You’re the EAL lead in your school – or a teacher with responsibility for EAL. You’re a class teacher who’s been asked to look into EAL – or a teaching assistant who runs a special EAL group. But do your colleagues really know what you do? Do they know what EAL is – and why it matters for all staff in a school, and not just you?
In this article, we take a look at what exactly EAL is in schools, and how to quickly explain its importance to other staff members. We’ve produced a factsheet that can be handed out to other staff or put in a prominent position on noticeboards. It might also be a useful addition to your school’s website.
EAL means English as an Additional Language. It refers to the teaching provided in schools to students who are not yet confident users of English. These are learners who are learning English, but who have their own home language (or in many cases, languages).
Students learning EAL do so in English-medium environments. That environment might be a particular country (the UK, for instance, or the USA or Canada), or it could be an international English-medium school in a non-English-speaking country.
EAL teaching is designed specifically for English-medium environments. It’s not an ‘add-on’, but an essential means of understanding and accessing the language of the country and/or of learning.
There has been some controversy about the term EAL, due to its English-centric title, which could be seen as valuing English over the home language or other languages that the learner speaks. Another term that could be used in its place is ‘multilingual’, or other words representing the use of many languages – e.g. ‘German speakers learning Spanish’ or ‘Japanese speakers learning English and French’.
English is spoken by 1.35 billion people worldwide. It’s one of the most widely spoken languages of communication, politics, trade and business. Did you know that the majority of English speakers today do not speak English as their first language?!
For student speakers of other languages settling into English-speaking contexts, it’s vital that they quickly learn English to be able to communicate, but also that they continue to maintain and develop their home language. In this way, the new language is added to their linguistic repertoire rather than replacing their mother tongue.
Throughout history, students have arrived in classrooms around the world unable to speak the language of their new country.
Judith Kerr, in the children’s classic When Hitler Stole Pink Rabbit, writes about her experience of moving countries multiple times at the time of the Second World War. First Switzerland, then France:
‘They arrived in Paris after dark and very tired…she was overwhelmed…All around her there were people shouting, greeting each other, talking, laughing. Their lips moved quickly…and she could not understand a word.’
Judith and her brother have a French tutor for three weeks and then start at school, where they can understand almost nothing that is said. There’s no specific teaching of the language, and learning of all subjects thus becomes a thoroughly weary, dispiriting process. Then all of a sudden, the language starts to flow:
‘It was as though she had suddenly found that she could fly…she was almost light-headed with excitement.’
The specific teaching of EAL in schools bridges the gap for new arrivals between ‘not understanding a word’ and being able to ‘fly’ in the language. EAL teaching takes place in an environment in which pupils will also be mixing with friends at break times and outside of school, carrying out day-to-day activities such as shopping in English-speaking environments, and accessing English-speaking media, such as TV and films.
It’s therefore not the sole way in which pupils will learn English, However, correctly structured EAL provision greatly accelerates language acquisition and makes it possible for children to learn, and teachers to teach, much more effectively.
Research by the Bell Foundation, the University of Oxford and Unbound Philanthropy (cited in the Bell Foundation, 2021), indicates the length of time it takes learners to move to the highest levels of proficiency in English. The research shows that it is only at the highest levels of proficiency – which they calculate take more than six years to reach – that learners are able to fully access the curriculum, and as a result, are properly able to achieve their academic potential. It is this that is provided by a properly structured EAL programme.
Arrivals in a new country who are completely new to English need immediate, basic help with ‘survival’ language. They need, for instance, flashcards with images showing different rooms in the school or that allow them to express their basic needs (such as needing to go to the toilet, or to have a drink). Essential phrases and words help them take the first steps towards interaction with teachers and peers.
Separate, individual or small-group teaching, in a structured fashion, is the next step. Pauline Gibbons, an author and expert in the field of EAL, notes in English Learners Academic Literacy and Thinking that: “Separate or some kind of ‘sheltered’ instruction may…be the best option for recently arrived English language learners.” In this environment, learners can be taught grammatical structures and new vocabulary and have a chance to practise language drills.
Immersion in the mainstream classroom, and in social settings, develops this taught language further. However, much differentiation is required in the classroom. It is good practice to ‘pre-teach’ the elements about to be covered in a class topic, to provide differentiated materials for learners of differing language abilities, and to revise the vocabulary and language structures covered after the class.
It can be seen from this that EAL is not simply the responsibility of the EAL lead in a school. Helping a new-to-English pupil to develop their language, and to use it to access the curriculum and achieve their full academic potential, is the job of every teacher in the school. Indeed, it’s the job of every adult in the school, including, for example, reception, administration and school meals staff.
Gibbons, P. (2009). English Learners Academic Literacy and Thinking. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann.
Gibbons, P. (2014). Scaffolding language, scaffolding learning: Teaching English Language Learners in the Mainstream Classroom (2nd ed.). Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann.
Parsons. E. (2019). Supporting EAL learners in your classroom. Headteacher Update. Retrieved from //www.headteacher-update.com/best-practice-article/supporting-eal-learners-in-your-classroom-1/200731/
The Bell Foundation. (2021). English as an Additional Language, Proficiency in English and rate of progression: Pupil, school and LA variation. Retrieved from //www.bell-foundation.org.uk/eal-programme/research/english-as-an-additional-language-proficiency-in-english-and-rate-of-progression-pupil-school-and-la-variation/