Blog: Teaching Multilingual Pupils – Reflections on the Myths

This latest blog from Diana Sutton, Director of The Bell Foundation follows her recent participation in the EEF’s ‘Evidence into Action’ podcast and highlights some of the practical strategies and free resources available to support EAL learners.

There are more than 1.6 million pupils in state-funded primary and secondary schools in England who speak English as an Additional language (EAL), accounting for 21.2% of primary school pupils and 17.5% of pupils in secondary schools. This figure is on an upward trend, with many schools having recently welcomed refugees from Ukraine, Afghanistan, Syria, Hong Kong and elsewhere.

So, the fact that one in five pupils speak a language other than English means that most teachers will teach to a multilingual classroom at some point in their career. But many teachers report not feeling prepared to do so when they finish their initial training.[i]

This is compounded by the prevalence, and persistence, of widespread myths and misunderstandings about EAL pupils.

Last month, I, along with a leading academic and a school head, spoke to the Education Endowment Foundation (EEF), as part of their ‘Evidence into Action’ podcast about this. In this blog, I provide an overview of the key points from our discussion, identify some of the actions educational professionals can take to support EAL learners and highlight the free resources available from The Bell Foundation.

Aggregated data masks a heterogeneous EAL cohort

One of the first, and most basic, challenges is a “one size fits all” approach towards EAL learners. The EAL group of pupils is heterogeneous. It may include, for example, a child with multilingual affluent parents who could be fluent in say four languages and highly educated, whilst also including a refugee with limited prior education or literacy in their home language.

This means that statements about this group of learners based on aggregated data have the potential to be misleading and that average attainment figures mask a huge range of results and outcomes for different pupils. As is the case for every pupil, understanding the child’s linguistic and educational knowledge and treating the child or young person as an individual learner is essential.

Learning in a multilingual classroom

Equally unhelpful are the myths about EAL learners, such as children naturally soak up language like a sponge, or that they are a drain on school resources. It is important to avoid deficit language or approaches, whereby focus is placed on the perceived ‘deficiencies’ of the individual, rather than the assets that multilingual children bring or the wider systemic changes that are needed to ensure that learners who speak EAL achieve their potential.

We know from research, and from our own experience, what an asset multilingualism is to the child and to the wider classroom. Data shows, for example, that having a high level of proficiency in English (rated as ‘Competent’ or ‘Fluent’) means that an EAL pupil on average outperforms their monolingual counterparts.[ii] However, equally if a child is not supported to learn the language of instruction integrated with curriculum content, that child will not achieve their full potential. We also know that it takes seven years to acquire the English language needed for high stakes examinations.

Research undertaken by the Foundation, Unbound Philanthropy and EEF also shows that there was no evidence that pupils whose first language is English suffer from attending a school with a high proportion of EAL pupils, an outcome that is consistent at both Key Stage 2 (age 7-11) and Key Stage 4 (age 14-16).[iii]

Importance of effective academic language teaching

A look at the research tells us that a child’s level of proficiency in the language of instruction (in this case English) is a major factor influencing educational outcomes. It explains as much as 22 per cent of the variation in EAL pupils’ educational achievement, higher than the typical three to four per cent that can be statistically explained by gender, free school meal status and ethnicity.[iv]

Proficiency in English is vital to school success, with multilingual pupils facing the dual challenge of learning both the curriculum content as well as learning the language itself. Schools need to be able to assess proficiency in English effectively. The Foundation’s award-winning EAL Assessment Framework and Digital Tracker were developed to assist school staff in conducting meaningful assessments and, using this information, to make informed and effective decisions about teaching and learning.

The impact of the pandemic on pupils and teachers is still evident. A survey conducted in 2021, featuring questions funded by the Foundation, found that 74% of primary school teachers and 59% of secondary school teachers observed a language loss in one or more language skill area (listening, reading, writing, and speaking) amongst their EAL pupils.[v]

Teachers also told us that for EAL pupils it was “similar to those living in disadvantage. Less opportunities to practice oracy skill” and that some were “struggling with scientific language they previously had a solid grasp on.”

At secondary level, where the curriculum is more subject based, the effective teaching of academic language is particularly important and methods that help EAL learners can also help learners for whom English is a first language. So, for example, in response to the question “what event caused the start of World War One?” instead of “some geezer got shot” the response would be “the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand”. The first answer illustrating the knowledge of the actual event but not obviously of the language! Or for Geography, when asked to describe a characteristic of London, a pupil might say ‘many people live there’, whereas the teachers would typically be looking for a phrase such as ‘densely populated’.

For many EAL learners, they may know and understand the subject content but just not yet have the academic language to express it. The Foundation’s website is home to a wide range of free resources and ‘great ideas’ articles to support the effective teaching of EAL learners.

Supporting the role of parents

Parents also have a central role to play in their children’s education. Parents can help through home language maintenance and in supporting home learning. Children who have had the benefit of a rich, engaging language and literacy environment in their home language are much more likely to transfer their language and literacy skills to their new language successfully.

Research shows, however, that parents and carers of EAL pupils can experience barriers when engaging with schools, such as language and communication barriers, lack of familiarity with the host country’s education system, or different – sometimes clashing – expectations of their children’s schooling when compared with those of the education system.[vi]

It is important that accessible information and guidance about the UK education system is made available in simple English and in different languages. Guidance on the school system and supporting children to learn is available in 22 languages on the Foundation’s website, which can be downloaded for free and shared with parents. There is also guidance for schools on working with parents to support the learning of pupils who use EAL.

Overcoming the myths – what every teacher should know and do

To know:

  • Proficiency in English is the single most important predictor of success at school for children who use EAL and schools need to be able to assess this both initially when the child arrives and then formatively. Access the Foundation’s EAL Assessment Framework.
  • Prior educational experience is important to know – a child may have covered the actual content in their previous education but just not have the language to express it or may have had limited prior education. Read the research.
  • Adapting teaching for EAL learners does not have to be time-consuming nor a lot of work. Explore the Foundation’s free resources.

To do:

  • In lesson planning, identify the language that needs to be used to access and demonstrate learning – for pupils using EAL, you will need to go beyond the ‘key words’ that all pupils need to know, to include, e.g. unfamiliar meanings of familiar words (compare, for example, the usage of the word ‘volume’ in music – turn up the volume, science – measure the volume of, and English – published in three volumes), or cultural meanings that are usually obvious to First Language English pupils.
  • Simple strategies, such as grouping with same language buddies and in mixed friendship groups, giving clear and checked instructions, pre-teaching necessary vocabulary, and giving useful scaffolds, such as speaking and writing frames, can be really effective. Get inspired with the Foundation’s Great Ideas
  • Allow and encourage children to draw on their home or preferred language to support their learning to make sense of texts and work collaboratively with same language buddies.
  • When marking and assessing work, and setting targets, give feedback on language use as well as on content.

Listen to the podcast in full.

More useful links

[i] Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, ‘TALIS – The OECD Teaching and Learning International Survey’ –

[ii]Professor Steve Strand and Annina Hessel, ‘English as an Additional Language, proficiency in English and pupils’ educational achievement: An analysis of Local Authority data’ –

[iii]Professor Steve Strand, Dr Lars Malmberg and Dr James Hall, ‘English as an Additional Language (EAL) and educational achievement in England: An analysis of the National Pupil Database’ –

[iv] See ii above.

[v] The Bell Foundation, ‘Language and learning loss: The evidence on children who use English as an Additional Language’ –

[vi] European Forum for Migration Studies, 2018Manzoni and Rolfe, 2019Koehler et al, 2018.

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