EAL and Inquiries

For the past 6 months, I have been working as an EAL (English as an Additional Language) teacher in an IB PYP school for grades 1, 2 and 3. As a former PYP Homeroom teacher for 6 years in two different countries, I would naturally source inspiration, ideals and strategies from what I know: the inquiry approach.

However, what I know may not always meet the needs of my EAL students.  I remember I was hired to ‘bring inquiry’ in EAL, which I was extremely excited about. It is something very new to me and I was excited to help my students make connections, ask questions, find out for answers, and ultimately help them learn English. Doesn’t that sound exciting? It did, still does, but it is confusing. How does inquiry actually look like in an EAL class? How effective is inquiry in an EAL class?

This article is an honest sharing about what I am currently going through as a PYP and EAL teacher, thoughts about the workshop approach for EAL learners, and the questions that I have. If you’re going through the same thing, then I’d love to ponder and share this journey with you.

Reading and Writing Workshop Approach

I LOVE the reading and writing workshop approach to learning a language. It gives the students a practical context for learning. It also gives them the opportunity to learn reading and writing like experts. According to Peha (2003 p.3), ‘The idea behind Writer’s Workshop is simple: if we know from experience that a workshop approach to the teaching of writing works well for aspiring profes-sional writers, why shouldn’t we use this approach in our classrooms? As in a professional writer’s workshop, each student in the class is a working author.’

In reading and writing worskhops, there is a focus on integration, the learning process and ‘what good writers and readers do’. Some models may focus on text type or genre based exploration as contexts. Frost’s (2015) online article called ‘How Do We Plan Language on a PYP Planner?’ gives a step by step guide to PYP language planning, which reflects the inquiry and workshop approach. To me, it is fundamentally the kind of language teaching and learning that makes sense.

Short Story about the Grade 2 Class

Before I move on, it is critical to share that most of my students in Grades 1, 2 and 3 have low level English. Further, we are in an almost zero English environment. I occassionally work with teaching assistants who do some translations for me. Therefore, across the learning process, we ask the students to find out the meaning of some English key words through the use of dictionaries and/or by asking their parents/adults.

For our 3rd unit, the Grade 2 class explored ‘Stories and Imagination’ in UOI. As you might have guessed, we did a 5-week language unit on stories. We had daily read alouds and story telling from both the teachers and students. We observed Oxford Stages 1 and 1+ big picture books and learned about elements of stories. We read different Oxford leveled reading books, which helped us inquire about the structure of stories and develop reading strategies. We used a story mountain to show what is happening in the beginning, middle and end of short stories. Then, we focused on learning about what sentences and phrases are, what is a subject and predicate and the simple past tense , as these languge features are applied in simple story books. As you can imagine, this language focus part took a lot of time.

On the 4th and 5th week, all students engaged in the writing process and attempted to publish their books. Some students attempted to put words to retell a story of a picture book, while some were more willing to write their own stories in English. The students read aloud their creation! They seemed highly engaged in the process and were very proud of their books. We placed all our books in the library for other students to read. There was a clear integration, there was transdisciplinary learning and it was communicative. It wasn’t an easy journey, but it was rewarding and fulfilling.

Despite the success I felt, I did get a feedback that this approach may not be the best match for EAL learners. Further, I received a feedback that the IB English Scope and Sequence may not be necessarily designed/appropriate for non-English speakers. How true is this? I respect that persepctive and I am open minded to do what works best for my EAL students. We are after all, student-centered teachers.

Hence, I do have a couple of essential questions, considering that I lack EAL/ESL practice and experience:

  1. What is the main goal of EAL teaching?
  2. How do the the IB PYP strands and inquiry help achieve this goal?
  3. How does inquiry look like in an EAL class?
  4. Is the workshop approach the best model for EAL students?
  5. What is a more important focus as a context: genre, text-type or a real life interaction context (buying from a market, visiting a friends’ house, asking for directions)
  6. How much grammar and workbook activities are ‘necessary’? When does it come in and how does book-based practice impact EAL learning?
  7. What does careful EAL unit planning look like? How do I help my students develop their English language communication skills the best way possible, considering that they don’t speak English outside the EAL classes?

All in all, what I understand so far is that a school and its environment need to have a solid vision towards language learning, especially if there is a pressure for our students and teachers to achieve good English proficiency. Without that direction, it can obviously very confusing for teachers like me.

Despite ongoing disucussions and debates I’m experiencing, I still do believe that EAL can be learned in a meaningful and inquiry way. It may look different from my previous classrooms, but there are many elements of inquiry-based teaching that are conceptual and trasnferrable, like giving students voice and choice and finding out about student’s questions. They may not have the perfect English to express themselves, but it doesn’t mean that they can’t think, nor make connections, nor develop skills to help them learn about, through and the language.

Your thoughts?  Help.


Peha, S., 2003. Welcome to writer’s workshop [Online]. Available from: http:// http://www.ttms.org [Accessed March 21, 2016].

Forst, C., 2015. How do we plan language on a pyp planner? [Online]. Available from: http://christopherfrost.weebly.com/blog/how-do-we-plan-language-on-a-pyp-planner [Accessed March 21, 2016]

Helpful websites:

What Ed Said/Language: https://whatedsaid.wordpress.com/tag/language/

EFL-ESL Blogs Worth Following: http://www.scoop.it/t/efl-esl-blogs-worth-following


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