Classroom teaching & EAL: Planning for linguistic diversity

Written by: Kamil Trzebiatowski | Published:
Image: Adobe Stock

Many of our EAL students will likely have suffered a language learning loss during successive lockdowns. Kamil Trzebiatowski considers ideas and resources to help support these learners in the coming months

The coronavirus lockdowns and partial school closures since March 2020 have resulted in disrupted schooling and have widened the attainment gap for disadvantaged learner groups (EEF, 2021). Many learners using English as an additional language (EAL) have also been negatively affected by language learning loss.

In research published this month, (Scott, 2021), among those teachers who were able to comment, 69 per cent reported the negative impact of school “closures” on the language skills of learners using EAL. As many EAL pupils were at home for remote learning, most will have had considerably less interaction in English with their school peers, teaching assistants and teachers.

It is now more important than ever to provide these learners with practice in the four domains of language use: speaking, listening, reading and viewing, and writing.

As a result, planning for linguistic diversity and adapting teaching to meet the needs of bilingual or multilingual learners whose first language is other than English has become even more important, so that the attainment gap for these learners can be minimised as much as possible.

Learners using EAL need to develop English language skills as a prerequisite to developing “the knowledge and cultural capital they need to succeed in life”, as mentioned by Ofsted’s Education Inspection Framework.

As English language development and subject attainment go hand-in-hand, it is crucial to plan for language and subject learning in an integrated fashion.

Quality first teaching and distinct EAL pedagogy

Teachers will be familiar with quality first teaching (QFT) and may be aware that it is usually touted as the most effective approach to inclusive teaching for every child.

Some of QFT’s characteristics include devising engaging activities, high levels of interaction for all and appropriate use of teacher questioning. Most practitioners would agree that these are valuable approaches to practice in the classroom.

However, as valuable and inclusive as QFT can be, many teachers will be aware that expecting high levels of interaction from learners who are new to English, or asking even very simple questions in English, is not going to be successful without targeted strategies to support learning.

Therefore, simply implementing universal QFT strategies might do pupils using EAL a disservice, especially in the current context of catch-up and recovery for both lost learning and language learning loss. The same applies to focusing only on content, because it means that the language EAL children need to develop alongside subject content learning becomes an invisible curriculum (Gibbons, 2002).

It is crucial that teaching language and content is integrated, and therefore what is needed is not either universal QFT or a distinct EAL pedagogy with targeted, additional and specialist interventions, but both.

The remainder of this article considers a number of practical strategies for subject teachers to integrate language and content when supporting those linguistically diverse learners who have been worst affected by remote learning and distancing measures.

Using the first language

Since learners using EAL have access to at least one language other than English in which they will typically be fluent, teachers can not only recognise those languages but take advantage of them for the purposes of teaching and learning.

Translanguaging describes practices that encourage learners to use their full linguistic repertoire. This means encouraging them to speak, write and/or translate to and from their first language (or other languages they know) and English to support their learning. There are a number of ways in which this can be achieved.

First, learners can blend the use of languages they know with English in different stages of a lesson or an activity. For example:

  • The first draft of a piece of writing can be written in another language, later translated into English.
  • Learners could annotate an English text in other languages, following it up by reporting to the teacher or their peers in English.
  • If there is more than one speaker of the same language in a class, the learners could first do a task in English (for instance, listen to a speech) and then discuss questions about it in their shared language other than English.
  • Learners can research a topic before a lesson in a language they know (for instance, by visiting websites written in their first language/s) and then prepare a presentation about it in English.
  • The same piece of work can include more than one language: for instance, a poster could include English terms with definitions in the first language or other languages they know, or vice-versa.

A second strategy could be giving learners using EAL access to a bilingual dictionary for their language(s) and/or to a tablet where they could use Google Translate.

Developing listening and speaking skills

The fact that pupils using EAL have had limited exposure to English and few opportunities to interact with peers and adults in English means that their development of both listening and speaking skills may have stagnated over the past year and need urgent development. Fortunately, there are a number of ways in which teachers can address this by creating the need for pupils to listen to and speak to each other.

For example, information gap activities are communicative activities for two or more learners where they need to convey some information to each other. Some examples include:

  • Barrier games: A barrier (ideally, a physical one) is placed between learners who are looking at different texts, images or objects. For instance, in The Bell Foundation’s resource Charles Dickens barrier game, learners have different information about the life of Charles Dickens and have to work in pairs and talk to each other in order to put the information in chronological order on a timeline.
  • Jigsaw activities: Learners are given partial information while working in one group. Groups are then mixed to form new ones to be able to complete a further task. In the resource Victorian child labour learners first listen for specific information, focusing on different areas while watching the video. They then share their information in groups.
  • “Split text” activities: A piece of text is split into a number of parts. Each member of the group reads their portion of the text and then tells others what is on their card in order to reconstruct the text or perhaps sequence or rank different sections of the text.

Developing reading skills

The level of one’s reading skills depends to a large extent on that person’s range of vocabulary (which will also benefit the other three domains of language use: listening, speaking and writing). Therefore, building vocabulary will be of utmost importance when supporting learners using EAL.

  • Introducing vocabulary in advance is one good strategy. This can be done by providing a learner with a list of words with visuals, or on a poster or a word mat. The online application Quizlet is useful for new vocabulary revision as well: it contains interactive flashcards, spelling and matching activities, which are supported by images, making it EAL-friendly.
  • Popular games such as Snap and Bingo can be adapted for classroom purposes. Snap can be used with flashcards, with learners required to say a sentence with the word before they can win. Bingo can also be used with flashcards and, being visual, is very EAL-friendly as well. The Bell Foundation’s Food Bingo activity in A balanced diet resource is a good example.
  • Word level: Individual words can be taught with flashcards (have a look at The Bell Foundation’s Flashcards page). Learners could use cards to sort them into categories, play snap or Pelmanism, where cards are placed face down and players pick up pairs to find matching pairs. Learners using EAL can be encouraged to pronounce each word as they do so.
  • Sentence level: A good strategy is to set sequencing tasks for learners, jumbling words in sentences and asking them to reassemble them into grammatically sound ones. An excellent and free digital tool for this purpose is The Scramblinator.
  • Text level: Learners should be given plenty of time to engage with the text and use any visual clues contained within. With books, they might look at the cover, read the blurb and make predictions about the novel.

Reading for meaning will be another crucial area to develop, paying attention to three levels of text meaning-making.

Developing writing skills

Often, the writing process will need to be scaffolded for learners using EAL. Two useful tools for this purpose are writing frames and substitution tables.

Writing frames: These are not only sentence starters, but they can also model a particular language function, such as comparing and contrasting, e.g: “An important difference between … and … is that…” or “It is neither … nor ….” Writing frames can also be paragraph starters, making it easier for learners to start each paragraph in a longer piece of writing, e.g.: “Shakespeare presents Lady Macbeth as…” or “Shakespeare creates an atmosphere of…”

Substitution tables: A type of writing frame, these are tables providing model sentences with a range of choices for learners to select from, using a set pattern. Each column offers a number of choices from which learners need to choose one in order to complete a full sentence. The Bell Foundation’s Specialised cells resource contains good examples of such tables. You might also wish to view the Great Ideas: Using substitution tables webinar recording.


The circumstances of the last year have put learners using EAL at a greater risk of underachievement due to language loss. Teachers can help minimise this risk by adapting their teaching for these learners. This requires choosing appropriately from both the distinct EAL pedagogy and universal quality first teaching strategies. By doing so, teachers will support the learning of both English language and subject content.

  • Kamil Trzebiatowski is digital resource developer at The Bell Foundation, a charity working to overcome exclusion through language education. Read his previous articles in SecEd via

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