Improving The Learning Experiences Of Secondary Nesb Education Essay

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Abstract:

NESB (non-English speaking background) students face many problems and difficulties in the 'mainstream' classroom. The following research proposal details an area of possible study into this issue. The study will aim to identify specific areas of difficulty that the students experience, and highlight possible strategies that both students and teachers may be able to utilize in order to address some of these problems.

For the purposes of this report, and due to time and research constraints, I will be focusing specifically on learning difficulties encountered by the ESL students in mainstream English classes.

This research project thus aims to explore some of the academic difficulties faced by these students, and suggest how international ESL students could possibly be supported in the mainstream English classroom to achieve their academic potential.

Description of the Topic:

The process of moving ESL students from a second language learning classroom to a mainstream class can be extremely difficult and traumatic for many students.

Without some form of language and learning support, many ESL students appear to struggle in the 'mainstream' classroom - facing difficulties with socialization and confidence as well as communicative and academic competence.

Some ESL students in the mainstream appear to suffer from a variety of problems and obstacles when making the transition from an ESL specific class, to a mainstream learning environment. Learning academic content in a "new" or "second" language poses a variety of complexities for most students; given the often varied and wide-ranging host of cultures, ethnic and educational backgrounds of these students, providing for them in a mainstream class setting can be fraught with difficulties.

ESL students have needs which set them apart from their native English-speaking peers in the classroom. Given the nature of the Australian secondary school system, these students are generally taught by mainstream English teachers who may have little or no experience in teaching these students. ESL teaching methodologies and strategies are not of course, part of the general teacher training courses and thus, many students find themselves leaving the 'shelter' of the ESL classroom and entering into the mainstream class with a teacher who may not have a great deal of experience in ESL teaching. ESL and mainstream teaching and learning contexts differ significantly according to works by the likes of Zamel and Spack (Zamel & Spack, 2002, p.146) who point out that organization and goals of instruction, language use and learning materials vary a great deal between the ESL classroom and the mainstream classroom.

ESL teaching contexts tend to focus on learning functional grammar and English speaking skills in the classroom, whereas mainstream English instruction in the secondary school focuses on critical literacy, analysis and evaluation.

Goals of instruction in the two class environments are often different also - ESL classes aim to have students reach appropriate levels of reading, writing and English speaking skills. In the English classroom that these 'mainstreamed' students find themselves, the emphasis often shifts to literature, textual analysis and evaluation of different genres in texts. Learning materials used in the ESL classroom are often extremely well structured and specifically targeted towards students for whom English is not the first language. Thus, they tend to explicitly explain grammatical and technical issues in the language, often provide visual cues and support to new material or concepts, and use simplified language in instructional tasks.

As a result of the above-mentioned factors, some NESB students tend to suffer from poor academic performance and high failure rates in the mainstream secondary English classroom.

The intended research study aims to identify not only what some of the major areas of difficulty experienced by these students are, but also suggest and put into practice some possible strategies to address these problems.

Undoubtedly, the most fundamental need of any ESL student entering a mainstream class situation is to receive a solid and equitable educational experience.

However, there also exists the problem mentioned previously, of many 'mainstream' teachers not being adequately prepared for ESL learners in their classes. Teaching and incorporating strategies to provide for ESL students in mainstream situations requires a certain degree of understanding and flexibility on the part of the teaching staff. In order to satisfy the learning needs, as well as specific language, personal, and social issues in relation to these students, teachers arguably need to at least recognize some of the complexities of entering a mainstream class that an ESL student is likely to face.

As researchers such as Grabe and Stoller highlight, the language skills most ESL students enter into the mainstream with are 'not sufficient for students to succeed in academic learning contexts'.(Grabe & Stoller, 1997, p.7)

Again, the importance of mainstream teachers at the very least having some understanding and awareness of this is of the utmost importance in seeking to improve the performance of NESB learners. This view of providing advice and increasing the awareness of mainstream teachers in this area is supported by many in the field of ESL Education research. (see Rigg & Allen, 1989; Haymayan & Perlman, 1990; Nunan, 1991; Lewis & Wray, 2000; Penton, 2002)

Having flexibility in their teaching methods and accommodating the needs of ESL students in the mainstream English curriculum should be a priority in schools that accept and encourage NESB learners to enter into the mainstream school environment.

This study aims to pinpoint some of the academic and learning obstacles the ESL students face and explore ways to support them with strategies that address these problems in mainstream English.

In the exploration of this issue, it is my hope that this research project will offer some support to both ESL students and their teachers within the secondary English classroom.

Significance of the Issue:

Recent years has seen a concerted shift towards mainstreaming for ESL students in many school situations. This is arguably motivated by the perceived sociopolitical, psychological, pedagogical and academic needs of ESL students entering the schooling system.

Over the years, the placement of NESB learners into mainstream classrooms has significantly increased in Australian schools. Issues of social justice, educational equity and personal and social needs of the learner have taken precedence over more traditional views of the education system as a whole.

NESB learners often struggle with the dilemma of a strong desire for full immersion into mainstream classes, but not being adequately prepared for the language requirements of such a transition. At the secondary school where the research project will be undertaken most of the students in the ESL classes are highly motivated and extremely keen to enter the 'mainstream' as soon as possible. This may well be connected to the fact that significant fees are paid out by these student's families for them to study overseas in an Australian high school. The longer that the students are in what they and perhaps their families perceive to be the "preparation" stage of ESL courses, the longer fees will have to be paid and students will take to graduate from an Australian secondary school. Staff whom have constant contact with these students often remark how competitive and impatient the NESB students are to be in the "real" or mainstream school.

As educational researchers such as Penton (Penton, 2002, CLESOL Conference) state, students from non-English speaking backgrounds are a large and significant group in high schools, and need to be adequately catered for. Penton advises that the issue is indeed of such importance and significance, that school-wide professional development programmes should be considered in order to improve the educational achievement of NESB students in mainstream classes.

Many schools are mainstreaming NESB students and expecting that these students will be able to cope with the usual curriculum across a broad range of subject areas. The subject English often proves particularly demanding for many NESB students at the senior level. As researchers such as Clegg (Clegg, 1996, p.3) point out, ESL learners have the 'double burden of learning both curricular contents and the medium of instruction' and the difficulties associated with culture shock, self-esteem and confidence.

A close study of the current Queensland English syllabus - (with its focus on critical literacy, extended writing and analysis of texts) highlights some of the possible problems a student from a non-English speaking background may encounter.

As researchers such as Davison (Davison, 1990, p.15-16) point out, these students are often struggling to decode the actual language or print in a text, struggling to read in English itself - and the added burden of then attempting to cope with the academic demands of the subject English can be overwhelming.

As more and more international students and their families are seeking an education here in Australia, the issue of providing them with a fair and positive learning experience is a highly significant one.

Context of the Investigation:

My study and research paper will be based on a secondary school located in a suburban area of the Gold Coast in Queensland. There are approximately 400 students enrolled in the Senior School (years ten through to twelve) at present.

On the grounds, and affiliated with the Senior School is an "International TESOL Centre" that runs intensive English language classes from beginner through to advanced levels.

As mentioned, the school in question has a number of ESL classes it runs each year for international NESB students. When the students are deemed by the school and TESOL faculty to have reached a satisfactory level of English language skill, they are 'mainstreamed' in the adjoining Senior School also on campus.

Some of these 'mainstreamed' ESL students struggle academically in the mainstream environment, particularly in senior English, and the purpose of this study is to identify what some of these problems and obstacles are, and propose/instigate ways of facilitating improved learning outcomes and experiences for these students.

Relevant Literature on the Topic:

A significant amount of research and literature relevant to this topic is available.

Zamel and Spack (Zamel & Spack, 2002) have done much work on the teaching and learning difficulties encountered in the ESL and mainstream classroom. They discuss the advantages and disadvantages of mainstreaming ESL students - and in particular explore the experiences of both students and teachers, and suggest possible strategies to address these through their work.

Enriching the learning experiences of NESB students is a major theme in their work, which studies recent language research and teaching principles, observations of second language learners and classrooms in its analysis of the issues.

Suggestions are made in their work on teaching spoken and written language in the English classroom, and include having teachers draw and build on the students' background knowledge before studying written texts and literature. Another suggestion made is that extended discourse is promoted through writing and discussion in the classroom to gauge NESB students' understanding of literary techniques. In their work comparisons are made with teaching methods frequently used by ESL teachers, such as pre-teaching vocabulary and making use of visual clues in the classroom, and those utilized by mainstream teachers (Zamel & Spack, 2002).

Also of interest in their research, is the discussion of the work of fellow educational researcher Linda Harklau - some compelling and pertinent comment is made in her study 'ESL Versus Mainstream Classes'.

This study found that NESB students were "often placed in mainstream classrooms long before they develop the degree of language proficiency necessary to compete on an equal footing with native speakers"…and makes suggestions that ESL and mainstream teachers might consider working collaboratively to develop a curriculum that responds to the needs of ESL learners in mainstream classes.

Responding to some of these needs has been addressed by Education authorities in Australia in the recent past. Documents such as The Department of Education, Training and Development manual on 'ESL in the Mainstream'(Dept. Education, Training & Employment, 2000) have been developed and are in place in various schools. This document explores what some of the educational needs of ESL learners are, and what educators and institutions can do to address them.

This literature draws on a variety of research to identify factors such as the difficulties ESL learners face in the mainstream classroom, second language literacy issues, adapting curriculum for ESL learners and supporting NESB students with reading and writing issues.

Researchers such as Davison (Davison, 1990, p.15-16) point out that these students are often struggling to decode the actual language or print in a text, struggling to read in English itself - and the added burden of then attempting to cope with the academic demands of the subject English can be overwhelming.

John Clegg also discusses the difficulties faced by these students in his work entitled 'Mainstreaming ESL - Case Studies in Integrating ESL Students into the Mainstream Curriculum' (Clegg, 1996). Clegg identifies several key 'difficulties' faced by ESL students in the mainstream, which include culture-shock, lack of language ability, the need for 'translating time' when responding to spoken tasks and comprehension. Clegg examines the rationale behind mainstreaming, the specific academic needs of ESL students and school policy in this area.

An interesting discussion on school policy and pilot language programmes used in schools with secondary NESB students can be found in a paper by Ruth Penton. (Penton, 2002). In it she expounds the importance of improving the achievement of these students in mainstream classes, and addresses the fact that teacher education and professional development are key issues in achieving this.

Studies into ESL students and their specific needs in the English mainstream classroom have also been undertaken by the likes of Kremel, Berry and Jake in their work 'Working with ESL students in the Composition Classroom' (Kremel, Berry & Jake, 2001) and Arkoudis and Tellefson - 'Text Response and the ESL Student' (ESL Study Guide, 1994). These researchers examine the needs of NESB students coping with the demands of senior English - in particular focusing on the textual response/critical literacy demands of the English curriculum. Kremel, Berry and Jake highlight the problems many students face with reading and analyzing texts, and look specifically at grammatical issues such as sentence structure, spelling and punctuation. (Kremel, Berry & Jake, p.3-4) Arkoudis and Tellefson highlight the implications for teachers with students experiencing these difficulties, and make suggestions for teachers to implement in their teaching in order to improve the performance of ESL students in their English classes.

Much work has been undertaken, given the significance of the issue, on improving the learning experiences of NESB students in mainstream English classrooms. As the "internationalization" of the Australian education system continues to grow, more and more research will be necessary in order to support these students and ensure successful learning experiences in mainstream classrooms.

Suggested Research Approach:

The research study will take place at a Gold Coast Secondary school, in the year 2005. As the researcher (myself) is currently employed at the school in question, and has already sought permission (and been granted verbal assurance) to undertake this type of study, it is assumed that issues of access and implementation of the study will not be a problem.

The study will be undertaken in a secondary school observing and recording actual NESB student participants in a senior English classroom. The researcher will also be observing "first-hand" classroom interactions and learning situations involving the four participant students, who will selected from a number put forward by the teachers. So as to be able to gain sufficient information on students who are experiencing 'difficulties' in senior English, teaching staff involved will be asked to initially provide a list of students who may be best suitable to be involved in a study of this nature.

It is perhaps also of importance to note that the researcher is a qualified and practicing senior English teacher, who is familiar with the current senior English syllabus in place in mainstream Australian schools. The researcher will not be conducting research with any students known personally to them.

Validity Issues:

Every endeavour will be made to ensure the reliability and validity of information and data collected in the study. Given that the research will be taking place in a mainstream English classroom, focusing on a small number of participants who have all attended the schools' Intensive ESL language classes before being mainstreamed - the study is likely to yield some pertinent and valid data on ESL students in mainstream English classrooms.

All four student participants will receive identical questionnaires and interview questions during the study. Both teaching participants will be asked identical questions during data collection to ensure validity and reliability of responses/information. Questions will follow the guidelines suggested by Knobel and Lankshear (Knobel & Lankshear, 1999) and therefore be clear and concise and informed by the relevant literature and research on the issue.

The research project will draw on the theories of 'triangulation' in relation to validity, that is, it aims to draw on different perspectives including those of researchers in the field, participant students and teaching professionals in order to glean evidence and information on the issue.

It is envisaged that the research project will draw on a number of approaches in order to carry out the necessary collection of data and interpret findings.

Data Analysis:

Observations, interviews and questionnaires, research

Data collection:

The collection of data will be accomplished using an ethnographic and interpretive approach. As writers such as Cohen, Manion and Morrison (Cohen, Manion & Morrison, 2000) suggest, this type of research will be small-scale; focusing on a small number of ESL student participants (four) and teacher participants (two).

The study relies heavily on sociological issues - collecting data on individuals, studying behaviour and interviewing and observing participants within the classroom environment.

Research will be undertaken with a view to providing data which is of 'practical' interest to not only the researcher but also to participants involved in the study.

Techniques such as observing senior English classes with the ESL student participants, interviewing the teachers involved in these classes and conducting a questionnaire and brief interview with the students in question will be used in the study.

** Access will be negotiated with all participants and school authorities, and full disclosure of the purpose and aims of the research project will be made to all involved. It should also be noted that participants will be informed of their right to privacy and right to withdraw from the study at any time. It is intended that an information sheet and consent form following ethical research guidelines will be given to all those involved in the research study also, in line with recommendations made by the likes of Cohen, Lawrence and Manion in their work 'The Ethics of Educational and Social Research' (in Cohen et al, 2000). Student participants will also be given a brief document outlining the nature and purpose of the study and will require written permission for their participation from parents/guardians.

Suggested Timeline:

Week One:

Obtain permission from relevant school authorities to perform research study

Choose student and teacher participants for study

Circulate Information Sheet to participants and Consent Form

In-class Observation of student participants (2 x lessons)

Conduct Questionnaire with student participants

Conduct Interviews with teacher participants

Week Two:

Conduct Interviews with student participants

Document initial findings from week one data collection

In-class observation (1 x lesson)

Data interpretation

Week Three:

Summary of major research findings and implications of research

Data presentation and interpretation:

In-class observation:

The student participants responded positively to the requirement of in-class observation as part of the research project. This was conducted in week one of the project during two senior English classes, and followed up with a final in-class observation conducted during week two.

The students appeared keen to have someone watching the class lesson in order to offer support and advice on how they might improve their performance. However, on a personal level, some did express shyness when first discussing the idea of having someone other than their teacher in the room.

In-class observation consisted of the researcher sitting in the rear of the room during lesson one, and to the side of the class during lessons two and three of observations. No comments or participation was made in the lesson by the researcher; notes were made at the time of observation. Information was gleaned by observing student behaviour, participation, responses to questioning, and general performance in set tasks.

Of the four participant students, almost all at some stage during the observation used hand-held electronic dictionaries to assist their understanding of either a question or issue being discussed. The students appeared to attempt to solve many problems themselves in their comprehension of the lessons, and were often reticent to ask for assistance from the teacher.

The student participants also resorted to talking to other ESL students in the class on several occasions when it appeared they were experiencing difficulties in coping with task demands in the classroom. The subtle use of these 'contextual' clues to aid in their understanding (looking around the room to see what other students are doing/seeking reassurance from what other students are doing) seems a common strategy employed by the student participants.

Student participants appeared unwilling to draw attention to themselves on the most part - and rarely asked or answered questions in the English classes observed.

DATA:

Student questionnaires and interviews:

In regard to the student questionnaire and follow-up interviews, the participants were each asked to respond to an identical set of questions relating to their learning experiences in the subject English.

Question one asked the students what they themselves felt their learning needs were in the English classroom. Three students mentioned speaking tasks in order to improve speaking skills. Two students wrote that they felt they needed more time to complete tasks because they found it hard to keep up with the pace of the lesson. Two students expressed the desire to be allowed to sit with other ESL/first language speaker students in the classroom and talk amongst themselves when completing work at times. During the subsequent interviews, the students said that when they did try to clarify things with other first language speakers, they were often chastised for speaking or stared at by others in the class. Three students expressed the need to practice writing in English as a learning need, but again the issue of time was expressed by one of these students.

Question two asked the student participants to write down some suggestions for how their English teachers could help them improve their achievement in English. One student wrote that some of the lessons were boring and about things not known/experienced by them, and the teacher could help by using other materials such as were sometimes used in their 'ESL classes'. During the subsequent interview, the participant expressed the desire to have learning materials that weren't all about Australian/English issues, but used some material from his cultural background. All four participants again said time - having more time to answer questions (and work out difficult words/vocabulary) would be extremely helpful. Three out of the four participants pointed out they often had trouble reading the teacher's writing on the board - messy and hurried writing was difficult to decipher especially under time constraints of bells ringing and being late to classes etc. Two students expressed dislike of speaking in front of the class, and said it would be helpful if they were not made to do this. (Oral presentations are a compulsory part of the English assessment criteria in the senior school.) Homework was mentioned by two students as an area in which the teacher could help by clarifying instructions and writing it down clearly on the board, rather than hurriedly telling the students right at the end of the lesson.

Question three asked the participants what specific areas of English they found difficult in the mainstream English classroom. All four participants expressed frustration with vocabulary and expression in their speaking and writing in class. One student wrote that they often knew answers but could not find the appropriate words to deliver this to the class when 'put under pressure'. Two students wrote that speaking orally in front of the class was embarrassing and sometimes humiliating - in interviews they expressed the desire to do oral presentations in private. Expressing ideas and writing with sophistication appeared to be another area of difficulty within the subject English. Three students said they felt disappointed when looking over results of written tasks because they thought they had answered the question appropriately, but were marked down because they couldn't write as well as native speakers.

Question 1 - Data Learning needs in the classroom

3 students: more speaking tasks and practice

2 students: adequate time/ appropriate pace of lessons

2 students: sit/converse with friends/speakers of their first language

Question 2 - Data Forms of support from teaching staff

1 student: using a variety of learning materials - culturally inclusive

4 students: allowing adequate time for responses/answers to questions/tasks

3 students: ensuring legibility in handwriting/teacher notes

2 students: flexibility and limiting oral tasks

2 students: clarifying homework tasks, giving clear instructions

1ffff

Question 3 - Data Areas of difficulty in English

4 students: expression and language use in reading/writing tasks

1 student: vocabulary/unfamiliarity with vocabulary used in class

2 students: speaking orally in front of peers

3 students: written assessment tasks - extended writing/sophisticated analysis

Interviews with staff participants:

Interviews conducted with the two staff participants consisted of one main focus question for discussion. The question posed to staff was "How can we, as staff, improve the learning experiences and outcomes for NESB students in Senior English classes?"

The two teaching participants made some pertinent and helpful suggestions during the interviews. Both staff expressed genuine concern and care for the NESB students in mainstream classes at the school, and felt that many of the students were indeed struggling in senior English classes. The syllabus and curriculum requirements were discussed at some length by both participants - the critical literacy elements were named as a significant factor in NESB students' experiencing difficulty in English. As mentioned by some of the student participants, the problem often seems to lie with students not being sufficiently literate to critically analyse and interpret text through their writing. Lack of sophistication in vocabulary and expression was an area in which both teaching participants felt the NESB students suffered.

Suggestions on how to improve the learning experiences of the students included the possibility of assigning an ESL support teacher to each class who was available to the students perhaps on a weekly basis. The implementation of a support class set up for essay drafting, writing and language exercises was also suggested during the course of the interviews. The issue of novels, plays and reading work was discussed, and the possibility of having a year plan given to the students before they are mainstreamed, so that some could start on lengthy reading work well ahead of time was also an interesting suggestion. More communication with ESL teachers before mainstreaming was also mentioned - so that mainstream teachers had an accurate idea of what level the NESB students were at.

Workshops and professional development were mentioned by both participants as a means of improving their own understanding and learning new ideas and strategies for helping NESB students in English classes.

Question 1 - Data How can teaching staff improve learning experiences of NESB students in the subject English?

ESL support teachers in the classroom

Essay support classes implemented for drafting and writing practice

Plans for year assessments in place before mainstreaming to allow for more preparation time (reading novels/learning new vocabulary etc.)

Collaboration with ESL teaching staff

Greater focus on critical literacy in ESL courses

Communication with ESL preparation class teachers/accurate data of students achievement before mainstreaming

More professional development to focus on ESL student needs in English

Summary of major findings:

The data obtained from the research project indicates that there are a number of key issues in the area of improving learning outcomes for NESB students in mainstream English classes.

In light of current teaching practices, mainstream teachers need to seek advice from professionally trained ESL teachers and support staff when they feel that an ESL student is perhaps struggling to meet expectations within the classroom. The need for constant communication and interaction between ESL staff and mainstream teachers was highlighted in the research - staff participants felt this a major issue that could help support NESB students and teaching staff alike. This issue of fostering and encouraging communication across the disciplines of English, ESL and learning support is an important one, and an issue that will no doubt be further discussed and perhaps implemented in some form in the near future.

Delivery of content was another key area that the research findings related to within the mainstream classroom. Teachers need to be more aware and selective in choice of vocabulary, writing and delivering instructions, wording questions to ESL students and using legible handwriting when writing on the board.

Homework and assessment materials need to be clarified with NESB students, and teachers again, need to be more aware of possible problems with tasks early on in the lesson in order to increase the learning outcomes for the students.

Formulating ideas on 'breaking down' and deconstructing critical literacy elements within the syllabus has also emerged as a major issue in examining learning experiences of NESB students in English classes. Again, ESL and English teachers will need to work together in order to develop and design a better curriculum for language minority students whilst still maintaining integrity with the regular curriculum framework in place. The research highlights the importance of providing exercises that focus on deconstructing texts (and making some of these texts more culturally inclusive) in class and using language and expression exercises with ESL students. Attempting to sometimes use subject matter related to ESL student's own background and experience may address the obvious problems that can arise with NESB students being unfamiliar with topics covered in the English classroom.

The research project also found that an overwhelming problem for many ESL students appeared to be time constraints; time allowed to respond to questions, ask questions, finish tasks in class, do homework. Students often felt rushed in class (and as well as being naturally shy or reticent to ask questions or express concerns) - this often contributed to tasks not being completed properly and instructions not fully being understood.

It appears that more professional development and training is required for mainstream teachers in order for them to successfully provide meaningful instruction to the NESB learners in their classes. Another implication of the research is the need for greater collaboration between ESL teaching staff and mainstream teachers.

Conclusion:

The results of this study have important and significant implications for mainstream teaching of NESB students in the subject English. The observations, interviews and questionnaires conducted during the study all delivered interesting and valuable information on the subject of the research. Data collected is also strongly supported by much of the research already undertaken in the area and reflects current academic discourse referred to previously in the research study.

From the research findings, several key areas have been identified in order to improve the learning experiences of NESB students. By gleaning information from both students and teachers, as well as a close study of related research - crucial issues have emerged in relation to supporting the students in the mainstream classroom. The teacher interviews were invaluable as a means of identifying and examining the major issues teaching staff experienced when dealing with ESL students in the English classroom. Findings should be incorporated in the classroom, with close collaboration between ESL and mainstream teaching staff. The student questionnaires and interviews may also foster greater awareness from the students themselves of their learning needs and role they can play in their own learning process.

The research project highlighted not only the existence of NESB students experiencing difficulties in mainstream English classes, but also the urgent need to address these with strategies and solutions at classroom level.

Research strongly suggests that higher priority must be given to addressing the learning needs of NESB students in the English classroom in order to ensure successful outcomes in the future.

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