“Academic language is…no one’s mother tongue”

I suspect I have been dipping in and out of Pierre Bordieu since before Robert Sharples was born. So how did I not know that wonderful academic language line from Bordieu[1]? The answer is simple. What Rob’s[2] excellent new book, Teaching EAL[3], clearly shows is that while I read bits and pieces of EAL research, he has read everything that’s vaguely related and is able to guide the reader succinctly through most of it in under 200 pages. However, the book does much more than that. It features case studies from the work of leading EAL practitioners and even guides you through how to approach EAL when Ofsted visit- a tough job when the Education inspection framework contains not a single word about EAL, though the seven references to The Equality Act 2010 give you something to go on.

The books starts with a brief history of the thing we call English as an additional language, followed by an overview of what research tells us about language acquisition. We are walked through a theory of language with Noam Chomsky (about whom Rob is suitably deferential[4], as most academics in his field are) and what a range of key research tells us about acquiring a first language and subsequent language (though let’s not forget that many children grow learning more than one language at home).  A notable feature of the book is that each chapter ends with a very short summary of the key points and advice on what to read to learn more.

Part 2, Language Across the Curriculum, is for me the key section of the book. We are safely in the company of Jim Cummins and Michael Halliday and the notion that meaning is always created in a specific context. What I take from it is that EAL is not about teaching English. In fact, when done well, it is about teaching pupils to learn successfully in English. It makes the curriculum accessible and equips pupils to make sense of complex and often multi-modal texts. It teaches them to speak and write academic language.

The final section, The EAL Specialist, works through the practicalities of being responsible for EAL in a school, covering issues such as welcoming new arrivals and setting up an effective assessment system. It also points you in the direction of a wide range of free and paid for support (including, I should say, The EAL Academy).

Teaching EAL is a rare thing, a book about professional practice that is hard to put down.  In fact, I think it is the best book I have read about EAL since a book with a similar title (The EAL Teaching Book) was first published in 2002.  Rob acknowledges the influence of the author that book, Jean Conteh, one of his doctoral supervisors.  I am sure Jean will be very proud of what Rob has achieved.

[1] Bourdieu, P., and Passeron, J-C., (1994) Introduction: Language and relationship to language on the teaching situation in Bourdieu, P., Passeron, J-C., and Saint Martin, M. (1994) Academic discourse: Linguistic misunderstanding and professorial power. Polity

[2] This is a blog, not a formal review and I have known Rob since he was researching his doctorate. So for today he is Rob, not Sharples.

[3] Sharples, R., Teaching EAL: Evidence-based strategies for the classroom and school (2021). Multilingual Matters

[4] The problem with Chomsky is that he is famously uninterested in how real people actually communicate. An excellent account of this problem is Evans, V., The Language Myth (2014). Cambridge University Press

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