New to EAL teaching? Here’s where to start!

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New to EAL teaching? Here’s where to start!

Author: Miranda Howell, EAL Specialist

You might be an experienced teacher, new to teaching, or support staff, but you have never taught any EAL learners before. You are in for an exciting journey! You may initially feel overwhelmed and frustrated by the barriers to communication with your new learners, but you will soon find that your lessons have potential to be creative, interactive and a heap of fun!  

First steps

As with all teaching, the first step is to ‘know your learners’ (Coreen Sears). This includes their cultural and educational background, their current English language level, their goals and aspirations. Some additional family background is valuable too. We need to be able to connect with our learners, just as we do with any learners. 

Although it is not always possible, an initial orientation interview is the ideal start to relationship building. This can then be followed up with some diagnostic assessments which will guide your planning. If a learner simply ‘arrives’ in your classroom without warning, find an empathetic buddy and reassure them that they initially just need to observe. If they have recently arrived from overseas, remember that culture shock can be quite traumatic and learning will not start until trust and familiarity develops. Learners will be absorbing English just by listening and observing at this stage, which is often called the ‘silent period’.

Content and skills

There are four major skills we cover when teaching English. These are all interconnected and in most lessons, learners will be tapping into them all, with a particular focus on one or two. It is worth considering the order of teaching. Receptive skills are listening and reading. These are usually easier to learn than the productive skills, which are speaking and writing. Of course to activate all these skills, the learner needs a baseline vocabulary and functional language knowledge, so with absolute beginners we start with vocabulary. Where to start will depend on the learner’s needs. Establishing the stronger and weaker skills will guide how you plan your lessons. For example, following assessment, it may be wise to focus on teaching basic functional language (survival) language to support them accessing their environment but also very quickly, academic language embedded in easy to understand functional languages can assist the learner in comprehending content e.g. an umbrella is water resistant uses mostly functional, high frequency words, yet the academic word, ‘resistance’ is embedded in the sentence to support a learner’s access to higher level languages within a simple, more easily understood sentence. 

Always start with speaking and listening activities. “Students need to hear good models of spoken English – they will learn much from listening to and interacting with the teacher and their peers.” (Ministry of Education, NZ) Language is a system of communication so empowering learners to converse using new vocabulary and language structures is essential. According to research related to word recognition in reading, by Waring and Takaki,  “To have a 50% chance of recognizing a word form again three months later, learners have to meet the word at least eight times.” Bennett, who refers to spoken repetitions claims that, “Research shows the optimum number of repetitions for vocabulary to go into the long-term memory of the brain is 17 repetitions”. This means multiple opportunities for repetition over a period of time. Be careful not to introduce too much in one go and keep recycling previously learnt language. 

Supporting understanding

An EAL teacher often conveys meaning through mime, visual props, images and expression. It is best to encourage learners to try to problem solve meaning rather than rushing for dictionary translations. Scaffolding meaning by using ‘concept questions’ is an effective approach. This involves asking three or four closed questions to build up the meaning. For example, to teach the meaning of already in the sentence: He has already eaten his lunch, you need to teach the concept ‘to show something is earlier than expected.’ You could ask the questions: 1. What time is lunchtime? (1pm) 2. What time is it now? (12pm). 3. Is this earlier than expected? (yes). 4. So why do we use the word already? (to show that something has happened earlier than expected.)

Another consideration is ensuring a context for the language learning. Focussing on a topic is an excellent means of building language. Start with a hook, such as an image, visual aid or video clip and get the learners guessing the topic. Teach the key vocabulary. (It is worth finding out whether the target words are high, medium or low frequency first.) Integrate some pronunciation practice. Then use the new vocabulary in a specific language structure and elicit meaning. For low level learners, keep sentences short and simple like the example, “An umbrella is water resistant. Or ‘The pen is under the table. Allowing you to change key words without losing the structure of the sentence”. Next, move on to reading and recognising the language in written form and finally use scaffolding tasks for learners to consolidate their new knowledge by writing. 

Remember that teaching EAL learners is not the same as teaching learners with specific educational needs. EAL learners can be very proficient linguists in their mother tongue, working at an advanced academic level. Therefore, it is important to allow them to demonstrate what they already know on a topic in their first language, so that it can inform your planning.

In short, find out your learner’s prior language knowledge, plan a range of activities allowing for multiple opportunities to learn and consolidate new language skills, simplify your own spoken language, and monitor the learner’s progress regularly.


Bennett, C. (2019) Top 17 Exposures to Learn New Words ThoughtCo.  //,over%20planned%20periods%20of%20time

ESOLonline (sourced 2024)    Getting Started Getting started / What do I do with a new English language learner? / ESOL Online / English – ESOL – Literacy Online website – English – ESOL – Literacy Online ( 

Larsen-Freeman, D. & Anderson, M. (2013) Techniques & Principles in Language Teaching Oxford university press  

Ministry of Education NZ   (sourced 2024)  Non-English-Speaking-Background Students: A Handbook for Schools Learning Media Wellington 

Waring, R & Takaki, M. (Oct 2003) At what rate do learners learn and retain new vocabulary from reading a graded reader? Reading in a foreign language volume 15, Number 2.

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