Enabling EAL students to thrive: challenges, strategies and techniques
In this blog, Jess Gosling, a whole-school CPD lead with extensive experience of international teaching, explores who EAL students are, the challenges that they face, and various strategies and techniques that teachers can use in the classroom to best support them.
Who are EAL students and what are their unique needs?
English as an Additional Language (EAL) is a broad term, which encompasses a range of levels of spoken English from absolute beginner to bilingual or multilingual speakers of languages in addition to English. Choudrey et al. (2023) provide an example of this: a student who speaks excellent Urdu and English at home will be categorised as EAL, just as much as a child who has just arrived in an English-speaking country, with no prior knowledge of English.
Choudrey et al. argue that research suggests that the most important consideration is the child’s proficiency in English. Proficiency in English takes several years to develop to be successful in school, especially when we take into account the necessity of developing both conversational and academic levels of English, to access and learn from the curriculum.
As every student is unique, how they perceive the classroom and their place within it will differ. An understanding of a student’s “funds of knowledge”, their world beyond the classroom (Moll et al, 1992), is important. For some families, there can be high expectations in terms of learning and attainment, often relational to their culture or community.
In addition, the home environment and prior experiences of education can affect how easily a student settles into the class. If a student joins a class from a very different school environment, such as a forest school, they may struggle with the confines of a classroom. If the school environment has vastly different cultural expectations to that which the student is used to, the student may feel uncomfortable and unsafe.
An EAL student’s experience will also reflect their disposition or personality. An outgoing individual should adapt quickly to this new experience, perhaps using methods of non-verbal communication or key vocabulary in order to express their needs, whilst an introverted student is likely to struggle with the inability to communicate verbally.
Additionally, issues with speech, language and communication are unlikely to be identified early in a student with EAL. If there is any concern, it is important to communicate with caregivers about the student’s ability in the first language.
The challenges faced by EAL students and their impact on learning
The combination of learning English alongside a new curriculum and pedagogy are clear challenges for an EAL student. Both basic English communication skills and academic language must be secured to excel in school, both to make friends and thrive in the environment, as well as to access and learn from the curriculum. Also, the pedagogy and curriculum content may be entirely different from what the student has previously experienced, or lessons may be taught at a level that is too challenging or not challenging enough.
Furthermore, the environment is likely to be different from an EAL student’s prior experiences in schools, which can be at best confusing or at worst upsetting. An upset student, who does not feel secure in an environment, simply will not learn. Therefore, a student with EAL may appear very quiet, or disruptive, due to these and other struggles. They may also take a long time to settle into the new environment and can be perceived as a difficulty due to their needs, especially by staff not trained or confident in supporting EAL.
This can be even more challenging when parental support is not available. Some parents can discuss educational concepts in their ‘home’ language and connect these with English, whilst other parents may have little or no English, and no access to support for their child. Wherever possible, a meeting (using a translator as necessary) with parents before a student joins a class will support this transition.
Educators must be aware of the effect of the combined challenges of language, pedagogy, curriculum and environment on an EAL student, and provide a programme of support. Careful planning of the environment, resources and curriculum will benefit the students. If programmes are put in place and the right support provided, EAL students have a greater chance of settling in and accessing both conversational and academic English.
Create an inclusive and welcoming classroom environment for EAL students
Firstly, a student needs to feel welcome in their environment. The educator must gather background knowledge about the EAL student’s interests, strengths and challenges. This can be ascertained through a questionnaire or meeting with parents. Wherever possible, the environment should be enhanced to be inclusive for the student. This especially applies to early years. It is important to consider what the home role play should look like in order to represent their home, and to provide culturally appropriate books and dolls, for example. For all year groups, equipment and games that the child is familiar with should also be provided, to help them connect with the familiar.
It is incredibly important to connect and/or ‘buddy’ the EAL student with another who speaks the same first language - a child, teaching assistant (TA) or sibling who can visit and support the EAL student in class. This can help with ‘settling in’ and, depending on the level of English known, allow for translations of key information. All staff should attempt to use some of the child’s language and ensure the classroom is equipped with bilingual dictionaries and books, and items labelled in English should also be labelled in the first languages represented in the classroom.
An English picture dictionary and a topic book or similar with learnt vocabulary and phrases will also help the student consolidate new language and develop new vocabulary. Provide time for the TA to pre-teach some of the new vocabulary expected for each topic. This can be done in interesting and motivating ways, such as with real objects or within a story. The vocabulary can also be sent home to be taught in the first language.
When planning literacy lessons or story reading, ensure the texts shared in class are representative of all children, both fiction and non-fiction. Also include cultural events or learn about a student’s country together, whereby the student is the expert. When introducing texts, the educator should model new vocabulary and reward when these words are used in speech. Where a text is familiar, encourage the EAL learner to predict or speak the next word of the sentence.
Furthermore, home communication needs to be developed with the EAL student’s caregivers, both through regular interactions and a newsletter or something similar, explaining what the child is learning/will be learning. To learn more about the home environment, encourage photos to be shared from the weekend, for example, and activities to be completed at home. If reading books are sent home, ensure that caregivers are listening to their child first discuss the book in their home language. The caregivers should pose questions in the home language too. The child may read in English and then make the connections between the two languages.
Effective strategies and tools to support EAL students’ language development
When teaching and instructing, an educator should use simple, one-step instructions and repeat them to an EAL student. When presenting, speech should be slow and clear, avoiding abbreviations and colloquial phrases. Educators must provide clear explanations with images and/or translations of a learner’s first language. By ‘bridging’ over to the student’s language, the student can immediately be clear on what is being discussed. Having the support of a TA or other language buddy is especially useful for this, but it is possible to learn the basics.
Additionally, educators can use expressions, mimes, images and video, and point to what is being referenced. It is also a good idea to have a mini whiteboard to hand to draw out ideas. Prompt cards/images are very useful for key routines, which educators and students can wear on a lanyard initially. When organizing the day, keep routines clear, predictable and structured. These can be displayed as a visual timetable so the student can see what will happen next. Instructions for completing routines can also be presented visually, which could be displayed permanently and involve photos of students completing each instruction.
Educators must plan for using repeated language structures, as repetition will help secure new vocabulary. Language structures should be regularly reinforced by providing written or oral models of what you want the learners to reproduce. An example of this would be talking about their weekend, or books such as ‘We’re Going on a Bear Hunt’. Planning should always involve a clear language outcome as well as curriculum objectives.
When working with securing language structures, speaking/writing frames and substitution tables are useful. These scaffold the task, giving a framework for children to follow, using the same structure and adapting only one or two words in a phrase. Barrier games are also great for developing questions, where a student needs to ask another about a drawing they have behind a barrier or for information to add to their work, for example. Again, language structures can be emphasised, such as, ‘What is next to the frog?’, ‘What is behind the frog?’, when learning prepositions.
When an educator interacts with an EAL student, they should correct errors made in speech by repeating their sentence with the correction. For example, they should reply with the correct tense or vocabulary, such as, ‘You went to the park’ as opposed to ‘go to’. It is also important to expand on an EAL student’s language. To do this, the educator should affirm what the child has said and add further detail. For example, if an EAL student gives the educator a vehicle and says, ‘car’, respond by saying, ‘Yes, it is a big, red car’ and they could prompt further, such as ‘Where shall we put it? On or next to the box?’, all the time modelling the prepositions. As their language ability develops, it is important to use prompts to encourage back-and-forth conversation.
When an educator works in a small group with the EAL student, they should sit close to the educator so that they can see their face and pick up visual clues (Bell Foundation, 2017). Furthermore, when the small group work is discussion based, allow the EAL student to listen to other answers first and include in the group supportive language models. Translanguaging can also be used; this is when a buddy or TA discusses the EAL student’s ideas in their first language. Once ideas have been gathered, basic sentences in English can be modelled to the student. This way, the EAL student learns academic language and concepts in both English and their first language.
The Bell Foundation (2017) emphasises the importance of supporting EAL students to develop their language skills every day. This includes developing questions and activities, some of which can be non-verbal. Beginner EAL students should have daily ‘yes/no’ questions to respond to, whilst those with more English can have carefully structured questions relating to ‘who/where/what/when’. An educator must always provide thinking time. A child may be very quiet or shy for some time, therefore this must be taken into account when deciding how best to work with them. One-to-one support, paired work or small groups would be best in this situation.
Furthermore, sequencing activities support EAL children to learn the language of recall and retelling, with prompts for the beginning/middle/end of a story, for example. These can be used for recounts too, and the language for retelling should be emphasised as well as the tense and detail. Another process to prompt recall is using a ‘dictogloss’, whereby a text is read to a student several times, and they recall and summarise it in their own words (The Bell Foundation, 2017).
Educators first and foremost support all those in their care, and an EAL student is no different. Using these techniques will help your EAL students to thrive. It must always be remembered that a lack of the language of instruction does not mean a lack of intellect. Initially, a good deal of the student’s energy is spent learning English and adapting to a new classroom. It is the educator’s role to ensure they reflect on how to develop an EAL student’s communication skills and ability to access the curriculum.
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Choudhury, T., Hodgkiss, A., Grenier, J. (2023) ‘How children who are learning English as an additional language access the curriculum’, in Grenier, J., Vollans, C. (ed.) Putting the EYFS Curriculum into Practice.
Moll, L. C., Amanti, C., Neff, D., & Gonzalez, N. (1992). Funds of knowledge for teaching: Using a qualitative approach to connect homes and classrooms. Theory into Practice, 31, 132-141. doi:10.1080/00405849209543534
The Bell Foundation, ‘Classroom Support Strategies: Working with EAL in Primary Settings’, September 2017 accessed on 28th May 2023 https://www.bell-foundation.org.uk/app/uploads/2018/07/Classroom-Support-Strategies-Working-with-EAL-Learners-in-Secondary-Settings.pdf