What EAL pupils can teach your school

What EAL pupils can teach your school

This blog has been written by Sarah Christie.

Sarah Christie has worked as an EAL lead and specialist learning support in Primary schools in Manchester. Her involvement in language learning began when she taught English in Italy at 18. She is now interested in the science of bilingualism and how we can apply that learning to teaching in multilingual classrooms.

As headteachers and school staff start to think about the next academic year, looking at new class lists, it is easy to feel daunted by the number and diversity of EAL pupils. Teaching a multi-lingual classroom is a huge challenge for any class teacher.

Taking a step back from the problem may give you time to reflect and ask yourself what these children will bring to the classroom and, importantly, to your own teaching style.

Having worked in a school with rapidly increasing EAL numbers, almost forty languages and a steady stream of international new arrivals, I soon learned that we could not teach all of these children all of the English language. We had to be very focused and contextual in what we taught and how and when we taught it. Only in this way could we achieve real and rapid access to the curriculum. The ‘sticky knowledge’ discipline was almost invented for the EAL challenge.

This video training focuses on improving our understanding of EAL pupils and their learning challenges. Familiarising ourselves with multilingual classrooms sometimes leads us to underestimate the EAL experience and these children’s unique language needs.

The EAL Challenge

Although there is no such thing as a standard EAL pupil, they do share the common problem of not only acquiring English but also having to do all their learning through this new language. Our familiarity with this issue sometimes leads us to underestimate the EAL experience. But just imagine being asked to acquire new knowledge, such as Astrophysics, but being asked to do so in a new language such as Korean. It's no mean feat.

When we look at what happens in a bilingual brain, we get a sense of the enormity of the task these children are performing. It is not a case of just shutting off the other language. Both languages are constantly juggled as the brain suppresses one to access the other - a huge cognitive effort. Overlay these language processing difficulties with cultural differences - perhaps the trauma of moving country, leaving family and all the differences in learning environments - and the challenge gets even larger.

The pandemic exacerbated these difficulties. School closures mean that many EAL pupils, especially those with the lowest levels of proficiency in English, may not have had access to models of good English at home. The latest research from the Bell Foundation (Spring 2021) suggests that the effects of the pandemic have been particularly detrimental amongst pupils who have faced the dual challenge of loss of subject knowledge and language learning. This is particularly the case in Primary schools, where 74% of teachers reported language loss amongst EAL pupils returning to school and also saw children who had lost the confidence to speak in class or to their peers. Research over the same period from the Education Endowment Foundation cites that some of the most disadvantaged pupils are EAL pupils from deprived backgrounds. These children have experienced language and learning loss coupled with all the additional challenges of limited access to technology, economic hardship, housing problems and higher rates of Covid illness within more multi-generational family environments.

Benefits of a multi-lingual classroom

Although we acknowledge that these are challenging teaching environments, they also bring significant benefits in terms of teaching practice, pupil experience and community values:

Focused content

The mantra of what benefits EAL pupils is always suitable for all pupils is an absolute truism. The best EAL teacher that I have ever worked with was by far the best teacher I have ever worked with. In her classroom, there was absolute clarity about what the children needed to know and a total focus on clear and familiar vocabulary. Each block of learning was streamlined, connected and effective. Explanations were visual and visually creative, and the children had lots of opportunities to talk and ask questions.

Planned vocabulary repetition

The recent focus on metacognition in our teaching practice has shown the importance of embedding and using new vocabulary, helping children make constant links to learning and undertaking planned and regular retrieval lessons. These disciplines are even more important for children learning English because bi-lingual learners have slower and less reliable access to their lexicons in both languages. They need more opportunities to practise new vocabulary for words to stick and more time to access and retrieve these new words. In the classroom I mentioned, the teacher understood the need for this extra vocabulary support. She added pre-teaching lessons and used every opportunity to revisit and embed learning. Hers was the class that played word games in the lunch queue, where PE was done with accompanying adjectives and talk tasks, which formed the majority of learning activities. The progress was phenomenal – not only for The EAL pupils but also for their monolingual peers.

I recently worked in a school in a more deprived inner-city area where the synergy between the needs of new-to-English/early acquisition learners and monolingual children with poor language skills was even more apparent. The focus on language and time spent exploring and embedding new words was really beneficial to both pupil groups and quickly transferred to the children’s writing.

Diverse experiences

The richness of experience brought to foundation subjects is the most obvious of the benefits of a diverse classroom. A classmate talking of his direct experience of Holi in India or the dessert in Libya blows any teacher’s PowerPoint presentation out of the water. Recognising the power of this real and tangible experience and adapting the curriculum accordingly can be beneficial and become much more than an inclusion exercise. When we changed the comparative places project from an unnamed village in Kenya to Pune in India to reflect our pupil base, we brought the whole topic to life. Not only were the comparisons of Manchester and Pune exciting and engaging, but the actual concepts of comparing and contrasting became more deeply understood and, most importantly, remembered.


Finally, the area that I think is most rewarding for a multi-lingual and multi-cultural school is the everyday opportunities for pupils to respect and understand differences and offer welcome, patience and care to classmates overwhelmed by a language they don’t understand and a place they don’t recognise. The day I asked for a language friend for a new arrival and every hand went up in the class, or the best friendships formed without a common language – these are what EAL pupils can truly teach your school.

This video training focuses on how to help new EAL pupils arriving from overseas to settle into school in the UK. The initial arrival period can be a really difficult time for both the child, who may have little or no English, and for the class teacher who is trying to integrate and support that pupil.

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