English Medium Instruction

Shifting Literacy Needs in English Medium Instruction: In Conversation with Nonie Lesaux

Nonie K. Lesaux is the Juliana W. and William Foss Thompson Professor of Education and Society at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. She leads a research program that focuses on promoting the language and literacy skills of today’s children and youth from diverse linguistic, cultural, and economic backgrounds. Nonie sat down recently with Erik Gundersen, Publisher of  National Geographic Learning’s Content-based English programs, to discuss the changing face of English Medium Instruction around the world.

Erik Gundersen: Nonie, you began collaborating with National Geographic Learning (NGL) more than ten years ago as the academic vocabulary advisor on Reach, our English language and literacy program for elementary school students. What drew you to the mission and publishing of National Geographic Learning, and what can you tell us about your experience with NGL over the years? 

Nonie Lesaux: Thanks, Erik. More than a decade ago, I was drawn to collaborating with National Geographic Learning for a few key reasons, all connected to my program of research and the ways it shed light on what’s needed to drive more engaging and rigorous language and literacy learning opportunities.

My research was clear that if we were going to improve learning outcomes for our growing and diverse population of learners, we needed what I call a “knowledge-building approach” to language and literacy instruction—an approach that places rich content and engaging text sets at its core, and focuses on what I think of as three design principles: 1) go for depth of learning; 2) focus on the learning process; 3) make learning interactive.

Around that same time, I met the team that was in the very early stages of planning for what is now Reach. They were looking closely at the latest research, open to thinking differently about the approach to building students’ language and literacy skills, and they were guided by National Geographic Learning’s mission to “bring the world to the classroom,” all of which resonated completely with me—and thus our collaboration began.

Erik: What do you feel is distinctive or special about Reach and the new global edition, Reach Higher? Why do you think students and teachers have responded so positively to the program over the years?

Nonie: There are so many ways that I think these programs are distinctive, and, relatedly, why I think students and teachers have responded so positively to them.

If I had to pick two key features that make them distinct, it’s 1) the rich, engaging content built around an engaging unit theme; and 2) the design of the learning cycles that both create the interactive learning environment that builds language and knowledge, and scaffolds students into rich, engaging content.

Across the nation and the world, I do think there is a widespread desire to engage with richer content and to do so in collaboration and community with other learners, which we know is essential to student growth—but getting there demands much stronger materials and curricular design for educators than has been the case.

Erik: Outside of the US, there’s been a dramatic rise in English Medium Instruction—or EMI—over the past ten years. Ministries, private schools, and parents want students to develop social and academic English skills at an earlier age to prepare for success in life.

When it comes to curriculum, EMI and bilingual schools around the world have turned to US and UK standards and products—but with mixed results. In fact, in your recent TESOL talk, you said the model for English Medium Instruction has not kept pace with the skills students need for future success. What do you mean by this? 

Nonie: Yes, that’s right—I do think the model for English Medium Instruction hasn’t kept pace with population growth and changes, coupled with rapid social and economic development, over the last two decades. Where 20 years ago, there were only 1,000 international schools around the world, largely serving children and youth of expat families, today there are 8,000 international schools serving 4.5 million students—80% of whom are from the school’s host country. By the way, these numbers are estimated to double in the next decade.

This tremendous growth in the population, and growth in diversity of the population, is coupled with dramatic shifts in the skills our students need to thrive today. Globalization, economic and social development have changed the landscape of what it means to be educated and what “counts” as literate, which is on the rise. The next generation needs advanced literacy and communication skills, critical thinking and problem-solving skills, global and cultural knowledge and competencies. Overall, there are several ways the EMI model hasn’t kept pace with rapid change.

Erik: What will learning environments look like in successful EMI schools around the world ten years from now? How do you think instructional approaches and materials will need to change to address these new needs?

Nonie: As I think about what’s needed, building from the research and given the landscape that I just described, big picture, I think the next ten years are really about a shift from traditional ESL instruction for individuals to an advanced literacy environment that is characterized by collaboration. That’s the big picture shift.

To me, getting there means at least three other, more specific shifts: first, I think the EMI model has to be built around scaffolding students into on-grade level text—our language learners are not struggling thinkers and we need to keep them developing their content knowledge and critical thinking skills. Often, we have charged our EMI learners with independent reading of text that is too easy or too challenging. We need to design learning opportunities for access to on-grade level text.

Second, we need to aim for much deeper learning and engagement with the content, to build advanced literacy and communication skills, and promote critical thinking. To date, the model has largely focused on the “coverage” of standards and getting through a large volume of content and text, which, counterintuitively, has often resulted in basic rather than advanced skills. In this case, less is more! 

Third, and finally, today’s model needs to take a global approach to content—we need to design learning environments and opportunities with rich multi-media content, fiction, non-fiction, and visual literacy, and where students everyday lives and contexts are represented. Historically, the model has been developed almost exclusively around literature, often with very U.S.-centric content; both of these features are too narrow and constraining to address the needs and goals of today’s learners.

Erik: It’s been a great pleasure working with you as our program advisor for Lift, our middle school content-based English program launching next year. What do you see as the key challenges 11-15-year-old multilingual learners face in today’s EMI classrooms? In what ways will Lift effectively address those challenges?

Nonie: Like early adolescents and adolescents all around the world, we know that today’s middle school EMI learners are more likely to be academically successful when we create learning environments that match their developmental needs and stage. What does this mean, exactly? Well, our early adolescents and adolescents learn best in environments that keep them very mentally active, engaged with big ideas and questions that they can relate to and dig into in a social learning context.

That means, as we’ve done with Lift, engaging them with rich content and materials where they can see their everyday lives, contexts, and challenges and issues represented. It also means organizing for inquiry, discussion and collaboration with peers to tap their social nature and the benefits of interactive learning that builds meaningful connections to their lives—all features that show in the Lift architecture for deep learning.

And finally, it means creating psychologically safe learning environments—ones filled with predictable routines and ones that make natural the process of learning and practicing—so that our EMI learners are part of a learning environment that encourages and incentivizes discussion and cultivates oral and written skills that fuel their hopes and dreams.

To hear more on this topic, please register for our upcoming Content-based English webinar, Exploring the Shifting Needs in English Medium Instruction, on 14-15 April.

Author: Nonie Lesaux

Nonie K. Lesaux is the Juliana W. and William Foss Thompson Professor of Education and Society at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. She leads a research program that focuses on promoting the language and literacy skills of today’s children and youth from diverse linguistic, cultural, and economic backgrounds.

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