Supporting your EAL learners

Written by: Nic Kidston & Katherine Solomon | Published:
Image: Adobe Stock
Spot on. Much my work is with pupils who arrive at the end of KS3 and in KS4 so though the impact ...

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In a new series focused on supporting pupils with English as an additional language, Nic Kidston and Katherine Solomon discuss how schools can learn more about who their EAL learners are and how they can be empowered and supported to fulfil their potential

This article, the first in a series of articles on supporting EAL learners that will appear in the coming year, examines the recent research report from the Education Policy Institute (EPI), with the Bell Foundation and Unbound Philanthropy – entitled Educational Outcomes of Children with English as an Additional Language.

The series will provide insights into, and best practice on, how to support individual learners through a whole school approach.

So, what do we know about the EAL cohort? First, according to the most recent Department for Education data (School Census, January 2017), there are currently more than 1.3 million EAL learners (20.6 per cent of state-funded primary pupils and 16.2 per cent of state-funded secondary school pupils).

Second, the percentage of pupils who are recorded as speaking EAL has more than doubled since 1997.

Third, that this is a truly heterogeneous group, their attainment is affected by, among other factors, language skills (both first language and English language proficiency), prior educational experiences, and time of arrival into the English school system.

Finally, all learners are different, all learners have a range of outcomes and the EAL cohort is no different. Robust assessment of learners is the crucial first step, as well as understanding a learner’s proficiency in English for EAL learners, in order to support their development. Multilingualism is an asset for EAL learners, and for the whole school cohort.

The problem of misleading averages

Any pupil that speaks a language in addition to English at home falls into the EAL category and it is this definition that masks a huge level of varying attainment for pupils (Strand et al, 2015).

Pupil performance: Aggregating the average attainment scores of EAL pupils is misleading as, like most averages it conceals more than it tells us, masking considerable variation. As the EAL category is so heterogeneous the data tells us little as it obscures significant disparities in performance. It is also distorted by missing attainment data (estimated at one in 10 of secondary school students). This means that children who arrive in school after the national assessment points can wait up to five years in secondary without any national assessment.

There is also an issue of “misleading measurements” – if academic assessment is undertaken before English proficiency is reached it will underestimate academic attainment to an unmeasured degree, because attainment is mediated by the child’s English proficiency at the time of the test.

Finally, our report highlights that the average attainment data is based on GCSE cohorts who underwent primary education during an era when funding was ring-fenced to support Black and minority ethnic pupils and/or those with EAL. In 2011, this ring-fence was removed and, as yet, there is no data to indicate what impact that will have on attainment.

Proficiency in English: The English language proficiency of EAL learners is variable. The EAL category includes British citizens who speak another language at home, i.e. advanced bilingual learners, through to newly arrived EAL learners with little or no prior knowledge of speaking English. Pupil profiles can be as diverse as these two children:

  1. Xin is the daughter of an English father and Chinese mother. Xin has been schooled entirely within the English school system, however, as both English and Mandarin are spoken at home she is recorded as an EAL learner. She is achieving above average attainment. Xin is an advanced bilingual learner.
  2. Sahra is a Somali refugee who has fled war and persecution and is recovering from trauma. She has had limited education and has limited literacy in her first language. She has had no exposure to English and is struggling to understand. Sahra is new to English.

First Language: Our research shows a marked disparity between different groups depending on their first language. For example, “at secondary level some EAL pupils, such as late arrivals with Pashto as a first language, score, on average, between an F and an E at GCSE in Attainment 8 having arrived into the English school system in year 9” (our report used data from 2016 and so the pre-GCSE reform alphabetical grades system is used).

The report adds: “At the other end of the scale, children with Chinese as their first language perform well, averaging between a B and a C at GCSE in Attainment 8 – despite having also entered secondary school in year 9.”

Other factors: “Many of the factors associated with risk of low achievement are the same for EAL pupils as for their non-EAL peers. These include (roughly in order of impact): having an identified SEN, being entitled to a free school meal, living in an economically deprived neighbourhood, attending school outside London, and being summer born (and therefore young for their year-group).” (Strand et al, 2015)

Research evidence and teacher experience indicates that learner outcomes for this group will be as varied as learner outcomes for other groups in the school system and as such it is essential that schools conduct thorough, evidence-informed assessment of each EAL learner to establish their current proficiency in English language and cognitive abilities in order to develop tailored targets and support strategies which will enable them to develop their language skills and fully access the curriculum.

Arrival time in the UK school system

The data in the EPI report shows that the age a child arrives in the English school system is key, usually the younger the child is, the better they will perform in exams.
For example, “at GCSE level, pupils who arrived by the first year of secondary school (between Reception and year 7) scored an average grade of around 5 in Attainment 8, which decreased to a grade of around 4 if they arrived in year 8, 9 or 10 – falling further to below a 3 if they arrived in year 11”.

Imagine if you have a child arriving in your class age 14 from another country who has very limited English and has to sit a GCSE in chemistry. Without specialist support and access to teaching about the academic language needed, s/he will struggle to pass. The research evidence tells us that this group needs extra, more intensive support to succeed.

What can schools do to help EAL learners?

The key is to establish a comprehensive profile of each individual child through robust assessment to ascertain where they are with their learning, where they need to go and how they can be supported to get there in order to fully access the classroom material.

Create a learner profile: Who they are, what previous education they have had, their level of literacy in their first language, how proficient they are in English and so on – crucially make sure that any insights or information gathered is passed on to all teachers that the child has contact with.

Develop a whole-school culture: Get the whole school on board from the dinner staff to the senior leaders. Many people will remember their first day at a new school, but imagine doing that in another country, somewhere where no-one speaks your language, then imagine you are an 11-year old child and how scary this might feel to you. So, make sure newly arrived children and their families are warmly welcomed and feel safe in the school environment. Ensure that signage around the school is visual to help those learners new to English to connect meaning to language. Encourage all school staff to speak clearly and use gestures and actions to support understanding in English. Make sure that the learner’s linguistic and cultural background is reflected in the school environment, for example classroom displays could be written in the scripts of the languages spoken by children in the class (see further reading). Also, communicate with parents to establish the best ways of supporting learning for newly arrived pupils.

Be inclusive: Plan teaching and learning experiences that enable all pupils to fully access the curriculum and to apply their learning in a supportive and inclusive environment.

And be aware:

  • Schools need to understand and convey to parents how important maintaining home languages are in terms of then being able to learn subsequent languages and English. Remember there are numerous benefits to speaking more than one language – for example, it improves thinking skills, memory and brain health and it can increase your earning power and career potential.
  • The benefits of a multicultural, multilingual school can apply to the whole school – by developing a better understanding of different cultures and encouraging second or third language development in their peers these benefits can be spread across the whole school environment. Secondary school children with good reading and writing skills in their first language may be able to take a qualification in it – see the EAL Nexus website.
  • It is increasingly recognised that techniques for supporting the development of language may benefit all pupils. Using mixed-language and same-language peer groups can help to develop confidence in speaking in different languages, improve vocabulary and skills, as well as develop a better understanding of, and empathy with, diversity in the classroom.
  • To help with the last point, the Bell Foundation provides an EAL Assessment Framework with accompanying support strategies which are free for schools to download. An article on assessment will appear as part of this series during the autumn term. Also, the EAL Nexus website provides free information, advice and resources for school staff to help them support learners with EAL. By using information gained from on-going assessment to feed into planning, teaching and learning, schools can help ensure that all learners benefit from differentiated support that allows them to fully access the curriculum and achieve their potential.

And finally...

As the EPI report highlights: “No child should be prevented from reaching their full potential because of special educational need, where they live, low income, or lack of support to develop English language proficiency.”

  • Nic Kidston is head of programme (EAL) and Katherine Solomon is training manager at the Bell Foundation, a charity working to overcome exclusion through language education by working with partners on innovation, research, training and practical interventions. Through generating and applying evidence, the Foundation aims to change practice, policy and systems for children, adults and communities in the UK disadvantaged through language.

EAL Summer School

Schools looking to further develop their EAL knowledge base and/or looking for practical tools to support their work may be interested in the Bell Foundation’s Summer School, a series of five one-day training courses which includes EAL assessment. For more information, visit


  • Educational Outcomes of Children with English as an Additional Language, Education Policy Institute, February 2018:
  • English as an Additional Language (EAL) and educational achievement in England: An analysis of the National Pupil Database, Strand, Malmberg & Hall, 2015.
  • For more on the Bell Foundation’s EAL Assessment Framework, visit
  • To access the EAL Nexus website, visit

Further reading

  • Breaking away from the multilingual solitudes in language education: International perspectives, Cenoz & García (Eds), 2017. International Journal of Language, Identity and Education 16(4).
  • Bilingual Education, Flores, 2017, in García, Flores, Spotti (Eds), Handbook of Language and Society (pp525-545). New York: Oxford University Press.
  • Translanguaging and bilingual education, García & Lin, 2016, in García, Lin & May (Eds), Bilingual and Multilingual Education (pp117-130). Encyclopedia of Language and Education 5. New York: Springer.
  • Who’s teaching whom? Co-learning in multilingual classrooms, Li Wei, 2013, in May (Ed), The Multilingual Turn: Implications for SLA, TESOL and bilingual education (pp167-190). New York: Routledge.
  • What works? Reviewing the latest evidence on bilingual education, Krashen & McField, 2005, Language Learner.

Liz, Did you put these pupils through any English qualifications? I've just taken on a small class of Year 11 students who have very elementary levels of English. I'm not sure Functional Skills would be the most appropriate. I'm also looking at Trinity GESE qualifications but it looks like they will be very expensive for a small class. I'd be very grateful for any recommendations. Thanks, J
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Spot on. Much my work is with pupils who arrive at the end of KS3 and in KS4 so though the impact is great, in terms of these individuals' language acquisition, personal progress and their readiness to continue their journey to college, the GCSE results are rarely above grade 3. So the evidence is anecdotal, the funding is limited and our results do not reflect the immense amount of care provided by the teachers at our very inclusive boys secondary school. I am saying goodbye to a group of Year 11 EAL, LAC pupils who have made such immense progress, it makes my eyes water: arriving at the beginning of Year 10 with very limited English, feeling vulnerable and overwhelmed, these boys are leaving as quite confident young people with offers to go to local college and to get on with the next challenge - lovely.
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