Strategies for supporting EAL students

Written by: Lydia Lutton | Published:
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How can schools tailor their approaches to enable learners with English as an additional language to thrive? Lydia Lutton offers some best practice advice

There are more than one million children between five and 16-years-old in UK schools who, between them, speak in excess of 360 languages in addition to English.

With nearly one in seven students learning English as an additional language (EAL), meeting their diverse needs is a concern for every teacher. For this article, students at my school were interviewed and surveyed to explore how we could support EAL learners to achieve their full potential through assessment, teaching and learning, and the whole-school ethos.

Pupils learning EAL share many common characteristics with pupils whose first language is English. However, their learning experience differs because they are learning in and through another language, and because they may come from cultural backgrounds and communities that have different understandings and expectations of education, language and learning.

A child’s English may range from fluent, particularly when English is the primary language used in the home, to very limited. It is important that, as practitioners, we do all we can to support children with EAL so that they can feel safe and secure and make good progress.

There are increasing numbers of children entering the school setting for whom English is not the dominant language in the home. Some parents may have, for example, been working for only a short time in the country. Many practitioners in settings across the country already work successfully with children and families who speak languages other than English.

For some there will be one or two language groups represented in their setting; for others the population may be linguistically and culturally very diverse. However, practitioners in every setting want to ensure that their provision matches the development and learning needs of all their children. Here are some key principles of good practice:

The importance of home languages

It is important that the school considers bilingualism an asset, with the first language having a continuing and significant role in identity, learning and the acquisition of additional languages.

It is widely accepted that bilingualism confers intellectual advantages and the role of the first language in the child’s learning is of great importance. Insistence on an English-only approach to language learning in the home is likely to result in a fragmented development where the child is denied the opportunity to develop proficiency in either language.

Supporting continued development of the first language and promoting the use of the first language for learning enables children to access learning opportunities within the school and beyond.

Promoting an enabling environment

My school is committed to the principle that every child is a competent learner who can be resilient, capable, confident and self-assured.

However, there is an understanding that children develop in individual ways and at varying rates – our school motto is, after all, that we are a “Community of Individuals”.

Clearly the diversity of individuals and communities is valued and respected. Children’s health is an integral part of their emotional, mental, social, environmental and spiritual wellbeing and is supported by attention to these aspects. Schools must think about their provision in relation to children learning EAL.

We have found that a designated lead should be involved in an initial first meeting with parents to begin the process of parent partnership that includes the sharing of information about the child. It is important to work closely with parents to share information about all aspects of children’s development. Meetings need to take place between the designated person and their group of EAL children on a weekly basis as this has the potential to make a real difference to the children’s learning and development.

It is important that schools create a welcoming environment and ethos that includes establishing and maintaining strong links with parents. The range of strategies teachers can use to help students access the curriculum (dependent on the learner’s age and stage of English acquisition) include oral rehearsal prior to writing, pre-tutoring, providing resources in advance, a “buddy system” or group work.

Celebrate a child’s culture and language

Celebrating a child’s culture is going to make them feel welcome and appreciated and this was a priority for those EAL students surveyed. When students feel happy and confident they are undoubtedly going to progress more quickly. Teachers should take time to find out about their traditions and celebrate them in the school setting.

Moreover, by celebrating the culture of EAL students, teachers have a fantastic opportunity to gather observations of the other children’s personal, social and emotional development and their understanding of the world.

A “diversity week” has proven to be the ideal opportunity to share knowledge of different cultural celebrations and foods, for example. We have found that a half-termly Poetry Society, offering students the opportunity to share poetry in their own language, has been particularly well-received.

Stories and books constitute a vital part of worldwide cultural and linguistic heritage. The well-planned use of stories, read and told, traditional and new, contributes greatly to children’s understanding and developing use of language. Those interviewed said they particularly enjoyed reading texts if it had their own culture represented within the pages.

Supporting language development

Those surveyed said they often needed some time to listen before they responded in class. A child may go through a silent phase, which is not a passive stage as learning will be taking place. Moreover, teachers should look to build on children’s responses through modelling, rephrasing and extending children’s language rather than focusing on mistakes.

Other strategies have also proven to be particularly successful. Teachers can use varied questions and repetition as they are often learnt quickly and are a good source of language. Those students who were interviewed said they benefited from talking through their actions and ideas. Other practitioners have provided opportunities for joining in choral responses, which repeat patterns of language.

It is clear that students will progress if they are consistently included in small group activities which promote communication with peers. This is particularly important for children lacking confidence or who are in the “silent period”.

Developing assessment and tracking

It is important to assess the English language development of children with EAL to ensure their learning needs are planned for and that they make good progress. Tracking their progress will identify children who may need further support and who may have additional learning difficulties. Students are individuals first, each with a unique profile of abilities. All planning starts with observing and assessing children in order to understand and consider their current development and learning.

It is important to assess children’s progress in English through observation and assessment. It may be necessary to withdraw, in the first instance, students from one lesson a day so that they can participate in an intensive programme of literacy classes with the intention of accessing the curriculum more readily. Homework must be limited for these students.

Once it is felt that the student has made enough progress to access the curriculum, a judgement made through assessment and tracking data, the student adopts a full timetable. Clearly systematic monitoring and rigorous tracking of EAL children must be undertaken using EAL observation sheets, tracking sheets and assessment systems to ensure their development is being monitored and to identify those at risk of underachievement.


It is important to remember that children may become conversationally fluent in a new language in two or three years but may take five or more years to catch up with monolingual peers in cognitive and academic language. EAL students are as able as any other children, and the learning experiences planned for them should be no less challenging. All attempts at communication should be encouraged and praised. It is important to be encouraging without being demanding and to use modelling to correct mistakes rather than tell children they are wrong – this will only serve to inhibit their attempts and damage self-esteem. Remember how tiring it can be to be in an unfamiliar language environment.

  • Lydia Lutton is associate principal key stage 4 and head of English at The Marist Senior School in Ascot.


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