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The challenges of English as an additional language

Guest Post
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The National Association of Language Development in the Curriculum (NALDICis the national subject association for English as an additional language (EAL). Its mission is to promote the effective teaching and learning of EAL and bilingual pupils in UK schools, and provide a welcoming, professional forum for learning more about EAL and bilingual learners.

Diane Leedham
has been an English teacher, school leader and consultant since 1984, and has specialised in literacy and EAL since 2005. She was recently co-opted onto the NALDIC committee and is particularly interested in raising the profile of EAL learners in education.


More than 15% of pupils at UK schools are EAL learners. However, with an absence of Department for Education leadership on EAL issues, a number of headteachers feel they lack trustworthy guidance on the matter. Professional organisations such as NALDIC can offer up-to-date information and advice.

Recent queries about EAL put to the The Key reflect patterns of uncertainty around the issue. This post aims to summarise some of the key questions and signpost next steps.

Who are our EAL learners?

It’s essential to get this right as it underpins strategic understanding and planning throughout the school. The census guidance is clear:

First language is the language to which the child was initially exposed during early development and continues to use ... in the home and community. If a child acquires English subsequent to early development, then English is not their first language no matter how proficient in it they become.
Source: School census preparation and guidance for 2007, Department for Education and Skills

So what does this mean for your school in practice? Teachers often only associate ‘having English as an additional language’ with ‘not speaking English yet/well’ or ‘being new to the UK’. However, this is not always the case. Having EAL tells you nothing in itself about a child’s fluency in English or any other language. Nor does it tell you whether or not the child was born in the UK.

Our professional experience over the past thirty years tells us that many bilingual pupils are fluent in spoken English but still require specialist teaching and support in written academic English across the curriculum.

Advanced learners (children who communicate verbally at conversational level as fluently as their peers but have not yet caught up to their cognitive potential in academic reading/writing skills) are particularly vulnerable to underachievement if their language development is not supported and monitored.

It typically takes five to seven years, maybe longer, to achieve full academic fluency in a language, and research shows that rates of second language acquisition may vary considerably according to the age and characteristics of the individual learner.

It is therefore important to gather detailed information about the 'language learning profile' of each of your EAL learners. Detailed reporting and profiling of their progress, supported by evidence, will help you to make sound judgements about appropriate provision, and will help with reporting progress to parents as well.

Schools should also remember that the public discourse about migration and bilingualism does not always come across as welcoming to parents of EAL learners. Parents may need reassurance and encouragement if they are to continue to use the first language with the child and disclose accurate census information.

What are the main leadership and management issues for schools with EAL learners?

Data tracking

Children with EAL are learning through English as well as learning English, and they are entitled to access the full curriculum. To ensure that this happens, some EAL learners will need additional language support.

Schools will need systems in place for intervention planning, including for induction, the early stages of learning English, and supporting more advanced learners. The tracking data needs to be captured and scrutinised carefully. As a general rule, if EAL learners are not making greater than average progress in relation to their starting points, they are likely to be underachieving.


Ensuring that all the different groups of pupils with EAL at your school make this kind of progress has clear implications for your staffing needs. A recent advertisement for an EAL post identified ‘zeal’ as a desirable characteristic in the person specification. As well as this, however, knowledge of (and preferably a qualification in) English language and literacy is essential.


Short-term intervention for EAL learners outside the classroom needs to be focused on learner needs and curriculum content. However, withdrawing pupils with EAL from class should not be the dominant or only strategy for supporting them, as this may lead to poor long-term outcomes.

Building the capacity of mainstream teachers to deploy language-aware EAL pedagogy will have a greater impact on EAL learner outcomes than only withdrawing these pupils from the classroom. ‘Partnership teaching’, involving a language specialist supporting pupils in class and the teacher with planning, is often ideal.


Whatever your school’s approach to assessment, you will need to provide additional monitoring for your EAL learners through formative assessment and measure their progress against their starting points.

Formative assessment data captured in classroom activities can help to build each pupil’s language learning profile, and can complement summative assessment practices.

The assessment of EAL learners was contextualised and discussed by Professor Constant Leung at the recent NALDIC Conference. NALDIC and EAL Nexus also have advice about assessing EAL learners with special educational needs (SEN).

Do note that the proportion of EAL learners in your school who are classified as gifted and talented or with SEN should be no different to the proportion among the rest of the pupils at the school (see paragraph 6.24 of the 2014 Special Educational Needs and Disability Code of Practice).

Five key messages

  • EAL learners are not a homogenous group: they are a diverse population and they each have individual language learning needs
  • Pupils with EAL are learning a language and a curriculum at the same time: learning EAL is not to be equated with having SEN
  • Schools should develop an ‘EAL learner profile’ for each pupil with EAL, so that his or her progress can be carefully monitored and intervention can be offered as needed
  • High quality ‘EAL-aware’ teaching is essential for EAL learners’ success, and can benefit monolingual pupils too
  • Schools should promote awareness of the advantages of bilingualism, and draw on pupils’ first languages and community languages

Where can I go for advice on EAL and multilingualism?

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