A trio of challenges: Preparing EAL learners for transition

Written by: Sarah Moodie | Published:
Image: Adobe Stock

Transition from year 6 to 7 is a challenging time for all pupils, especially for those using English as an additional language. Sarah Moodie offers ideas, tips, resources and advice for how we can prepare our EAL pupils to make the move this September

The Education Endowment Foundation (EEF) describes the transition process (a change between classes, year groups and settings) as presenting a “trio of challenges” (EEF, 2021).

These are: the lack of curriculum continuity and subsequent difficulties for learners of adapting, the “newness” of secondary whole school systems, routines and expectations, and developing healthy peer networks.

This echoes Professor Jindal-Snape’s definition of transition as “an on-going process of psychological, social and educational adaptation” (Jindal-Snape, 2018).

If these challenges exist for all learners, they are surely exacerbated for learners using English as an additional language (EAL), particularly those newest to the UK and newest to English.

Combined with the additional challenges and stresses faced by refugees and those seeking asylum, and the legacy of Covid-induced partial school closures in terms of learning and language loss, this trio of challenges becomes even tougher. Therefore, the need to find ways of preparing our learners to meet them is ever stronger.

This article will examine the trio of challenges with an EAL lens, from a post-lockdown perspective and with particular consideration of the needs of learners seeking asylum.

Curriculum continuity

It is important that teachers across the transition communicate, and this should include any EAL specialist staff working at key stages 2 and 3. As a part of shared curriculum conversations and cross-phase moderation, support and encourage teachers and EAL specialist staff to consider the linguistic differences which occur across the curriculum from key stage 2 to 3.

This does not only apply to those for whom English is an additional language. Researchers from the Universities of Leeds and Lancaster have pointed to the linguistic challenges faced by all pupils at transition from key stage 2 to 3 (Deignan et al, 2023). They highlight the explosion of vocabulary which accompanies the splintering of the curriculum into tight slots of separate disciplines taught by multiple, specialist teachers. There is also a shift in language from the narrative to the abstract, more complex grammar structures are routinely used, and patterns of interaction change too, with secondary school students spending much more time listening to teacher input.

From the point of view of a learner using EAL, teachers’ awareness of these linguistic differences can play a crucial role in a successful transition. If a learner is used to the term “take away” in maths for example, they may be left in the dark if the teacher uses “minus” or “subtract” without explanation.

Polysemic words (words associated with more than one meaning) can be very confusing if used differently in one subject area to another. Think of the word “bar” as used in music, gymnastics and maths, or the word “concentration” as it might be applied to a liquid in science, a population in geography, or a school expectation around classroom behaviour.

The answer is not to ask teachers to simplify curriculum vocabulary but rather to amplify it, drawing attention to the words and making meanings explicit, providing models and then creating opportunities for learners to practise using them.

Discussion around this between key stage 2 and 3 teachers can help the primary staff to introduce some key terms pre-transition and secondary colleagues to become aware of which elements of curriculum language they can safely expect learners to know, and which need to be revised or explicitly taught. This can be expanded from just vocabulary to include language structures, concepts, and skills (for more see Huntingdon Research School, 2021).

More widely, EAL co-ordinators at secondary school will benefit from receiving the following information about new year 7 EAL learners:

  • First language/home language of pupils and parents and preferred language for communication with home.
  • Proficiency in English band (you can use an EAL assessment framework such as that developed by The Bell Foundation – see resources).
  • Length of time in the UK and in school.
  • Previous education if newly arrived in the UK.
  • Whether a pupil is a refugee or seeking asylum.
  • Attainment outcomes (but using the above to give context) and any home language assessment outcomes.
  • Any additional learning needs.
  • Engagement in school life, clubs, and activities.

Partial school closures during the pandemic affected all learners but had a disproportionately negative impact on some groups. Many learners using EAL were denied the experience of hearing and speaking English in social situations. Research by The Bell Foundation found that school-aged children using EAL suffered from “language loss” in English, particularly in the productive skills of writing and speaking, while the level of curriculum content engaged with by learners varied according to factors such as access to technology and quiet study spaces (Scott, 2021).

Considering the year 7 cohort in September 2023 were in year 4 or 5 during lockdown, it is important to ensure key stage 2 staff build in as many opportunities as possible to develop oracy and writing skills through scaffolding and modelling. The Bell Foundation has useful resources on oracy, scaffolding and modelling (see resources).

School routines and expectations

Learners and their families will benefit from a chance to experience their new school and classes to get a sense of the physical space and a feeling for the rhythm of the new school day. This is often accomplished in transition days or other welcome events hosted by the secondary school.

Newly arrived learners who use EAL and their parents may find the prospect of these transition events daunting or stressful so schools should consider ahead of time what support can be offered to them.

First of all, it is important that they understand the purpose of the events, and what they can expect. Translated information may help here, especially for parents, while learners themselves might benefit more from a chat with someone who shares their home language.

Consider enabling EAL support staff who work with new to English learners at key stage 2 to accompany them on transition days. If the secondary school has young interpreters (see further information for a link to an example programme in Hampshire), language ambassadors or other active peer-mentoring schemes in operation, consider inviting them to meet the learners in primary school before supporting them on transition days.

It is important to develop positive relationships between schools, parents, and learners and for this to be handed on from primary to secondary school.

Like their children, parents of EAL learners will be a diverse group. Some may not initiate contact with schools because of fear of language barriers. Others might be reticent to engage with authorities due to previous negative experiences, or some might simply not be able to stay in regular contact due to work commitments. For many it might be their first encounter with secondary school in the UK and there may be misunderstanding or anxiety around the role parents are expected to play.

Secondary schools are often farther from the family home than primary schools, and because of their relative size, do not seem as approachable. Developing positive home-school relationships is likely to have an impact on learner engagement, attendance, and performance so pass on any good relationships already established.

Make sure the secondary schools are given information about the preferences of families for home-school communication (email, phone call, text message etc) and which language to use for translation. Consider jointly hosted coffee mornings and evenings in which parents can have access to interpreters, meet staff from the new school, and perhaps be shown around.

Learners seeking asylum are a diverse and vulnerable group. They are diverse in terms of previous education, proficiency in English, languages spoken, customs and cultures. They are vulnerable because they have had to flee their homes and seek safety elsewhere, because they may have experienced or witnessed further traumatic events and because their futures are uncertain. Asylum-seeker children are also at risk of underachieving (Hutchinson & Reader, 2021).

As a school leader, it is important to make sure that this group of learners is safeguarded and supported as they make one more transition in their lives. Overseeing communication between relevant academic and pastoral staff at key stage 2 and 3 can ensure that key information on each learner is passed on.

Reaching out to parents and carers, ensuring that they understand the school system in the UK and have access to information about the new school uniforms, school buses where applicable and, crucially, funding options, can help alleviate anxieties and promote a smooth transition for the learners.

The Bell Foundation has some useful guidance for parents, translated into 21 languages, including Ukrainian and Dari, which gives an overview of the secondary school system and how it differs from the primary phase (see resources).

Healthy peer networks

Both learners and parents are often concerned about the social aspects of transition to secondary school. Worries about making friends and anxiety around potential bullying are common. Learners move from being the oldest and physically biggest in their school, to the opposite.

Research by Prof Jindal-Snape (2018) found that positive bonding with new peers and teachers and good social integration helped learners develop resilience to the transition and its changes.

Learners using EAL from non-traditional feeder primaries, those who joined UK schooling recently in year 5 or 6, and asylum-seeking learners are potentially more vulnerable. The Covid lockdown and partial school closures resulted in many learners feeling isolated and limited opportunities to join mixed language friendship groups and practise social English.

It is important that staff involved in transition find out how older pupils in the secondary school might help newcomers – through peer-mentoring or Young Interpreters.

Seek to put vulnerable year 7s in touch with reliable, kind older learners who share their home language before transition takes place. Consider whether it is possible to put learners from different primary schools who share the same language in touch.

Encourage teachers to discuss any fears and worries as a class, so that emotions can be named, modelled and strategies to manage them can be shared.

Taking a solution-focused approach, make sure learners know to whom they can turn if they are feeling overwhelmed or unhappy, how to report bullying should it occur, and how to ask for directions if they get lost in the new school.

For new to English learners this means not only who to speak to, but which words to use. Learners at the very earliest stages of English language acquisition might benefit from a bilingual translated list of key phrases to which they can point, so consider asking specialist EAL staff to produce this – it can be used every year.

Also emphasise the positive expectations – the new freedoms and responsibilities, the school facilities, clubs and sports teams, the opportunities for involvement in music and theatre, school magazines, school council etc.

Overall, these have the potential to far outweigh the challenges and that is, of course, the key message we need to relay to anxious learners and their families.

  • Sarah Moodie is a trainer with The Bell Foundation, a charity working to overcome exclusion through language education. Visit www.bell-foundation.org.uk

Further information & resources

Resources from The Bell Foundation

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