Shining at the front of the class: ELSTA and a multilingual Ireland

“And now, do you sit closer to the front of the class?”

An enthusiastic nodding of heads.

This was a video clip ELSTA executive member Livia Healy showed as part of the English Language Support for Teachers’ Association of Ireland (ELSTA) /OneVoiceforLanguages(OVFL) webinar held November 23, 2020.  In the video, students reflected on how they used to sit at the back of the class because they didn’t feel comfortable speaking English.  Now, as competent speakers of the language, they were more confident, and with this confidence came increased visibility:  they sat closer to the front, and no longer feared being unable to answer a question due to potential linguistic competency challenges.

One of the many aspects I enjoyed about Livia’s talk was hearing how she embedded her own experience of once being an EAL student into her teaching practice.  Livia spoke about supporting students through the ‘silent phase’ of language acquisition—that is, where they understand what is being said to them, but do not yet have the active skills in the language to answer. In the video, the students talked about how one of the key ways they pushed through this silent phase was one-on-one conversations with the teacher.  I had never thought about this before in explicit relation to EAL, as when I taught EAL many years ago, I worked with very small groups anyway, but it made sense from my experience teaching at university. I nearly always break the students into discussion groups or pairs and circulate around the groups, as it’s clear the ideas flow when the students aren’t faced with the prospect of speaking in front of all their peers.

Other illustrations of teaching best practice were carried forward in the next talk, given by ELSTA executive member Narrell Byrne, where she introduced us to a best practice toolkit she has developed to support teachers in fostering belonging and valorising students’ multilingual competencies.  She discussed the need for teachers to include students’ home languages in classroom interactions; for example, learning simple expressions in the students’ home languages—such as saying ‘hello’ and ‘thank you’—can be a powerful tool in fostering inclusion. This practice also valorises the children’s agency, as it positions the child as an ‘expert’ vis-à-vis the teacher.  She also discussed the need to draw on students’ metalinguistic awareness in not only learning English, but additional languages as well, and in making connections across different languages.  Her emphasis highlighted how unfortunately, there is still need to dispel the myth that students can only ‘cope’ with one language at a time.

ELSTA was reinstated this September, and as Livia mentioned at the beginning of the webinar, this new lease of life was due in part to the tremendous efforts of chairperson Annie Asgard.  To me, this reinstatement comes at a critical time, as it is clear in my fieldwork with the LaFS project that these best practices can go a long way in fostering students’ sense of inclusion and multilingual competencies.  For example, in one of the visits with one of the Polish-speaking families, the two daughters brought up how much they like it when their teacher uses a bit of Polish, and in another family, the daughter clearly feels a sense of agency when she teaches me (a non-Polish speaker) how to say things in Polish. 

However, it is clear that despite many teachers adopting the best practices as discussed in the ELSTA talks, these do not appear uniform among schools or within the same school.  A striking example of this lack of uniformity occurred to me just earlier the evening of the webinar, when I was conducting an online meeting with one of the Kurdish-speaking families taking part in LaFS. Although I need to follow up on this in more detail in my next visit with the family (as sometimes it’s hard to hear with three lively children there at the other end of the computer!) it appears that in this family, the son is taken out of Irish class and does maths instead, while his sister, who is younger, is learning Irish. The mother also relayed to me how the teacher helped her and another parent learn some basic expressions in Irish so that they could better support their children.  Thus, it appears that while the daughter has access to Irish and the teacher has further included the mother in gaining this access, the son has limited access to Irish, which, as discussed in a previous blog post, has implications for his future inclusion.  It also, to borrow a term from the academic work of Luisa Martín-Rojo, ‘decapitalises’ on his multilingual competencies and denies him a chance to use his multilingual awareness ‘to shine,’ so to speak.

Hopefully, as ELSTA continues to grow, the best practices of its members will become more uniform across Ireland and will lead to a new generation of children who, to go back to Livia’s video, all feel that they are able to shine at the front of the classroom.

“This project has received funding from the European Union’s Horizon 2020

research and innovation programme under the Marie Skłodowska-Curie grant agreement No 794800”.

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