Closing the gap: Supporting the most disadvantaged EAL pupils during the pandemic

Written by: Emily Curran | Published:
Image: Adobe Stock

When supporting learners with English as an additional language to catch-up with their studies following this year’s disruption, formative assessment is vital to understanding new starting points. Emily Curran continues SecEd’s recent focus on supporting EAL pupils

Over the past 10 months national and local restrictions have resulted in disrupted schooling across the country. However, not all learners have experienced the same level of disruption.

An analysis from the Education Policy Institute (Sibieta, 2020) has shown that there is a correlation between attendance and low socio-economic status suggesting that disadvantaged pupils are at greater risk of missing learning opportunities.

Disruption and closures will have affected learners who use English as an additional language (EAL) who typically also face added linguistic and systemic barriers.

Previous articles in this series

As outlined in the first article in this series, published in October, the EAL learners for whom lockdown is likely to have had the greatest impact include:

  • Pupils who are new to English or in the early stages of English language acquisition.
  • Late-arriving pupils who use EAL.
  • Pupils from certain language groups.
  • Pupils who use EAL from economically disadvantaged households.

Disrupted schooling for these learners has meant a limited or lack of exposure to a broad range of English language models, including the academic language needed to be successful across the curriculum. Teachers who we are in contact with say that they have seen a regression in their learners’ English language development with many noting that pupils are “lacking confidence to speak”, and that “some (pupils) even lost interest in learning”.

Evidence from Ofsted (2020) corroborates this, noting that “a few leaders felt that pupils who speak English as an additional language were struggling more than others” with some aspects of language and communication skills, and a regression in oral fluency. Given this disruption to learning, formative assessment is vital to understanding new starting points for learners so that necessary support can be put in place to help them catch up on both English language development and missed curriculum learning.

Why formative assessment?

So, why are formative assessment and assessment of a learner’s proficiency in English particularly important now?

Well, teachers already use formative assessment to inform future teaching and learning of curriculum content. In addition, it is important to use on-going formative assessment of EAL learners’ proficiency in English, as this will inform decisions about language support. This is particularly necessary for learners who are new to English or at the early acquisition stage, as research shows: Proficiency in English is the strongest predictor of the educational attainment of learners who use EAL, with learners who are new to English and at the early acquisition stage consistently scoring below the national average, and those who are competent and fluent in English consistently scoring above the national average (Strand & Hessel, 2018).

It is now more important than ever to understand learners’ current English language proficiency – not only to understand how their language development (and therefore potentially access to curriculum content) has been affected by emergency remote teaching arrangements, but more importantly to highlight key areas of support to put in place to help them catch-up.

This may be particularly pertinent if exams are cancelled again and teachers are asked to administer in-class tests or provide input on student performance that will count towards a final recommended grade.

Some practical ideas and approaches

Here follows some practical ideas for carrying out formative assessment in the secondary classroom and online.

Pupil Profiles

A pupil profile can provide key information for understanding learners and their language development and is a useful reference tool for all staff involved in understanding a learner’s language development. Consider the following:

  • Educational background: For example, have they had formal education in the past? Have they been to school in more than one country? This gives an idea of a pupil’s past experiences and their expectations (cultural, social and academic).
  • Prior attainment: For example, what have they learnt about particular subject content in the past? What are their strengths and favourite subjects? This helps to set appropriately high expectations.
  • What languages the pupil speaks: How many languages? With whom do they speak them? With what level of proficiency do they speak/write in these languages? This can help to inform how pupils work together, and what linguistic resources a learner can draw on.
  • Other circumstances that might affect a child’s learning: Such as any SEND or traumatic migration experiences which may affect engagement and attainment.

Assessment tools

A robust EAL Assessment tool, such as The Bell Foundation’s EAL Assessment Framework for Schools can be used to make initial and on-going assessments.

Using an EAL assessment framework gives practitioners a shared understanding of different levels of proficiency within the context of curriculum learning and provides a roadmap for progress.

It is important to gather evidence about learners’ language development in all four domains – listening, speaking, reading and viewing, and writing – as learners are likely to be more proficient in one or two areas and to need further support in others.

To gather evidence for assessment, talk to a variety of people, especially as contact with pupils may have been more sporadic during lockdowns and home learning. You could talk to:

  • The EAL co-ordinator for further insight into particular aspects of language development
  • Teaching assistants to find out how the pupils are getting on with the tasks from the teacher.
  • Parents to see if they have noticed any changes, such as less enthusiasm for particular subjects or if their child has told them that school is too difficult.
  • Pupils themselves to see how they are finding classes.

Teachers play a vital role in carrying out formative assessment as they understand what is expected in terms of the curriculum and have the most contact with learners, so are best placed to carry out assessment and target setting.

In-class formative assessment can take place alongside other key assessments, at the beginning, middle and end of a term, and informally, on a daily basis. It is about noticing learners’ language needs as they speak in class and in their routine written work, rather than creating extra work or specific tests. Formative assessment is on-going and happens informally by observing and understanding your learners’ responses to classroom interactions and activities. Normal class materials can be used to evaluate how learners are progressing in their language development and what further support is needed. Here are some ideas for using assessment frameworks:

  • Before the lesson, consider what domains of language use the learners will need to deploy in order to process curriculum content and take part in learning activities (listening, speaking, reading and viewing, writing). It will likely be more than one, so choose the one that is most important for that lesson. For example, in a science lesson where learners discuss an experiment, you may want to assess speaking.
  • Look at the descriptors of an assessment framework and choose the most appropriate and relevant descriptors. Consider: the task you will be observing (e.g. discussing a science experiment), the chosen language domain (e.g. speaking and listening), and the proficiency level you expect them to be working at (e.g. developing competence).
  • Take a copy of the framework into class, with the descriptors that you have identified marked so that they are easy to find (you could highlight or circle them).
  • During the lesson, observe the learner and write notes.
  • After the lesson, return to the framework (and your notes). Use the descriptors to set targets, which can be used to inform support.
  • Plan how to address language targets in future lessons and consider what support is required.

Planning assessments

Although there is no need to create specific EAL assessment materials, it is important to consider in advance how to carry out assessments, especially when some learning may take place online. It may be necessary to plan how to set up tasks to gain enough evidence to make a meaningful assessment of your learners from a distance. Below are some suggestions.


  • Set listening tasks online. Evidence can be gathered by asking learners to submit answers in writing. This could include ticking boxes, writing yes/no answers, sequencing items, or writing short answers. Bear in mind that these types of tasks involve some reading and writing, which may be more difficult for some learners, so relevant support or alternatives may be needed, such as images.
  • Alternatively, ask learners to listen to an extract and to record themselves explaining their reaction/understanding of it.


  • If a group or class of learners are self-isolating, ask them to do project work online, and if possible, audio or video record their discussions or final presentation (if appropriate). This gives teachers the opportunity to see and hear several learners speaking at once.
  • Ask learners to record themselves answering class questions or giving short reviews of books or class topics.
  • Recorded speaking can be useful to look back on in later weeks/months to gain tangible evidence of progress.

Reading and viewing

  • For younger learners, parents could record their children reading a book at home (to assess decoding, for example) and send it to the teacher. Alternatively, if access to a recording device is limited, parents could phone teachers to report back.
  • Use Direct Activities Related to Texts (DARTs), which scaffold reading and allow learners to demonstrate reading comprehension (rather than decoding alone). Learners can submit answers in writing, which can include ticking boxes, writing headings, completing a diagram (see further information).


  • Ask learners to submit writing online.
  • Use bitesize writing activities such as writing on a Padlet wall (a virtual sticky note board, see further information).

Next steps

Gathering assessment evidence allows practitioners to set targets and necessary next steps to ensure that curriculum-embedded language learning targets can be met. There are many strategies and activities that can be used to support learners in meeting their language targets, and to catch up.

The Bell Foundation Classroom Support Strategies as part of the EAL Assessment Framework provide a wealth of practical ideas centered around oracy (listening and speaking) and literacy (reading and viewing, and writing) skills. Many of the strategies are appropriate in the current context or can be adapted slightly to suit.

The Bell Foundation’s Great Ideas pages include information on useful strategies such as Barrier games, D.A.R.Ts, and Flashcards. Each page is dedicated to a different strategy and provides a description and examples of how it can be used. For further information on specific catch-up strategies, read the second article in this series Closing the Covid-19 gap for EAL pupils.

Since March, many learners who use EAL have experienced a language learning loss – a loss that adds an additional and significant barrier to curriculum learning. Therefore, it is vital that learners’ English language development as well as their cognitive development is given the necessary attention and support.

Formative assessment of proficiency in English is fundamental in this process. With this focus and support, these learners stand a good chance of accessing curriculum content and catching up.

  • Emily Curran is a trainer at The Bell Foundation, a charity working to overcome exclusion through language education. For details, visit

Further information & resources


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