myself and then give them back a corrected version.” Many of the participants’ responses that focused on students’ expectations of advisors editing their work specified that the editing pertained specifically to grammatical errors. For example, one participant stated that students using EAL expect “micro-edits” in their appointment. Furthermore, several responses that hinged upon editing also hinted that students using EAL expected to be passive participants in the tutoring sessions, as opposed to active ones, with one advisor writing “[EAL students] expect me to ‘fix’ their paper for them, in the grammar sense.”

Identified Competencies

Tutors generally felt competent explaining grammar, focusing on macro-level writing issues, and interacting with students, with prior experience playing a role in boosting tutors’ confidence working with students. The most salient theme was related to helping with grammar. Advisors felt comfortable assisting EAL students with various aspects of grammar, such as article use, tenses, sentence structure, and parts of speech. For instance, one participant wrote “I feel confident with teaching ‘how’ to use different parts of speech. For example, I have taught different students the use of definite and indefinite articles (a, an, the), when and where to use them.”

In addition to grammar, a large subset of advisors also felt comfortable teaching macro-level skills to students using EAL. For example, participants felt comfortable with teaching genre awareness, content, organization, and various aspects of the writing process. One advisor commented “Often, I find that tutoring earlier, during the planning process, results in a far more successful paper, regardless of grammar mistakes and surface levels problems.” Notably, some advisors who mentioned their comfort levels in regard to either teaching grammar or macro-level skills noted that their ability and comfort in the process of teaching in general played an important role in their comfort level.

Experience seemed to play a role in boosting participants comfort levels. For the advisors who felt comfortable and confident in tutoring sessions, prior experience played a large role in their comfort level. One tutor claimed, “I’m very confident, because I’ve been in their shoes, and I can show them some of the strategies that worked for me.” Often, advisors who were empathetic towards students using EAL due to personal second-language experience also felt confident in their tutoring skills, with another tutor writing

I’m very confident that I can tutor EAL students (given some training) because I speak multiple languages with noticeable differences, and I also understand how patterns and structures work for different languages, which means I can empathize with the EAL students and help them learn English from their perspective…

Identified Challenges

While some participants did report feeling confident explaining grammar to students, for the most part, the participants overwhelmingly felt that explaining grammatical concepts was the most challenging aspect that they encountered in tutoring sessions. It was also put forward that a lack of experience using an additional language might contribute to this challenge. Specifically, many advisors discussed struggling with explaining concepts that they understand intuitively as first-language English speakers. One advisor said “sometimes it’s hard for me to be very specific about why what someone has written is wrong. Reading it aloud, I can certainly tell when it sounds off and explain how to fix the issue. Actually explaining why though, can be very difficult.” Several advisors noted that they “don’t know” grammatical rules or would forget some of the rules. Moreover, one advisor mentioned finding it difficult to use the proper terminology to discuss grammatical concepts, stating that they find it challenging “explaining [grammar issues] using professional English technical language—e.g. oh, this is meant to be a ‘past participle.’” A possible explanation for the discomfort and lack of confidence in explaining grammar might be related to a lack of experience. One participant noted “sometimes I don’t feel that I’m clear enough with my explanations. Maybe I’ve never been in the opposite position, so it’s hard for me to know when I’m being convoluted.” Thus, both personal and prior professional experience played an important role in increasing advisors’ confidence levels.

Discussion and Implications

All in all, tutoring sessions with EAL students differed in a variety of ways; students came in with specific expectations, particularly regarding grammar, and tutors experienced unique challenges. While tutors noted some difficulties in working with EAL students, including communication and managing expectations, several key factors emerged as potential predictors of tutor comfort, including tutors’ own experience with languages other than English and tutors’ ability to pace the appointments well.

However, potentially the most interesting finding of the study is that tutors reported feeling both comfortable with teaching grammar and experiencing challenges in teaching this aspect of English. This discrepancy may be related to “grammar” being a relatively vague term for a field that includes many concepts, including punctuation, sentence structure, and parts of speech. In fact, what seemed to emerge from tutors’ answers was the idea that while tutors felt comfortable identifying errors in students’ work, they were challenged by the pedagogical aspects of the appointment. Specifically, tutors struggled to explain the reasons behind grammatical errors to students. The discrepancy between tutors’ comfort and discomfort with various aspects of grammar may prove to be a fruitful arena for further research.

Importantly, the findings of the current study provide the basis for the development of evidence-based tutor training programs. As tutors have now identified their challenges in teaching EAL students, evidence-based training should capitalize on this information to develop tutors’ competency in these areas of weakness. For example, training programs may focus on teaching tutors the vocabulary to discuss grammatical concepts with EAL students. Moreover, training programs should discuss the expectations with which EAL students may enter a tutoring session and how to properly manage these expectations. Finally, it may prove useful to have tutors with personal EAL or other additional language experience discuss students’ potential strengths and challenges from their point of view.

Conclusion

In conclusion, tutors experience unique challenges in working with EAL students. Future studies should examine these challenges in more detail, particularly tutors’ struggles associated with grammar, Furthermore, writing centre directors should consider incorporating training components that may help tutors struggling with some of these challenges into their tutor training sessions.

References

Canadian Bureau for International Education. (2018). International students in Canada. Retrieved from https://cbie.ca/wp-content/uploads/2018/09/International-Students-in-Canada-ENG.pdf

Heslop, J. (2018). International students in BC’s education systems. Retrieved from: https://www2.gov.bc.ca/assets/gov/education/post-secondary-education/data-research/stp/stp-international-research-results.pdf

Moser, J. (1993). Crossed currents: ESL students and their peer tutors. Research and Teaching in Developmental Education, 9(2), 37-43. Retrieved from: https://www.jstor.org/stable/42801897

Thonus, T. (1999). How to communicate politely and be a tutor, too: NS-NNS interaction and writing center practice. Text-Interdisciplinary Journal for the Study of Discourse, 19(2), 253-280. https://www.doi.org/10.1515/text.1.1999.19.2.253

Winder, R., Kathpalia, S. S., & Koo, S. L. (2016). Writing centre tutoring sessions: Addressing students’ concerns. Educational Studies, 42(4), 323-339. https://www.doi.org/10.1080/03055698.2016.1193476

This article is licensed under a

Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License.

Original reference information:

Pilin, M. (2019, Winter). Exploring tutors’ work with EAL students in a writing centre. TEAL News. Retrieved from https://www.bcteal.org/wp-content/uploads/2020/01/TEAL-News-Winter-2019-v3.pdf

Pushing Boundaries: From Chile to Canada

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By Claudia Marroquin Pinto

[This article was first printed in the Winter 2019 issue of TEAL News.]

As teachers, we try to push boundaries every day in our classrooms by taking a step out of our comfort zones, questioning the way we have been working for years, or travelling out of our home countries to look for answers and ways to improve our practice. It seems like a kind of “revolutionary concept” these days when there is a framework to follow and a protocol for almost everything teachers have to do. Sometimes, when the system pushes back, it is necessary to find a way to push forward.

I have been working as a teacher in Chile for 15 years, and I came to Canada last year to take a closer look at its educational system in regards to teaching English as an additional language (EAL) to students in primary and middle schools. I came up with this idea four years ago after I read in the newspaper about the growing number of immigrants that had entered Chile from non-Spanish speaking countries. I immediately thought of the children who would be enrolled in our classrooms with no idea of what their teachers and their classmates were talking about. I wondered about those parents trying to understand our educational system and struggling to support their children with all that it means to move from one country to another and adapt to new customs without knowing the language of the new land. Many questions came to my mind but only one answer was absolutely true at that point: we were not prepared to teach those children.

The following year, I received in my class a student from the United States of America who spoke little Spanish. When I interviewed his parents, they told me that he had failed the previous year in another school. They told me that the teachers were not supportive, did not like him to take notes in English, and did not take into account the differences in cultural aspects so sometimes the teachers thought their son was being rude just because in their culture they were used to being more straight-forward when speaking than Chilean culture. Even though he struggled with reading in Spanish, teachers used the same instruments to teach and assess him in Science, History, and Spanish Language Arts. He was not allowed extra time to answer tests or read books in his mother tongue. In other words, the school did not make any provisions to help him; he was asked to adapt to the school rules, and his struggles were considered a lack of commitment, interest, and skills.

It made me sad to think about him failing Grade 5 just because our school system did not allow teachers to make adaptations that took his linguistic and cultural differences into consideration, and I promised his parents to do my best to provide him with a different experience in this new school. Without having any training in multicultural education, I followed my gut to implement a support plan. It was hard at the beginning since other teachers saw these actions as “privileges” that the rest of students did not have. I did not have the theoretical knowledge to debate them, but in the end I convince them that we needed to support him. The plan included small things such as labelling the classroom with English and Spanish words, stating clear rules for behaviour with teachers and classmates, explaining the differences between the two cultures; allowing him to use his cell phone in class to look up for words and translate texts, and providing extra time on tests. He was also sitting close to the teachers and to the board, and was assigned a buddy who supported him in Science and History. Even though these actions worked, I had the feeling that there must have been infinitely more things I could have done if the school had allowed me. At that point, I felt frustrated with the school system, and I was absolutely sure that we were not prepared to teach these children. It was urgent to change our views of newcomers and our teaching strategies if we really wanted to help these students thrive in the Chilean school system. We were not prepared to teach “non-Chilean students,” and in order to change that we needed to look outside our borders, travel abroad if possible, and bring new ideas to modify and improve our practices.

I investigated the possibilities and found out that Canada was known as a multicultural country that had managed to take an ethnically, culturally, and linguistically diverse population into consideration as a natural process of globalization. Canadian educators had worked for many years to incorporate multicultural education and English language learning as part of the curriculum and provincial governments had provided schools with official guidelines, instructional plans, and language standards for English language learners. Canada appeared to be a country that had already experienced an increase in students from linguistically diverse backgrounds, and as far as I could learn, had succeeded in supporting them in schools. I managed to convince my husband and came with our daughter to experience first-hand what it meant to be a newcomer and to peek into their schools to witness the teaching strategies teachers use with these students.

What I have learned about teaching English language learners is a topic for a whole new article. I can only say that it has been worth the trip, and it has been a great experience so far. Now I have the theoretical knowledge I lacked a few years ago, and I can share this knowledge with other teachers when I go back to my country. I would like to make educators in Chile realize that part of being a teacher includes questioning our practices and reflecting on them; that part of being a teacher is to be curious and to look for new ways to improve; that part of being a teacher is to search for better ways to support our students, in spite of what school protocols say; and that part of being a teacher is to not stop pushing boundaries.

This article is licensed under a

Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License.

Original reference information:

Marroquin Pinto, C. (2019, Winter). Pushing Boundaries: From Chile to Canada. TEAL News. Retrieved from https://www.bcteal.org/wp-content/uploads/2020/01/TEAL-News-Winter-2019-v3.pdf

Pushing Boundaries: Notes from the Field

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by Cindi Jones

[This article was first printed in the Winter 2019 issue of TEAL News.]

As English as an additional language (EAL) teachers, we ask our students to try things they are not comfortable with to push their boundaries. Which begs the question, are we modelling risk taking in our own lives? What have we done to push our boundaries? And how can we help our colleagues as they are learning and growing? To answer these questions, I reached out to the community of EAL professionals. I spoke to people from a variety of backgrounds and different perspectives. A big thank you to everyone who took the time to talk to me and a special thank you to:

What does it mean to push boundaries?

Let’s start with a definition of what we mean by pushing boundaries. It includes doing something that we are not comfortable with and reconsidering our expectations of ourselves and of others or doing something “out of our comfort zone.” Whatever language is used to describe the boundary, it has to do with fear. We recognize this type of fear in the student who is mysteriously absent for every presentation, or who refuses to answer questions in front of the class. But, do we recognize it in ourselves when it comes to doing something creative? Or when we are faced with a task that requires doing math or using a new program? Or any of the other challenges that we avoid or dread?

As Andrea pointed out, “Fear is a boundary that has to be negotiated on a daily and personal basis”. It is that fear that makes us uncomfortable and overcoming the fear that can lead to growth. Our students face this every time they produce work, fail, and grow. The consensus among those I spoke to was that whether the boundary is physical, professional, social, pedagogical, or psychological, pushing boundaries is necessary for growth, innovation, development, and can be a demonstration of leadership.

How have you pushed boundaries?

The EAL professionals I spoke to are constantly pushing their limits and always trying to grow. Some of these changes are self-directed as in the case of Cari-Ann who moved from EAL to Adult Basic Education (ABE) by demonstrating how her skills from EAL teaching were transferable to ABE, and how her experience in EAL was of significant value to ABE students, many of whom are also EAL.

Also demonstrating a self-directed change, Andrea recently earned her MEd, while continuing to work, and has been pushing boundaries by exploring her potential as an academic and a teacher. She did this by following in the footsteps of her mentors and welcoming creative criticism from those more experienced. She found that the journey was not as scary as imagined with the guidance of mentors who had gone before.

Those who had been successful in their own journeys.

For Paul pushing boundaries this year has been moving from teaching full-time to part-time so he can develop a series of EAL videos. These videos have a growing audience and a dedicated group of volunteer assistants and actors. In addition to pushing him to learn new skills, Paul sees this as a leadership opportunity: “If teachers can imagine themselves into being a filmmaker … students can similarly imagine themselves into being an actor.”

For others the impetus for growth is top down when a program is reorganized or shut down. Joy found herself in this situation when, after 15 years at the same school, it closed its doors unexpectedly. She found herself pounding the pavement for subbing opportunities and cultivating a variety of sources for work. She now works in multiple great environments and has developed increased resiliency.

I also spoke to instructors and leaders in Language Instruction for Newcomers to Canada (LINC) programs who have seen top down change implemented through shuffling of roles and reorganizing. This has led to uncertainty and sometimes necessitated stepping into new and unfamiliar work environments. Roles that require a different skill set and working with people from other sectors of the work force.

What was the most important factor in you being able to push those boundaries?

In order to push boundaries many people cited the necessity of support from family, mentors, and colleagues. As with Andrea’s journey, mentors show the way and prove it is possible to reach the goal.

Also, as one might expect from teachers, the importance of learning was stressed. Training from the organization when one is moved into a new position helped with the skills needed for that position and with learning about the new workplace culture.

We take courses, online and in classrooms, watch webinars, listen to pod casts, and we read. We read a lot! We value education and use it to equip ourselves for the changes necessary when venturing into new territory. And, we are not shy about sharing our newfound knowledge with our peers.

The most difficult aspect of change is the psychological barriers. Boundaries are mental constructs. They exist in our minds and our perceptions. They require courage to overcome. For this the support of likeminded colleagues, friends, and family can be invaluable for their ability to keep you on track and help you find your way through and over barriers.

Your allies can also help you identify the frame you are using to categorize a situation and help you find a new way to look at it. We know this when we are talking to students who won’t speak in class. We help them reframe mistakes. When students try and make mistakes, we help them see this as the path to learning rather than failure.

Sometimes having an ally look at a situation which we are framing as a huge problem, will give us the objectivity to reframe the situation as an opportunity, an opportunity to learn new skills and grow, and the ability to see our growth rather than beat ourselves up for not being perfect.

My big take away from these conversations is that we as an EAL community have the skills and the expertise to help colleagues who ask for our assistance to push beyond any boundary they might be up against. And, if we ask for help, we are in a community that will offer their support.

This article is licensed under a

Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License.

Original reference information:

Jones, C. (2019, Winter). Pushing boundaries: Notes from the field. TEAL News. Retrieved from https://www.bcteal.org/wp-content/uploads/2020/01/TEAL-News-Winter-2019-v3.pdf

From BC TEAL to Pronunciation Teacher Preparation: An Update from Down Under

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by Michael Burri

[This article was first printed in the Winter 2017 issue of TEAL News.]

Mario Andretti, a famous racing driver, once said: “If everything seems under control, you’re not going fast enough.” The last 3.5 years of being a doctoral student in Australia have certainly been spent in the fast lane. Like most PhD students would attest, balancing research, teaching, marking, research assistant work, publishing, and family life can be challenging. Yet, being able to balance all these different factors can also be tremendously enriching and, dare I say it, fun! Instead of just summarizing my last 3.5 years, I thought I would use the BCTEAL acronym to guide my discussion about key aspects that have helped me navigate—as well as survive, enjoy, and complete—the fast-paced adventure of being a doctoral student.

B for BEING PREPARED. Going into my PhD well prepared was critical. Prior to my doctoral studies, I often questioned the wisdom of living in Surrey and working at the downtown BCTI campus in Vancouver. Now I know, however, that this long commute was an important preparatory stage because it allowed me to read extensively on the train. Having read (and summarized) most of the key literature and research on pronunciation pedagogy provided me with a valuable head start, and it enabled me to begin my PhD confidently, knowing that I was familiar with the literature in the area of my proposed course of study.

C for CONNECTIONS. Networking with people face-to-face as well as online (through Twitter and several Facebook groups) to discuss research, publications, work, teaching etc. has been informative and inspirational. Moreover, presenting at various conferences (AILA, TESOL, AAAL, Face of English, LED, Mekong TESOL) in several different countries (Canada, Vietnam, Japan, Hong Kong, Australia, New Zealand) has been beneficial in that it provided me with opportunities to engage with the language teaching and research community. Connecting with people has been one of the most important factors in my doctoral journey because it inspired me to keep working on my research.

T for THANKFULNESS. Reminding myself occasionally that being a PhD student is a real privilege helped me push on and move forward! I was fortunate to have been offered two scholarships by the University of Wollongong (UOW); hence, I was getting paid to do a PhD. Being aware of this privilege allowed me to maintain a positive outlook when things seemed to spin a bit out of control.

E for ELASTICITY. Being flexible to adjust to unexpected circumstances was a critical element throughout my PhD journey. Upon enrollment I realized relatively soon that I had to change the focus of my initially proposed research in order to collect data in a pronunciation teacher preparation context. That also meant that I had to write and defend my proposal within five months (PhD students are usually given 12 months to complete this process at UOW). This was not what I had expected; yet, I had little choice but buckle down and get the proposal done. Towards the end of my candidacy, flexibility was required again, as my wife and two of our three children suddenly had to return to Japan for several months due to a family emergency. My oldest son and I remained in Australia. Even though it was wonderful spending all this time with him, turning overnight into a full-time dad delayed the submission of my thesis by several months. These instances helped me better understand that life takes its course, and that flexibility is a useful means to navigate through stormy times.

A for AUTHORSHIP. Having to write an 80,000 word dissertation (or thesis as it is called in some universities in Canada and Australia) was perhaps my biggest concern at the beginning of my PhD. I lacked confidence in my ability to write and craft convincing, empirically based arguments. Subsequently, right at the beginning of my doctoral journey, I decided to write on a daily basis; it did not matter whether that was a sentence, a paragraph, or an entire page. This turned out to be a good decision, even though I did make the occasional acquaintance with the infamous writer’s block. Composing regularly (as well as receiving excellent feedback from my two supervisors) resulted in a gradual increase in confidence and writing skills. Oddly enough, I now find writing to be an interesting and empowering, almost liberating process, and I’m currently working on several manuscripts that I hope to get published in the not-so-distant future.

L for LIFE.  Sometimes I had to tell myself that there were more important things in life than doctoral studies. Having my family with me definitely helped me in this regard. The Illawarra region – of which Wollongong is the main city – is an incredibly beautiful place and there are so many things to do. Thus, every few months we would rent a car, load up the kids and all the camping equipment we had shipped from Canada, and take off to explore a national park, caves, a costal town or a nice and quiet beach. These little adventure trips were refreshing. They allowed me to spend time with my family and get my mind off research (although my children would occasionally look at me and ask: “are you thinking about your research again?”). 

Compartmentalizing the experience of doing a PhD in a foreign country into six neat “boxes” is, of course, a bit of an artificial exercise. Throughout the past 3.5 years, these six components (as well as a multitude of other factors) were interwoven in interesting ways, but they did play a critical role in helping me complete my doctorate. I submitted the final/revised version of my thesis last October, and some of you may now be wondering about the actual focus of my PhD. So, here is a quick summary.

My thesis is a collection of four journal articles that are book-ended by an introduction/methodology chapter and discussion/conclusion chapter. The study examined the process of 15 student teachers learning to teach English pronunciation during a postgraduate course on pronunciation pedagogy; an area in additional language teacher education that lacks empirical research. To obtain a thorough understanding of this process, I triangulated several instruments to collect data: two questionnaires (one at the beginning and one at the end of the course); observations of all the weekly lectures (13 in total); four focus groups that were held three times during the course; students’ assignments; and one-on-one interviews with seven of the 15 participants. The amount of qualitative data was overwhelming (remember the Andretti quote?) but collecting this mountain of data was necessary in order to really understand what learning to teach English pronunciation entailed.

Once the initial data analysis was completed, the findings were divided into four journal articles, with each article exploring pronunciation teacher preparation from a different perspective. The first paper examined the general impact the pronunciation pedagogy course had on participants’ cognition (thoughts, attitudes, knowledge and beliefs; Borg, 2006) about pronunciation instruction (Burri, 2015a). The effects participants’ linguistic backgrounds had on learning to teach pronunciation was the focus of the second paper (Burri, 2015b), while the third paper investigated the connection between participants’ teaching experience and learning to teach pronunciation (Burri, Baker, & Chen, accepted). The last article then examined the relationship between student teachers’ cognition development and their identity construction (Burri, Chen, & Baker, under review). The objective of the discussion chapter was to amalgamate all of these findings and form a theoretical model of what constitutes learning to teach English pronunciation. I am going to present this model—the first of its kind—at the TESOL Convention in Seattle next March. It would be great to see some of you there!

Besides presenting at the TESOL conference, I have been offered a 2-year full-time lecturer position in the School of Education at UOW, starting February 1, 2017. I am delighted to have been given this opportunity, as it will allow me to gain valuable experience in a familiar environment. This means that my family and I will be staying in the Wollongong area for at least another two years. I am not sure what is going to happen afterwards, but one thing is certain, the past 3.5 years have been a truly life-changing experience down under.

References:

Burri, M. (2015a). “My perspective changed dramatically:” A case for preparing L2 instructors to teach pronunciation. English Australia Journal, 31(1), 19-37.

Burri, M. (2015b). Student teachers’ cognition about L2 pronunciation instruction: A case study. Australian Journal of Teacher Education, 40(1), 66-87. Doi: 10.14221/ajte.2015v40n10.5

Burri, M., Baker, A., & Chen, H. (accepted). “I feel like having a nervous breakdown”: Pre-service and in-service teachers’ developing beliefs and knowledge about pronunciation instruction. Journal of Second Language Pronunciation.

Burri, M., & Chen, H., & Baker, A. (under review).  Joint development of teacher cognition and identity through learning to teach L2 pronunciation.

Biographical Information (From the Winter 2017 issue of the BC TEAL newsletter)

Michael Burri is a lecturer in TESOL at the University of Wollongong. Prior to his move to Australia, he got his MA in TESOL from TWU (2008), worked as instructor/program coordinator at BCIT (2008-13), and enjoyed being the BCTEAL PD Chair (2008-10). His professional interests include pronunciation instruction, L2 teacher education, teacher-based assessment, and contextualized pedagogy. He tweets about L2 teaching/learning/research at @michaelburri and some of his publications and conference presentations can be accessed on his website at www.michaelburri.weebly.com.

This article is licensed under a

Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License.

Original reference information:

Burri, M. (2017, Winter). From BC TEAL to pronunciation teacher preparation: An update from down under. TEAL News. Retrieved from https://www.bcteal.org/wp-content/uploads/2017/12/TEAL-News-Winter-2017.pdf

Reflections on the International English Language Testing System (IELTS)

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by Tian Li

[This article was first printed in the Winter 2017 issue of TEAL News.]

Adequate English language proficiency is a critical prerequisite for people studying in English medium universities. English language proficiency tests, such as the International English Language Testing System (IELTS), are increasingly playing the role of gatekeepers to a globalizing world of higher education. For example, IELTS has been adopted as a means for ensuring baseline levels of English language proficiency required for entry into perspective programs by many universities in more than 120 countries. This test plays an important and critical role in many students’ lives, and it can be useful to think about factors that impact the IELTS test’s score.

The IELTS test is comprised of four test components, namely Writing, Speaking, Reading, and Listening. Candidates must complete all four components in order to receive a score. IELTS is not meant to certify whether candidates have passed or failed the test. Instead, institutions must determine the minimum selection band score for entry into their programs and courses. As an international student in Canada, providing my English language proficiency proof was an essential part in my application process. I chose to take the IELTS test and received an overall band score of 7.0, with every section 7.0 except for the speaking section. Thanks to my IELTS score, I was able to enroll as a graduate student in a Canadian University. After about one year’s study and living in Canada, I took the IELTS test again and received an overall band score of 7.5, with every section improved except for the writing section. My score on the writing section decreased from 7.0 to 6.0. As a result, I started to think about my experiences related to acquiring English as an additional language in Canada and its evaluation by the IELTS test.

Reflecting on my approximately one year’s learning experience in Canada, I think that interaction, natural acquisition contexts, and practice were the most important factors that have affected my English acquisition. Language development seems to occur as a result of social interactions (Vygotsky, 1978). Thus, it is beneficial to me to study within natural acquisition contexts in which I am exposed to English since they provide me with more opportunities to interact with the social environment, practice, and gain more comprehensible input (Krashen, 1982; Long, 1996). My study environment, requirement to use the language, and learning process have contributed a lot to my English acquisition. I have a good academic record at university, and I believe that my English has improved since I arrived in Canada. However, the score on my writing section decreased from 7.0 to 6.0 after one year’s study in Canada according to my IELTS reports, which made me wonder what the IELTS academic writing module’s scores mean.

The academic writing module consists of two tasks, which take 60 minutes in total. For Task 1, candidates write a report of around 150 words based on a table or diagram, and for Task 2, they write a short essay or general report of around 250 words in response to an argument or a problem. After over one year’s academic learning in Canada, my English level should be enhanced based on my positive language learning experiences. The decrease of my score on the writing section seems unlikely if it indicates that my writing in English has become worse. I wonder what is the main reason for the decrease on my writing test score. In my opinion, the reason might lie in the writing topics I received for Task 2 in the IELTS tests that I took. In my first IELTS test, the topic was about culture and education. I was really interested in and familiar with that topic. However, the topic in my second IELTS test was about politics, and I would have had nothing to say about that topic even in my first language. Therefore, I think the score candidates receive in the writing section is largely related to the topic in the test. It might be that the decrease of my score on writing is due to the topic I received rather than my real English level. This leads to the question of whether all topics are equal when testing English language proficiency. I wonder if all the topics for the IELTS writing section Task 2 come from a common knowledge base that can be accessed by all students from culturally diverse backgrounds to make sure that candidates’ performance on writing shows their real English level.

Many programs in Canadian universities have their own specific requirements related to IELTS, not only regarding the overall band score but also the score of every section. For example, one teacher education program in British Columbia requires candidates to have not only an IELTS score of at least 7.0 overall, but also 7.0 on each of the writing and speaking sections. IELTS scores are valid within two years after the day the test taken. However, students cannot use two IELTS reports together that both have at least 7.0 overall, one with 7.0 on speaking section but 6.5 on writing section and another with 7.0 on writing section but 6.5 on speaking section to apply for the teacher education program in question, which means applicants need to spend time and money on taking the IELTS again and again until they meet all requirements at the same time. Considering the issue of varying topics and how unfamiliar topics may impact IELTS scores, I wonder if the rules could change to allow students to combine two tests to demonstrate English language proficiency. 

References

Krashen, S.D. (1982). Principles and practice in second language acquisition. New York, NY: Pergamon Press Inc. Retrieved from http://www.sdkrashen.com/content/books/principles_and_practice.pdf

Long, M. (1996). The role of the linguistic environment in second language acquisition. In W. Ritchie and T. Bhatia (eds.) Handbook of Second Language Acquisition. New York, NY: Academic Press, 413-468.

Vygotsky, L. S. (1978). Mind in society: The development of higher psychological processes. Harvard university press.

Biographical Information (From the Winter 2017 issue of the BC TEAL newsletter)

Tian Li is a graduate student in Faculty of Education on UBC’s Okanagan Campus. She has five year’s teaching experience as a math teacher. Her areas of interest are content and language integrated learning, additional language acquisition, and mathematics education.

This article is licensed under a

Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License.

Original reference information:

Li, T. (2017, Winter). Reflections on the International English Language Testing System (IELTS). TEAL News. Retrieved from https://www.bcteal.org/wp-content/uploads/2017/12/TEAL-News-Winter-2017.pdf

Understanding the Employment Conditions of English as an Additional Language Instructors of Adults in British Columbia

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by Sherry Breshears

[This article was first printed in the Winter 2017 issue of TEAL News.]

Introduction

This year marks BC TEAL’s 50th anniversary, and the present newsletter is dedicated to reflecting upon the past few decades of our professional practice. This is a time to reflect back on where we have come from and consider where we might take the profession in the future. At this landmark moment, I propose that we take up a theme that has permeated the dialogue about English as an additional language (EAL) teaching for years: the problem of poor working conditions for a significant segment of teachers in our field.

I became interested in the topic of EAL teachers’ working conditions early in my teaching career, and have explored the issue from various perspectives. I have taught in both the public and private language education sectors and have seen first-hand the work-related struggles that many adult educators experience. For several years I volunteered for the union at my workplace, and my master’s thesis focused on unionization among EAL teachers in the private sector (Breshears, 2008). In my current doctoral work, I am looking at work insecurity in EAL teaching through a labour studies lens, in particular through the lens of precarious employment. Precarious employment is a framework for understanding the complexities of work insecurity and includes an examination of the factors the come together to create precarious work situations.

In recent decades, a body of empirical evidence has emerged to support the sentiment that EAL teaching for adult learners in North America is, in large part, insecure work. The evidence shows that EAL teaching for adults involves a high reliance on part-time and temporary work, low wages, a high proportion of unpaid work, limited access to benefits, and a lack of professional and administrative support. Reports also suggest that such problematic working conditions affect teachers’ abilities to serve their students. As claims about difficult employment situations for teachers of adult EAL learners have emerged, so too has the concept of precarious employment, but there has been little intersection between them.

I propose here that we begin to think about what employment conditions are like for educators of adult EAL learners in British Columbia. Which EAL educators are most likely to experience precarious employment, and why is this so? What are the consequences of teacher working conditions for the sustainability and quality of adult EAL educational practice? These are the questions I hope to answer as I begin the research segment of my doctoral journey.

Previous Research: Employment Concerns for EAL Teachers in North America

In the 1990s in North America, several practitioners and scholars began to express their frustration with the unstable employment conditions and lack of professional status of the EAL field. In the early part of the decade, Elsa Auerbach, adult EAL literacy teacher and scholar, wrote:

A fact of life for [EAL] educators is that we are marginalized; college [EAL] instructors are often hired as adjunct faculty on a semester by semester basis to teach non-credit preparatory courses in academic skills centres. Elementary [EAL] teachers teach in pull-out programs, travelling from school to school and setting up shop in closets, corridors, and basements. Adult educators teaching survival [EAL] have to work two or three jobs in order to survive; jobs with benefits, living wages, and any measure of security are few and far between. (Auerbach, 1991, p.1)

Over the years, several surveys that examine the employment situations of teachers of adult EAL learners have been conducted by professional organizations, unions, universities, and other research organizations throughout North America (Power Analysis, 1998; Sanaoui, 1997; Smith & Hofer, 2003; Sun, 2010; Valeo & Faez, 2013; Valeo, 2013; White & Naylor, 2015). Although these reports vary somewhat in their focus, they consistently find that EAL teachers for adult learners often experience insecure employment conditions and that this has both personal and professional implications. I highlight here a few of the primary employment concerns identified by teachers across the surveys. 

A central issue for EAL teachers of adults is the lack of permanent positions in the field. For example, two large surveys of EAL teachers of adults in Ontario found that only about a quarter of respondents have continuing contracts, while all others are casual or limited-term (Power Analysis, 1998; Sanaoui, 1997). Another key problem for teachers is the lack of full-time work. Four different studies reported that a majority of respondents are part-time (Power Analysis, 1998; Smith, Hofer and Gillespie, 2001; Sun, 2010; White and Naylor, 2015). Further to this, temporary and part-time employment could lead to a situation where a teacher held multiple jobs in order to protect against job loss or to make up for a lack of adequate work (eg. Sun, 2010; Valeo & Faez, 2013).

In addition to job insecurity related to temporary and part-time employment, teachers in the reports expressed dissatisfaction with their salaries. The sufficiency of the income package is best understood in view of both paid and unpaid work time. Some surveys highlighted the fact that teachers of adult EAL learners often put a large proportion of unpaid time into lesson planning and preparation, grading, administrative duties, staff meetings, and meetings with students. For a number of teachers, this non-teaching time brought their total work load to above fifty hours per week (Crookes & Arakaki, 1999; White & Naylor, 2015). Other complicating factors that add to job insecurity included working shifts or teaching at multiple sites or in multiple programs (Crookes & Arakaki, 1999; Sun, 2010; Valeo & Faez, 2013). Taken together, these common characteristics of EAL teachers’ employment may be the reason that Sun’s (2010) survey of over 1000 adult EAL teachers indicated that 43 percent of respondents felt that job insecurity was their primary employment concern.

Such difficult working conditions affect teachers’ physical and mental well-being. In their study of over 100 adult educators in the public school system in B.C., White and Naylor (2015) found that teachers “spoke of their fatigue and, in some cases, ill-health because of their reports of ‘doing more with less’, constant lay-offs, and lack of prep time” (p. 8). Another concern is the relationship between challenging working conditions and life outside of work: “I really try to keep my work down to 40 hours a week. I want a quality personal life” (Crookes & Arakaki, 1999, p.17). Survey authors noted that work insecurity not only influenced educators on a personal level, but also “undermine[ed] the professionalism of the field because many educators have to contend with juggling several jobs, receiving low pay, and being prevented from improving their instructional practices or keeping abreast of current research” (Sun, p.142).

Over the decades, it seems that the concerns expressed by EAL teachers about their job conditions have not changed. And while the empirical evidence strongly suggests a prevalence of precarious work conditions in the EAL education sector, there is little critical assessment of the factors that contribute to employment insecurity in the sector. I suggest that we look to labour research for tools that can help to illuminate the conditions that contribute to precarious employment.

Work Insecurity for EAL Teachers: Part of a Growing Trend in Precarious Employment in Canada

There is an increasing trend toward work insecurity in Canada. Accompanying this trend is a growing dialogue about the diminishing quality of jobs. The term “precarious employment” has emerged as a way to conceptualize work that is uncertain in one or more ways. It generally includes temporary, part-time, and low-paid work, as well as work with minimal benefits and work that lacks union representation.

Precarious employment is best understood in contrast to the “standard employment relationship” which is conceived as “a stable, socially protected, dependent, full-time job” (Fudge, 2009, p.132). The standard employment relationship is what we typically think of when we talk about a “good job,” or at least this is what we used to expect. The standard employment relationship involves a work arrangement that is full-time and permanent. It likely includes benefits and may be unionized. It’s something one can build a career around. In contrast, precarious employment is based on a flexible model. It responds to the short-term, market-oriented or funding-dependent needs of the employer rather than an employee’s need for stability. Since the 1970s, there has been an overall decline in work characterized as standard employment, an increase in precarious forms of work, and an erosion of the social safety net. Precarious employment can have profound effects on an individual’s life, on quality of work, and on families.

The Usefulness of the Precarious Employment Framework for Understanding the Work of EAL Instructors

There are clear parallels between precarious employment in the general labour market and work insecurity in EAL teaching. But what is the usefulness of applying the framework of precarious employment to EAL teaching in B.C.? Several aspects of this framework can help shed light on EAL teachers’ work experiences beyond an education perspective, but with implications for educational practice.

First, aligning an analysis of adult EAL teachers’ work with common characteristics of precarious employment provides a language for understanding work insecurity in an educational context and provides a new level of analysis. Once precarious forms of work are identified, we can start to see how one form is entwined with other forms, creating a cumulative effect. For example, if a person works part-time, they may be ineligible for employment insurance benefits. This leads to a situation where a teacher is more likely to stay in a “bad job” because they cannot afford to leave it.

The precarious employment framework also helps to clarify that work insecurity in EAL teaching is part of a broader trend in industrialized nations where companies and governments are shifting financial risks to workers by “flexibilizing” employment relationships. Current employment laws involve much fewer obligations on the part of the employer than they once did, and employers are thus less likely to retain workers on a permanent basis. Additionally, we could also examine the landscape of education policy that shapes the field. The shrinking of publicly funded language education for newcomers to Canada along with the simultaneous growth of international education for full fee paying students is currently having an effect on the field. This shift has played out in the recent layoffs at local colleges and school boards and may have other yet-to-be-identified consequences for teachers’ work.

A final consideration is that the concept of precarious employment offers a framework for distinguishing how employment practices in EAL line up with those in other occupations and to link such practices with identifiable characteristics of an occupation. For example, research shows that there are more women than men in precarious employment (Vosko, 2006). Similarly, the studies about the work of EAL teaching referred to above on average show that 85 percent of EAL teachers are women (eg. Sun, 2010). This may lead to explorations of EAL teaching as a gendered occupation.

Conclusion

The issue of employment conditions for EAL teachers of adult learners is an important one for organizations like BC TEAL who are committed to upholding professional standards and advocating for teachers. The framework of precarious employment offers a new lens for understanding the complexities of work insecurity in the field. As we come to understand the unique contours of EAL employment, we can start to recognize how to better support teachers so that teachers, in turn, can provide quality learning experiences for students.

References

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Valeo, A., & Faez, F. (2013). Career Development and Professional Attrition of Novice ESL Teachers of Adults. TESL Canada Journal, 31(1), 1–19.

Vosko, L. F. (2006). Precarious employment: Towards an improved understanding of labour market insecurity. In L. F. Vosko (Ed.), Precarious employment: Understanding labour market insecurity in Canada, 3-39. Montreal: McGill-Queen’s University Press.

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Biographical Information (From the Winter 2017 issue of the BC TEAL newsletter)

Sherry Breshears is a PhD Candidate in Education with a Labour Studies focus at Simon Fraser University. Her research interests include language and literacy education, the employment conditions of EAL teachers of adults, and international education in British Columbia. Her work draws from methods that consider how policy contexts shape everyday lives in educational spaces.

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Original reference information:

Breshears, S. (2017, Winter). Understanding the employment conditions of English as an additional language instructors of adults in British Columbia. TEAL News. Retrieved from https://www.bcteal.org/wp-content/uploads/2017/12/TEAL-News-Winter-2017.pdf