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The Quest for a Mainstream EAL Pedagogy

by Penny Haworth - 2009

Background/Context: Previous research shows that class teachers often have little training to teach students with English as an additional language (EAL), so they may often operate on a trial-and-error basis, become frustrated easily, feel negative, and have little confidence in their ability to be successful with EAL students. In addition, mainstream teachers may be reluctant to undertake relevant professional development if there are just a few EAL students in the class. Teacher educators may therefore struggle to help these teachers, particularly because the existing literature seldom provides any guidance on how to adapt effective EAL pedagogic frameworks for use in a busy mainstream class setting.

Purpose: This inquiry sheds light on the realities for teachers who have small numbers of EAL students in their mainstream classes, and the factors that influence their practice decisions with regard to these students.

Setting: The investigation was undertaken in four primary schools in the central North Island of New Zealand, a region that characteristically has just small numbers of EAL students. Each of these schools became the setting for the investigation for one term over the course of a four-term school year.

Participants: In each school, 1 teacher in a Year 1-2 class and 1 in a Year 5-6 class took part. The 8 class teachers had a range of general and EAL teaching experience.

Research Design: A qualitative approach, which used in-class observations interspersed with a series of in-depth reflective discussions with each class teacher, allowed for the evolution of in-depth insights over time.

Findings/Results: It was found that some teachers generated strategies for EAL students within the context of regular class instruction, whereas others worked with individual EAL students within the class. However, most teachers reported they experienced stress when trying to balance the individual needs of EAL students with those of the rest of the class. Ultimately, it emerged that the teachers' efforts to develop useful working theories and practices with EAL students were influenced by the dynamic interaction of factors within and across three contextual layers: the personal-professional, the immediate classroom interaction, and the wider educational context.

Conclusions/Recommendations: In conclusion, it is argued that simply providing teachers with professional input on existing EAL pedagogy addresses just one part of the problem. If teacher educators intend to significantly influence teachers' practice decisions with EAL students, it may be important to take a broader sociocultural approach that considers the interaction of factors within and across the three contextual layers of teachers' professional lives.

Many mainstream teachers have a few students in the class who are learning English as an additional language (EAL) alongside mainstream curricular content. This article provides insights into teachers’ quest to develop effective working theories and practices for this situation. In particular, it examines specific strategies that teachers evolved within class, group, and one-to-one teaching situations; identifies factors that influenced the process; discusses teachers’ strategies in the light of current EAL pedagogy for the mainstream setting; and offers recommendations for improved teacher education in this area.

Since the 1980s, strong pressure has been exerted on schools to provide for EAL students within the regular classroom rather than through separate English language classes. In Britain, this began with the Swann Report (1985). Similar sentiments, however, are still evident in the No Child Left Behind Act of 2001 recently introduced in the United States. It appears that initially mainstreaming fits well with the egalitarian perspective of many educators as the placement of EAL students in withdrawal classes quickly came to be seen as inferior to mainstream provisions (Baker, 2006; Goldstein, Campbell, & Cummings, 1997; Roen & Sasser, 1997). It was argued that the mainstream provided greater access to native speaking models, led to less social isolation of EAL students, and resulted in fewer negative stereotypes being associated with students from minority language backgrounds (Baker, 2006). As a result, segregated EAL classes were viewed as a denial of students’ rights to access mainstream curriculum content, and ceased to attract high levels of teaching and resources (Baker, 2006; Goldstein et al.; Tang, 1997).

However, despite the initially positive reaction to mainstreaming, resistance to the mainstream movement has been increasingly encountered (Blackledge, 1994). There have been assertions that politics and propaganda, rather than pedagogy, have become the driving force and that mainstreaming EAL students has simply disguised a reduction in funding for these students (Franson, 1999). Mainstreaming has further been accused of being responsible for the loss in status of EAL programs within schools (Leung & Franson, 2001), and the erosion of perceptions of EAL teachers as experts (Davison, 2001).  

In New Zealand, research has tended to identify a middle position, which is not totally in favor of mainstreaming EAL students. For instance, it has been argued that students who are provided with an EAL transition program before entering the mainstream are more confident, better motivated, happier, and interact more frequently with their English native-speaking peers to gain English language support and input (Syme, 1995). It has also been recommended that schools provide functional, content-based EAL programs, in addition to mainstream immersion, to fill the gap between students’ language development and their content learning in school (Lo, 1998). However, in New Zealand, such studies have made little impact on the reality, in which EAL students may receive only a few hours of additional help a week, and the majority of their time is spent in the mainstream class.

It is internationally recognized that mainstream teachers are often ill prepared for teaching EAL students (Andrews, 1999; Brumfit, 1991; Scollon & Scollon, 1995), and New Zealand is no exception. Although teachers who have received specific training have been found to be more skilled and confident with EAL students (Cameron & Simpson, 2002; Haworth, 2005a), few teachers receive specific, compulsory training in this area (Haworth, 2003; Lo, 1998). They therefore tend to operate on the basis of trial and error (Kennedy & Dewar, 1997) and have little confidence in their ability to be successful with EAL students (Haworth, 2003; Vine, 2003). This article endeavors to shed some light on this situation and offers some suggestions on how to remedy it.

It has been said that international research has so far paid little attention to the development of integrated language and content programs for the mainstream class environment (Davison & Williams, 2001; Kaufman, 1997), but a number of relevant theories for teaching EAL students in the mainstream can be found in the literature. These theories are summarized in the next section, followed by information about the study that is central to this article. Case study data are then presented and discussed, illustrating strategies that individual teachers employed in working with the EAL students in their classes and highlighting factors that influenced practice decisions.


The drive to integrate language and curriculum is thought to have begun in 1975, when the Bullock Report on English across the curriculum (EAC) recommended a focus on students’ writing as a way to enhance learning and thinking (Crandall, 1995). Early research in this area included a functional analysis of the English language demands of mainstream curriculum areas (Houston, 1986). However, with the evolution of EAC into language across the curriculum (LAC), it became clear that the approach had broadened to support the learning of all students rather than specifically those with EAL. Whitehead (1992), for instance, stated, “The responsibility of language across the curriculum teachers is to lead students towards independence in learning by teaching them how to use language and how to think strategically” (p. 8).

In recent literature, the term content-based instruction (CBI) has emerged. This approach places emphasis on the macro-level structure of texts; for example, Mohan’s Knowledge Model (1986; cited in Mohan, Leung, & Davison, 2001) uses graphic organizers to illustrate how different types of academic text are constructed and identifies six core knowledge structures: description, sequence, choice, classification, principles, and values.

A cognitive emphasis is often visible in theories related to teaching EAL students in the mainstream context. For example, Chamot and O’Malley’s (1994) Cognitive Academic Language Learning Approach (CALLA) focused on the development of specific learner strategies to support both language and content learning (Snow & Brinton, 1997). The cognitive dimension is also evident in Cummins’s (1984) progression from basic interpersonal communicative skills (BICS) to cognitive academic language proficiency (CALP). The latter was further developed into a matrix in which four quadrants illustrate a progression from less cognitively demanding, familiar, and concrete context-embedded activities to those that are more abstract and context reduced and incur greater cognitive demand (Baker, 2006).

Enabling EAL learners to cope with the demands of academic texts and contexts is also inherent in the instructional strategies put forward in Echevarria and Graves’ (2003) Sheltered Instruction Observation Protocol (SIOP). This approach promotes academic literacy through identifying the language demands of content areas, emphasizing academic vocabulary development, including language objectives for all learners, and making links to students’ background knowledge. A number of similar sheltered instruction models draw on the work of Cummins (1984) and Krashen (1982) in creating comprehensible English language input, such as Specifically Designed Academic Instruction in English (SDAIE).

Models for sheltered instruction were originally developed for intensive EAL settings, but it is likely that teaching a few EAL students in a mainstream setting is more complex than teaching EAL only in an intensive context. Teachers in sheltered situations may more easily discern the rationale for change when only EAL students are being taught. However, changes to central beliefs and related teaching practices usually occur only as a last resort (Pajares, 1992), so it may be more difficult to convince mainstream teachers to change their practices when just a few EAL students are in the class.

Although theories regarding teaching of content to EAL students appear to have strong relevance for mainstream education, few mainstream teachers in New Zealand are familiar with this knowledge (Franken & McComish, 2003; Haworth, 2005b). In fact, international research shows that mainstream teachers frequently report feeling frustrated trying to teach and/or assess EAL students (Franson, 1999; Johnston, 1999; Penfield, 1987). Some teachers may also have negative attitudes toward teaching EAL students within a mainstream class (Johnston; Penfield). There has been no extensive exploration of why this happens or what can be done about the situation. The current article therefore provides some useful insights into the realities for mainstream teachers with a few EAL students in the class and initiates discussion about how to make EAL pedagogy more accessible to these teachers.


The ethnic and linguistic diversity of New Zealand has increased dramatically in recent years (Peddie, 2003), to the extent that 15% of children under the age of 15 years now speak English as an additional language (Franken & McComish, 2003). This state of affairs has left policy makers scrambling to catch up. Nonetheless, it is imperative that “teachers and teaching should become objects of scrutiny and critique right at key junctures of social, economic, and cultural change” (Luke, 2004, p. 1423), hence, the study reported in this article is a timely one.

One key aspect of the sudden increase in ethnic and linguistic diversity in New Zealand is that it has not been evenly spread. Although in some parts of Auckland (the largest city in New Zealand), EAL students may constitute up to 80% of a school’s population, the majority of EAL students (69%) are spread more thinly throughout the rest of the country (Franken & McComish, 2003). The four New Zealand primary schools that participated in the current study could therefore be described as typical, in that EAL students constituted up to just 10% of the school’s total population. Such schools face additional challenges because EAL is often relinquished to a minority position. Because of the prevailing per capita funding policy, EAL students generate little extra money in the school budget. In addition, not all teachers have EAL students in their classes, so mainstream teachers’ motivation to undertake relevant professional development is not high. Furthermore, formal structures to facilitate collegial support related to EAL teaching practice seldom exist (Haworth, 2005b).

Four schools participated in the current investigation, with one becoming the context in each term over the course of the four-term school year. Schools were selected to represent a range of socioeconomic levels, including one decile nine school (close to the highest level on the 10-point scale), two decile six schools, and one decile three school. For ethical reasons, all names of schools, teachers, and students referred to in this article are pseudonyms.

Eight class teachers took part in the study, with 1 from the junior area (Years 1 and 2) and 1 from the senior area (Years 5 and 6) of each school. Teachers were collaboratively nominated from within the school setting, so they were likely to be regarded as reasonably successful practitioners with EAL students within their school context. An effort was also made to ensure varied teaching experience across participants (see Table 1). Two teachers were highly experienced, Sita (40 years teaching experience) and Janette (18 years). Three teachers were moderately experienced: Trish (12 years), Kate (9 years), and Jennifer (7 years). Three other teachers, Kathy, Anna, and Nina, were relatively inexperienced, with each being in her 3rd year of teaching. Only Sita, Kate, and Jennifer had any significant prior experience teaching EAL students at the start of their participation in the study, and only Sita and Kate had received any formal professional input on EAL teaching. Not surprisingly, all the teachers who participated were women because this is the predominant gender for primary school teachers (Cochran-Smith & Zeichner, 2005). It is, however, pertinent that women tend to be more positively oriented toward EAL students (Youngs & Youngs, 2001).

Table 1. Participating Class Teachers’ Relevant Qualifications and Experience



Teaching Experience


With EAL Students

EAL-Related Qualifications



9 years

London – Bengali Students

EAL support

1 undergraduate Teaching of EAL (TEAL) paper



40 years

Taught Hindi and  English as a second language in Fiji

EAL support and EAL family support

Regular classes (a range of levels)

TEAL certificate.

3-month course: Teaching English as a foreign language.

Conferences on whole language & language across the curriculum.

Consultancy to Fiji Ministry of Education

School professional development on multiple intelligences.



12 years

Proficient EAL students in regular classes (junior)

General and curriculum-related professional development (e.g., oral language course) but no specific EAL training



3 ½ years

Regular classes (senior) – 1st with EAL students

None remembered



3 years

Regular classes (junior) – all with EAL students

None remembered



3 years

Regular classes (senior) – all with EAL students

None remembered



7 years

Regular classes (junior, but trained for senior) – similar groups of EAL students

School professional development on cooperative learning; behavior management; multiple intelligences.



18 years

Regular classes (range of positions in low socioeconomic schools)

Taught special needs (4 years)

University papers on special needs; linguistics; sociolinguistics.


The investigative design allowed insights to be progressively evolved over the course of the study, in line with the unfolding interpretative nature of qualitative research (Eisner, 1998; Erickson, 1991; Wolcott, 2001; Woods, 1996). However, the design took a different approach from previous studies that have focused on EAL students in the mainstream, which have tended to use a single method of investigation—for example, using a single survey or a set of interviews conducted at one point in time (e.g., Franson, 1999; Johnston, 1999; Penfield, 1987). In addition, mainstream settings with just small numbers of EAL students have not previously been the focus of any research, although this situation is not unusual internationally.

The study included a total of 133 hours of in-class observations, ranging between 15 and 19 hours in each class. Observations focused on reading and writing—key CBI skills (Gibbons, 2002)—although the researcher would sometimes be invited to other activities. Rather than examining interactions within arbitrary, prefixed time periods that might fail to capture holistic events (Watson-Gegeo, 1988; Wragg, 1994), observations were recorded in a naturalistic narrative style, similar to that used by Cullen and Allsop (1999). An effort was also made to employ a shifting focus in order to maintain the qualitative perspective, so “one’s focus moves constantly between the figure and the ground—like a zoom lens on a camera—to catch the fine detail of what individuals are doing and to keep a perspective on the context of that behaviour” (Wolcott, 1988, p. 203). The researcher’s reflections were also written alongside observations, in a separate column, and notes were made about the class organization (e.g., teaching whole class, small group, pairs, individuals), when transitions occurred between lessons, and the timing of particular interaction segments within lessons.

Interspersed with the classroom observations was a series of reflective discussions undertaken at the beginning, in the middle, and at the end of the term of each teacher’s participation. The first discussion aimed to build rapport as well as increase insights into the teacher’s prior professional experiences, general teaching philosophy and beliefs, and goals for the EAL students. Observations following this contributed to a bank of critical incidents that provided a key focus for subsequent discussions. The researcher used her expertise as an EAL teacher educator to identify those incidents that she wanted to actively pursue, but the teacher held the ultimate power to introduce, extend, or curtail discussion according to what was meaningful to her. In addition, through the process of reflective discussion, some incidents that initially appeared to be small or simply typical ultimately emerged as critical (Tripp, 1993; Wragg, 1994). Although this procedure is similar to action research, teachers were not required to take action because that was not the central purpose of the investigation, and no professional input was provided on EAL pedagogies.

In the first round of the study, a number of small tools using a think-aloud strategy were added to the reflective discussions to increase comparative insights into specific areas that were emerging as significant. During the first discussion, each teacher was asked to rank her confidence in working with EAL students on a 4-point scale and to talk about the factors influencing this. Teachers were also asked to decide where their practice fit on a spectrum between class and individual focus. In the final discussion, teachers described their ideal teacher of EAL students and evaluated their progress toward this goal. They also ranked and discussed their stress levels with regard to teaching EAL students in various class groupings.


Qualitative researchers work with the immediacy of the data as they evolve and within the context of that evolution (Watson-Gegeo, 1988). Qualitative analysis must also account for both macro- and micro-level conditions and how these interact with the complex dynamics of real life (Strauss & Corbin, 1998). Hence, although the focus was on gaining insights into teachers’ practice decisions with regard to the EAL students, the challenge was to find a way to represent this within the complexity of each teacher’s work reality. As the investigation progressed, significant factors (such as confidence) that were common to a number of teachers were identified. Any data that did not fit with patterns discovered were also noted, and this contributed new and useful perspectives in the emerging analysis.

Qualitative analysis is assisted by searching for a small number of broad categories that encompass all the data (Wolcott, 2001), and it emerged that the evolution of teachers’ working theories and practices for EAL students were influenced by three distinct contextual layers of their working lives (see Figure 1). These layers can be represented in an ecological way as nested environments (Bronfenbrenner, 1979). In the central layer, teachers were influenced by the personal-professional context, which included each individual’s unique combination of past experiences and knowledge. Beyond this, teachers were constantly influenced by their interactions with EAL students within the immediate classroom context. In the outer contextual layer, the wider educational culture informed teachers’ professional knowledge, values, and beliefs. Dynamic interaction occurring within and between these three contextual layers also impacted on the nature of working theories and practices that were ultimately evolved. It is within this complex context that teachers’ working theories and practices need to be examined in light of available theories for teaching mainstream content to EAL students.

Figure 1. Contextual Layers Influencing Teachers’ Work With EAL Students

click to enlarge


Teachers’ interactions with EAL students occurred within two key domains. In the first of these domains, instruction took place as a result of teachers’ consciously planned interactions with the whole class or with smaller instructional groups. In the second domain, unplanned one-to-one support occurred spontaneously in response to unexpected learning needs that the teacher encountered. In this article, data provide insights into teachers’ work within each of these domains.

Eight teacher case studies were compiled. Excerpts from these are presented, revealing the diversity of responses that teachers generated. The ensuing discussion interprets and gives some insights into how teachers evolved theories and practices. In doing so, components from across the three contextual layers of the personal-professional, the classroom interaction, and the educational contexts are woven together. This provides a canvas against which to examine the adequacy of current EAL pedagogy for the mainstream situation in which there may be just a few EAL students.


The two most experienced teachers in the study, Janette and Sita, strongly believed that mainstream instruction of EAL students was most effectively accomplished within the context of the class and formal instructional groupings. This might suggest that teachers, over the years, had become more realistic about what could be accomplished in a mainstream class. However, Nina, who was in her 3rd year of teaching, had a similar reaction and, ultimately, three separate views emerged on why it was better to teach EAL students within regular instructional settings.

Janette. Janette, a teacher with 18 years of experience, commented that if she tried to teach every student in the class, each would get only “5 or 6 minutes [each day] if you’re lucky.” Janette would generally teach the whole of her Year 5–6 class when she was “starting off things” or “modeling” what was required in a task. However, she found the presence of EAL students in this situation to be particularly stressful. She ranked having EAL students in class during instruction times at a 9 on the 10-point stress scale (her highest level of stress), commenting that she was always keenly aware of those with low English proficiency who were “on the fringe” and not fully able to understand what was going on.

Janette’s unease with EAL students in the whole-class situation was surprising. Not only did she endeavor to include suitable content vocabulary, but she also frequently used visuals on the board and used graphic organizers to highlight text structure when teaching the class. These strategies fit with Mohan’s (2001) knowledge model and with other EAL models that emphasize the use of concrete visual strategies to make content more meaningful (e.g., Cummins, 1984; and sheltered instruction strategies). The explanation for the puzzle finally emerged when Janette was asked why she employed these strategies, and she clarified that it was to assist children with special learning and behavioral needs (an area in which she held specialist qualifications). She did not connect these strategies with helping EAL students. It also emerged that Janette did not actively teach the EAL students until they had acquired English fluency sufficient to participate in the mainstream. In the meantime, she would buddy them with other students:

I think the most valuable thing for children who don’t speak English is using their peers. . . They pick up colloquialisms better and . . . it’s survival language for them too if they have to interact with other kids. . . . They don’t think they’re being judged . . . I guess it’s how they learn when they are in new entrants. . . . That’s where you learn your structures. . . . That gives you your basic understanding, doesn’t it? . . . and it’s not as threatening as coming to the teacher.

Later Janette commented that she felt she lacked the necessary “specialist knowledge” and was unsure what to give EAL students to do apart from “just busy stuff.” This perhaps gives some insight into why she initially avoided direct teaching of individual EAL students, why her stress was high in this situation, and why her confidence in working with EAL students was also low (at just 2 on the 4-point scale). This contrasted with her general teaching confidence, which she ranked at 4, the highest point on the scale.

Nina. Nina, who was in her 3rd year of teaching, also took a class-based approach to teaching the EAL students in her Year 1–2 class, explaining that the class environment was “where the teaching will happen.” She pointed out that it was possible to take this approach because the EAL students in her room were really bilinguals; all could communicate in English to some degree. She admitted that it would be harder to take such an approach with EAL students who had very little English proficiency. Nonetheless, she still placed teaching EAL students as part of the class at a 9 on the 10-point scale (her highest level of stress). This suggests that her class-based approach with the EAL students was not entirely without its challenges.

Nina related how she had once tried to provide the class with a writing template using who, what, when, where, why. Such templates are advocated by Gibbons (2002) for facilitating EAL students’ writing in English. However, Nina commented that the template caused the students’ writing to become rather clinical and to lose expressive impact, In fact, Greta, the student with the lowest English proficiency in Nina’s class, had tried to put all her facts into just one sentence. Clearly, Nina required professional support to understand when and how to use such templates in her class. Unproductive encounters like this may explain why Nina ranked her confidence with EAL students at a 2 on the 4-point scale, in contrast to her general teaching confidence, which she ranked at 3. The fact that this was a smaller margin of difference than that noted by Janette may perhaps be attributed to the higher level of English language proficiency among EAL students in Nina’s class.

Further insights into Nina’s rationale for a class-based approach were gained when Nina reflected on how she met individual needs. She noted that she would like some “little strategies—ways of being able to go and see those children without everyone else realizing that you’re . . .  spending more time working with them.” Nina’s comments highlight the tension that teachers may encounter in attempting to reconcile the needs of individuals with their role as a class practitioner. Constructing effective strategies that provide each student with an equal opportunity to succeed within a class context will continue to be difficult while teachers perceive that there are opposing social pressures requiring them to treat all students equally.

Sita. Sita, a multilingual teacher who originally taught in Fiji, was the only participant to rank her confidence in teaching EAL students at the same level as her general teaching, placing both at the top of the 4-point scale. Her professional confidence in these two contexts may be due not only to her 40 years teaching experience but also to her long involvement in EAL teaching—the most extensive of all participants.

Sita asserted that class and small-group teaching were more efficient than teaching individuals. Her rationale for this belief may be linked to her cultural background and her extensive experience with students from Asian and Pacific Island nations. In particular, she noted how targeting individual individuals within her Year 5–6 class might cause them to feel uncomfortable in the class, so she chose to adopt low-key strategies to address individual needs: “I don’t want them to feel they are conspicuous or they’re being pulled out for something. . . . I have to be subtle about it.” In line with this approach, Sita would regularly rove the class between formally planned instructional sessions to survey how individual students were coping. She claimed that this was linked to her class-based approach: “I do it to all of them as a random sort of thing.” Interestingly, this stance seems to have some parallels with Nina’s desire to be perceived as treating everyone equally.

The educational context that informed Sita’s working theories and practices for EAL students was informed not only by her past experiences but also by her present reality. For example, Sita was a keen advocate of the multiple intelligences approach to catering to individual needs within the class, and she regularly referred to De Bono’s (2000) thinking hats. In the excerpt that follows, Sita assists Atma, an Indian student in the class, to extend his “yellow hat” statement to identify good things about a completed task.



Sita asks the class to share yellow hat statements. A student refers to how quickly the task was done, but Sita explains that the statement should focus on the actual task, not the time taken to complete it.

Atma raises his hand next and when Sita asks him, he responds, “I did good drawing and colouring.”

Sita queries, “What does good drawing mean?”

Atma replies, “It looks real.”

Sita nods emphatically.

The fact that Sita’s knowledge was initially generated in an EAL teaching situation perhaps explains her high confidence with regard to her practice with these students. For example, when talking about drama techniques that she regularly used with the class, she explained how these originally came from a text (Whittington, 1967) that she had used to teach English to young students in Fiji. During her participation in the study, she also became more aware of how such activities could extend EAL students’ understanding and vocabulary: “When I planned miming it wasn’t to affect written [work], but it has affected it.”

It was somewhat intriguing that Sita did not appear to be searching for fresh EAL theories that were specific to her mainstream context. Instead, she consciously selected relevant strategies from broader educational theories encountered in more recent years. It may be that the small number of EAL students in this setting is an important factor in her selection process, but the ever-present pressure to keep class practice up to date is perhaps another motivation. As Hammerly (1991) once commented, “neophilia (strong attraction to the new) is characteristic of modern life” (p. 14). In the absence of any recent input specific to EAL teaching, Sita’s recent strategies were necessarily selected from more generic teaching innovations that had been promoted as part of her school’s program of professional development.


All teachers in the study included EAL students in regular instructional groups within the mainstream class. It is therefore interesting to explore how individual EAL needs were addressed by class teachers when working with small instructional groups.

Janette. Janette, whom we met earlier, commented, “At least in a group I’m sure that I see everybody.” However, including EAL students in her Year 5–6 instructional groups was not without its own trials. This is illustrated in the following interaction that took place while Janette was working with a small reading group that included Pei Fen, a Chinese-speaking student.



Janette asks the reading group what the poem is about. A student responds with the title: “Excuses.” Janette comments wryly on how she gets lots of excuses when the students practise for the cross country race which is coming up soon. Then she asks, “What’s an excuse?”

After a short time, [perhaps realising her question was quite abstract] she asks for examples of good excuses from students. After a couple of examples, she provides a definition: “So, excuses are things you say when you don’t want to do something.” Janette then follows up by asking: “What’s a good excuse when you don’t want to do your homework?”

Pei Fen has been watching and has not yet contributed. Janette begins to go around the group, taking suggestions from each person. She comes to Pei Fen last and there is a long pause.

Janette pats her on the knee and encourages her by repeating the question. There is another long pause.

Janette clicks her fingers at others in the group who have become restless and begun talking amongst themselves.

Finally, Pei Fen offers an excuse: “I can’t write because I have a sore thumb.”

Janette praises her and quickly gives another example: “I can’t do my homework because I have to help my Dad on the farm.” She sends the group away to list ten good excuses why they can’t go swimming in their homework books.

When discussing this incident, Janette talked about her awareness of Pei Fen in the group and identified a range of strategies she employed to meet her needs. For instance, she left Pei Fen until last so that she could benefit from the modeling provided by other group members. She provided examples to clarify the concept of an excuse. She allowed Pei Fen additional time to process English input and to formulate a reply. However, it was also evident that Janette’s attention was divided. Although there were two Chinese girls in the group, the remainder of the group was composed entirely of boys whom Janette described as reluctant readers. That Janette was acutely aware of these boys can be seen in how she quickly picked up the pace after they became restless during the long wait for Pei Fen’s reply.

It was not clear whether Janette had considered the cultural implications of “inventing excuses” (which might be perceived by some students as lying), but she did acknowledge that it was not easy to select reading material that would appeal to the boys and the two EAL students. Indeed, overall, Janette seemed aware that the situation was not ideal in many ways, but she appeared to be unable to discern a viable alternative. For instance, she asserted that there was insufficient time to work with the EAL students either individually or as a separate group—a stance that may have been connected to her lack of knowledge and confidence in this area.

For Janette, the needs of the reluctant readers became a dominant factor within the group interaction, and the collective pressure from this larger and more dominant subgroup ultimately overshadowed the EAL students’ needs. When faced with such situations, it may be difficult for teachers to focus their attention on EAL needs, especially given that EAL students are frequently categorized as quiet cooperative students (Haworth, 2003).

Jennifer. Jennifer, a teacher of 7 years’ experience, also included EAL students in regular instructional groups, but she did so in a way that allowed her to attend to individual EAL needs. For example, in one instructional reading group that included a low-proficiency EAL student from her Year 1–2, class she would first ask the children to listen and follow the text with a finger while she read aloud. After that, the children all read the text together while Jennifer scanned the group to assess individual progress. When students then returned to their tables to do their independent activities, Jennifer retained the EAL student, providing him with an additional opportunity to reread the text without the support of the group. Repeated reading would not generally be advocated as a mainstream strategy in teaching reading, but Jennifer reported that it caused only minimal disruption to her instructional routine, it allowed her to provide additional input without holding up the group, and it helped her to assess the student’s progress more effectively. She commented, “Once you’ve got most [of the students] working happily you can pick out one or two that you’ve really got to do something else for.” For her, it seems that addressing EAL needs was simply a matter of class organization. In this, it may be significant that she had taught the same class level in the same school for the whole of her career. In addition, Chinese and Samoan families had been a stable feature in the school community for many years. Hence, teaching a few EAL students in the mainstream class had simply become normal practice for Jennifer, as seen in her words: “It’s just a matter of deciding, because what works with the EAL students works for all children.”

Being able to engage in extended reflection on teaching a similar group of EAL students within a mainstream context may also have enabled Jennifer to construct effective working theories and build positive confidence. She ranked her confidence in teaching EAL children at 3 on the 4-point scale, whereas her general teaching confidence was just a little higher, close to top of the 4-point scale (not 4, as she wanted to leave some room for ongoing improvement). The relatively small discrepancy between Jennifer’s general and EAL teaching confidence may be partly explained by her admission that she did not see herself as a language teacher, feeling more confident in such areas as science and mathematics; she placed teaching physical education in the lowest position on her confidence scale (at just 2). Although she did not regard herself as having any EAL teaching expertise because of her lack of prior professional input on teaching EAL students, she asserted, “I feel able to cope with them [the EAL students] at a basic level.” One is left to wonder about the added value that relevant EAL pedagogical input might have had for Jennifer.


All teachers provided for EAL students in planned ways through class instruction and small groups, and several teachers also provided intermittent input (impromptu help) for individual EAL students when they saw the need. At first it was thought that this strategy was due to inexperience, but some more experienced teachers also employed this strategy, so it is useful to look further at this data.

Kathy. The need to balance the needs of EAL students against those of other students in the class was often represented as a moral dilemma by teachers in the study. As Kathy remarked,

I can still spend some time with Jane [a Korean student known only by her English name], but am I spending enough time with the others as well? And that’s the balance really, isn’t it, because she has so many needs; but then, so do the rest of the class.

Kathy was in her 3rd year of teaching, and Jane, who had low English proficiency, was her first encounter with an EAL student. She did not recall having had any relevant professional input for teaching EAL students, and in describing the experience, she said, “I felt like I was put in a 10-foot pool and I couldn’t reach the bottom.” She rated her confidence with EAL students as a 1 on the 4-point scale most days, rising to a 2 on some days. Her confidence also appeared to be diminished by comparisons with the EAL teacher: “She [the EAL student] had a good relationship with [the EAL teacher aide] straight away . . . and yet I am with her all day.” In contrast, her general teaching confidence fluctuated between 3 and 4 most days.

Kathy tried hard to include Jane in her Year 5–6 class but confessed that this was not easy because “she really needs that extra help to write every sentence.” Most days, however, Kathy would schedule several times to work individually with Jane, and this occurred mainly through intermittent input, or short bursts of support while concurrently coping with other class demands. This style of interaction is illustrated in the following episode in which students are deciding which activities will be easy or difficult at the forthcoming class camp.








Jane is seated on the corner of her table group. Kathy brings a chair alongside her and sits down saying, “What things did you find easy or difficult?”

Another child interrupts with a question, and Kathy turns away from Jane to deal with this first. She then asks the class to bring the noise level down a bit.

She turns back to Jane again and goes through the list of camp activities that she has recorded in her exercise book asking for each item: “Do you find that easy to do?” However, after a few choices, there are two further interruptions from other students.

Kathy finally turns back to Jane again and helps her to identify more things that she thinks she will find easy to do at the camp.

Kathy stops and asks the class (in Maori) to put their hands on their heads. And talks to them about the noise level.

She then continues with Jane. Snippets of her remarks can be heard: “Good, good . . . Good spelling . . . If you look at the page before you will know how to spell it.” She finishes with, “I’m going to give that a big tick. That’s perfect. Now, miss a line – [write up the heading]: Things I find difficult.”

Kathy moves away to check on the rest of the class who seem to have noticeably lost focus while she has been working with Jane. Meanwhile, Jane copies the new heading from the board. This is quickly completed and she stops working.

Kathy returns to her seat alongside Jane and says, “What did you find difficult? Is that going to be easy or hard?” She points to one item at a time. Jane tells Kathy that she doesn’t like going for walks. Kathy repeats this and prompts: “Good, write that down . . . Good sounding out! . . . What do you like? . . . Do you like. . . ? Keeping your room tidy? Ah, do that one. Keeping my room tidy (says this slowly then repeats it one word at a time as Jane writes it down). Last word—tidy.”

Another student comes up with a query, then Kathy continues with Jane again: “Good, miss a line and write: “My personal goals and challenges.”

At this point, 2 small children appear in the classroom with a message. Kathy stops, writes a response on the clipboard, and the visitors leave.

Kathy checks on how Jane is doing then sits back to allow her to copy from the board.

Kathy tells the class that she loves the way they are working and asks a student to put a marble in the class jar (the class gets a reward when all the marbles are in the jar).

Kathy turns back to Jane and says, “Right, one more thing to do.” At that point another student comes up for some help. Kathy completes what she was saying to Jane and then turns to the waiting student.

The intermittent input that Kathy provided often resembled a semidictation exercise primarily aimed at completing a written task in correct English. It was especially difficult to cope with Jane’s high needs for one-to-one support while simultaneously supporting other students in the class, and Kathy frequently had to ask the class to work more quietly because Jane spoke so softly. Understandably, it was not always possible to sustain intermittent input. As Kathy commented, “There are days when I get to see the whole class; but there are other days you know that Jane does need help; but sorry, not today.” Nonetheless, she continued with her efforts to provide Jane with individualized support to complete class tasks throughout the term in which she participated in the study. It seems likely that she would have been able to do this more efficiently, and with less stress, if she had received some relevant professional input to assist her in coping with Jane’s needs.

Trish. Caring for individuals was particularly important to Trish, who was in her 12th year of teaching. She would often train her Year 1–2 class to recite phrases like, “There’s no such word as can’t!” However, it was difficult to implement such ideals with 5- year-old Zayhed, as can be seen in the incident that follows.





Trish tells the class to put their books in the box and get out a maths activity. Zayhed asks twice for confirmation, saying, “Mrs T, Mrs T?” each time. The first time Trish quietly confirms that he is right, but the second time she does not respond.

Zayhed stands by the maths activity shelves, glancing from time to time at Trish who is helping individuals complete their writing.

Zayhed continues to stand by the maths activity shelf. He has his hands in his pockets. Every so often, he can be heard saying, “Mrs T, Mrs T,” very quietly; but she continues working with other students.

Zayhed tries again: “Mrs T, Mrs T.” As he stands beside the shelves, other children come over, collect activity boxes, and move on to work. However, Zayhed seems frozen in the midst of the ongoing activity of the junior class.


Zayhed had been in the class for several months but, as just shown, he was still uncertain when he was expected to act independently. Trish, in turn, found it frustrating that Zayhed could not yet follow simple class routines. She explained that when she gave him a buddy for support he became overly reliant, and the other child’s work began to suffer. She was also unable to employ Zayhed as a buddy for newer arrivals because he needed more help than other students who had been in her class for a much shorter time. Trish therefore felt that all the responsibility for supporting Zayhed fell on her shoulders: “At the start he wouldn’t say anything, wouldn’t do anything without me physically taking him and making him do it.” It is clearly very demanding for a class teacher to constantly have to provide a high level of individualized support.

In contrast to her general teaching confidence, which she ranked as 4, at the top of the scale, Trish placed her confidence with EAL students at a 2 on the 4-point scale. She felt that a key reason for this was her previous unsuccessful experience with an EAL student who, like Zayhed, was initially unable to communicate with her in English. Trish was afraid of upsetting Zayhed because she wanted him to be happy in class, so she was uncertain about how to proceed, noting, for example, “I didn’t want to push him just in case he didn’t know.”

Trish’s confidence was also influenced by the linguistic and cultural distance (Schumann, 1976) that she perceived between herself and Zayhed. Whereas she regularly used phrases from French and Maori language in the classroom, she had been unsuccessful in her endeavor to learn Arabic to communicate with Zayhed. In addition, she sometimes felt culturally uncertain in her interactions with him, as on one occasion when Zayhed had recoiled in response to her hug thanking him for a Mothers’ Day gift. By the middle of the term, the complexities of the challenges she faced had impacted on how Trish felt about supporting Zayhed:

I get the feeling that he [Zayhed] has had everything done for him . . . [so] I am going to do everything for him, because maybe his Mum does everything for him. . . . Well, uh-uh, not in this class! And yeah, it really annoyed me . . . not because I didn’t want to help him, because I did; but after the first 2 weeks, 3, 4 weeks, 5, 6 weeks, it’s like “I’m not doing this. I don’t want to do this for the new entrants that come into school.”

Trish’s case suggests that even experienced teachers may be reduced to the level of novices when they are ill-prepared to meet the challenges posed by individual EAL students, and most particularly those with low English language proficiency. It is not certain how much knowledge of pedagogy for teaching EAL in the mainstream would help with this. However, Trish’s case does highlight that a high level of general teaching confidence may be a factor in teacher perseverance. The extra time spent consciously reflecting on her practice through her participation in the study may have also helped sustain Trish’s efforts with Zayhed. Indeed, she noted that these sessions had given her “food for thought.” As a result, she began to find strategies that worked. For example, she found it helped to use facial expressions and gestures (such as opening her hands like a book) to convey her meaning to Zayhed. She discovered that Zayhed could indicate his understanding receptively, for example, by continuing a pattern she had modeled in mathematics. She also found it was best to give direct instructions; for example, when she wanted Zayhed to take off his jersey, it was more effective to say, “Take off your jersey,” supported with an appropriate gesture, rather than asking him, “Aren’t you hot?”

Anna. Anna was in her 3rd year of teaching, and Isaac, a speaker of Spanish and Hebrew in her Year 5–6 class, was the first EAL student she had encountered. In the incident that follows, Anna works with Isaac individually although he is part of an instructional group recording facts about the forthcoming national election.




The other students have begun writing, so Anna brings Isaac around to sit beside her.

As she begins to work with him other students come up with questions, but she sends each away saying, “Talk to someone else in your group.”

Anna turns her attention back to Isaac who has been sitting waiting quietly. She tells him to look for dates on the brainstorm sheets constructed earlier in the morning and which are now displayed at the front of the class. When he appears unable to do this, Anna tells him which line the date is on, and she then provides him with a sentence template: “On the—What date?”

Isaac provides the answer and looks at Anna. Once she confirms he is right he begins to write.

Next Anna asks Isaac, “What’s going to happen on this date in 2002?”

He answers, “an election.”

Anna nods and gestures towards his book. Isaac writes it down, then asks, “Do you know what an election is?”

Isaac shrugs his shoulders. Anna explains. Isaac writes. This sequence (“teacher questions—student non-verbally indicates he does not know—teacher explains— student writes”) continues, interspersed with Anna occasionally sounding out a word for Isaac. Finally Anna says, “Read it to me,” and Isaac does (very quietly). When he finishes Anna summarizes the concept: “We choose the best person in an election.”

By now others in the group have also finished their work and, one by one, they stand up, ready to have their work checked. Anna tells the class, “It’s time to change [groups],” and they move off.

Looking at how this incident ended, it is easy to see why Anna depicted her challenge as trying to find ways to spend “more time with Isaac without spending too much time with him.” The pressure on Anna to meet Isaac’s needs as quickly as possible seems to have caused her, like Kathy, to adopt a dictation style of teaching that focused predominantly on task completion. This may be understandable because time spent supporting an individual EAL student quickly eroded time for other students, and Anna later commented that she had not expected that Isaac would need such extensive support.

Despite the apparent challenges, Anna continued to work intermittently with Isaac over the term, and this appeared to benefit not only Isaac’s learning but also the development of Anna’s informal EAL pedagogy. Evidence of Anna’s progress is illustrated in an incident observed at the end of the term. To support Isaac in writing a letter to the Big Bad Wolf as part of a class unit on fairy tales, Anna used an outline text structure similar to those advocated in Mohan’s Knowledge Model. She also encouraged Isaac to ask questions to clarify the task requirements, a strategy that fits well with CALLA (Chamot & O’Malley, 1994). Anna had not received any formal professional input on these theories, but it seems reasonable to assume that her progress would have been much faster if she had begun with that knowledge, and she might also have been more confident in her initial interactions with Isaac.

Kate. Kate, a teacher with 9 years of experience, worked in a more focused way to enhance the individual participation and learning of Plato (from Greece) and Kuria (from Papua New Guinea) within her Year 1–2 class. She explained at the start of the study, “At the back of my mind there is always the individual and the needs there.” This philosophy is clearly visible in the series of incidents described next that occurred as Kate moved around various group tables to provide support for individual children during written language time.




Kuria picks up the dictionary from where it has been left on the table by another pupil and looks at it. His big, dark eyes beneath his curly black hair widen with interest. When Kate and another student return to the table, Kuria gives the dictionary back to the student. As Kate begins to help the student to use the dictionary Kuria is still paying attention, but says nothing.

Plato is now watching what’s happening too. They both watch and listen intently as Kate prompts the other student, “Where will you find a word beginning with the letter ‘b’?”

. . . . A little later, perhaps noticing his interest, Kate draws Kuria into the discussion by asking him: “Do you know why she did that?” [referring to why the student looked for “b” near the start of the dictionary].


The following morning, Kate was at Kuria and Plato’s table working with another child when she saw a further opportunity to involve Kuria and Plato in learning about the dictionary.



A child at Plato and Kuria’s table spells “two” to Kate: “t-o-w.”

Kate indicates he has the right letters: “It’s got a “t”, a “w,” and an “o.”

Kuria spells aloud, imitating the previous mistake: “t-o-w.”

Kate asks Plato to get a dictionary to check the spelling of “two.”

Other students in the class often provided expert input for Kuria, further enhancing his participation in the class. For example, near the end of the term, Kuria was seen watching two boys from a different reading group who were engaged in completing a crossword puzzle. His presence was accepted by the boys and later legitimized as he gradually moved from being a peripheral participant (Lave & Wenger, 1991) to engaging in collaborative conversation about the task. Afterward Kate confirmed that she had noticed this happening but let it continue because it was a useful learning experience for Kuria. She noted that she would capitalize on this later by allowing him to be the expert when his group completed a crossword.

Kate’s skillful work with Kuria and Plato may perhaps be due to her previous successful experiences with Bengali EAL students in East London early in her teaching career, some work as a part-time EAL teacher after returning to New Zealand, and a recent university paper on learning English as an additional language. Kate was beginning to build a theoretical basis for her EAL pedagogy, but because this process was not yet complete, she still reported lower confidence about her practices with these students. She ranked this at just a 2 on the 4-point scale; however, it is noteworthy that her general teaching confidence was only a little higher, at just 3 on the 4-point scale. She felt that a 3 was the highest level possible to be attained on such a scale because teachers are always learning.


This study reveals how teachers’ work with a few EAL students in the mainstream class is set amid a backdrop in which multiple factors are in constant dynamic interaction both within and across three contextual layers. Current EAL mainstream pedagogy presents only a part of that picture, because factors within the wider educational context and inherent in the classroom interaction and in the personal-professional context all play a significant part in shaping teachers’ practices with EAL students within the classroom context.

Within the personal-professional contextual layer, it is significant that teachers experienced low levels of confidence when working with students whose English proficiency was low. It seems to be particularly pertinent that the task of teaching involves communication and that doing so effectively is strongly entwined with a teacher’s positive self-image (Nias, 1989). Hence, when students had lower English language proficiency, teachers’ confidence was also lower. In particular, teachers’ confidence was influenced by their level of understanding of relevant EAL theories. However, confidence was also challenged by recollections of past unsuccessful experiences with EAL students and sometimes by perceptions of cultural and linguistic distance. As Pajares (1992) noted, teachers’ beliefs tend to be “rooted in cultural and experiential sources of knowledge” (p. 309), and the affective component of beliefs tends to foreground them in memory.

Within the contextual layer of classroom interaction, teachers were aware of the difficulty of catering to a small number of EAL students and the multiple demands that needed to be balanced within the mainstream class context. Students’ English language proficiency was a significant factor in these interactions. In an ideal world, EAL students would first enter an EAL class, and then receive sheltered instruction with a regular teacher before going into a mainstream class (Echevarria & Graves, 2003). However, it is likely to be more difficult to provide for many levels when there are just small numbers of EAL students with different ages and differing levels language proficiency and education. Teachers in this situation therefore need more than strategies for teaching content to EAL students in the mainstream; they also need a broad base of general EAL teaching strategies to cope effectively and confidently.

The presence of EAL students in the class often had the potential to trigger a high level of uncertainty for teachers, as seen in the cases of Kathy and Trish. However, good teachers also thrive on the challenges that accompany uncertainty, in contrast to contexts with greater certainty in which teachers may be more inclined to succumb to professional complacency (Rosenholtz, 1991).

Self-efficacy beliefs “determine the goals people set for themselves; how much effort they expend; how long they persevere in the face of difficulties; and their resilience to failures” (Bandura, 1997, p. 4). Despite the difficulties that teachers encountered, they sustained their efforts to find effective ways to teach the EAL students, and that may be due at least in part to the high level of general teaching efficacy that participating teachers held. High general teaching efficacy provides strong motivation to persevere rather than lose face. That these teachers did persevere is also a testament to their commitment to the EAL students. This is important, because caring about individual students and having high expectations are seen as critical in raising achievement of culturally diverse students (Alton-Lee, 2003; Gay, 2000).

Finally, teachers were influenced by factors within their broader educational context. Some conflicts emerged within the social values that teachers are regularly exposed to, and shifts required in these values if teachers are to work effectively with individual EAL students. Teachers can also be influenced by the prevailing mainstream pedagogies that are promoted as up-to-date practice within their settings. It is significant that, in the absence of professional input on relevant EAL theories, other mainstream educational frameworks (such as multiple intelligences) may gain higher visibility. Furthermore, when a relevant pedagogy is not accessible or visible in a context, teachers may find it difficult to effectively evaluate their performance and support planning for appropriate future courses of action with learners (Marland, 1986; Nias, 1989)—hence, the lower level of confidence most teachers experienced when working with EAL students.

It is interesting too that, in the absence of relevant professional input, many strategies that teachers constructed for use with students who were more proficient in EAL were actually aligned with existing theories for the teaching of EAL students in the mainstream. This suggests that the teachers’ trial-and-error process was successful in affording them useful opportunities to reflect on, evolve, and refine relevant practice. However, they often did not recognize that certain practices were effective with EAL students, or why. It is likely that their evolution of working theories and practices would have been more effective, coherent, and rapid had they previously been provided with appropriate professional input.

The results of this study reveal that current EAL theories that address the teaching of curricula content may be useful only to a degree in the New Zealand situation. Because EAL students are dropped straight into the mainstream class, they rarely receive more than a few hours withdrawal per week; in primary schools, EAL classes are often taught by part-time teacher aides, many of whom have little training for the job (Franken & McComish, 2003). The onus for teaching EAL students therefore falls largely on the mainstream teacher, and content-based EAL theories offer little assistance when the mainstream reality includes students with low English language proficiency.

Although some teachers had generated useful strategies, no comprehensive framework to fit all the diverse situations that teachers encountered became evident in this study. Teacher education is therefore likely to be insufficient if it simply provides information on existing theoretical models for teaching academic content alongside English language and does not attend to the many personal, professional, interactional, social, cultural, and political factors that affect class teachers’ uptake of such ideas. It seems to be helpful for class teachers to spend time interacting with EAL students in order to test relevant EAL theories and find ways to transform these into workable strategies within each unique mainstream context. Teachers may need, at least initially, additional support within the class if they are to commit to a planned level of engagement. Lave and Wenger (1991) also suggested that increasing participation is both enabled and legitimized through a community of learners, so it is important to find ways to include mainstream teachers in supportive groups that provide support for change. Further applied research to record the development of teacher education initiatives in this area will be required to clarify useful processes and models.

In addition, change in teaching practice needs to be accompanied by wider structural changes at institutional and governmental levels. When individuals attribute failure to stable factors that they are unable to change, they are more likely to become demotivated and unwilling to expend effort (Bandura, 1997).

The mainstream situation in which there is just a small number of EAL students seems likely to persist, and become more pervasive, in New Zealand for the foreseeable future. It is therefore crucial for teacher educators to understand and work within the complexity of teachers’ contexts, because multiple, intertwined factors interact within and between other contextual layers of teachers’ work, and these impinge on their evolution of theories and practices with regard to supporting a few EAL students within the mainstream. It does, however, seem possible for teachers to be better equipped to manage these needs effectively and to have a rationale for selecting educational theories that combine to create an effective EAL pedagogy for the mainstream. At the end of the day, this is likely not only to create a better learning situation for EAL students but also to enable teachers to feel more comfortable with, competent in, and confident about, their own part in that process. The time to begin is now long overdue.


The procedures for conducting the study referred to in this article were reviewed and approved by the Massey University Human Ethics Committee (PN Protocol 01/105). The author wishes to recognize the valuable input of Dr. Alison St George and Professor Cynthia White during the design, implementation, and reporting phases of the investigation. Massey University’s financial support, which provided release time to undertake the research, is also gratefully acknowledged.


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Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record Volume 111 Number 9, 2009, p. 2179-2208
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 15387, Date Accessed: 1/25/2022 2:51:05 PM

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About the Author
  • Penny Haworth
    Massey University
    E-mail Author
    PENNY HAWORTH is a senior lecturer in the School of Educational Studies at Massey University, New Zealand, where she coordinates programs in teaching English as an additional language. Her research particularly focuses on exploring the impact of teacher and learner beliefs in intercultural teaching contexts.
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