Assessing EAL proficiency

Written by: Katherine Solomon | Published:

Schools must have a clear understanding of EAL pupils’ starting points and progress if they are to reach their full potential. The Bell Foundation offers a number of free tools to help. Katherine Solomon explains

Any pupil who has been exposed to a language at home that is known or believed to be other than English falls into the Department for Education (DfE) definition of having English as an Additional Language (EAL).

Children who use EAL are a diverse group of pupils and will encompass the full range of English language proficiency, from new to English to an advanced bilingual learner, i.e. fluent in English and another language.

Ensuring pupils’ full accessibility to a high-quality and challenging curriculum means schools establishing systems that ensure any learners at risk of falling behind get the support they need. For learners who use EAL this calls for an explicit and targeted focus on language development, alongside curriculum learning, that encompasses all levels of proficiency in English.

Knowledge about the English language proficiency of pupils with EAL, as well as cognitive skills and previous educational experience, is important in informing the most appropriate support.

There must be a clear understanding of a pupil’s starting point, and where they need to be to reach their full potential. If not, the curriculum runs the risk of not being sufficiently inclusive.

Research analysing the achievement of EAL learners highlights the crucial importance of proficiency in English as a key predicator of educational outcomes and urges schools to robustly assess and track the proficiency in English of their EAL learners.

The research also shows that being bilingual can have positive associations with educational achievement, as pupils rated competent or fluent in English typically have higher achievement than their monolingual peers. However, pupils who are in the new to English, early acquisition, or developing competence stages are at risk of achieving below the national average and will, therefore, need support to acquire the language proficiency needed to develop to their full potential. (Strand & Hessel, 2018).

Some useful free tools have been produced by The Bell Foundation to help schools establish valid and reliable assessment processes that enhance understanding of the language learning needs of their pupils with EAL and enable appropriate targeted support.

EAL Assessment Framework

In September 2019, The Bell Foundation launched version 2.0 of its EAL Assessment Framework for Schools. This freely available tool is an evidence-informed, curriculum-based framework for assessing English language proficiency.

Developed by academics from the University of Cambridge and King’s College London, it provides a set of standards to assist schools in establishing the English language proficiency of their pupils with EAL. It has been specifically designed to support teaching and learning by enabling teachers and EAL co-ordinators to generate targets to guide individual learner progress.

At the core of the framework are descriptors that can be used for both summative and formative purposes. For example, they can be used as a road map for progress, to check pupil performance on an on-going basis and to inform planning. EAL proficiency can also be assessed at the end of an academic year or key stage through tasks that tap into the knowledge and skills identified in the descriptors. It adopts a five-band scale from A (New to English) to E (Fluent) and assesses four strands of language knowledge and use: listening, speaking, reading and viewing, and writing.

The EAL Assessment Tracker

The framework also includes a freely available, digital EAL Assessment Tracker. The tracking tool, which has been developed using Excel, is designed to support teachers in undertaking initial and on-going assessment of English language proficiency and setting appropriate language learning targets for learners with EAL.

It is designed to be easy to navigate but is also accompanied by a series of short, succinct user videos which provide additional support. The videos can be accessed from The Bell Foundation website. Key features of this new tool include:

  • Building a profile of languages spoken and previous schooling.
  • Initial assessment.
  • On-going assessment.
  • Classroom support strategies (when a descriptor is set as a target within the tool, it automatically links to relevant support strategies that could help achieve that target).
  • A report generator.

To sum up

Knowledge about the English language proficiency of pupils with EAL, as well as cognitive skills and previous educational experience, can inform individually tailored targets and support strategies for teaching and learning, ultimately allowing learners to develop their language skills to fully access the curriculum and participate actively in school.

The EAL Assessment Framework for Schools and accompanying Tracker are intended to support schools in establishing valid and reliable assessment processes that enhance understanding of the language learning needs, enable targeted support and help learners with EAL to achieve their potential.

  • Katherine Solomon is training manager at The Bell Foundation, a charity working to overcome exclusion through language education. Visit www.bell-foundation.org.uk

Further information & resources

  • The EAL Assessment Framework and Tracker can be downloaded for free from The Bell Foundation’s website via http://bit.ly/EALassess
  • English as an Additional Language, Proficiency in English and Pupils’ Educational Achievement, Strand & Hessel, 2018: http://bit.ly/EALresearch18


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