EAL: Classroom strategies and ideas

Written by: Dr Ruth Wilson | Published:
Image: Adobe Stock

Continuing our series on supporting learners who have English as an additional language, Dr Ruth Wilson offers us some effective strategies for the secondary classroom

Any pupil that speaks a language in addition to English at home falls into the Department for Education (DfE) definition of having English as an additional language (EAL), making this is an extremely diverse group in almost every way, including encompassing the full range in terms of English language proficiency.

The Teachers’ Standards (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 EAL. At the same time, research suggests that the majority feel unprepared by their initial teacher training to do this (Starbuck 2018; Foley et al, 2018).

This article gives some practical advice for meeting the needs of EAL learners, concentrating on strategies that are beneficial for all EAL learners, from those new to English to those who are fluent. These strategies are exemplified by teaching resources which are free to download from the EAL Nexus website, and this is where the examples recommended in this article can be found (see further information for all URLs).

The distinctive needs of EAL learners

In some respects, the needs of EAL learners are identical to, or similar to, those of their monolingual peers. There is a well-established body of research on the links between language and thought (e.g. Vygotsky’s work) which would suggest that language-conscious teaching helps all learners including those that are monolingual. High teacher expectations are another example of a factor that is important for all learners.

However, there are many ways in which the needs of EAL learners are distinctive and strategies that (while they may benefit everyone) are particularly important for EAL learners. EAL learners have a double job, learning English and learning through English. Teachers of EAL learners, however, have a threefold job:

  • Making the curriculum accessible and comprehensible to the learner. This is obviously vital in the early stages, but more fluent bilingual learners may also need support with, for example, reading for meaning, understanding the nuances of words or phrases in particular contexts and their various meanings in different areas of the curriculum.
  • Being conscious of the need for language development, 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 ensuring they have access to good models of English.

In order to achieve these aims, it is important to consider language development as well as curriculum learning when planning. The EAL Nexus has many examples of teaching resources, all accompanied by teaching notes showing how to integrate language objectives and curriculum objectives into lesson planning.

Providing a rich context

Making the curriculum accessible is often about the use of visuals, real objects and practical activities. For example, by showing pictures or videos at the start of a lesson on hurricanes, a learner who is new to English will understand the context straight away and be able to start to make the fullest possible use of both their prior knowledge and their language skills.

Practical activities are excellent for language development. One useful strategy is to provide a series of images and accessible text to support learners who are new to English.

For example “The boiling point of water” (1) provides a set of images with text like “Pour 150ml water into a beaker”. These can be used to:

  • Show learners what to do before the practical.
  • Ask learners to sequence them after the practical to show what they did.
  • Help write an account of the practical.

Building on prior knowledge

Research suggests that students learn better when they can attach it to something they already know, and this is a key principle for teaching EAL learners (Ferlazzo & Hull Sypniesi, 2018). This naturally has implications for the importance of sound initial and formative assessment.

Such assessment should indicate what a learner can do, inform curriculum provision, and enable diagnosis of needs and individualisation of learning, so as to promote potential development. A useful tool is The Bell Foundation’s Assessment Framework for Schools, which is accompanied by classroom support strategies, all of which are free to download. Helpful strategies include:

  • Activities that provide opportunities to think and share existing knowledge at the beginning of a topic such as mind maps and KWL charts (what we Know, Want to know and have Learned). For example, see “Introduction to A Christmas Carol” (2).
  • Activities which help EAL learners who are new to English understand a story and enable them to tap into their knowledge and experience. See “Romeo and Juliet Act 1” (3). Learners who are new to English will still be familiar with the situation of young people falling in love with someone unacceptable to their family and have opinions about it.
  • Graphic organisers which ask learners to make a comparison with something they already know about. For example, see “Medieval towns” (4), where learners are asked to use a Venn diagram to compare Medieval towns with modern British cities.

For EAL learners, building on prior knowledge includes using their full language repertoire. Teachers are often dubious about encouraging use of learners’ first language in the classroom but there is a substantial body of research on the positive benefits of bilingualism. Recent research on translanguaging, (allowing students to use their full linguistic repertoire for learning), suggests that this empowers EAL learners and helps them to reach their potential (Garcia et al, 2017).

Opportunities to talk

Another key principle for teaching EAL learners is the value of opportunities to use exploratory talk by working collaboratively in pairs or groups. This enables students to practise key language before using it in writing. Research indicates that less experienced teachers may worry that learners who are new to English will not be able to participate in group work (Anderson et al, 2016), but the research on the importance of collaborative learning is substantial. Useful strategies include:

  • Information sharing activities where learners introduce themselves to each other as a character from the play. See “Macbeth character activity” (5).
  • Jigsaw activities, where learners work in groups to complete a task and then pool information in different groups. See “Victorian child labour” (6).
  • Barrier games, where learners working in pairs are given different information and need to ask each other questions in order to complete a task. See “Reactants and products” (7).
  • Speaking frames, where learners are given cards to help them formulate sentences: “__ contain(s) vitamins. We need __ to provide energy.” See “A balanced diet” (8).

Providing good language models

EAL learners at all levels need good models of English to support their language development. This has implications for grouping; it is important to ensure EAL learners have opportunities to work with peers who can provide good models of English. But modelling the kind of English that teachers want students to produce, both in speech and writing, will help raise the achievement of all learners. The following ideas may be useful:

  • Teaching key phrases rather than just key words will help learners to use target language appropriately. So not just “boat”, “shore” and “circles”, but “a little boat”, “the shore of the lake” and “small circles in the water”. These are examples from “Stolen Boat by William Wordsworth” (9).
  • Model the language students should use and encourage (and reward) subject-specific technical language in speech as well as in writing, e.g. “vertices” rather than “edges” in maths.
  • Show examples of what learners should aim for, such as modelling answers to exam questions.
  • Dictogloss is an excellent way of providing good language models, can be used in any subject and takes very little preparation. See the EAL Nexus.

Much of the academic vocabulary and syntax needed for success in GCSEs and A levels is not normally encountered in speech or in, for example, teen fiction, so exposure to academic language is crucial for increasing the breadth of learners’ vocabulary (Stanovich, 1993).

Research indicates that EAL learners on average have smaller English vocabularies that their peers (Oakhill & Cain, 2012) and that vocabulary knowledge underpins reading comprehension (Burgoyen et al, 2009).

This means that EAL learners need exposure to academic language and support to build their English vocabulary to help them, for example, access original source material in history, or unseen poetry in English literature exams.

The ability to use academic language appropriately, language that can be used across the curriculum, is a feature of the speech and writing of the highest achievers and is a useful skill for all learners.

A whole school approach to consider is introducing a word of the day, which is reinforced by all subject teachers. A useful resource for selecting a word of the day is the Academic Word List produced by Using English for Academic Purposes (UEfAP).

Scaffolding language and learning

EAL learners benefit from activities that scaffold language as well as scaffolding learning. One of the main ways of doing this is through the use of graphic organisers. These include charts, timelines, flow diagrams, etc. The EAL Nexus page on graphic organisers gives a range of examples. Encouraging EAL learners to work in groups or pairs to enter ideas or information into a graphic organiser serves several functions:

  • It provides a real context for discussion and exploratory talk.
  • It helps learners to conceptualise their ideas.
  • The learners are left with a key visual which they can refer back to and which can help to scaffold written work.

Other strategies that are useful for scaffolding language include:

  • Substitution tables, which scaffold the language that enables learners to describe the function of particular cells. See “The function of a nerve cell is to ...” in “Specialised cells” (10).
  • Speaking and/or writing frames, for example “Science investigations” (11), which has three differentiated writing frames to support EAL learners at different proficiency levels to write an account of a science investigation.

Fostering independence

Encouraging EAL learners who are literate in their first language to use and build on their language skills is an important way of enabling them to work independently, both in class and at home. For example:

  • Learners can write notes in their first language, e.g. note down their methods and results in a science practical, then use the notes to describe what they did in English before trying to write up the experiment in English.
  • When being asked for an extended piece of writing, such as a newspaper article in English, they could write a draft in their first language (focusing on content) and then try and translate it with the help of a bilingual dictionary or translation software.
  • Online research tasks can often be done in the learners’ first language.
  • Further information is available on the EAL Nexus web pages on bilingual dictionaries and using learners’ first language abilities. 

  • Dr Ruth Wilson is an associate at The Bell Foundation, a charity working to overcome exclusion through language education.

Free webinars

This month The Bell Foundation is launching a series of free EAL webinars, providing access to academics who will introduce participants to their research, discuss key findings and recommendations, and answer questions. For more, go to www.bell-foundation.org.uk


  • How well-prepared to teach EAL learners do teachers feel? Starbuck, NALDIC Journal Online, 2018: http://bit.ly/2Q5lI4M
  • Initial Teacher Education and EAL, Foley, Anderson, Conteh & Hancock, (2018).
  • Activating Prior Knowledge with English Language Learners, Ferlazzo & Hull Sypniesi, Edutopia (2018): https://edut.to/2BeH897
  • The Translanguaging Classroom, Garcia, Ibarra Johnson & Seltzer, Caslon: Philadelphia (2017).
  • How are we training our mainstream teachers to meet the needs of EAL learners? Anderson, Sangster, Foley, Chrichton, British Council & EAL Nexus, 2016: http://bit.ly/2SJxxOD
  • Does reading make you smarter? Stanovich, Advances in Child Development & Behaviour (1993).
  • The precursors of reading ability in young readers, Oakhill & Cain, Scientific Studies of Reading (2012).
  • The comprehension skills of children learning EAL, Burgoyen, Whiteley & Hutchinson, British Journal of Educational Psychology (2009).


EAL Nexus lesson support

  1. Boiling point of water: http://bit.ly/2CbiPL1
  2. A Christmas Carol: http://bit.ly/2BiOKrn
  3. Romeo and Juliet: http://bit.ly/2RW4ffR
  4. Medieval towns: http://bit.ly/2QLxyV9
  5. Macbeth: http://bit.ly/2Cc9pyR
  6. Victorian child labour: http://bit.ly/2QOTheR
  7. Reactants & products: http://bit.ly/2Lm48rD
  8. A balanced diet: http://bit.ly/2QO9YXL
  9. Stolen Boat: http://bit.ly/2PBY2n8
  10. Specialised cells: http://bit.ly/2zWsKlU
  11. Science investigations: http://bit.ly/2Lfowul


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