Every day, our choice of linguistic constructs through speaking and writing express who we are, what we believe and how we feel. Language as a form of communication is embedded with social and cultural dimensions, and consequently the words and phrases we use have great power to influence other people.
Advantageously, English in Junior High is not kept solely to the confines of the English classrooms. Students are taught a wide range of subjects using this language as well as interacting in corridors and extra activities with English speaking staff - the language is ever-present and continually reinforced.
Within the English department, our focus on developing English fluency uses a dual approach of teaching the grammatical and lexical skills, as well as how to use language responsibly and purposefully in both formal and informal situations. Of paramount importance is ensuring our students enjoy learning English as we want them to develop a love and passion for the language and culture.
Building on the knowledge and understanding from the Primary department, as students enter grade 7 and progress through grade 8 and 9, they are taught the Cambridge International curriculum. This approach progressively develops key skills needed in the areas of reading, writing, speaking, listening and grammar. The key learning outcomes this provides, combined with a topic-based dialogical approach encourage students to develop their identity, responsibility and opinions as they consider global issues such as the environment, employment and current affairs.
The success of this approach draws on the importance the English department places on bilingualism, utilising practices which draw on student’s Chinese skills to enhance contextual understanding. As described by Baker and Wright (2017) the development of bilingual learners requires second language teaching to encourage dual language use in the classroom.
Our teachers are proactive in their approach to this, using strategies such as:
• designing our classrooms to incorporate translated-vocabulary as reference points for students;
• allowing time for thinking and discussions in Chinese, drawing on peer-support to help students construct more elaborate ideas in English;
• encouraging students to explain Chinese perspectives on the global issues being discussed;
• giving students responsibility to add new vocabulary to working-walls.
This approach ensures English is contextually relevant and enables them to make connections between their current understanding and new knowledge.
Developing language skills
Student opinions have shown one of the greatest challenges when learning English is the frustration felt when they do not have enough vocabulary to express themselves fully. In Junior High we understand this concern and proactively work to ensure students are always provided with opportunities to expand their vocabulary. Alongside classroom based key word activities, we require students to read in English every day, as this provides them access to an unlimited amount of vocabulary and reinforces understanding of grammatical and syntactical constructs.
Interestingly, studies have shown that the vocabulary required to provide the reader with the ability to comprehend 75% of the majority of ordinary texts is 3,000 words (Hazenenberg and Huistijin, 1996). Developing a reader’s vocabulary further to 5,000 words increases the majority of ordinary texts that can be read to 98% (Nation, 1990; Laufer, 1997 cited in Huckin). This emphasis on increasing familiarity with a range of vocabulary will greatly enhance students’ ability to communicate effectively and construct more elaborate answers to examination questions.
Weekly visits to the school library are used to encourage students to explore different text types and find English books which they enjoy. Research clearly shows a correlation between students’ intrinsic motivation, enjoyment of reading and levels of attainment in standardised tests (Clark and Rumbold, 2006; Clark and Douglas, 2011; Moses and Kelly, 2016). Students in Junior High regularly speak to their teachers about which books they enjoy, and we then recommend series of books corresponding to their interests which challenge them at an appropriate level.
This year we have also introduced Read Theory (www.readtheory.org) as an additional resource which students can use at home to read various English articles, and test their understanding of the texts through quiz questions.
Our students have a variety of different dreams and aspirations for the future, and in Junior High we always encourage our students to aim high. Students have shared with us their hopes to run their own businesses, become ground-breaking medical researchers or top international lawyers. Whichever path our students decide to take, they need to have the ability to constructively share opinions and undertake their roles as responsible global citizens - change makers of the future!
In our daily English lesson, we use a significant amount of questioning to encourage students to reflect on their answers and provide a greater depth to their responses. We challenge students to constantly reflect on ‘why’ they believe something, as this helps their ability to narrate their thought processes and encourages them to consider other peoples’ opinions.
Inevitably, questioning leads to dialogue in the classroom, between students and teachers as opinions and cultural understandings are shared. The importance of allowing time and space for dialogical interactions and critical thinking in the classroom is highlighted by educational researchers as a way of improving participation and student confidence (Shor and Freire, 1987; Fielding and Rudduck, 2002). We understand that not all students have the confidence yet to be able to fully share their ideas, but this is where our scaffolded approach using different strategies such as independent, paired, small group and peer-led tasks enables us to ensure all students are being challenged at an appropriate level for them. We are also developing teaching strategies to utilise technology as a way for students to express their ideas, including platforms such as Padlet and Nearpod.
When students leave Junior High, they will have the skill set to be able to participate in further English studies, with a solid understanding of grammatical and lexical rules. They will also have an ability to communicate meaningfully in English with an understanding of how to use their language skills positively to build successful futures for themselves, and support others.
Baker, C. and Wright, W. E. (2017) Foundations of Bilingual Education and Bilingualism. 6th ed. Bristol: Multilingual Matters.
Clark, C. and Douglas, J. (2011) Young People’s Reading and Writing An indepth study focusing on enjoyment, behaviour, attitudes and attainment. London: National Literacy Trust.
Clark, C. and Rumbold, K. (2006) Reading for Pleasure a research overview. London: National Literacy Trust.
Fielding, M. and Rudduck (2002) ‘The transformative potential of student voice: confronting the power issues’, presented at Annual Conference of the British Educational Research Association, Exeter, Education-Line.
Hazenburg, S. and Hulstijn, J.H. (1996) ‘Defining a Minimal Receptive Second-language Vocabulary for Non-native University Students: An Empirical Investigation’, in Applied Linguistics, vol. 17, pp.145-63.
Laufer, B. (1997) ‘The lexical plight in second language reading: words you don’t know, words you think you know, and words you can’t guess’. In: Huckin, T. (Ed.) Second Language Vocabulary Acquisition, pp.20-34. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Moses, L. and Kelly, L.B. (2016) ‘‘We’re a little loud. That’s because we like to read’: Developing positive views of reading in a diverse, urban first grade’, in Journal of Early Childhood Literacy 0: pp.1-31.
Nation, I.S.P. (1990) Teaching and Learning Vocabulary. New York: Newbury House.
Shor, I. and Freire, P. (1987) A Pedagogy for liberation. Connecticut: Greenwood Publishing.