EAL strategies for multilingual classrooms

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

The diversity to be found in today’s classrooms requires that EAL strategies be embedded within pedagogy and teaching and learning. Kamil Trzebiatowski offers some advice and signposts free resources


It would be difficult to find a teacher who has not encountered or is not aware of the phrase “removing barriers to accessing the curriculum”.

Often, it is taken to mean that adaptations need to be made for certain learners to enable them to participate in learning activities in the classroom.

For learners who use English as an additional language (EAL), barriers to accessing the curriculum often stem from the fact that English (the language of both instruction and assessment) is not their first language. While on the journey towards English language proficiency, support is needed to ensure that any potential English language barriers are minimised and that learners using EAL are able to participate in classroom activities on a par with their peers.

The Teachers’ Standards (DfE, 2011) stipulate that teachers need to be able to differentiate appropriately for all pupils, including those who use EAL.

Supporting learners who use EAL to “access the curriculum” can be frequently taken to mean simply supporting learners to understand what they hear and read. However, in the English language teaching field, Nation (2007) highlights the need for a focus on learning through both “meaning-focused input” and “meaning-focused output”.

Meaning-focused input involves learning through listening and reading – using language receptively. Typical activities include extensive reading, shared reading, listening to stories, or being a listener in a conversation.

Meaning focused output involves learning through speaking and writing – using language productively. Typical activities include productive tasks such as telling a story or writing a letter.

For learning to occur through meaning-focused input and output pupils with EAL need to be given opportunities to actively develop the language skills needed to read, write, speak and listen. This, therefore, signals a need for teachers to include an explicit, and active focus on language development alongside curriculum learning.

In particular, when focusing on “meaning-focused output” learners with EAL are likely to need help with producing certain grammatical structures, vocabulary (particularly beyond the key subject and discipline-specific words that all students need to learn), pronunciation, discourse features and strategies specifically aimed at encouraging learners to speak and write in English.

The purpose of this article is to explore practical strategies that teachers can use in the classroom to provide learners who use EAL with opportunities for both meaning-focused input and output. Many of the ideas and resources that follow can be found on The Bell Foundation’s EAL Nexus webpages.


Strategy: Using first language or other languages that the student knows
Useful for: Meaning-focused input

Some learners who use EAL will already be literate in their first language. Not only can they use their first language and literacy skills to help them learn English, but it is also easier to understand concepts in one’s first language and transfer that knowledge to the second language.

Primarily, this strategy is about enabling understanding. Teachers can provide their learners with bilingual dictionaries, lists of translated key words or phrases and use subject-specific books in the learners’ first language and encourage their learners to take notes in their first language.

Pupils could also be asked to translate lists of words given to them in English into their first language ahead of the lesson and create multilingual glossaries. All of these strategies enable learners with EAL to understand and engage with the academic content of lessons. These resources and strategies also enable teachers to maintain high academic and cognitive expectations of these learners despite the English language barrier.


Strategy name: Substitution tables
Useful for: Meaning-focused output

This strategy is a useful scaffold for EAL learners providing them with set sentence patterns while presenting them with a range of choices to select from. Students create sentences by picking one option from each column.

Effective substitution tables focus on an aspect of English language grammar or vocabulary (e.g. a past tense, a/an/the articles or a part of speech such as adjectives or adverbs) while linking to the curriculum and allowing learners to create several sentences.

Substitution tables can be used for both speaking and writing practice purposes. In group and collaborative work, they can help learners to structure their oral contributions; in writing, they can enable them to write larger bodies of text.

It is good practice to use a talk-to-writing approach, i.e. ask learners to first practise the sentences in speech and then write them down. It allows learners with EAL to appreciate the relationships between pronunciation and spelling.

If speaking occurs in pairs or small groups, learners will get corrective feedback from their peers, which they are more likely to incorporate into their output by the writing stage. Any grammatical structures and/or vocabulary items that a substitution table focuses on need to be explicitly taught during the meaning-focused input stage.


Strategy name: Flashcards and visuals
Useful for: Meaning-focused input

Visual aids are an excellent tool to remove barriers to comprehension that learners with EAL might face. Visuals are often universal – they provide context and can remove linguistic barriers without the need to remove cognitive demands.

It is important to bear in mind, however, that some images can be incomprehensible outside of certain cultures: for instance, some foods and household items might not have existed in learners’ countries of origin; without context, they will not be automatically understandable to them.

Teachers can use images that are already present in their teaching materials or differentiate by adding images of their own. Pixabay is an excellent source of free-to-use high-quality photographs and graphics (see further information).

Flashcards are a subset of the visuals category as they are typically picture cards. Such cards can be used to introduce new vocabulary, memorise new words, phrases and/or concepts and review them.

Learners with EAL could play games such as Bingo, Pelmanism (finding image and word pairs), Connect 4 and Snap – although teachers should consider whether some of these are more suitable for primary rather secondary learners. They could use flashcards with pictures only, pictures with captions in their first language or a set of picture-only cards accompanied by a set of word cards.

While flashcards are an effective tool, they can be time-consuming to produce. It is suggested that teachers re-use them, avoiding the need to produce new ones repeatedly. Some vocabulary-learning online programmes such as Quizlet allow for quick printing of flashcards. Learners can also be asked to cut up flashcards for homework, taking responsibility for their own learning.


Strategy name: Graphic organisers
Useful for: Meaning-focused input and output

Graphic organisers are tools such as Venn diagrams, pie charts, cycles and timelines. They offer great support to EAL learners as they show connections and relationships between different academic concepts in a visual non-verbal manner without reducing cognitive challenge. For instance, in a Venn diagram the concepts of similarities and differences can be presented visually, making the relationship between the two more cognitively accessible than if the same were to be presented in purely textual form.

When used to present and explain information about a lesson, graphic organisers are a cognitive input tool. However, if teachers provide learners with the necessary cohesive devices (words or phrases that show connections between paragraphs or sections of text e.g. however, in spite and because), graphic organisers can also be used as a comprehensible output tool to facilitate learners’ speaking or writing about a topic.

For instance, once a graphic organiser about allies and enemies in the Second World War has been completed, learners could write sentences about the countries using the word “but”, e.g. Britain was an enemy of Germany, but an ally of France.

Graphic organisers can be easily differentiated for learners with EAL. Learners who are new to English could be asked to use a graphic organiser to write a summary of the main learnings from a lesson. More advanced EAL learners could reverse engineer a subject-based text into a graphic organiser to demonstrate understanding of what they have read.

For example, a history text about the causes of the Peasants’ Revolt in 1381 could be provided to learners. Pupils could then present the facts from the text on a graphic organiser of their choosing, for instance, a cause-effect fishbone or any other visual representation of several factors leading to a singular outcome. Teachers can also differentiate by varying the amount text and number of images that are included in graphic organisers they use with different learners.


Strategy name: Barrier games
Useful for: Meaning-focused input and output

A barrier game is a communication activity, usually involving a pair of learners who exchange information about a topic. Teachers place a physical barrier between the learners to prevent them from seeing each other’s information. The focus is on both listening (input) and speaking (output).

In a classic barrier game, learner A has some information that learner B does not have, and vice-versa. Both learners could have a partially completed text, map, diagram or crossword and need to communicate to find out the missing information to complete them. However, other variations are possible. For instance, learner A could instruct learner B to follow his/her instructions and learner B would need to draw an image or sequence items on a diagram following the instructions.

In geography, student A could be given a fully completed map of an area and student B only a blank template. Student A then instructs student B where to draw certain features such as rivers, lakes and mountains by telling them the coordinates and the names of these features.

To ensure learners with EAL can participate actively in barrier games, teachers might need to first model the language required for completing the task. For instance, EAL learners could be provided with speaking frames, sentence starters or substitution tables to support them.


  • Kamil Trzebiatowski is the digital resource developer at The Bell Foundation, a charity working to overcome exclusion through language education.


Further information & resources


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