When I visited Uluru in Australia a few years ago, I was struck by what lies beneath. However, everyone thinks they know this rockberg, when all they have seen is its famous red tip.
It seems to me that schools can often make the same mistake when identifying the needs and potential of their EAL students. Relying largely on a surface blend of professional judgment and raw attainment data, teachers can too easily conclude that they understand the child, and, therefore, that they are able to personalise their learning.
This error is common and problematic enough with students learning in their mother tongue; for those with EAL, the issues are even bigger, starker and more critical. So how can we aim truly to ‘know’ each child? For us, the answer lies in student data, and the ‘three As’ of attainment, aptitude and attitude.
Whilst attainment data is valuable, it means little if unqualified by what we know about a child’s cognitive ability and their attitudes to learning. With so many of our students who are EAL learners navigating a native English curriculum, they might appear at first glance to be performing below ‘expected’ levels. The risk is then that this could lead to low expectations and the dumbing down of their learning experience.
To counter this, we use a suite of assessment tools to help us complete the triangle from the outset: to understand where they are right now; to unearth their potential; and, critically, to understand the attitudes which may inhibit their ability to fulfil it. We use CAT4, a cognitive abilities test, when a child joins the school and at the beginning of each Key Stage thereafter. We make use of the Standardised Age Scores to reveal, among other things, a measure I call ‘verbal deficit’ – the difference between a child’s non-verbal and verbal aptitude.
Where an EAL learner has low scores for both verbal andnon-verbal aptitude, this suggests that their learningneeds are paramount for them rather than their languageneeds. However, a low verbal score alongside a significantly higher non-verbal score suggests they may flourish academically in their own mother tongue, but will struggle learning in English until they have mastered it. Verbal deficit is reducible, and, I believe it is our duty as a school to do so.
PISA research has highlighted the importance ofattitudesin determining outcomes, and, for an EAL learner, these can be even more fragile. To understand how they feel, we now make annual use the Pupil Attitudes to Self and School (PASS) survey, a sophisticated tool which identifies a student’s attitudes to learning under different factors. For example, some EAL learners have dramatically low scores in ‘perceived learning capability’ and ‘learner self regard’. In other words, they have become convinced of their lack of ability, and this threatens to erode their self-worth. As we address the specific needs of our EAL students, I hope that we will see these scores increase as a result.
I call it #themonalisaeffect – personalising learning so that every student believes their learning journey has been designed specifically for them. At the International Community School, we want to make sure it has.