BLOG: EAL learners – five facts, five things you need to know and five things you can do to support them

This post discusses the recent research report from the Education Policy Institute (EPI) with The Bell Foundation and Unbound Philanthropy, ‘Educational Outcomes of Children with English as an Additional Language’.

This post discusses the recent research report from the Education Policy Institute (EPI) with The Bell Foundation and Unbound Philanthropy, ‘Educational Outcomes of Children with English as an Additional Language’ [1] and looks at how teachers can use this research to help English as an Additional Language (EAL) learners to access the curriculum and fulfil their potential.

Behind the headlines of overall ‘average statistics’ about learners who have English as an Additional Language is huge complexity, meaning that making assumptions based on averages can be misleading to the point of being meaningless, and it fosters a lack of understanding of the complexity of this group. This post will start by looking at five facts about this cohort which are not widely understood, these facts will be explored in more detail in the second section and finally practical solutions to support EAL learners will be provided in the third section.


Five facts

  1. Any pupil that speaks a language in addition to English at home falls into the EAL category[2]
  2. There are currently over 1.5mn EAL learners in England (21.2% state funded primary and 16.6% state funded secondary school pupils)[3]
  3. The percentage of pupils recorded as speaking EAL has more than doubled since 1997
  4. EAL learners are a truly heterogeneous group, their attainment is affected by many disparate factors, but principally by their proficiency in English
  5. All learners are different, all learners have a range of outcomes and the EAL cohort is no different.


Five things you need to know

The EPI report[1] explains why ‘average’ data is misleading:

1. EAL pupil performance

Aggregating the average attainment scores of EAL pupils is misleading as it masks considerable variation in performance. It is also distorted by missing attainment data (estimated at nearly a third of primary school students and one in ten of secondary school students). This means that children who arrive in school after the national assessment points can wait up to four years in primary and five years in secondary without any national assessment.

There is also an issue of ‘misleading measurements’. If academic assessment is undertaken before English proficiency is reached it will under-estimate academic attainment to an unmeasured degree, because attainment is mediated by the child’s English proficiency at the time of the test.

Finally, the EPI report[1] highlights that the average attainment data is based on GCSE cohorts who underwent primary education during an era when funding was ring-fenced to support black and minority ethnic pupils and/or those with EAL. In 2011, this ring-fence was removed and mainstreamed into the schools’ grant.

2. Proficiency in English 

The English language proficiency of EAL learners is variable. The EAL category ranges from British citizens who speak another language at home, i.e. advanced bilingual learners, through to newly arrived EAL learners with little or no prior knowledge of speaking English, who may have limited literacy in their first language and have limited education. This variation impacts on their attainment as Strand[2] also shows.

3. First Language    

‘The research¹ shows a marked disparity between different groups depending on their first language. For example, ‘at Key Stage 2, six language groups have attainment below the national expected standard even for children who had arrived as infants; these are Pashto, Panjabi, Turkish, Portuguese, Czech and Slovak.’[1]

Conversely ‘three groups (Tamil, Chinese and Hindi) have KS2 attainment that is above the national expected standard for children who arrived as late as Year 5.’[1]

‘At secondary level some EAL pupils, such as late arrivals with Pashto as a first language, score, on average, between an F and an E at GCSE in Attainment 8[4] having arrived into the English school system in Year 9.’[1]

At the other end of the scale, children with Chinese as their first language perform well, averaging between a B and a C at GCSE in Attainment 8 – despite having also entered secondary school in Year 9.’[1]

4. Pupil and socio-economic factors 

‘Many of the factors associated with risk of low achievement are the same for EAL pupils as for their non-EAL peers. These include (roughly in order of impact): having an identified Special Educational Need; being entitled to a Free School Meal; living in an economically deprived neighbourhood; attending school outside London; and being summer born (and therefore young for their year-group)’[2].

5. Arrival time in the English school system  

The data in the EPI report[1] show that the age a child arrives in the English school system is key, usually the younger the child is, the more English they will acquire and the better they will perform in exams. For example, ‘on average, children with EAL who arrived in English state-funded schools in Years 1 or 2 achieved a score very close to the expected standard. By contrast, those children who arrived in the final year of primary school, were 17 points below the expected standard, where the lowest possible test score was 20 points below the expected standard.’[1]

‘At GCSE level, pupils who arrived by the first year of secondary school (between reception and year 7) scored an average grade of around 5 in Attainment 8, which decreased to a grade of around 4 if they arrived in Year 8, 9 or 10 – falling further to below a 3 if they arrived in Year 11’[1].

Without specialist support and access to teaching about the academic language needed, learners will struggle to pass. The research evidence tells us that this group need extra, more intensive support to succeed. They may have covered the subject matter but lack the academic vocabulary needed for examinations.


Five things you can do in your school

1. Create a learner profile

Research evidence and teacher experience indicates that learner outcomes for this group will be as varied as learner outcomes for other groups in the school system and as such it is essential that you conduct thorough, evidence-informed assessment of each EAL learner to establish their current proficiency in English language and cognitive abilities in order to develop tailored targets and support strategies which will enable pupils to develop their language skills and fully access the curriculum.

The learner profile includes who they are, what previous education they have had, their level of literacy in their first language, how proficient they are in English. Crucially this profile and any insights or information gathered must be passed on to all teachers that the child has contact with.

2. Develop a whole school culture 

Get the whole school on board from the dinner staff to the senior leaders. Make sure newly-arrived children and their families are warmly welcomed and feel safe in the school environment. Ensure that signage around the school is visual to help those learners who are new to English connect meaning to language. Encourage all school staff to speak clearly and use gestures and actions to support understanding in English. Make sure that the learner’s linguistic and cultural background is reflected in the school environment, for example classroom displays could be written in the scripts of the languages spoken by children in the class. Also, communicate with parents to establish the best ways of supporting learning for newly arrived pupils.

3. Be inclusive 

Plan teaching and learning experiences that enable all pupils to fully access the curriculum and to apply their learning in a supportive and inclusive environment.

4. Be aware

  • It is important to understand and convey to parents how significant maintaining home language is in terms of then being able to learn subsequent languages and English. Remember there are numerous benefits to speaking more than one language:
    • It improves thinking skills, memory and brain health
    • It can increase your earning power and career potential
  • The benefits of a multicultural, multilingual school can apply to the whole school – by developing a better understanding of different cultures and encouraging second or third language development in their peers these benefits can be spread across the whole school environment. Secondary school children with good reading and writing skills in their first language may be able to take a qualification in it[5].
  • Using mixed language and same language peer groups can help develop confidence in speaking in different languages, improve vocabulary and skills, as well as develop a better understanding of, and empathy with, diversity in the classroom

5. Make use of free tools and resources

The Bell Foundation provides:

  • An EAL Assessment Framework (winner of the Local Innovation category, ELTons 2018) with accompanying support strategies which are free for schools to download
  • The EAL Nexus website provides free information, advice and resources for school staff to help them support learners with EAL
  • Robust, academic research from leading universities and think tanks


To summarise

By using information gained from on-going assessment to feed into planning, teaching and learning, you can help ensure that all learners benefit from differentiated support that allows them to fully access the curriculum and achieve their potential.

As the EPI report highlights ‘No child should be prevented from reaching their full potential because of special educational need, where they live, low income, or lack of support to develop English language proficiency.’[1]


This post is a synopsis of two articles written by Nic Kidston, Head of Programme (EAL) and Katherine Solomon, Training Manager which first appeared in SecEd (for secondary schools) and HeadTeacher Update (primary schools) in June 2018.


This is the first post by The Bell Foundation, a charity which aims to overcome exclusion through language education both within the criminal justice and education sectors. Each month the Foundation will publish a new thought leadership piece on one of these areas. If you would like to sign up to receive notifications of new posts please complete the ‘Contact Us’ form.


  1.  ‘Educational Outcomes of Children with English as an Additional Language’ February 2018
  2. Strand S, Malmberg L and Hall J (2015). English as an Additional Language (EAL) and educational achievement in England: An analysis of the National Pupil Database
  3. Schools, pupils and their characteristics: January 2018’, Department for Education
  4. As the ‘Educational Outcomes of Children with EAL’ report used data from 2016, the pre-reform points system is used – with alphabetical GCSE grades represented
  5. EAL Nexus website