Blog: Seven tips to support EAL learners during school closures

Diana Sutton, Director, The Bell Foundation presents the evidence on how learners who use EAL have been adversely affected by school closures and provides guidance on what schools can do to help their EAL learners.

Diana Sutton, Director, The Bell Foundation presents the evidence on how learners who use EAL have been adversely affected by school closures and provides guidance on what schools can do to help their EAL learners.

Evidence from previous school closures tells us that most children experienced some degree of learning loss, and that loss is greater for learners in specific groups¹, for example, those from lower socioeconomic groups and pupils who speak English as an Additional Language (EAL) who may have also experienced language learning loss during this period.

Evidence from Ofsted (2020²) highlights that “a few leaders felt that pupils who speak English as an additional language were struggling more than others” with some aspects of language and communication skills, and a regression in oral fluency.

Research also provides evidence that EAL pupils are more likely to fall into the ‘low socioeconomic’ group as ‘24.3% of EAL pupils were entitled to Free School Meals (FSM) compared to 16.7% of First Language English (FLE)’ (Strand et al, 2015)³ meaning their learning may have been impacted by more than one factor.

Teachers that we have heard from also 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”.
Learning loss, and language learning loss, is occurring because:

  • Learners face a double job – learning English at the same time as learning the subject in English. School closures result in EAL pupils having much less exposure to English, and in particular to the academic language required to access the curriculum. This is important because evidence (Strand, 2018⁴) demonstrates that Proficiency in English is central to understanding achievement and levels of need among pupils using EAL. Therefore, if a pupil has not had access to models of academic English language they will experience both language and learning loss. The outcome of the language learning loss, therefore, will impact on their attainment. Imagine how hard it would be if, without the opportunity to practice reading, hearing, speaking or writing another language for a period of months, the Geography homework set must be submitted using all of the appropriate subject terminology but written in a language other than English.
  • Remote learning varies between different locations and schools in quality, quantity and medium used as well as the availability of appropriate technology, the internet, resources and space to learn in the home
  • Pupils and their parents may experience language barriers when accessing remote learning, particularly if they are New to English or have low levels of English language proficiency. As one teacher explained, some experienced issues with “being able to access the learning as there is often a lack of understanding of what needs to be completed due to the language barrier”.

These issues are likely to continue during the current school closures. There are a number of practical strategies that teachers can use:

  1. Consider how to involve, and communicate with, parents as they may lack the English language skills, confidence or understanding of the education system to support their child’s learning. In addition, they may experience additional barriers, for example, their working patterns, childcare responsibilities, and facilitates at home e.g. space for children to study and availability of equipment and internet access.
  2. Highlight the value of bilingualism, multilingualism, and home language maintenance. Research shows that the maintenance of the first language has been found to accelerate the process of learning a second language (Cummins, 2017; Baker, 2001; Dressler and Kamil, 2006). To support this, let parents know that pupils can still learn the curriculum content in their first language, and that the school encourages this. EAL parents and carers are likely to have fluency in their first language or languages, with which to support their child’s learning. For example, parents can read at home in the first language and use their first language to help their children with home learning.
  3. Provide parents with key information about curriculum topics and up-to-date teaching approaches
  4. Provide translations, if possible, by using a member of staff who shares the same language, or an interpreter to help translate key messages both verbally and in written form
  5. Use extra audio or video messages as well as written information to ensure those families who are new to English do not miss out on key messages
  6. Approximately 1.6million pupils do not currently have digital access so it is important to check if learners are able to access the learning materials, equipment and technology they need to participate actively in home learning
  7. To support EAL learners, consider:
    • The language demands made by the activities set, create talk-based activities where possible, and use visual and concrete support when setting work
    • Differentiating support – teachers are encouraged to continue to use the resources and strategies that they know work well, and to ensure that work included in home learning packs for EAL pupils is always linked to the curriculum.
      • Use picture books at different proficiency levels to enable learners to respond and engage at their current level and to give them opportunities to develop their higher-order thinking skills by thinking about interpretations of pictures and the story
      • Using Graded Readers, a series of simplified books written for different levels of proficiency in English which include questions to help learners explore language
    • Providing opportunities for extensive exposure to spoken English e.g. through:
      • Using the screen recording, audio and video recording functionality built in Microsoft PowerPoint
      • Using Zoom or similar video conferencing software
      • Getting pupils to use the Microsoft Word Read Aloud function, which enables them to listen and read at the same time
      • Encourage learners to access additional online lessons and tutorials, e.g. TED talks, and educational TV programmes, e.g. being run by the BBC

Additional information on supporting the home learning of students who use EAL can be found on this website⁵ which includes guidance documents, blogs, webinar recordings and short guidance videos. There is also a section on parental involvement with flyers available in the 18 most commonly used first languages in UK schools which teachers can print and share with parents.

¹ A paper prepared by the Scientific Pandemic Influenza Group on Behaviours (SPI-B) and the Department for Education states, ‘International evidence for primary and secondary schools suggests an extended period of remote learning is likely to result in poorer educational outcomes, particularly for early-years children, students from low socioeconomic backgrounds, those with English as a second language, those with special learning needs, and students who are generally less engaged with school, though data is limited and varied.’ Scientific Pandemic Influenza Group on Behaviours (SPI-B) and the Department for Education: Benefits of remaining in education: Evidence and considerations, November 2020
² Ofsted: Covid-19 series: Briefing on schools, October 2020
³ Strand, S., Malmberg, L., Hall, J.: English as an Additional Language (EAL) and educational achievement in England: An analysis of the National Pupil Database, January 2015
⁴ Strand, S., Hessel, A.: 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, October 2018
Home Learning Guidance and Resources, The Bell Foundation:

A version of this article has appeared in SecEd and HeadTeacher Update.

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