Teacher assessments 2021: Ensuring equity for EAL learners

Written by: Caroline Bruce | Published:
Image: Adobe Stock

The challenge of awarding grades for this summer’s examinations cannot be underestimated. It may be doubly difficult for students who use English as an additional language. Caroline Bruce explains

Guidance from the Department for Education (DfE) and Ofqual (2021) concerning the awarding of GCSE grades for summer 2021 provides teachers with two distinct targets.

  • Establishing the fairest means of ensuring grades “as far as possible, reflect what a student knows, understands and can do” for the content they have covered.
  • Ensuring that sufficient curriculum content will have been covered by mid-June to prepare students for progression to the next stage in their education.

This will be challenging given school closures and disruptions to learning will have affected many students. Pupils who use English as an additional language (EAL) may also have experienced language learning loss due to less or lack of exposure to English, putting them at a greater disadvantage and lessening their ability to access the curriculum and perform to their full potential in assessments.

This highlights a need to ensure that students who use EAL are provided with relevant support in the run up to assessments to ensure an equitable outcome. Within the EAL cohort, late arrivals are already identified as an at-risk group (Strand et al 2015; Hutchinson, 2018; Strand, 2018).

This article considers how schools and teachers can ensure a fair and equitable assessment process for EAL pupils and explores ways to equip learners with both the language and strategies needed to demonstrate their knowledge and understanding during teacher-led assessments.

For grades to reflect what a student “knows, understands and can do”, the assessment should be of their cognitive understanding of the curriculum. The means of assessment should aim to remove unnecessary linguistic barriers which may prevent students from demonstrating their cognitive ability. Specific points from Ofqual’s guidance in relation to assessing EAL learners include:

  • Teachers know the students the best: Teachers know how their students will best be able to demonstrate their understanding and are best placed to make an informed decision on grading.
  • Students should only be assessed on what they have been taught: This removes the pressure to cover not only the topics missed during lockdown, but also those missed where, for example, a student has arrived during key stage 4. Nevertheless, it is imperative that sufficient content is covered to ensure students are not disadvantaged when they move on to the next stage of their education or career.
  • Evidence from throughout the course: Selecting evidence from prior to, during and post lockdown not only provides the teacher with the scope to identify the best examples of understanding, it will also reassure and motivate students.
  • A range of evidence: Even where schools choose to use assessment papers set by examination boards, there is no requirement for this to be the sole means of assessment. In determining final grades, teachers can draw on evidence from a range of sources which best demonstrate understanding of the subject rather than linguistic ability.
  • No obligation for timed conditions: Previously, regardless of their proficiency in English, only those students who had been in the country for under three years were entitled to extra time in some exams. Now, all students can be awarded sufficient time to perform tasks to the best of their ability, thereby removing some of the disadvantage inherent in demonstrating subject knowledge in another language.

In deciding the fairest means to assess a learner’s cognitive understanding of a subject, teachers may wish to consider the following points:

  • Use evidence best-suited to the individual’s circumstances: There is no requirement for a whole centre, or even class, to be assessed using the same evidence. Providing the systems are well-documented and moderated, an individual learner can be assessed using alternative evidence.
  • Use evidence gathered throughout the course: Collecting evidence from on-going assessments, for example end-of-unit tests, will remove the requirement to retain vast amounts of technical vocabulary for terminal assessments thereby reducing some of the disadvantage currently experienced by EAL learners.
  • Employ access arrangements most conducive to demonstrating learning: With no requirement for examination conditions, schools can use assessments completed under conditions in which students are most likely to perform well, for instance in their normal classrooms, with their usual subject teachers. Similarly, in the absence of any guidance on access arrangements, schools should continue to use conditions to those in a student’s typical lesson, for example use of a bilingual dictionary, together with sufficient time to complete a task.
  • Consider assessing spoken responses: Where a learner is more adept at speaking, consider recording a spoken response to the task as this might allow them to demonstrate their understanding more clearly.
  • Select modes of assessment most appropriate to demonstrating subject knowledge: Ensure that the mode of assessment is appropriate to the learner’s proficiency in English, but still allows them to demonstrate subject knowledge, for example through short answers, spoken explanations, labelled diagrams or tables.
  • Ensure instructions and questions are clearly worded: To ensure assessment tasks measure subject knowledge rather than comprehension skills, questions and instructions should avoid the use of multiple clauses or overly complex structures. Explanations of the adaptations and their principles provided by examination boards is a useful guidance document (see for example AQA, 2016).

To ensure learners are equipped to demonstrate their ability in the assessments, and also to allow progression to the next stage of their education, the following strategies could be used:

Subject knowledge

Identify gaps in subject knowledge: Where learners are only assessed on a very narrow range of a syllabus, they will be at a greater disadvantage at later stages of education. Instead, judiciously prioritise subject content. On-going formative assessment will draw attention to any significant gaps in knowledge, which may have arisen either during lockdown or where mid-term arrivals have missed parts of a course. Consider using Google Sheets to translate topics and encourage students to indicate the level of their understanding (irrespective of language) of each topic with a thumbs up, thumbs down. This can then form the basis of a timetable from which to prioritise content learning.

First language (L1)/other languages: For many students, literacy skills in their L1, or other languages, may be well developed. Ensuring that students first have a good understanding of the key concepts in their principal language will lighten the learning load. Teachers could provide students with a comprehensive overview of topics to revise, together with relevant key word glossaries/translations (see Wokingham Schools Hub and Aberdeen City EAL Service) and potential sources of materials in other languages (Khan Academy, TED Talks and Wikipedia).

Parental support: Encourage parents to see the value of using the first language and of the crucial role they themselves can play in the learning process. The Bell Foundation has published guidance which provides further suggestions and includes a number of translated guidance documents aimed at parents themselves (see further information).

Subject skills

Prioritising the development of subject-specific skills will help students to meet the requirements of the syllabus and better equip them to progress to the next stage of their education.

Teach structures associated with certain genres: Writing to assess, for example, requires use of evaluative adjectives to describe the significance or extent to which something is true. Questions such as “assess the extent to which tropical storms have effects on people and on the environment” also require the language of comparison to illustrate where the greater impacts are. Explicitly teaching these structures and providing scaffolding through strategies such as substitution tables (see further information) will allow students to use the language they have learnt, and thereby demonstrate their subject knowledge.

Teach skills needed for challenging reading texts: Encourage learners to notice patterns in:

  • Morphology: Use vocabulary games such as loop cards to both extend a learner’s lexicon and teach patterns in word classes, for example adding -ness to an adjective to form an abstract noun. The ability to recognise the class a word belongs to will increase the chances of understanding its role in a sentence.
  • Contextual clues: Noticing specific semantic fields will help reveal meaning. While the student might not be familiar with the terms “salmonella” or “vomiting and diarrhoea” in a biology exam, if they can make links between the other nouns in the question – “food” and “illness” they are likely to understand enough to be able to answer.
  • Visual clues: Using accompanying diagrams, images and tables will help to decipher meaning. In a biology text, a labelled picture of “an aphid feeding from a plant stem” will clarify both nouns in the question – aphid and stem.
  • Grammatical clues: Locating key grammatical features will help to orientate readers; being able to pick out verbs will help to locate the main clause, and in turn lead to locating the subject of the sentence. Remembering that capital letters denote proper nouns can identify people, places and periods of time. Having some familiarity with the inflections might provide clues to tense or the relationship between subject and object for example. Look at the source below used in History paper 1: Russia (AQA, 2018).


Many of these strategies will be most effective if embedded throughout a learner’s education. Nevertheless, providing learners with the language and strategies needed to demonstrate understanding in preparation for teacher-led assessments will increase their chances of achieving their potential. Students being assessed in 2021 have already suffered significant disruption to their education. Using these strategies to increase a learner’s ability to be fairly assessed, and at the same time make provision for the next stages in a learner’s education, will go some way to reduce the inequity in the assessment system.

  • Caroline Bruce is a trainer with The Bell Foundation, a charity working to overcome exclusion through language education. Visit www.bell-foundation.org.uk

Podcast: Teaching EAL students

  • A recent episode of The SecEd Podcast looks at how we can effectively teach and support students who use English as an additional language in the classroom and features advice from The Bell Foundation. Visit http://bit.ly/3cmyjMS

Further information & resources


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