Adaptive teaching for EAL students in language-heavy subjects

Written by: Caroline Bruce | Published:
Image: Adobe Stock

History, geography, English literature and religious studies are undeniably language-heavy subjects, making them particularly challenging for learners who have English as an additional language. Caroline Bruce offers some advice, ideas and resources to support your teaching of EAL students

The humanities subjects bring with them the opportunity to learn about humans, about our world and our place in it, our interactions with cultures and religions, the marks we have made in the world, and the challenges facing us in caring for its future.

It is a rich and fascinating area of study, involving factual knowledge, conceptual understanding and the application of both to evaluate issues. It is filled with opportunities for critical reflection, evaluative discussions and collaborative planning, all of which requires competent and fluent command of the language of instruction. Language is at the heart of humanities subjects.

A look at the demands of GCSE exams also points to the importance of language. Even without the five per cent of marks awarded for SPAG (spelling, punctuation and grammar) at GCSE in history, geography, English literature and religious studies, the humanities subjects are undeniably language-heavy.

Exam papers have sources and extracts, exam questions can be “wordy” and academic, their expectations masked under abstract language, and mark schemes expect longer written responses.

For some students using EAL, particularly those who are at the early stages of language acquisition, studying humanities subjects in English can be particularly challenging.

Standard 5 of the Teachers' Standards (DfE, 2011) stipulates that teachers should “be able to use and evaluate distinctive teaching approaches to engage and support” EAL students. Distinguishing between language needs and learning needs will steer those “distinctive approaches” towards providing language support.


Rather than being a bolt-on, language should be at the core of lesson-planning. Jean Conteh (2019) asks that teachers consider:

  • What we are expecting our pupils to be able to do with the language they are learning.
  • The kinds of language they will need in order to do these things.

Learners engage with complex written and spoken language in every lesson. We expect them, for example, to make inferences and deductions about a writer’s bias; to hypothesise about abstract ideas; to evaluate sources and discuss links between cause and effect.

A useful way of planning for the kinds of language a learner will need to know is to break major activities down into the language features needed at a text, sentence and word level.

Once armed with an understanding of the language demands of a text or a task, subject teachers might use adaptive strategies to help remove language barriers to accessing the curriculum. The rest of this article will consider adaptive strategies which might be used, and how they can be used. Many of the strategies outlined below are explored further in the Great Ideas section of The Bell Foundation website (for all links, see further information and resources).

Establishing the environment

Adapt the grouping according to the activity. Flexibility with groupings according to the learning intention can be effective.

Grouping learners by home language is useful where the focus is on learning new content. New arrivals at key stages 3 and 4 often have strong literacy skills in their other language(s) and so fostering an environment where learners are expected to utilise all of the languages in their repertoire (known as translanguaging – see resources) will not only aid understanding, it will also create a positive perception around learners who are developing their proficiency in English.

Grouping according to languages spoken will allow learners, including those who have lower literacy skills in their first language, to discuss their understanding of concepts.

Meanwhile, grouping learners in mixed language groups is useful where the focus of activities is more on producing language to demonstrate understanding. Teachers can buddy learners who are new to English with supportive students who both understand the content, and also model a good standard of English language.

Assessing knowledge of the field

Assessing prior knowledge will highlight any gaps in conceptual knowledge and these will need to be addressed before the new topic begins. In assessing prior knowledge, it is important to distinguish between knowledge of language, and knowledge of subject.

Newly arrived students may bring with them subject-relevant expertise. Some students may already know, for example, the significance of prayer in different religions, and so for them, the learning is more about the language needed to explain this, and less about the concepts.

Much learning will be transferable – an understanding of the impacts of coastal erosion in Sri Lanka or urban growth in Nigeria, for example, is equally valid in the UK. However, strategies for assessing and activating prior knowledge will depend on proficiency in English. For more on the importance of assessing language proficiency, see this previous SecEd article by Katherine Solomon article by Katherine Solomon.

Ideas for building knowledge of the field

Message abundancy (Gibbons, 2014), i.e. deliberately using multiple modes of communication to immerse learners in the key learning points, will increase the chances of meaningful learning taking place.

Pre-teaching: Some learners might benefit from having a head start before a topic begins, for example through the provision of vocabulary lists or a research piece in their home language, e.g. natural hazards in their home country.

Parental involvement: Families can be an excellent teaching resource but may need reassurance about using home languages. The Bell Foundation has produced translated guidance for parents (translated into 19 languages) on how families can support their children’s learning which schools may wish to share, in particular with families of new arrivals (see resources: Parental involvement).

Technology: Teachers can select the most appropriate aspect of technology depending on the learning needs of the students (see resources: Using ICT). For example:

  • Translation apps such as Say Hi and Google Translate are useful where learners already know the concepts and only need to learn the language.
  • Online monolingual dictionaries, such as the Free Dictionary and other first language websites (e.g. there are currently Wikipedia pages available in 312 languages), can enable learners to research a topic in their first language. Immersive Reader, in the home language, will support learners with limited first language literacy, as will home language videos.

Dual language materials: While dual language glossaries are available from websites such as Hounslow Language Service and EAL Highland, using Google Sheets is a very efficient and increasingly reliable tool. Including translations of concepts as well as key words in any glossaries or knowledge organisers will act as a reference aid for content as well as language.

Explicitly teach vocabulary: Ideas for teaching new vocabulary (see resources), including the academic language needed at GCSE, are well-documented. Frayer diagrams can be adapted to make good use of a learner’s literacy in their home language(s).

Communicative activities: Since producing the target language requires much deeper processing, activities such as barrier games (see resources) are a good way to consolidate understanding of new concepts/vocabulary.

Scaffolding (see resources): Barrier games, such as those included in our Black Death resources, with speaking frames or word banks will enable learners who are new to English to ask and answer questions in order to gather the missing information. Rather than adapting the curriculum content, we scaffold the language to increase access to the same content as peers. The key is providing the right amount of scaffolding – too little support and the learner is frustrated, too much support and the learner is bored. And either way, they make no progress.

Deconstruction and modelling

Disciplinary literacy is central to impactful subject teaching. Using modelling, explanations and scaffolds as the building blocks to gradually develop the skills to tackle a demanding text or a new style of writing will reduce the cognitive workload and allow learners to lay solid foundations for their learning.

Vocabulary choices: Teachers can activate links between informal vocabulary, typical of speech, and more academic vocabulary by recasting the informal (Tier 1) vocabulary, for example:

  • Student: Allah made the angels
  • Teacher: That’s right, according to the Qur’an, Allah created angels.

Encouraging learners to eventually do this themselves, initially with the aid of word banks, will support the development of academic writing.

Provide model texts: By selecting texts which exemplify key structures, teachers can explicitly teach the language needed to fulfil the genre requirements.

Scaffolding: Substitution tables and writing frames will reduce the cognitive load and support learners in producing the language. Some suggestions are included below:

Guided practice

Teachers can explicitly model an exam response, and then facilitate collaborative construction using structure strips or word banks appropriate to the topic and genre of writing.

Dictogloss is a good way to explicitly guide learners in responding to longer exam questions, with the focus on the grammatical structures needed to demonstrate depth of understanding. The activity involves listening to the teacher and then collaboratively constructing a response before comparing it to a modelled answer. The intense focus on language makes it a great technique for questions that expect relatively formulaic responses, so that the learning can be readily transferred to other similar questions.

Independent construction

Finding opportunities to interleave guided practice of different question types will expose learners to a greater breadth of academic language and will keep structures, as well as topic content, more current in a learner’s working memory. Gradually removing the scaffolding and placing greater emphasis on peer reviews and then self-monitoring will support learners in moving towards greater independence in their ability to demonstrate subject learning.

Wittgenstein (1921) may not have been thinking about GCSE grades, but the parallels are clear: “The limits of my language mean the limits of my world.”

  • Caroline Bruce is training manager at The Bell Foundation, a charity working to overcome exclusion through language education. For details, visit

Further information & resources

The Bell Foundation resources


Please view our Terms and Conditions before leaving a comment.

Change the CAPTCHA codeSpeak the CAPTCHA code
Sign up SecEd Bulletin