Across the globe, being bilingual is the norm. It is estimated that more than half of the world’s population can speak at least two languages. Yet in the UK, primarily as a result of the dominance of English in the world, a child that converses in more than one tongue is still viewed as being “different”, particularly within education.
This is despite the number of bilingual pupils in our schools increasing. Over 1 in 5 (1.25 million) of our pupils are recorded as having English as an additional language (EAL), according to 2016 government figures.
Have schools adapted to this? Not enough, in my view. For example, EAL pupils tend to be seen as a homogenous group, a remnant of that view of bilingualism as being a deviation from the norm, not the standard. But they are nothing of the sort.
The definition of EAL used by the Department for Education is if a child is exposed to a language at home that is known or believed to be one other than English (1). This definition covers pupils who may have recently arrived in the country, as well as families that have been here for many generations.
Each EAL pupil will also vary in their level of proficiency in their mother tongue, as well as in English, across the four language skills of speaking, listening, reading and writing.
Quite simply, teachers are not being prepared well enough to support EAL students’ range of needs. Many newly qualified teachers, in particular, cite low levels of preparedness for meeting the needs of this group (2).
Sure, there are success stories. The attainment of EAL pupils is often cited as a key narrative in attainment improvements in England. This is certainly worthy of praise, with schools and communities deserving recognition for their hard work in this area. However, attainment of EAL pupils is extremely variable across regions and cities outside of London and its surrounding areas.
In addition, recent research (3) has shown that attainment varies considerably by the language spoken by pupils, with Japanese speakers being the highest-performing and Czech speakers the lowest.
So what can schools do to effectively support their EAL pupils and ensure they attain high standards?
Build on and enhance the linguistic repertoires that our EAL pupils bring to their learning
There is a considerable body of research showing that bilingualism has many linguistic, cognitive, educational, cultural, economic, family and personal benefits (4). As schools, we need to support additive bilingualism rather than subtractive bilingualism – the latter is where our EAL pupils lose their mother tongue at the expense of learning English.
Ensure academic language proficiency is developed across the curriculum
Schools easily identify new arrivals as needing support, but aren’t always aware of the academic language-proficiency demands of the curriculum, nor the support EAL pupils need to access that curriculum across all subjects. Research (5) has shown that it takes between two and three years to learn basic interpersonal communicative skills, eg, the language of the playground and skills needed to function socially. However, it can take up to five-to-seven years to develop the cognitive academic language-proficiency skills needed to be successful in examinations. This is a particular issue because recently the DfE has limited additional funding for EAL pupils to the first three years only.
Find out about your EAL pupils’ prior knowledge and learning, as well as their proficiency in the languages they know
It is essential that EAL pupils’ prior knowledge and learning is taken into account. Ideally, if a bilingual assessment can take place, then a well-rounded assessment of the pupil can be obtained, rather than just relying on an assessment of their English, which is likely to artificially depress their scores. It is likely that EAL pupils’ learning in subjects is more advanced compared with their ability to express themselves in English. Research has shown that bilingual pupils have a “common underlying proficiency” (6) meaning that skills, for example, reading or concepts such as photosynthesis, can be readily transferred from one language to another. It is important that this information, once obtained, is shared with all teachers.
Assess EAL pupils’ proficiency in English across all four skills of speaking, listening, reading and writing
The DfE has recently started collecting information on EAL pupils’ English language proficiency using five codes (7). Schools are required to collect this information as part of the census requirements. Although this is a positive step forward, no training or guidance materials have been provided to support schools and to make sure the information collected is accurate, nor does it provide the opportunity to collect information across all four language skills. There are, however, a number of EAL assessment tools (8) that not only accurately record the DfE codes, but also enable schools to use the information to support their EAL pupils more effectively.
Avoid confusion with regards to EAL and special educational needs
The SEND Code of Practice, in 6.24, clearly states that “Difficulties related solely to limitations in English as an additional language are not SEN”, and urges great care in making assessments as to whether there is a special educational needs issue as well. Many teachers aren’t aware of the “silent phase”, which can last up to six months for pupils at the early stages of language acquisition; they can mistakenly see this as an indicator that the child has SEN rather than understanding that this is a phase during which the pupil is learning and absorbing the information around them, but not necessarily able to communicate it directly in English. Similarly, it is also essential that any learning needs are not overlooked and just considered to be EAL needs. In these circumstances it is essential that the school, with suitably trained staff, works together with the family to ascertain the correct needs of and support for the pupil.
Develop partnerships to support learning outside of mainstream school
Many EAL pupils attend supplementary classes out of school hours. They often have high levels of proficiency in languages that could lead to additional qualifications.
Too many schools are still unaware of the learning that takes place and miss the potential of building effective partnerships with communities. Make sure you don’t.
Provide CPD for all staff in effective EAL pedagogy and practice
High-quality training and CPD opportunities for teachers and leaders on EAL as a subject specialism are still woefully lacking, even though this is an area that is consistently rated as lacking. Make sure your staff are skilled and have the expertise to accelerate the progress and attainment of your EAL pupils.
Sameena Choudry is a teacher, as well as a consultant for a local authority and founder of Equitable Education: equitableeducation.co.uk