Explore our policy recommendations for breaking down language barriers
in schools, adult education, and the criminal justice system.
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.
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.
While these factors might hinder a learner’s progress, care must be taken to ensure they do not mask an underlying additional need.
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.
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.
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).
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.
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