Global Economics: Teaching A level to EAL students
Rochester Independent College’s Head of Economics Michael Rowlands teaches the A level to international students on both intensive one year and more conventional two year A level courses. He explores some of the challenges in doing so.
When discussing A-Level options with parents and agents of students with English is an additional language (EAL), any suggestion of economics is usually met with concern. It is protested that economics is a very ‘scientific’ social science, deeply wedded to complex terminology. Furthermore, to fully understand economics at A-Level requires a great deal of cultural capital. For example, what is the role of the Chancellor of the Exchequer, who is the Governor of the Bank of England, why is Margret Thatcher such a controversial figure in British economic history? Only the most exceptional, and driven EAL students, could even begin to cope with this. This is not for ‘my’ student.
No doubt drive is important in every student's academic tool kit. But what if we were to look at these two points from a completely different perspective. There is no doubt that economics involves a lot of terminology; real GDP, Comparative Advantage, Quantitative Easing, to name just a few. These are not uniquely challenging to EAL students. These terms are alien to most English speaking students enrolling on an economics A-Level course. Far from putting EAL students at a disadvantage, it levels the playing field. Furthermore, economics teachers have been grappling with the issue of how to embed technical terminology into students’ academic writing for years. They usually have excellent strategies for achieving this.
Secondly, the cultural capital required to fully understand the economic story of the UK is far from a problem - it is an opportunity. The study of economics will take the student to every corner of life in the UK. The cultural capital acquired by students during their study of economics is one of the things that makes them so sought after and valuable to undergraduate courses and future employers.
The stories we tell ourselves are very important. For four hundred years, William Shakespeare’s plays have captivated theatre-goers worldwide, thanks to their unforgettable characters, gripping plots and poetic verse. To keep his actors on their toes, Shakespeare handed each member of the troupe only their own lines and cues to learn, intentionally leaving them in the dark about the unfolding plot. Soon after his death, however, over-zealous editors added in complete lists of characters and, in plays such as The Tempest, introduced many parts along with their telltale traits. Describe a character as an ‘usurping duke’ and the actors already suspect that past wrongs are waiting to be righted. It changes how they behave; it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.
What do students think? Well, the 2010 Economics Students Survey of International Students of Economics in the UK sheds light on the experiences and perceptions of international students. Students whose English is non-native were asked how not being a native speaker affected their learning; 54.3% reported feeling their learning was not greatly impacted, while 40.4% felt it had some effect but not very much. Encouragingly, only 5.3% felt that being non-native English speakers impacted greatly on their learning experiences.
What can we do as economic teachers to support EAL students? Well, a good thing about economics is the use of diagrams. The most powerful stories throughout history have been the ones told with pictures. If we want to fully engage our EAL students we need to embrace pictures and diagrams. From prehistoric cave paintings to the map of the London Underground, images, diagrams and charts have long been at the heart of human storytelling. The reason why is simple: our brains are wired for visuals. ‘Seeing comes before words. The child looks and recognizes before it speaks,’ wrote the media theorist John Berger in the opening lines of his 1972 classic, Ways of Seeing. Neuroscience has since confirmed the dominant role of visualisation in human cognition. Half of the nerve fibres in our brains are linked to our vision and, when our eyes are open, vision accounts for two-thirds of the electrical activity in the brain. It takes just 150 milliseconds for the brain to recognise an image and a mere 100 milliseconds more to attach a meaning to it.
Another important aspect of effective teaching of EAL is to pay attention to the links between language acquisition, cognitive and academic development. This is important for providing work that is sufficiently challenging for all learners at all levels.
Some of the key features of visual EAL pedagogy can be summarised like this:
- Make the verbal curriculum more visual
- Make the abstract curriculum more concrete
What are visuals?
Visuals provide context so that EAL learners can make sense of what is being taught in the curriculum. Visuals that are useful for EAL learners include:
- Visuals in textbooks and classroom resources: Consider using pictures, diagrams, charts and graphs as a starting point, as an alternative to the written text. For example, a learner could describe a picture then complete a differentiated task rather than reading a text and answering comprehension questions. Learners may then be able to record their response in the form of pictures, diagrams or graphic organisers.
- Graphic organisers are also sometimes known as key visuals. They are not simply images, they are ways of presenting information visually. There are many different types of graphic organisers. Some of the main ones are:
- table, chart, grid, matrix
- Ishikawa diagram (fishbone), Venn diagram
- bar chart, pie chart, pictogram
- pyramid, ladder
- cycle, flow chart, timeline
- concept map, web (star), KWHL chart (what I know, what I want to know, how I am going to find out, what I have learned)
Using visuals works because EAL learners are given the context of what is being taught in the classroom. They clarify meaning between teacher and learner, between learner and teacher and between learner and learner.
Finally, structure is also very important. Making sure that course notes, definitions, dictionaries and pre-recorded videos are all readily available for students to use synchronously and asynchronously.