EAL Learners with Limited First Language Literacy

Children and young people may arrive in English schools with limited experience of schools and no literacy, or limited literacy in any language, including their first language.

These children face other challenges besides that of learning English as an Additional Language (EAL). In addition to the fact that all EAL learners are learning English and learning through English at the same time, those with limited literacy in their first language may also be tackling:

  • Learning an additional language without literacy support
  • Developing initial literacy in an additional language
  • Socialisation into formal schooling for the first time

Who are the learners using EAL with limited experience of schooling or literacy?

In English schools there are particular groups of learners who are more likely to fall into this category, for example:

  • Roma from Eastern Europe, e.g. Czech Republic, Slovakia, Romania
  • Refugees and asylum seekers from Afghanistan, Somalia, Democratic Republic of Congo, Guinea Bissau

It may be difficult to identify these learners from ethnic data alone; recognising key language groups as potentially vulnerable may be helpful, e.g. Lingala, Somali, Pashto, Portuguese. Further information can be found in ‘English as an Additional Language (EAL) and educational achievement in England: An analysis of the National Pupil Database’ Professor Steve Strand, University of Oxford.

Research also shows that children from particular language groups (i.e. Pashto, Panjabi, Turkish, Portuguese, Czech and Slovak) are associated with under-attainment at Key Stage 2; Pashto speakers who arrive late in Key Stage 4 continue to have extremely low attainment. Further information can be found in ‘Educational Outcomes of Children with English as an Additional Language’ Jo Hutchinson, Education Policy Institute.

In many cases, these learners join schools that already have a diverse range of EAL learners so the challenge for school staff is to think about how to support the additional needs this group has.

Planning whole-school provision

When planning the school’s approach to supporting EAL learners, and ensuring that those with limited first language literacy are identified and provided for, the following should be considered:

  • It is important to have a sensitive initial interview and a process of identifying needs. See also 'New Arrivals' and 'Assessing EAL Learners'.
  • Those with limited first language literacy will need an opportunity to learn with specialist EAL/literacy support in a smaller group some of the time. See also 'Integrating students using EAL into mainstream lessons'.
  • It is important to recognise that the learner’s progress in the mainstream will be slower at first; their support needs will be greater and support will be required for a longer time
  • Children and young people who are unused to formal education may need mentoring or coaching support to think of themselves as learners in a formal school setting. They will also need support with unfamiliar learning tasks.
  • Secondary teachers in particular may not have enough knowledge or expertise in teaching initial reading and may well need further training and/or specialist support and advice

Key messages for teachers

When considering how best to support EAL learners with limited first language literacy, there are various key messages for teachers to bear in mind:

  • Children and young people with low levels of literacy may already be very skilled oral learners
  • These learners may have advanced skills in different areas (e.g. caring for animals, sports, music and emotional literacy); plan opportunities to showcase these
  • They need to be given opportunities to experience success in school; plan scaffolded tasks which are challenging yet achievable
  • Learners will have different prior knowledge to schooled EAL learners. It is important not to assume any knowledge or skills (holding a pencil, using a ruler, cutting shapes) and equally not to assume a lack of knowledge or skill.
  • Learners with low levels of literacy need to be presented with a focused range of input with strong visual support or related to concrete experience, so as to ensure that the meaning of any reading or writing task is very clear
  • Research tells us that reading builds on oral language competence and so learning to read requires making links between the spoken language and the writing system (Abbot, 2013). This means that reading and writing tasks should focus on words and phrases that the learner already knows in spoken English.
  • Curriculum content gives a really useful context that can give meaning to a reading and/or writing task. For example, the learner may have learned some vocabulary connected with making a simple electrical circuit during the lesson (e.g. bulb, switch, wire, crocodile clip) and could then be given a reading/writing task focused on the initial sounds, e.g. matching the letters b, s, w and c to picture flashcards of those words.
  • A strong emphasis should be placed on these children and young people learning about learning, including thinking about themselves as learners, and school/classroom routines. The Education Endowment Foundation provide useful recommendations for teaching self-regulated learning and metacognition.
  • Learners with a low level of literacy will need frequent repetition and revision to secure new learning in new contexts
  • Learners with a low level of literacy are likely to need lots of concrete, kinesthetic, activity-based learning activities. Pictures and objects can be quite culturally specific which may make them more confusing concrete activities.
  • It is important to provide extensive modelling of all classroom and learning activities, and provide lots of support and scaffolding for writing
  • Modified texts are likely be required in order to focus on essential features

The challenge of learning to read in an additional language

There are a range of different skills needed to acquire literacy, some of the most important are:

  • Graphophonic skills – learning to recognise words or letter combinations to decode new words
  • Semantic skills – using understanding of the text to supply a word that makes the rest of the sentence make sense
  • Syntactic skills – using knowledge about the language of the text to understand what kind of word will fit
  • Bibliographic skills – using experience of particular written genres to predict a word or check it makes sense

Learners who have limited literacy skills in their first language have to make up ground in all of these dimensions. In the long term, they should be able to build on their first language skills to help them, and EAL learners tend to have greater phonological awareness than their peers (Edwards 2013).

It is important that literacy support for EAL learners should not focus entirely on phonics. ‘The research is telling us that attention to phonics should not take place in isolation from activities that promote vocabulary building, meaning-making and comprehension’ (Edwards 2013). Further research and advice on interventions to raise achievement in English language and/or literacy in pupils with EAL can be found in this review by Victoria Murphy.

Sample tasks to try in mainstream lessons

Here are a few tasks that might be appropriate for EAL learners with limited literacy in mainstream classes:

  • Learners copying short texts to recognise features of written language and practise motor skills
  • Teachers or peers reading aloud all new texts in class
  • Using word-recognition activities such as subject-related wordsearches, cloze tasks
  • Learners finding and underlining required key words in longer texts
  • Teachers paying explicit attention to layout: headings, diagrams, bullet points, use of colour in textbooks, etc.
  • Teachers demonstrating word attack skills, sounding out initial letters, breaking longer words into syllables
  • Regular reminders about punctuation, especially securing full stops and capital letters

For further ideas, see also the Great Ideas page on Directed Activities Relating to Text (DARTs).


Abbot, M., 2013, What makes reading difficult for EAL students? NALDIC Quarterly Vol. 13 No. 1 pp 5-14

Edwards, V.,2013, The politics of phonics, implications for bilingual learners, NALDIC Quarterly Vol. 13 No. 1 pp15-20

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