More than words

In the modern classroom, rote methods of learning have given way to more effective methods. When it comes to learning English as an Additional Language (EAL), two students at the University of British Columbia (UBC) demonstrate that, with creativity, there is more to gain than fluency in English.

Natalia Balyasnikova and Harini Rajagopal are PhD candidates in the Department of Language and Literacy Education at UBC. Balyasnikova’s research focuses on senior EAL learners and Rajagopal studies young EAL learners. They show that learning a new language is also a way to develop one’s identity, form social connections and make meaning.

“We must further our understanding that language is not simply a system of decontextualized code, but an embodied social communicative practice,” says Balyasnikova.

Beyond vocabulary and grammar

Balyasnikova volunteers at the Seniors Thrive Drama Club in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside. Organized by the UBC Learning Exchange, it helps senior EAL learners practice English through acting. For participants, being in a drama club is a fun way of learning a language and fulfills the desire to form social connections.

“Language competence is important, of course, but communication takes place across different modes,” she explains. “[What] surprised me the most was how close the group became. It is a reminder that learning methods like drama allow us to explore the power of multiple viewpoints and bring them together through play.”

Reading and writing are traditionally considered the cornerstones of education. While these skills remain important, society’s views on education have since changed. In 2011, British Columbia launched a revision of the province’s education curriculum. The new B.C. curriculum emphasizes three core competencies: Communication, Creative and Critical Thinking, as well as Personal and Social Skills.

“[Reading and writing] are extremely productive ways in which we make meaning, but we want to share that elevated space with other competencies,” says Rajagopal. “Creative skills allow children to learn other types of literacies that are richer than just language.”

EAL learning is an opportunity to nurture these competencies.

Learning through multiple channels

Rajagopal and Balyasnikova are interested in multimodal learning, a process that engages the learner not only through text, but also aurally, spatially and visually.

Natalia Balyasnikova is a PhD candidate in the Department of Language and Literacy Education at UBC. | Photo courtesy of the UBC Learning Exchange.

“[The] acquisition of language unfolds very differently in older learners,” says Balyasnikova. “When working with seniors who are learning an additional language, we need to create learning opportunities for them that take advantage of all the modes of communication and encourage them to be creative. This is why arts-based language learning, such as some delivered at the UBC Learning Exchange, holds so much promise in older adult language classrooms.”

For example, through acting, older language learners may benefit from muscle memory connecting vocabulary to movement. This could make it easier to recall language in social situations outside of the classroom.

Multimodal learning also comes more naturally.

“As human beings, we communicate with gestures, music, images, videos,” explains Rajagopal. “These different modalities are all part of our communication landscape.”

Harini Rajagopal is a PhD candidate in the Department of Language and Literacy Education at UBC. | Photo courtesy of Harini Rajagopal

Over the course of a year, Rajagopal followed of a group of second grade students where some students are EAL learners. Along with their elementary school teacher, she created exercises to develop skills emphasized in the new B.C. curriculum. One example is a photography assignment where students took photos of what they love and discussed the photos in class. As importantly, students were also responsible for negotiating the rules of the assignment. This created a forum for them to discuss issues of respect, reciprocity, expectations and fairness.

The exercise revealed that second graders have much to say on these topics. Furthermore, many children who struggle with reading and writing contributed enthusiastically and are shown to be excellent communicators. Rajagopal prefers the multimodal approach because it motivates children to learn by building their confidence.

“It moves [learning] from the space of focusing on the parts where children may be struggling to focusing on the parts where they bring value,” she says.

Students as teachers and teachers as listeners

The photography project also demonstrated that students could be good teachers to each other. Children possess diverse experiences gained from outside of the classroom. With encouragement, they provided insightful feedback to their peers, even on seemingly advance topics such as photography framing and composition.

“It speaks to our understanding of childhood, our image of children and, in general, the value of what children bring,” says Rajagopal. “They bring perception, fresh eyes, and a range of experiences and resources whether it is linguistics, cultural, or familial.” She believes that these experiences should be valued in the classroom.

Balyasnikova draws similar conclusions from her research and her work at the UBC Learning Exchange.

“As teachers, we tend to set objectives and lay out procedures for the class,” she says. “But at times we need to be a listener instead of trying to control the narrative of our students. To let go a little bit and to honour their search for meaning.”

She believes that teachers need to listen to and embrace the life stories of their students.

“I have never considered myself a storyteller,” she says. “I call myself a ‘story listener.’”

For more information on the UBC Learning Exchange, visit

One thought on “More than words

  1. I am an ‘older’ student and wonder why languages are taught grammar first. When we learn our native language we do it by imitating vocally and it comes pretty quickly. Why not conversation along with grammar as it takes a very long time to get anywhere–although it gives teachers a nice long career–and one tends to drop the whole thing.

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