Examinations: Preparing your EAL learners

Written by: Deborah Owen | Published:
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Formal examinations can present a range of specific challenges for pupils with English as an additional language. Deborah Owen offers some strategies, both to help pupils prepare and for them to use on the day

Preparing learners for exams is, of course, a priority for all teachers. Exams are a challenge for all learners, but more so for learners who speak English as an additional language (EAL), especially if they are new arrivals who may be unfamiliar with the English education system or who 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 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) as compared to mathematics (Strand & Hessel, 2018). Demie’s recent research into proficiency in English (2018) also shows that EAL learners at stages D (competent) and E (fluent) not only performed much higher than those at the earlier stages of English language acquisition, but also outperformed their monolingual peers.
  • 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 (Strand, 2015 & Hutchinson, 2018).

Two key questions therefore are how can we support our EAL pupils who are not yet fluent (stage E) in English to reach their potential in exams? And 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?

This article presents some practical approaches and ideas, many of which may benefit all pupils, not just EAL learners.

The knowledge and skills for exams

A well-developed vocabulary in the subject area is crucial. Vocabulary size has been shown to be a key indicator of success for EAL pupils. Research (Cameron, 2002) has shown 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.

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 (learners may not have come across a hot-dog stall). There are an infinite number of everyday words that might occur in word problems.

Some practical strategies for developing vocabulary include:

  • Have an explicit focus on vocabulary in each lesson: revisiting vocabulary regularly, verbally or in writing, aids acquisition and minimises forgetting (Schmitt, 2012). The Bell Foundation’s EAL Nexus has a lot of ideas on its “Great idea: Introducing new vocabulary” page.
  • Pre-teach key words: present the words in context by giving an example and an accompanying image. The EAL Nexus has many resources with images, including for GCSE English literature poetry anthologies.
  • Do starter activities based on the important vocabulary of the lesson (Driver & Pim, 2018): ask students to match words to definitions, group related words together, or work on word-building (e.g. from “industry” to “industrialise” and “industrialisation”) and make sentences.
  • Looking up words: encourage EAL learners to use 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) and B (early acquisition), and the Cambridge English Dictionary and Thesaurus for learners at stages C (developing competence), D and E. Also encourage learners to read for pleasure as any reading will expose learners to new vocabulary in context.
  • Displays: have displays of vocabulary on the walls. This should include key instruction words in your subject, such as “calculate”, “plot”, “solve”, “estimate” in maths. Learners could add translations to make a multilingual display.

Understanding the meaning of all the question/instruction words is also important. The exam papers for all subjects use a variety of question words, such as 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 when faced with exam questions.

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 you could remove key words from example 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 also important. 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. Note any good sentence starters, phrases or vocabulary and make posters. Encourage learners to add to them so they are interactive and organic.
  • Using Dictogloss (a collaborative dictation activity that can be used in any subject and takes very little preparation) to provide a model answer. The Bell Foundation’s EAL Nexus website has a page on Dictogloss.
  • Giving small groups of learners some model answers with the questions removed and asking them to work out what the question is (and then comparing the two).

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 include:

  • Identifying and modelling 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 with “an example of...”. A question starting with “discuss” might require phrases such as “on the one hand” and contain words such as “however”, “but” and “whereas”.
  • Building up a bank of useful language on posters around the room. Learners can make these posters themselves as part of collaborative preparation or revision. Learners can then make revision flashcards from the posters. They could use Quizlet to make interactive flashcards.
  • Working 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.
  • Providing extra differentiation for EAL learners at stages A and B, such as key vocabulary and sentence starters as scaffolding.

Strategies to use on exam day

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 rules on access and arrangements and reasonable adjustments.

Elsewhere, practise the following 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.

  • 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, e.g. in a question where the net of a cereal box is shown, asking them to calculate the volume, the learner needs to recognise that the mathematical words “net” and “volume” are important, but that “cereal” is 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 this:

  • Look carefully at graphs, diagrams, etc 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

Useful resources


  • BICS and CALP: Empirical and theoretical status of the distinction, Cummins, 2008.
  • Age and rate of acquisition of second language for academic purposes, Collier, 1987.
  • Language diversity and attainment in secondary schools in England, Demie, 2016.
  • EAL English proficiency and attainment: What does the national EAL assessment data tell us? Demie, 2018.
  • English as an additional language, proficiency in English and pupils’ educational achievement: An analysis of local authority data, Strand & Hessel, 2018.
  • Measuring vocabulary size in English as an additional language, Cameron, 2002.
  • Teaching formulaic sequences: The same or different from teaching single words? Norbert Schmitt Alali & Schmitt, 2012.
  • Choosing words to teach (in Bringing Words to Life), Beck, McKeown & Kucan, 2002.
  • Vocabulary strategies and games (in 100 ideas for secondary teachers), Driver & Pim, 2018.


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