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Supporting learners who use English as an additional language

Written By: Katherine Solomon and Ruth Wilson
6 min read

Any pupil who has been ‘exposed to a language at home that is known or believed to be other than English’ falls into the DfE’s definition of having English as an additional language (EAL). EAL learners are an extremely diverse group, encompassing the full range of English language proficiency, from new to English to fluent. There are currently over 1.5 million EAL pupils in England (21.2 per cent of state-funded primary and 16.9 per cent of state-funded secondary school pupils; Department for Education, 2019), and the percentage of pupils recorded as speaking EAL in state-maintained primary and secondary schools has more than trebled since 1997. Teachers’ Standards (Department for Education, 2012) state that it is the responsibility of all teachers, whatever their subject, to ‘adapt their teaching to the strengths and needs of all pupils’ including those with English as an additional language. Yet research suggests that the majority of student teachers feel unprepared by their initial teacher training to do this (Starbuck, 2018; Foley et al., 2018). So what strategies can you use to support EAL learners to access the curriculum and fulfil their potential?

What to consider when working with pupils who use EAL

In many respects, the needs of EAL pupils are identical or similar to those of their monolingual peers. High teacher expectations and language-conscious teaching, for example, are important for all learners. However, there are also several ways in which the needs of EAL learners are distinctive.

Pupils who use EAL are a truly heterogeneous group

In addition to factors that account for the diversity of first language English (FLE) pupils, the following factors can be
specific to EAL learners:

  • Background: they may be UK-born or recently arrived in the UK due to their family’s personal and professional choices or desperate circumstances
  • English language proficiency: they may be new to English; use English as a main language but are not yet at age-expected proficiency; or fluent bi/multi-lingual in English and other language/s
  • Educational background: they may have experienced interrupted or no schooling; only the UK school system; or consistent schooling via a different curriculum
  • Literacy: they may be familiar with the Latin-based alphabet/script, may be literate in a non-Latin-based alphabet/script or not be literate at all.

Some strategies, while benefiting everyone, are particularly important for these learners. EAL learners have a double job: learning English and learning through English. This means that teachers of EAL learners have a threefold job:

  • Making the curriculum accessible and comprehensible to the EAL learner. This is vital in the early stages, but more fluent bilingual learners may also need support with, for example, reading for meaning and understanding the nuances of language in particular contexts
  • Creating opportunities for language development alongside curriculum learning, for example increasing learners’ vocabulary, supporting their ability to use both academic language and technical subject-specific language, and maintaining and developing their first language
  • Keeping the cognitive challenge high while providing collaborative activities that give learners an opportunity to practise and use target language, and ensure that they have access to good models of English.

Attainment increases with greater English proficiency

Research into the achievement of EAL learners (Strand and Hessel, 2018) highlights the importance of proficiency in English as the best predictor of educational outcomes. While it is important to take account of the development of EAL pupils’ English language proficiency, it is also crucial that assessment considers cognitive skills and previous educational experience. Here are some tips for assessing the proficiency in English of pupils with EAL:

  • Use an assessment framework to help you identify what pupils can do, inform curriculum planning and enable diagnosis of needs and individualisation of learning, for example The Bell Foundation’s EAL Assessment Framework for Schools
  • Assess English language proficiency across the four language strands (listening, speaking, reading and writing). Pupils often have different abilities in each strand, so it is important to gain an understanding of what pupils can/cannot do in each area to target appropriate support
  • When assessing proficiency in English, be mindful of the context in which the language is being used. English language use and development takes place in different contexts. This means that there may be aspects of the curriculum that pupils cannot access because they have no experience of learning it before, e.g. a pupil may be confident communicating with friends in the playground but far less confident in a classroom group activity
  • Use ongoing assessment throughout the academic year to identify progress and set language targets that are appropriate for the EAL learner’s needs. Use information gained from ongoing assessment to feed into planning, teaching and learning. To help support teachers, The Bell Foundation has developed a set of Classroom Support Strategies

Welcoming new arrivals

Research shows that, on average, pupils arriving late into the English school system do less well in external exams than their first-language English peers, and that the older the pupils are when they arrive, the less likely they are to achieve good results in Year 11 (Hutchinson, 2018).

When welcoming new arrivals who are new to English, it is important that information is as accessible as possible, and that young people feel secure and valued. To welcome new arrivals into your classroom:

  • Use welcoming body language and facial expressions. A new arrival who is new to English will depend more than usual on reading your expression. If you appear relaxed, friendly and calm, pupils are likely to be reassured and more able to learn
  • Summarise the main aim of the lesson in one clear sentence and convey this to the new arrival. Where possible, indicate immediately what the lesson is about visually, for example, if the lesson is about volcanos start with a picture of a volcano
  • Place the pupil near you and with a group of supportive peers
  • Be conscious of your own language; try to avoid colloquialisms, speak clearly and give instructions one at a time
  • Where possible, ask peers who share a first language to translate for the new arrival where needed.

The benefits of multilingualism

Bilingualism has positive associations with achievement, with those bilingual students rated as ‘competent’ or ‘fluent’ in English typically having higher educational achievement than their monolingual peers (Strand and Hessel, 2018). Where possible, try to use the first-language abilities of EAL pupils, because their progress in acquiring English is closely linked to the levels of their first language and literacy skills. They may have many useful language and literacy skills acquired in their first language, which will help them to learn the English needed for academic success. Recent research on translanguaging (allowing students to use their full linguistic repertoire for learning; Garcia et al., 2017) suggests that this empowers EAL learners and helps them to reach their potential. To encourage use of first language in the classroom:

  • Use translators such as Google Translate, translation pens and bilingual dictionaries
  • Pair pupils by home language so that they can discuss the topic in their home language before asking for responses in English
  • Encourage pupils to translate new language and record this new language in a vocabulary book to help them remember
  • Teach new language and prompt pupils to consider the translation in their home language.

As schools become more linguistically and culturally diverse, there is a need for teachers to provide support for a diverse range of learners, including those who use EAL. The practical guidance and strategies suggested in this article should help you to support EAL learners, enabling them to fully access and engage with the curriculum and to fulfil their potential in school.

Key Takeaways

  • Using an assessment framework, such as the ‘EAL Assessment Framework for Schools’ can help to ensure accurate and purposeful assessments of what a learner can do in English, as well as providing a road map for progression to support the teaching and learning of EAL learners.

  • Language-rich teaching benefits both learners who use EAL and pupils who have English as a first language.

  • Bilingualism can have positive associations with achievement.


Department for Education (2012) Teachers’ Standards: Guidance for school leaders, school staff and governing bodies. Available at: https://assets. publishing.service.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_ data/file/665520/Teachers__Standards. pdf (accessed 22 July 2019).

Department for Education (2019) Schools, pupils and their characteristics: January 2019. Available at: https://assets. publishing.service.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_ data/file/812539/Schools_Pupils_and_ their_Characteristics_2019_Main_Text. pdf (accessed 22 July 2019).

Foley A, Anderson C, Conteh J et al. (2018) Initial teacher education and English as an additional language. Available at: www.ceres.education.ed.ac. uk/wp-content/uploads/ITE-Report.pdf (accessed 22 July 2019).

Garcia O, Ibarra Johnson S and Seltzer K (2017) The Translanguaging Classroom: Leveraging Student Bilingualism for Learning. Philadelphia: Caslon.

Hutchinson (2018) Educational outcomes of children with English as an additional language. Available at: www.bell-foundation.org.uk/research-report/educational-outcomes-of-children-with-english-as-an-additional-language (accessed 22 July 2019).

Starbuck E (2018) How well-prepared to teach EAL learners do teachers feel? NALDIC Journal online. Available at: https://ealjournal.org/2018/04/23/how-well-prepared-to-teachers-feel-to-teach-eal-learners (accessed 22 July 2019).

Strand S and Hessel A (2018) English as an additional language, proficiency in English and pupils’ educational achievement: An analysis of local authority data. Available at: www.
bell-foundation.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/2018/10/EAL-PIE-and-Educational-Achievement-Report-2018-FV.pdf (accessed 22 July 2019).



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