An Interview with Elizabeth Coelho

Having just published her latest book Language and Learning in Multilingual Classrooms we caught up with author Elizabeth Coelho and asked her a few questions about her work.

How did you first become interested in immigrant and multicultural education?
I became interested in language teaching first. As a young teacher I spent a year teaching English in Bulgaria, which made me realize that simply being a teacher who spoke English was not enough; I needed to know how to teach language in a way that was engaging and effective. During that year I also experienced culture shock and other difficulties associated with being in a place where I did not speak the language or understand the cultural norms. This was the early seventies and I arrived in Bulgaria, naïvely, with a suitcase full of miniskirts… And there were many other occasions when  I misinterpreted the culture. In Bulgaria, for example, shaking the head means “Yes.'” Endless confusion when asking for help or ordering in restaurants. This experience helped me later to understand the adjustment process of the  immigrant children I worked with on my return to the UK and then, later, in Canada.

In the UK I worked in a special program for Creole speaking children from the Caribbean. We were a team of teachers placed in different schools and every Friday we met for professional development. I learned an incredible amount from my students and my peers about teaching, language, culture, and racism. A year or two later I was teaching English as a Second Language to immigrant students from all over the world in a Toronto secondary school, and taking professional courses to become better at it.

Which other researchers in your field do you most admire?
Jim Cummins is always an inspiration. Learning about the value of students’  own languages was pivotal for me. Viv Edwards at the University of Reading also helped me along the same road.

What makes your book unique compared to others published in this field?
I think I occupy a middle space between academic researchers and the teacher in the field. I am first and foremost a teacher, having spent 17 years in the classroom, mainly as an ESL teacher, and then many years in various positions working with or training teachers. I read the work of the researchers (Cummins, Krashen, and others) and talk with teachers who are doing wonderful work in the classroom, and am able to connect theory and practice. This book provides an overview of relevant theory and research and then provides many suggestions for classroom practice based on the theories.

Elizabeth Coelho

Why is it important for children from linguistic minorities to receive special attention in classrooms?
Because we are teaching them in the wrong language and must compensate for that. According to UNESCO, “It is an obvious yet not generally recognised truism that learning in a language which is not one’s own provides a double set of challenges, not only is there the challenge of learning a new language but also that of learning new knowledge contained in that language… Studies have shown that, in many cases, instruction in the mother tongue is beneficial to language competencies in the first language, achievement in other subject areas, and second language learning.” (UNESCO, 2003: p.15)

Unfortunately, providing mother-tongue or dual language instruction may not be feasible in many schools or districts, for political, practical, or philosophical reasons. Therefore we must do all we can to compensate for the fact that we are teaching in the wrong language for many of the students.We do this by providing scaffolded, differentiated instruction and assessment for students at various stages of development in the language of instruction— in all subject areas and at all grade levels. My book provides many practical, curriculum-based examples of how to do that.

What encouragement would you offer to teachers who are struggling with multilingual students in their classrooms?
The task of educating students whose linguistic and cultural backgrounds are different from your own, or from those of the school, may seem overwhelming, especially since most teachers have not received significant preparation for teaching in contexts of linguistic and cultural diversity. But, to put things into perspective, the challenges facing immigrant children and youth, and their parents, are even greater than those facing teachers. We owe it to such children to overcome the challenges that face us as educators, in order to help them meet theirs. In this way educators can help newcomer and minority students to realise their aspirations for a brighter future, and at the same time help to ensure a healthy future for the entire community. This may sound like a daunting responsibility – but most teachers didn’t choose teaching because it seemed like an easy job. Most teachers have the compassion, the imagination, and the passion for teaching that is needed in a profession where the one thing we can be sure of is constant change.

You are involved in a great cross-cultural adventure. You face many challenges, but you will also find your journey illuminating and rewarding as you learn more every day about the backgrounds and experiences of your students. Undoubtedly your view of the world will change, and your awareness of your own cultural background will be enhanced, as you learn from your students about their worlds and as you teach them about yours.

And finally, what is next for you?
At the moment I am working with colleagues at the University of Girona to adapt the book for teachers in Spain, where immigration is a relatively recent phenomenon. Through this process I continue to improve my Spanish and am gaining a new awareness of the challenge of expressing knowledge and sharing perspectives in a language I am still learning.  I am filled anew with admiration for students in elementary and secondary schools who are doing this six hours a day, five days a week, forty weeks a year.

Because I am now living in Spain most of the time I have become increasingly interested in CLIL (Content and Language Integrated Learning). CLIL is an increasingly popular approach to foreign language teaching in Spain and many other countries in Europe, and many teachers are providing instruction through the medium of English in subjects such as Social Studies, Arts, or Science. The learning objectives include language-learning objectives as well as the usual content objectives. I believe many of the approaches and strategies described in my book, that have been used effectively with immigrant and minority students who are learning the language of instruction, are equally useful in the CLIL context. So I am looking for opportunities to share some of this knowledge and experience with CLIL teachers and advisers.

Reference: UNESCO. (2003) Education in a Multilingual World. Paris: UNESCO. Position paper on language and education in multilingual societies. Available at: http://unesdoc.unesco.org/images/0012/001297/129728e.pdf 

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