How to...

20th November 2015 at 00:00
Having English as an additional language is not a special educational need but it does need careful handling. Try these tips for great learning in your classroom

Well-meaning teachers make a number of common errors when deciding how to teach learners who have English as an additional language (EAL). For example, they often assume that younger is better when learning a language, or that English is “soaked up like a sponge”. Sometimes they believe that banning children’s home languages is helpful. All these assumptions are problematic.

However, one common mistake persists that makes the learning process for EAL students more troublesome than it need be: the conflation of EAL with special educational needs and disability, and the assumption that EAL needs can be addressed using SEND strategies.

The following steps are intended to help teachers avoid adopting this inappropriate style of support for EAL learners and to move from a deficit model of instruction to one built on an understanding of EAL learners’ strengths.

Hamish Chalmers is a doctoral researcher at Oxford Brookes University, where he is researching the effects of bilingual-style teaching strategies for EAL learners in UK schools. He was recently director of EAL at Shrewsbury International School in Thailand. He tweets at @hwc001 and blogs at

1 Get to know your learners

The first step in providing appropriate support for your EAL learners is understanding what knowledge they already have. Many are experienced students. They may have been to school in other countries, learned the principles of phonics, engaged in deep discussions about texts, developed enquiry skills and so on. Some may not have been to school but nonetheless enjoy diverse experiences with literacy at home. For example, oral storytelling might be common, or they might study religious texts.

An EAL liaison officer should meet the parents of these students and work sensitively with them to complete a pupil learning profile. The profile should include information about prior schooling experience, languages spoken at home, and family or community literacy practices (for example, bedtime stories, emails overseas or Koranic study).

You should ask to see copies of school reports, if available, and have these translated. This information provides a way to understand and acknowledge the strengths of your EAL learners so that they are not unnecessarily put into SEND-based intervention programmes such as phonics catch-up or reading recovery.

2 Don’t differentiate down

Once you’ve determined your EAL pupils’ strengths, it is important to plan activities that challenge them to showcase these. It is tempting to lower your expectations but don’t do this – instead, provide them with the means to meet the expectations you have for all your pupils.

Getting the correct balance of support versus challenge can be tricky. Done incorrectly, it leads to anxiety, boredom or coasting, none of which are conducive to effective learning. However, when EAL learners are given intellectual challenges with robust and thoughtful support, they experience success. They understand the concepts you are teaching, and they develop and contextualise the academic language they need to thrive.

Scaffolding to support this approach comes in all shapes and sizes. For example, you could give EAL pupils opportunities to research key concepts in their home languages, provide sentence starters and writing frames, use graphic organisers or pre-teach key vocabulary.

3 Monitor progress frequently

One key difference between SEND and EAL is that the former tends to be change-resistant while the latter is change-accepting. For example, quality SEND support will teach children with dyslexia how to manage their condition but the condition will persist. EAL learners, given the correct support, will need less and less of it as time goes by. In addition, the rate at which EAL learners progress is not constant. Big gains can be made in a short time frame and then followed by periods of consolidation. It is, therefore, important to monitor their progress closely so that you can challenge and support them appropriately.

In doing this, it is important to remember that EAL learners’ levels of understanding, through listening and reading, are often greater than their ability to demonstrate that understanding through speaking or writing, so you should provide them with opportunities to show you what they know in unconventional ways. For example, can they sort pictures or sequence jumbled texts? Are they able to match captions to pictures? Can they describe their understanding in their home language?

4 Use appropriate assessment

SEND children are often given more time in written exams; they are sometimes allowed to use computers; and they might be assisted by an amanuensis (someone to write what they dictate). But, as already noted, EAL learners’ understanding of curriculum content can be more advanced than their capacity to demonstrate it in written or spoken English. These types of dispensation, therefore, are of limited value to them.

Assessment should be tailored to take into account any imbalance in EAL learners’ proficiency across the four domains of English. For example, if an EAL learner is strong in listening but finds reading more difficult, then having a teaching assistant read questions to them can help. If they are literate in their home language but find it harder to write in English, allow them to use a mixture of both, then translate it. Tailoring the way summative assessments are conducted will give you a clearer picture of what your EAL learners have understood from your classes, and how well they can use English to communicate that understanding.

How many EAL students are there in England?

693,815 primary students have a first language that is known, or believed, not to be English.

477,285 secondary students have a first language that is known, or believed, not to be English.

13,625 special school students have a first language that is known, or believed, not to be English.

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