Exam preparation: Supporting EAL learners

Written by: Deborah Owen | Published:
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Research findings lay bare the challenges facing EAL students when it comes to examinations. Deborah Owen presents some practical preparation approaches and ideas, many of which may benefit all pupils, not only those with EAL

Preparing learners for exams is, of course, a priority for all teachers. However, this can be a particular challenge with learners who speak English as an additional language (EAL) if they are new arrivals who may be unfamiliar with the English education system or are new to English.

Research has demonstrated that:

  • It can take seven years or more for an EAL learner arriving with no English to catch up with their English-speaking peers and gain academic proficiency in English (Cummins, 2008; Collier, 1987; Demie, Hau & McDonald, 2016).
  • Proficiency in English is a strong indicator of attainment. The relationship between proficiency in English and achievement is particularly strong in language-heavy subjects, such as history and English (Strand & Hessel, 2018). Recent research into proficiency in English also shows that EAL learners at Stages D (competent) and E (fluent) not only perform much higher than those at the earlier stages of English language acquisition, but also outperform their monolingual peers (Demie, 2018).
  • Data show that, on average, pupils arriving late into the English school system do less well in external exams than their peers, and that the older the pupils are when they arrive, the less likely they are to achieve good results in year 11 (Hutchinson, 2018).

Two key questions therefore are:

  • How can we support our EAL pupils who are not yet fluent in English to reach their potential in exams?
  • How can we give EAL learners, including late arrivals, the tools to tackle exam questions when they are not able to understand every word in the questions but they may have the technical knowledge needed to answer the question?

Practical approaches

So, how to support learners in gaining the knowledge and skills for success in exams?


Having a well-developed vocabulary in the subject area is vital. Vocabulary-size has been shown to be a key indicator of success for EAL pupils. Cameron (2002) found that EAL students who have had on average 10.5 years in English-medium education showed some gaps in their knowledge of the most frequent words and had more serious problems understanding less frequent words. This has important implications for educational achievement. Exposure to academic language is crucial for increasing the breadth of learners’ vocabulary. Some practical ideas include:

  • Be aware that there are different types of vocabulary: subject specialist/technical vocabulary (e.g. photosynthesis in biology or personification in English), general academic language, and everyday vocabulary (Beck, McKeown & Kucan, 2002). We might assume that the specialist vocabulary is the most difficult, but for EAL learners the general academic and everyday language can be just as challenging. Everyday words, e.g. hot-dog stall, carpet tiles, car hire, may be unfamiliar not only in terms of the language but also the cultural context. There are an infinite number of everyday words that might occur in word problems.
  • Have an explicit focus on vocabulary in each lesson. Revisiting vocabulary regularly, verbally or in writing, aids acquisition and minimises forgetting (Alali & Schmitt, 2012). The Bell Foundation’s EAL Nexus web portal has some ideas on its Introducing New Vocabulary page (see further information).
  • Pre-teach key words, presenting the words in context by giving an example and an accompanying image. Again, the EAL Nexus has resources with images, including several to support learners with GCSE English literature poetry anthologies.
  • Do starter activities based on the important vocabulary of the lesson (Driver & Pim 2018). For example, ask students to match words to definitions, group related words together, or work on word building and making sentences (e.g. starting with “industry” learners are encouraged to produce “industrialise”, “industrialised”, “industrialisation”, “deindustrialisation”).
  • Encourage EAL learners to look up words in a dual-language or learners’ dictionary and make a glossary. There are some good online dictionaries, including the Cambridge Essential English Dictionary, suitable for learners at stages A (new to English) to B (early acquisition), and the Cambridge English Dictionary and Thesaurus, for learners at stage C (developing competence) and above.
  • Have displays of vocabulary on the walls. This should include key instruction words in your subject, e.g. calculate, plot, solve and estimate in maths. Learners could add translations to make a multilingual display.
  • Encourage learners to read for pleasure as any reading will expose learners to new vocabulary in context and extend knowledge of everyday vocabulary.

Understanding meaning

Understanding the meaning of all the question/instruction words is also important. Exam papers use a variety of question words, e.g. analyse, define, explain, justify, illustrate and interpret. There are many more, and while some are common to many subjects, others are particular to certain subject areas. If learners do not understand these words they will be at a disadvantage. Some practical tips include:

  • Look at exam papers for your subject area and make a list. Be clear yourself on what each means and what kind of answer it requires.
  • Teach the meaning of the instruction words to your pupils. Give examples.
  • Give pupils opportunities to review, remember and practise using instruction words. For example, they could match question words to their definitions. Or remove the question words from example exam questions and challenge learners to decide which question word fits.
  • Encourage learners to highlight or underline the instruction words when they are reading exam questions.


Knowing what a good answer looks like is key. One way to help EAL learners focus on particular areas of language as well as on the content is to provide them with models of good writing. This gives a standard to aspire to and presents a starting point as scaffolding for their own writing.

Write some model answers for learners and/or use those provided by the exam boards and look at these with your learners. As well as looking at the content of the answers, also focus on the language by:

  • Encouraging learners to work in small groups to annotate model answers for correct content, good vocabulary, good sentence starters, etc.
  • Note any good sentence starters, phrases or vocabulary and make posters. Encourage learners to add to them so they are interactive and organic.
  • Use Dictogloss (a collaborative dictation activity that can be used in any subject and takes very little preparation) to provide a model answer. The EAL Nexus website has a page on Dictogloss.
  • Give small groups of learners some model answers with the questions removed and ask them to work out what the question is. Then compare this to the actual question.

Different types of answers

Knowing the features of different types of answer is key. Having focused on question words and model answers, learners then need explicit teaching on what language is needed to produce a response for each type of question. Some practical ideas are:

  • Identify and model how the language you use in your answer relates to the question word. For example, a question asking learners to “Illustrate how...” might result in sentences beginning “One example of ... is”. A question requiring learners to “Discuss...” might require sentences beginning “On the one hand ... on the other hand” and containing words like “however”, “but”, and “whereas”.
  • Build up a bank of useful language on posters around the room. Learners can make these posters themselves as part of a collaborative preparation or revision activity.
  • Learners make revision flashcards from the posters. They could use Quizlet to make interactive flashcards.
  • Work on shared answers with groups or the whole class. Discuss together what the question requires and get students to write, improve and mark their answers together. Focus on the language and the content of the answer at the same time.
  • Provide extra differentiation for EAL learners at the new to English or early acquisition stages (e.g. some key vocabulary and sentence starters as scaffolding).

Tackling the paper

Build-up strategies to use on exam day. Practise these strategies with your learners so that when it comes to exam day they will be able to do as well as possible, even if they do not understand every word of the questions or texts they are faced with.

Remember that EAL learners can have access to a standard bilingual translation dictionary in some exams (not GCSE English, geography, history or religious studies), and may be entitled to 10 per cent extra time. This must reflect the candidate’s normal way of working. Check the concessions allowed in the Joint Council for Qualifications (JCQ) document Access and Arrangements and Reasonable Adjustments.

  • Encourage learners to focus first on the non-worded parts of questions: numbers, graphs, diagrams, illustrations, maps, formulae, etc. Teach them to get as much meaning as possible from any non-worded elements in questions.
  • Get them into the habit of underlining the instruction words and highlighting any key information.
  • Train the learner to know when unknown words are key to answering the question and when they are not.
  • In subjects where dictionaries are permitted encourage EAL learners to look up key words.
  • Encourage learners not to panic if they do not understand a word, and to try and work out the meaning from the context.
  • Look at questions together. Talk them through and discuss with them the process of working out what the question means, what to do and what the answer should look like.

Making a checklist

Encourage learners to create a checklist for answering exam questions. They might come up with something like this:

  • Look carefully at graphs, diagrams and see if there are any clues in the answer line.
  • Predict what the question could be before reading it.
  • Underline the question word.
  • Highlight the key information.
  • Look up any words you think could be important.
  • Check how many marks there are for the question.
  • Watch the time and stay calm.

  • Deborah Owen is a Bell Foundation Associate at The Bell Foundation, a charity working to overcome exclusion through language education by working with partners on innovation, research, training and practical interventions. Visit www.bell-foundation.org.uk

Further information & research

  • BICS and CALP: Empirical and theoretical status of the distinction, Cummins, Encyclopedia of Language and Education, 2008.
  • Age and rate of acquisition of second language for academic purposes, Collier, Tesol Quarterly, 1987: http://bit.ly/304zyd7
  • Language diversity and attainment in secondary schools in England, Demie, Hau & McDonald, 2016: http://bit.ly/36C9itl
  • EAL, proficiency in English and pupils’ educational achievement: An analysis of local authority data, Strand & Hessel, 2018.
  • EAL English proficiency and attainment: What does the national EAL assessment data tell us? Demie, EAL Journal, 2018: http://bit.ly/2Fx3xBh
  • Educational outcomes of children with English as an additional language, Hutchinson, 2018.
  • Measuring vocabulary size in English as an additional language, Cameron, Language Teaching Research, 2002: http://bit.ly/35y6WtX
  • Choosing words to teach (in Bringing Words to Life) Beck, McKeown & Kucan, 2002.
  • Teaching formulaic sequences: The same or different from teaching single words? Alali & Schmitt, Tesol Journal, 2012: http://bit.ly/37Td5CJ
  • EAL Nexus: https://ealresources.bell-foundation.org.uk/
  • The Cambridge Essential English Dictionary and the Cambridge English Dictionary and Thesaurus can be accessed via https://dictionary.cambridge.org/dictionary/
  • Vocabulary strategies and games, in 100 ideas for secondary teachers, Driver & Pim, 2018.
  • Quizlet https://quizlet.com/en-gb
  • For the latest information on Access Arrangements, Reasonable Adjustments and Special Consideration, visit the JCQ website via http://bit.ly/2dF2dAc
  • Supporting KS4/5 EAL students with examination questions, techniques and strategies, resources from Hounslow Language Service: http://bit.ly/2T5ZweX


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