EAL learners with Special Educational Needs or Disabilities

Speaking English as an Additional Language (EAL) is not a Special Educational Need (SEN), but learners with EAL may themselves have additional educational needs, just like learners who use English as their First Language. For example, a Pakistani heritage child who speaks Panjabi and has a hearing impairment would be identified as needing both EAL and SEND support, as would a Turkish-speaking child who, after two years in the UK education system, has more difficulties in reading than expected.

Sometimes specific learning needs are difficult to identify if the learner is not fluent in English. There are numerous factors to consider before deciding if a learner has additional educational needs.

Assessment of EAL learners who are making slow progress

Making slower than expected progress is not necessarily an indicator of additional educational needs. Research has shown that many factors impact on the progress and academic achievement of learners using EAL.

Factors affecting a learner’s progress:

  • Age of the pupil on arrival to the UK; those arriving later in their academic career have a wider gap to close
  • Previous experience of education; those who have had an interrupted education may have gaps in their knowledge. This is not the same as an additional need.
  • First language; where the writing system is different for example, learners are faced with a temporary barrier to their learning, but it is one which can be quickly addressed with quality teaching. Rather than being an indicator of an additional need, the presence of errors in a student’s use of spoken or written English might be a sign that they are in fact making good progress learning English, but need to continue learning it and may require further EAL support until they become competent or fluent.
  • Proficiency in first language; a learner’s literacy skills in their first language will support their acquisition of an additional language. A learner who has not learnt to read or write in their first language, perhaps because they did not attend school, is likely to find learning English, and therefore, learning in English particularly demanding.

While these factors might hinder a learner’s progress, care must be taken to ensure they do not mask an underlying additional need.

Assessment and EAL learners

Identifying additional needs is vital so that the appropriate support strategies can be put in place. Low scores, even over a period of 1-2 years, in conventional standardised tests, such as CAT4, are not a reliable indicator of an additional learning need for learners using EAL. Since even the instructions are in English, consideration must be given to the linguistic demands of the tests; learners may not have acquired sufficient English to demonstrate their true cognitive abilities. Persistently low scores in non-verbal tests might, however, suggest an additional need.

Assessment in First Language

For students who have recently arrived, parents can often provide an overview of previous educational performance, and sometimes reports are available from the last school they attended. Additionally, where students are working at New to English or Early Acquisition and are believed to be literate in their first language, conducting an assessment using a pupil’s first language will provide a more reliable indicator of potential learning needs. Ideally, the assessment will be task-based and conducted by a fluent speaker of the language, and will assess all four domains of language knowledge and use (listening, speaking, reading and viewing, and writing), as well as gain some insight into the understanding of age-related concepts.

Where there is no one available to conduct a thorough assessment in the first language, it may be possible to use translation apps and e-books to gain some insight into, for example, fluency of reading, ability to respond to a text or other stimuli, in both spoken and written forms. Paramount in this is the need to ensure that the assessment is not a stressful experience for the learner. Where a learner’s literacy in their first language is assessed to be at least age-related, any difficulties in learning English are less likely to be due to additional needs.

Assessment in English

For students who know some English, or where an assessment in the first language is not possible, conducting a task-based assessment in English will provide a clear indication of a student’s proficiency in English. The Bell Foundation’s Assessment Framework provides detailed steps in all four skills, for both Primary and Secondary. Further information on assessing EAL learners can be found here.

Where a learner fails to make progress against the Framework’s descriptors, a set of filter questions published by Portsmouth EMAS can be used to decide whether the learner has additional needs. These questions help eliminate the external factors that may be affecting progress before making a decision that the difficulty is due to an additional need.

Once the contextual factors have been eliminated, a more detailed diagnosis of additional learnings needs should be conducted in liaison with the Special Educational Needs and Disabilities Co-ordinator (SENDCo).

Whole-school considerations

Collecting and monitoring data

  • It is good practice to monitor the additional needs register by language and ethnicity to ensure that no groups are under- or over-represented. Research has shown that EAL learners are likely to be under-identified in terms of dyslexia and over-represented in terms of speech and language difficulties (Cline and Shamsi 2000). Learners who are New to English may be wrongly diagnosed with a speech and language difficulty, particularly during the earliest stages of acquiring English, when a silent period is normal. The need to learn a new language is a linguistic demand rather than a learning difficulty. It will not be in the learner’s best interests to be treated by a speech and language therapist but rather to be supported by EAL specialists.

Class and group allocations

  • Newly arrived learners using EAL may be very quiet and reluctant to join in class activities at first. The silent period is a normal stage in second language development and does not mean that the learner has a special need. Learner grouping is important to support new arrivals. Where new learners are grouped with those who speak their language or with friendly and supportive English speakers, they will normally start to join in within a few months.
  • Schools may provide specific, small group intervention for EAL learners whose attainment is significantly behind their peers. It is important that these lessons provide learning experiences which are linguistically and cognitively challenging and rewarding. Where teaching assistants are delivering intervention, they should have appropriate training and qualifications in working with EAL learners whose needs are distinctive. For further information please see the guidance on the benefits of 'integrating students who use EAL into mainstream lessons’.

Teaching and Learning

  • In England, the National Curriculum (2014) states that it is the responsibility of all teachers to plan their lessons to ensure that there are no barriers to learning for any child or young person, whether they have EAL or additional needs. It is important for all staff to understand that having English as an Additional Language is not a Special Educational Need but that some learners may fall into both camps.
  • A school would be expected to be rigorous in identifying whether they are providing the necessary pre-requisites for an inclusive environment, and whether there is appropriate support for learners with EAL before assuming that an EAL learner who is not progressing at the expected rate has an additional need. Considerations may include the quality of teaching and support; peer groupings; use of appropriate texts and tasks. For further information about assessing learners with EAL, see the Foundation’s Assessment Framework and digital Tracker, which also provides appropriate support strategies.

Liaison with the SEND team

  • It is common for a range of additional adults to have regular contact with an EAL learner who is not progressing at the expected rate. Therefore, it is important that there is close co-operation between SEND and EAL staff. All Inclusion staff should have access to training in working with learners with EAL so that their observations can also be included in any assessment of the child.
  • Some learners with EAL who have been in the UK for less than three years will be entitled to 10% extra time and/or the use of a bilingual dictionary in examinations. Details are available from the Joint Council for Qualifications. Where a student has been identified as having SEND, the SENCo will be involved in applying for the necessary access arrangements. The same access arrangements should be made available for internal assessments.

Providing support

In England, the SEND Code of Practice (2014) puts children and families at the centre of any assessment of need or provision planning. For EAL learners, this may require schools to offer additional support for parents such as the use of interpreters, in-depth first language assessment and sensitive handling of meetings with external agencies, for example, educational psychologists. For some cultures, a diagnosis of additional needs may raise fears about mental health and concerns about stigmatisation.

EAL learners who are identified as having a specific learning need will require the same support as their First Language English peers, as well as language support. Teaching will need to address the SEND and the EAL needs of the learners. For example, a visually impaired new arrival who has never learned to read, will need to be taught how to read and write using braille, and then will need resources brailling. Resources can often be adapted by specialist staff working in the school, the wider trust or for the LA. Additionally though, teaching and resources will need to be adapted to meet their English language learning needs, so that they can make rapid progress with their language acquisition. In order to meet the language needs of SEND students, Learning Support staff will need to be trained in EAL pedagogy and practices.

Further resources

Birmingham Advisory and Support Service (BASS) published a book about identification and assessment of EAL learners with special needs (Rosamond et al, 2003). A pdf version is available to download here.


See Cline, T. & Shamsi, T. (2000) Language needs or special needs? The Assessment of Learning Difficulties in Literacy Among Children Learning English as an Additional Language: A Literature Review. (Research Report RR184). London: DfEE

Rosamond, S. et al. (2003) Distinguishing the Difference: SEN or EAL – an effective step-by-step procedure for identifying the learning needs of EAL pupils causing concern. Birmingham Advisory Support Service, Birmingham City Council