Diversity of Learners who use English as an Additional Language

The term “EAL” is used to describe a diverse and heterogeneous group of learners who speak English as an Additional Language. In England, such learners are defined as those who have been ‘exposed to a language at home that is known or believed to be other than English’ (Department for Education, 2019).

More than one million children in primary schools in England were recorded as speaking English as an Additional Language, and a further 584,600 in secondary schools (School Census, January 2020).

As the list below demonstrates, the title ‘EAL’ gives minimal information about a student, and it does not provide any indication of future academic achievement. Indeed, some of the variables within the group are recognised as risk factors in terms of academic achievement.

Risk factors affecting a learner’s academic achievement:

Proficiency in English

Learners may be at any stage of developing English language proficiency, from New to English, to completely Fluent. Research shows a clear correlation between proficiency and potential academic achievement with learners who are assessed as being Competent or Fluent scoring significantly higher in all national assessments than their monolingual peers. According to Professor Strand, proficiency in English accounts for up to 22% of the variability in achievement, compared to 3-4% explained by other characteristics such as gender, Free School Meals status and ethnicity. Proficiency also provides a clear indication of the need for support.

Point of arrival in the English education system

Learners may have been born and have been through the education system in England, or be recent arrivals. Learners using EAL who arrived in the school system during KS1 are more likely to reach the national expected standards by year 6, than those arriving during KS2. The same is true of students arriving during secondary education. Entering the education system part way through an academic year is another risk factor. In addition, the experience learners have had of education before arrival can vary greatly. Learners may have already had a high level of education in their home country or have had little or interrupted schooling. The education system in the UK may also be significantly different, from resources, including access to technology, to the style of teaching. Similarly, learners and their families may have had very different experiences of and attitudes towards education.

First language

Learners who use EAL are a linguistically diverse group; more than 300 languages are spoken by children in the English education system with Polish, Panjabi, Urdu, Bengali (with Sylheti and Chatgaya), Gujarati and Arabic being the languages spoken the most in England after English (2011 British census). Research has shown a clear correlation between the language spoken and subsequent academic achievement. While Chinese and Tamil speakers are linked to higher academic achievement, speakers of Pashto, Punjabi, Turkish, Portuguese, Czech and Slovak are less likely to reach the national averages. The English language is closer to some languages, in terms of phonology, graphology and grammatical foundations, and in this sense, may initially impact on the speed of language acquisition.

First language proficiency

Some learners may speak and write several languages while others may have limited literacy in their first language. This can be the same for other family members. A learner who is familiar with the concept and meta-language of language systems will be able to transfer these same concepts to a new language. Research has shown that bilingual and multilingual learners, given the opportunity to develop all their languages, can gain an advantage over their monolingual peers in terms of cognitive control, expanded communication skills, enhanced well-being and academic success, see Evans (2018).

Social class and economic status

The reasons for people moving to the UK are vast; from seeking refuge from war or persecution, to returning diaspora, to economic migration. Learners may, therefore, come from a highly privileged background or have suffered discrimination and poverty. The government’s own figures (ONS, 2018) demonstrate an overlap between lower socio-economic groups and non-White British ethnicities. Strand, Malmberg and Hall (2015) found that learners (EAL or not) from neighbourhoods with deprivation levels above the national average scored less (National Curriculum levels) than those living in neighbourhoods below the average. Linked to socio-economic status is pupils’ eligibility for Free School Meals (FSM). Strand and Lindorff (2020) use FSM eligibility as a proxy for socio-economic status. Although, age was the most significant factor for the development of English language proficiency, it was also found that pupils with EAL eligible for FSM took slightly longer than those not eligible for FSM to progress through the proficiency levels.

National, ethnic and cultural background

Learners may or may not be British citizens. Young people from the same country of origin as each other may be from very different ethnic or cultural groups within that country. EAL pupils from specific ethnic groups are substantially more at risk of underachieving than their peers from the same ethnic group but with English as their first language. These are students from the White Other, Black African, and Pakistani ethnic groups. Learners who use EAL are also a large group in terms of ethnicity. 33.9% of pupils in primary schools are recorded as being of minority ethnic backgrounds, and a further 32% in secondary schools, with pupils from Asian groups forming the largest ethnic minority group overall. Religion is another area of diversity; learners may have a non-religious belief, or a nominal religion or belief, or a religious faith that is central to their lives.

Academic ability

Learners may have Special Educational Needs and Disabilities (SEND), such as hearing impairment or dyslexia or they may be Academically More Able (AMA).

Support networks

Some learners have a lot of support from their family and community while others may be isolated.

Experience of life in the UK

Experiences vary a great deal, from very positive to very negative, including experience of racism, hate crime and/or bullying.

The following pages will provide additional information on some of the diverse groups of learners using EAL.

Diversity of Learners who use EAL

International migrants, including refugees, asylum seekers and economic migrants from overseas may be described as new arrivals.

Local authorities have a duty to provide full-time education for all children of compulsory school age resident in that local authority, including asylum seeking and refugee pupils aged 5-16.

Although Roma learners can be new arrivals or economic migrants to the UK, many may not have been educated in their countries of origin and their school absence and exclusion rates are particularly high by comparison to other pupil groups.

Some children and young people may arrive in English schools with limited experience of schools and no literacy skills in any language yet.

Being a learner using EAL is not in itself a special educational need, but learners who use EAL may also have educational needs and disabilities.