How Do I Assess an EAL Learner?

Learners who use EAL represent a hugely diverse group and their attainment in school is affected by, amongst other factors, language skills, prior educational experiences, and time of arrival into the English school system. Of these factors, language skills (both in English and in the learner’s first language(s)) play an important role, particularly as learners using EAL have widely varying levels of English proficiency; some have no English, and some are fluent multilingual English speakers.

Knowledge about the English language proficiency of learners using EAL, as well as cognitive skills and previous educational experience, is important for schools and teachers in informing the most appropriate support. There must be a clear understanding of a pupil’s starting point, and where they need to be to reach their full potential.

This signals a clear need for schools to establish valid and reliable assessment processes that enhance understanding of the language learning needs of their pupils with EAL and enable appropriate targeted support.

Top tips for assessing pupils who use EAL

Build up a profile of the learner to gain a broader picture.

The following information should be sought, recorded and shared with the relevant staff:

  • English language background: Has the learner had any prior English language input? Does the learner have any qualifications in English language from their home country?
  • Previous education: How much previous education has the EAL learner had? Have there been any gaps or interruptions in their education? What are typical teaching styles and expectations in the home country? What expectations were there with regard to parental involvement? What was the learner’s attainment at their previous school?
  • Language and literacy practices: What languages are spoken at home? Are these languages spoken by the EAL learner? Who speaks which language to whom? Are there other families nearby that share the EAL learner’s language?
  • Family circumstances: Who is the EAL learner living with? What is the family situation? Are there any circumstances the school should be made aware of?
  • Religious and cultural considerations: Are there any dietary needs to take into account? Are there any issues regarding clothing and changing for PE?
  • Home language assessment: It is recommended, if possible, to arrange for a Home Language Assessment which will give a much fuller picture of the learner, especially when used alongside other methods

Adopt and embed an EAL assessment framework.

Such a framework can be used to determine what a pupil can do, enable identification of needs and individualisation of learning, so as to inform curriculum provision and promote potential development.

The Bell Foundation’s EAL Assessment Framework for Schools provides a set of standards to assist schools in establishing English language proficiency. It has been designed to support teaching and learning by enabling practitioners to generate targets to guide individual learner progress. At its core are a set of descriptors that can be used for both summative and formative purposes. The Framework can be used as a road map for progress, to check pupil performance and to inform planning. EAL proficiency can be assessed at the end of an academic year or Key Stage through tasks that tap into the knowledge and skills identified in the Framework’s descriptors.

Develop tailored support strategies

Develop tailored support strategies that allow learners using EAL to fully access the curriculum and achieve their potential.  The Bell Foundation has developed a set of classroom support strategies to work alongside the EAL Assessment Framework for Schools. These strategies are designed to be used by teachers, teaching assistants (TAs) and other practitioners to help learners using EAL to actively develop their English language proficiency skills alongside curriculum learning. The classroom support strategies map directly onto the relevant individual descriptors within the EAL Assessment Framework for Schools and provide practical ways to support learners using EAL at each stage of their language development, ultimately allowing them to develop their language skills to fully access the curriculum and participate actively in school.

Carry out assessments in an environment that is familiar to the EAL learner

In order to avoid undue stress carry out assessments in an environment that is familiar to the EAL learner. It is good practice to give the newly arrived EAL learner a period of time to settle in before carrying out an assessment. Informal assessment and observations can be carried out from day one, but any formal testing of the pupil’s English should be postponed for two to three weeks.

Consider different contexts when assessing what a learner can/cannot do in English

English language use and development takes place in different contexts. This means that there may be aspects of the curriculum which the pupils cannot access because they have no experience of learning it before. It can be helpful to think of the following areas:

  • Acquiring academic content
  • Demonstrating learning
  • Following instructions and understanding teacher feedback
  • Using age-appropriate language
  • Using social language in and outside the classroom

Avoid using formal standardised tests

Avoid using formal standardised tests such as those that are designed to assess reading age, verbal reasoning, spelling, reading comprehension. These are not suitable for assessing EAL learners as they have been designed to assess the literacy skills of those pupils for whom English is their First Language. Such tests often contain cultural references and vocabulary which is unfamiliar to pupils who use EAL, and if they are used to assess these learners, they are likely to underperform which can then lead to lowered expectations. Non-verbal reasoning test scores can give some indication of a learner’s ability and strengths, though again these should be treated with caution as some children will be unfamiliar with the task-types these tests use. Ultimately using an inadequate assessment will not provide accurate information about the learner’s competence and ability. If this inaccurate information is then used to make decisions about things such as groupings, streaming and targets, then it can lead to placing the learner in bottom sets, which will not allow the learner to work at their full potential. The Bell Foundation has produced a set of Guiding Principles of EAL assessment which provide support on how to ensure that the impact of the assessment is positive and effective.

Join the EAL Assessment courses

The Bell Foundation runs two courses on assessing EAL students:

  • Introduction to EAL Assessment (for teachers and other school staff)
  • Embedding EAL Assessment (for senior leaders, EAL leads, and those with decision-making responsibilities)

For more information about The Bell Foundation’s suite of assessment resources, as well as guidance for practitioners and professional development opportunities please visit the relevant page.

Courses and webinars

Embedding EAL Assessment (Online Course)

4 June 2024
Online course

EAL Learners and Science (Webinar)

5 June 2024

How to Adapt Teaching for Learners Who Use EAL (Online Course)

17 September 2024
£45 – £67.50
Online course