BLOG: Why it is important for schools to support EAL learners to mitigate language and learning loss and how best to do it

In this post Diana Sutton, Director, The Bell Foundation explores the latest evidence¹ from a five-year research programme which investigated the relationships between English as an Additional Language (EAL), Proficiency in English and the educational achievement of EAL learners at school.

In this post Diana Sutton, Director, The Bell Foundation explores the latest evidence¹ from a five-year research programme which investigated the relationships between English as an Additional Language (EAL), Proficiency in English and the educational achievement of EAL learners at school. The research findings demonstrate why it is essential that schools support their EAL learners now to mitigate both language and learning loss that occurred during school closures.

With almost 1.6 million learners recorded as using ‘EAL’ in England which constitutes just under one-in-five (19.5%) of all pupils aged 5-16, it is likely that many teachers will be working in, or will experience teaching, multilingual classes at some point in their career. That combined with the evidence below, demonstrates why it is important that teachers and trainee teachers understand how to assess EAL learners, including their English language proficiency as well as how to apply the tailored support needed to meet the very different requirements in terms of classroom strategies that learners at different levels of proficiency will need.

This is especially important in supporting EAL learners to mitigate the language and learning loss experienced during school closures. As the evidence below shows, Proficiency in English is the major factor influencing educational achievement and levels of need among pupils who use EAL. It is only when learners achieve the highest levels of proficiency, the point at which they also gain academic linguistic proficiency², that they will be able to fully participate in school and access the curriculum and, as a result, fulfil their academic potential. The research series identifies that it takes learners more than six years to progress to the academic language proficiency needed for succeeding in the school system, if they are new to English. Therefore, if learners have regressed in terms of proficiency, then they have additional support needs in order to regain and indeed progress to higher levels of proficiency.

One reason for regression in EAL learners’ language development is because they may not have had access to models of academic English language during school closures, for example, due to being unable to access remote learning due to language barriers. Imagine how hard it would be for a learner if the homework they had been set must be submitted using all of the appropriate subject terminology but written in a language that is not their first one or indeed one they have recently had the opportunity to practice reading, writing, speaking or hearing.

What the research series demonstrates

The research demonstrates why it is important for schools to include and focus recovery support on learners who use EAL as it may take EAL pupils longer to regain both the language and learning lost during school closures:

  • EAL learners are a hugely diverse group and will include both second or third generation ethnic minority students who speak English fluently but have a second language as part of their cultural heritage, alongside a new arrival to the English school system who is new to English.
  • For two-thirds of pupils who are new to English at the start of Reception it takes more than six years to progress to the highest levels of proficiency³. EAL pupils who entered school in later year groups are found to make the same rate of progress in the same amount of time as those joining in Reception¹. This means that pupils entering the English school system as new to English, at whatever age, will need at least six years of tailored educational support before they achieve the highest levels of Proficiency in English.
  • The research shows that Proficiency in the English language is the major factor influencing educational achievement of pupils who use EAL. This means that it is imperative that schools conduct consistent and on-going English language proficiency assessments to ensure that each student receives the tailored support they need in order to achieve their academic potential.
  • Proficiency in English can explain 22% of the variation in EAL pupils’ achievement, compared with the typical 3-4% that can be statistically explained using gender, free school meal status and ethnicity⁴. Learners using EAL are a diverse and heterogeneous group, with country of birth, time of arrival in the school system, first language spoken, previous education and background all contributing to that diversity and their likely educational achievement⁵.
  • There is empirical evidence (in the devolved nations where Proficiency in English is measured) that EAL pupils at the lowest levels of proficiency⁶ score below the national average, those who are at mid-point proficiency score very close to the national average and those with the highest levels of proficiency typically score higher than First Language English speakers⁴. This shows that at high levels of proficiency there are positive associations between speaking more than one language (i.e. being bilingual or multilingual) and achievement. 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 acquire the proficiency that they need to succeed academically.

What can schools do?

The findings from the research programme are particularly relevant for schools as they work to support EAL learners during the ‘recovery’ period in order to mitigate any language and learning lost and as they make teacher assessed grade recommendations this year for GCSEs and A-levels:

  • Use robust, consistent and on-going assessment to accurately establish, record and monitor a learner’s current level of Proficiency in English. As learners are likely to have lost language proficiency during prolonged school closures it has never been more important to complete this initial assessment. Through initial and on-going assessment of both language proficiency and cognitive skills, schools are better able to determine the type of support required to meet their language development needs. This is particularly important during the recovery period.
  • Set tailored targets and use support strategies for teaching and learning, in order to support your learners to progress to higher levels of proficiency.
  • Teachers making grade judgements this year in place of GCSE and A-level exams should be mindful to follow the guidance issued by Ofqual on making objective judgements and to not misuse the student’s Proficiency in English as an indicator of subject content knowledge ‘(where this is not relevant to the knowledge, skills and understanding being assessed)’ (Ofqual, 2021 ).

The following resources, guidance, courses and webinar have been designed to provide teachers with the support needed to put the above recommendations into practice:

By following the evidence, employing the recommendations and utilising the resources and tools above, schools will be able to support their EAL learners to not only ‘recover’ from any language and learning loss during school closures but also to fulfil their academic potential.

 

¹ The report analysed nine-years of anonymised Proficiency in English data from the Welsh Pupil Level Annual School Census (which the research team established to be equally relevant in England). Strand, S. & Lindorff, A. (2021) ‘English as an Additional Language, Proficiency in English and rate of progression: Pupil, school and LA variation’, University of Oxford, The Bell Foundation and Unbound Philanthropy
² Academic linguistic proficiency refers to mastery of abstract and formal communication relating to specific subject areas which contributes to educational success. This includes listening, speaking, reading, and writing about subject area content material, as well as skills such as comparing, classifying, synthesizing, evaluating, and inferring. (Cummins, 1981, 2000)
³ Strand, S. & Lindorff, A. (2020) ‘English as an Additional Language: Proficiency in English, educational achievement and rate of progression in English language learning’, University of Oxford, The Bell Foundation and Unbound Philanthropy
⁴ Strand, S. & Hessel, A. (2018) ‘English as an Additional Language, Proficiency in English and pupils’ educational achievement: An analysis of Local Authority data’, University of Oxford, The Bell Foundation and Unbound Philanthropy
⁵ Hutchinson, J. (2018) ‘Educational Outcomes of Children with English as an Additional Language’, Education Policy Institute, The Bell Foundation and Unbound Philanthropy
⁶ The Department for Education’s five-point Proficiency in English Scale (now withdrawn) ranged from ‘A’ New to English, through ‘B’ Early Acquisition, ‘C’ Developing Competence, ‘D’ Competent, to ‘E’ Fluent

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