Supporting advanced bilingual learners

Written by: Dr Ruth Wilson | Published:
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Drawing on the research evidence and best practice, Dr Ruth Wilson advises on supporting advanced bilingual learners to develop the necessary academic writing skills

Research has established that although learners who use English as an additional language (EAL) usually achieve conversational fluency relatively quickly, it takes considerably longer for them to acquire academic language – on average five to seven years if they have appropriate support (Cummins, 1980; Thomas & Collier, 2002).

The ability to use academic language appropriately, i.e. in a manner suitable for the task and audience, is vital for all learners to achieve their potential. As such the techniques and strategies in this article may have relevance for all pupils.

Advanced bilingual learners

The term “advanced bilingual learners” (ABLs) has been defined by Ofsted (2005) as: “Pupils who have had all or most of their school education in the UK and whose oral proficiency in English is usually indistinguishable from that of pupils with English as a first language but whose writing may still show distinctive features related to their language background.”

Research has shown that ABLs who appear to be fluent when speaking English may not necessarily be achieving their academic potential when writing. Cameron (2003) analysed ABL writing samples, comparing them to learners who had English as a first language. She found specific areas where ABLs made significantly more errors than their monolingual peers. For example:

Text level: When asked to write a letter to a newspaper, ABLs included inappropriate phrases for the genre (e.g. they wrote in a style that was overly formal or too informal).

Sentence level: ABLs were less likely to use modal verbs (e.g. will, could, would) to express conditional or hypothetical meanings.

Word or phrase level: Even the highest achieving EAL learners tended to make errors with prepositions, phrasal verbs and formulaic phrases.

Research also suggests that learners with EAL on average have smaller English vocabularies than their peers (Stanovich, 1993) and – EAL or not – exposure to academic language is crucial for increasing the breadth of learners’ vocabulary (Nagy & Townsend, 2012). Cameron’s research highlighted that this applies equally to ABLs.

What is academic language?

The ability to use academic language is not simply a case of choosing more adventurous vocabulary, but also standard English grammar and the appropriate style for the task. Academic vocabulary is sometimes referred to as Tier 2 language, referring to the three-tier model of curriculum vocabulary (Beck et al, 2002).

  • Tier 1: Very common everyday words.
  • Tier 2: More formal words that may be used in any subject (e.g. method, evaluate, neutral).
  • Tier 3: Technical or specialist words, often specific to one subject (e.g. photosynthesis, cosine, metaphor).

Teachers often give lists of key words/phrases for a topic and these are generally Tier 3 words (e.g. overpopulation, global warming), but they are less likely to teach the Tier 2 language that is needed to link these words together (e.g. too many, resulting in).

As well as vocabulary, there are particular grammatical features that typically occur in academic writing that may be less familiar to ABLs and need to be specifically highlighted:

  • Academic texts tend to be dense, using fewer words than more informal, everyday language.
  • Sentences are often passive rather than active.
  • Academic writing often uses nominalisation – the process of making a noun from a verb or adjective.

A whole-school approach to consider is introducing a “word of the day” that is reinforced by all subject teachers in lessons. A helpful resource for selecting a word of the day is the Academic Word List (Coxhead, 2000) – this lists 570 Tier 2 headwords with a definition and also other words from the same stem (3,000 altogether).

Each subject teacher could reinforce the word of the day by asking students for sentences containing some form of the word in the context of their subject. An alternative strategy would be for the teacher to use a sentence containing the word of the day and reward the first student to notice it.

Using the register continuum

A useful tool for developing academic language is the Register Continuum (Beck et al, 2002). This is a horizontal line with informal language at one end (e.g. texting a friend) and formal language at the other (e.g. doing a presentation at an interview). It can be used to show learners how they should move from one end of the continuum to the other according to the context – for example if they are:

  • Taking part in collaborative group work.
  • Feeding back to the teacher.
  • Presenting findings to the class.
  • Writing a report.

The continuum can be displayed in the classroom, with examples of different levels of formality at different points. This continuum reminds learners to consider the kinds of academic language they need to talk and write like a scientist, or a mathematician. This would mean not only using Tier 3 vocabulary but also the Tier 2 language surrounding it.

Suggested teaching sequence

It is also important to provide opportunities for learners to use academic language orally before attempting to write about a topic. The four-stage teaching sequence below, recommended by Gibbons (2009), suggests ways to do this.

1 Developing knowledge of the topic

The first stage is helping learners develop their understanding of a topic before writing about it. This process should include opportunities to rehearse academic language orally before writing. Research highlights the importance of giving learners an opportunity to use target language in speech before trying to write (Alexander, 2017). For example:

Building on learners’ prior knowledge of a topic through group discussions (in English, first language or both) and recording ideas into a graphic organiser such as a mind-map or timeline. The Bell Foundation’s EAL Nexus website has advice on using graphic organisers.

Construct a text mat or word wall with key language related to the topic. This should include both Tier 2 and Tier 3 vocabulary. For an example of a text mat see Idea 60 from Driver & Pim, 2018 (see further information).
Barrier crosswords, a form of information gap activity, are good for reinforcing vocabulary. For example, put learners in pairs, where one has a grid with the across clues filled in and the other a grid with the down answers. With a barrier between them, pupils take it in turns to give a definition of one of the words they can see. There are free websites that create crosswords from lists of key words (e.g. and the EAL Nexus also has a page on barrier games.

2 Modelling

The second stage is making absolutely clear the text type that you would ideally like learners to produce by showing them models. This can be done by looking at key features of a text and focusing on elements that make the style more formal, for instance the passive voice. There are several other ways of doing this more interactively:

  • Dictogloss: A kind of supported dictation where the teacher reads a short model text aloud at normal speed and learners try to reconstruct it (see the EAL Nexus page about Dictogloss).
  • Running dictation: A collaborative activity where learners work in groups. Attach a short model text to a wall where it is not legible from a distance. One person from each group goes to the text, reads and memorises the first sentence, returns to the group and dictates it. If they cannot remember it, they return and read it again. When the group is happy with the sentence, a different person reads and memorises the next sentence and so on.

We must follow up the above work by raising students’ awareness of the features of the academic language they have been using. For example, when looking back at the text or dictation, learners could use highlighter pens to underline specific features of academic writing (the nouns, use of passive, etc).

3 Writing together

The third stage is shared writing, with support from either the teacher or peers who can provide good models of English. Shared writing provides scaffolding for ABLs as it gives an opportunity to rehearse the target language orally with someone who can help the learner to explore different ways of expressing what they want to say and achieve a more coherent and well-organised text. Shared writing can start with word or sentence-level work. Activities could include:

Drafting a text as a class, with the teacher scribing on an interactive whiteboard. This works best if the task is similar, not identical, to the one the learners are going write independently. For example, a science teacher could model writing an account of a science practical and the learners could then write their own account of a different practical.

Bartlett (2017) gives an example from a history lesson where learners work together to link pairs of sentences using a suitable word or phrase. This could be differentiated by providing a list of possible words/phrases.

A useful word-level activity is to look at nominalisation. Give learners some common phrasal verbs (get bigger, get rid of), ask them to think of a more formal verb (grow/swell, eradicate/destroy) and then turn it into a noun (growth/swelling, eradication/destruction). The next step is to highlight the words that typically surround the target nouns (e.g. The growth of towns and cities during the...).

4 Writing independently

At this stage, learners should be ready to write independently and it is important that they:

  • Are encouraged to write a draft and not expected to produce a final text straight away.
  • Look back at the ground work they have done, model texts, word walls, etc, and use these to help them write.
  • Share each other’s drafts and make constructive comments with reference to success criteria.

There are many scaffolding techniques that can be used to differentiate the task at the independent writing stage. For example:

  • Writing frames (see the EAL Nexus resource science investigations for some examples).
  • Scaffolds to support particular text types. See the EAL Nexus Romeo and Juliet resource for an activity on writing a Point Evidence and Explanation (PEE) paragraph.SecEd

  • Dr Ruth Wilson is a Bell Foundation Associate. The Bell Foundation is a charity working to overcome exclusion through language education. Visit

Further information & research

  • The cross-lingual dimensions of language proficiency, Cummins, TESOL Quarterly, 1980.
  • A national study of school effectiveness for language minority students’ long-term academic achievement, Thomas & Collier, University of California, 2002.
  • Could they do even better? Ofsted, July 2005.
  • A research study investigating the writing skills of more advanced learners of English at key stage 4 and post-16, Cameron, Ofsted, 2003.
  • Does reading make you smarter? Literacy and the development of verbal intelligence, Stanovich, Advances in Child Development and Behaviour, 1993.
  • Words as tools: Learning academic vocabulary as language acquisition, Nagy & Townsend, Reading Research Quarterly, 2012.
  • Bringing Words to Life, Beck, McKeown & Lucan, Guilford, 2002.
  • Academic Word List, Coxhead, Using English for Academic Purposes, 2000:
  • English Learners Academic Literacy and Thinking, Gibbons, Heinemann, 2009.
  • Towards Dialogic Teaching: Rethinking classroom talk, Alexander, Diaglos UK, 2017.
  • 100 Ideas for Secondary Teachers: Supporting EAL learners, Driver & Pim, Bloomsbury, 2018. To access the Idea 60 resources, go to
  • Developing fluency in history as part of the feedback cycle, Bartlett, EAL Journal, Summer 2017.
  • EAL Nexus page references:


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