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AMEP Research Centre

Teaching in Action 1 - First language support in adult ESL in Australia

Teaching in Action 1 - First language support in adult ESL in Australia 
Edited by Denise E Murray and Gillian Wigglesworth
Published by NCELTR, Macquarie University 2005

First language support in adult ESL in Australia is a comprehensive report of a recent research project on the use of L1 in adult migrant ESL classrooms in NSW and Victoria. The book is divided into four sections namely:

  1. Background        The first two chapters expound on theoretical principles that support the use of L1 in adult learning settings.
  2. Classroom perspectives        Chapters 3- 13 consist of written accounts of  the participating teachers about important aspects of their experience including:
  • how they use L1 in teaching and the issue of how much and when L1 is used
  • use of bilingual assistants/ volunteers and bilingual resource materials
  • benefits of and limitations in using L1 and
  • feedback from students & bilingual assistants
  1. Where to now?        The last chapter looks at the implications for future research and professional Development for teachers in the area of L1 support in adult ESL classrooms.
  2. Sample activities        The appendix includes some activities used in the classroom during the project.

From my experience teaching literacy and Chinese bilingual classes, I agree with my colleagues who participated in the project that the use of L1 is beneficial to beginners and pre-beginners especially those who are not literate in L1.  L1 support – bilingual teaching and bilingual materials – is paramount, in particular, in a high content course such as a citizenship class.  From the days when English was the only permissible tongue used in the classroom for teacher-students and student-student interaction, it is good news for both teachers and students that the use of L1 has gained acceptance and attention in the adult learning setting.

Nevertheless, there are some students who choose not to join a bilingual class because they want to hear more English in the classroom.  There are also some bilingual teachers who would not teach a bilingual class for fear of being pigeonholed into teaching beginners and pre-beginners only. 

The report has been very honest about difficulties with the optimal use of L1,  as perceived by both critics and supporters.  The last chapter has been devoted to discussion of ways to make the use of L1 more effective , for example:

  • Language and methodology training for both bilingual assistants and classroom teachers who work with them
  • Professional Development for teachers of bilingual classes to develop full awareness of the optimum ways to incorporate their bilingual skills and knowledge into the classroom 
  • More thorough and consistent planning of using L1 to scaffold into English learning as described in chapter 2
  • More accurate bilingual materials made available
  • AMEP service providers consider issues of equity and providing consistent & structured L1 support for needy students

While most teachers think that the use of L1 should be limited to beginner classes, the report suggests that higher level classes might also benefit from it.  Personally, I have found contrastive analysis of L1 & English in the areas of grammar, pronunciation and word meanings beneficial to intermediate and advanced (Level 3-4) students. 

I have enjoyed reading the experience of the teachers and found the chapters on theories and implications both challenging and realistic.  I would recommend First language support in adult ESL in Australia to all teachers and providers who are interested in providing bilingual support to facilitate adult ESL learning.

Reviewed by Lai Ping Yuen, NSW AMES