Blog: Nine tips to support EAL learners returning to school

This blog explores how school staff can support EAL learners to mitigate any language and learning loss experienced during prolonged school closures

Over the past year, two seldom, if ever, used phrases have become common place, ‘learning loss’ and ‘catch-up’. During school closures most children experienced some degree of learning loss, and that loss is greater for certain groups of learners, for example, those from lower socio-economic households and pupils who speak English as an Additional Language (EAL). For EAL learners the impact of school closures can be more significant as they may have also experienced language learning loss during this period. I would, therefore, like to volunteer a third phrase, perhaps less well known, but equally important to the 1.6 million learners who use EAL, and that is ‘language learning loss’. Language learning loss has occurred because during school closures EAL learners may have had limited exposure to spoken English and in particular in speaking, listening, practising and reinforcing language, especially academic language. It is worth noting that EAL learners face a double job – learning English at the same time as learning the subject in English – so there needs to be a real drive to develop academic vocabulary to ensure that learners can access the curriculum.

The narrative is now moving away from ‘catch-up’ due to its potentially negative psychological impact on learners and its ‘short-term’ nature, and towards ‘recovery’. Sir Kevan Collins, Education Recovery Commissioner sees this next phase in education as “long term, sustained and far-reaching. Catch-up is not the language I’m using. It’s much more about recovery over time. Catch-up is part of it but that is not going to be enough.”

For EAL learners, what is important is what type of support is needed. A first essential step once schools have fully reopened is for teachers to draw on all the information they have about the learner in order to establish a starting point for support. The information will include the learner’s current level of Proficiency in English, including whether that has fallen back during lockdown. Teachers that we have heard from highlight their concerns about a regression in the language development of their learners, noting that pupils were “lacking confidence to speak”, that “some (pupils) even lost interest in learning” and that “the long term impact will be that they may fall further behind their English peers as they are often unable to access the remote learning due to the language barrier”. Therefore, teachers will also need to draw on other factors such as the learner’s experiences of lockdown, access to technology, and knowledge about the family, languages spoken and their background. All of this information will create an accurate picture of what support the learner will need over the coming months.

Of these factors Proficiency in English is key because research has shown the clear link between that and a pupil’s likelihood to fulfil their academic potential. It is only at the highest levels of proficiency that EAL learners are able to fully access the curriculum and therefore achieve their academic potential. Therefore, it is worth highlighting to pupils and their families the value of bilingualism, multilingualism, and home language maintenance.

What is typically a barrier to achievement is low proficiency in the language of instruction at school. Pupils need to be supported so that they can develop language proficiency alongside curriculum learning so that they can access the curriculum and successfully demonstrate learning. Through establishing a learner’s Proficiency in English, particularly those who are at the lowest levels of proficiency, new arrivals and late arrivals to the English school system, schools are then better able to determine the type of support required to meet an EAL learner’s language development needs and set tailored support strategies which will enable learners to regain and/or improve their English language skills.

Once teachers have established a starting point for each EAL learner both in terms of curriculum learning and language development needs, there are a number of strategies that can be used to remove language barriers to accessing the curriculum as well as supporting language development. These practical support strategies will enable school staff to support an EAL learner to mitigate any language and learning loss experienced during prolonged school closures. Regular readers of our blogs, news items and research will be familiar with the first two tips for schools.

  1. Assess: use initial and on-going assessment of language proficiency alongside curriculum learning to establish the level of need among individual learners. Use evidence-informed tools and resources, for example The Bell Foundation’s award-winning EAL Assessment Framework and digital Tracker, to undertake robust and consistent assessment, moderation and recording of Proficiency in English levels.
  2. Support: Set tailored targets and support strategies for teaching and learning to support learners to progress to higher levels of proficiency. Through achieving academic linguistic proficiency learners will be able to fully participate in school and access the curriculum and, as a result, to fulfil their academic potential.
  3. Classroom organisation:
    • Re-establish talk buddies, reading buddies and/or shared reading – these will help learners to listen to reading in English and to read aloud with peers which will provide peer support.
    • Some children may have been very isolated during lockdown, and so well thought out groupings will be even more important. Consider sitting students with supportive groups who will provide good language models. However, it may also be appropriate to consider sitting students with others who speak the same language – this might be particularly useful for discussing concepts or checking what a new arrival to the English school system already knows about a topic.
  4. Tier two vocabulary: as EAL learners face a double job – learning English at the same time as learning the subject in English – there needs to be a real drive to develop academic vocabulary to ensure that learners can access the curriculum. Teachers could consider providing vocabulary lists/translated glossaries to accompany topics, and then use games to consolidate learning. See Great Ideas below.
  5. First language & technology: it can be useful to learn about concepts in the first language, and then use translation tools to build a bank of English vocabulary. Continue taking advantage of free access to audio/video books, Ted Talks with transcripts, Khan Academy as well as using subtitles, and captions.
  6. Early Years Foundation Stage: particularly for this group of learners:
    • Re-establish storytelling practices, including bilingual storytelling, story re-telling, storytelling props and packs will encourage understanding, promote language development, increase engagement and ultimately attainment by using focused storytelling sessions to scaffold the children’s learning. For example:
      • Story-telling using pre-teaching stories in first languages with the help of setting staff, parents/carers or story tapes
      • Story sacks/boxes can provide props, to help support understanding and engagement. These can be sent home ahead of setting planned activities or used by setting staff in small group work to support whole group work. If this is done at home, the benefit of using the child’s first language can be achieved. If done in the setting using English, it is still an excellent scaffolding technique.
      • Provide opportunities to re-tell or re-enact stories in the daily free flow play, using story props and artefacts, big books, mini books or story cards
    • Remember the importance of play and purposeful talk – be led by the child in the moment and respond accordingly, start with the child – watch, listen and respond. Be mindful to be a play provider not invader. Every Child a Talker¹ resource tells us children make up to four times more utterances outside. Well planned ‘zones’ throughout the learning environment will provide opportunities for authentic experiences and purposeful talk, helping to promote language development.
  7. Great Ideas: this website provides explicit guidance and links to resources that can be used to put these strategies into practice through focusing on:
    • Speaking and listening:
      • Speaking frames to support learners in structuring their speaking
      • Substitution tables to provide models for learners to practise patterns of language within the context of the curriculum
      • Collaborative activities to encourage speaking and listening, and particularly exploratory talk
      • Jigsaw activities to combine content and language teaching effectively and provide an opportunity for purposeful communication
    • Practising and reinforcing language:
      • Barrier games (also good for speaking and listening) to encourage learners to develop speaking and listening skills within the context of a curriculum topic and provide an opportunity for purposeful communication with learners who can provide good models of English
      • Flashcards to introduce, memorise, revise and consolidate vocabulary
  8. Enlist the support of families: Highlight the value of bilingualism, multilingualism, and home language maintenance. To support this, let parents know that pupils can still learn the curriculum content in their first language, and that the school encourages this. For example, parents can read at home in the first language and use their first language to help their children with homework.
  9. Back to School Guide: to support learners with the transition back to school and classroom learning the Children’s Commissioner created a guide which includes sections on travelling to school, what might be different about the school day and/or classroom, keeping safe, and who to talk to about any concerns. We have adapted this guide for learners who use English as an Additional Language and translated it into 17 of the most commonly spoken languages in English schools. Schools are encouraged to download, print and share the guide with both learners who use EAL and their parents/carers by email, or face-to-face, as soon as possible.

As all teachers know, every learner is different, will have had different experiences during school closures and will require different types and levels of catch-up support. There is no one answer, no simple solution, but through establishing an EAL learner’s current Proficiency in English when they return to school it will enable teachers to draw a personalised roadmap of the support strategies needed to enable the learner to regain any learning, and in particular language learning, lost during the last year.

The author would like to thank the Training Team for providing the pedagogies included in this article, in particular, Katherine Solomon, Caroline Bruce, Louise Crook, Emily Curran and Karen Warwick

¹ Department for Children, Schools and Families, ‘Every Child a Talker: Guidance for Consultants and Early Language Lead Practitioners’, Crown copyright 2009

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