Assessing English language proficiency: Why and how

Written by: Katherine Solomon | Published:
Image: Adobe Stock

Recent research shows the importance of effectively assessing the English language proficiency of EAL learners. Katherine Solomon looks at the findings and offers practical advice for primary schools

In January 2016 the Department for Education (DfE) undertook a two-year trial of the introduction of a requirement for schools to report on the English language proficiency of their learners with English as an additional language (EAL) in the Schools Census.

English language proficiency scales are used by the devolved nations, and also in other English-speaking countries, as the evidence shows that it is this that is a key factor in predicting attainment.

Although the Proficiency in English Scale essentially provided no more than a screening tool with five generic bands (from A to E, with the five points being: New to English, Early acquisition, Developing competence, Competent and Fluent), their introduction required schools, many for the first time, to develop an approach to the assessment of their EAL learners.

The results of the DfE’s data collection trial were not published. However recently published research from the University of Oxford, The Bell Foundation and Unbound Philanthropy, drawing on the data-sets of six local authorities (Strand & Hessel, 2018), shows why this information is so central to understanding EAL learners’ attainment profiles.

This article explores why formative assessment for this group is so important and provides advice on how to assess the English language proficiency of EAL learners.

The importance of assessment

Data from the January 2018 School Census identified that there are now more than 1.5 million learners with EAL enrolled in schools in England – 21.2 per cent of state-funded primary pupils and 16.6 per cent of pupils within state-funded secondary schools use EAL.

As discussed in our EAL articles in Headteacher Update in June and September (see further information), pupils who use EAL represent a hugely diverse group, and their attainment in school is affected by, among other factors, language skills, prior educational experiences, and time of arrival into the English school system.

Of these factors, language skills (both English and first language) play an important role, particularly as learners with EAL have widely varying levels of English proficiency; some have no English, and some are fluent multilingual English speakers.

Research has consistently shown that proficiency in English can provide essential information about an EAL learner’s likelihood to succeed in school and potential need for support (Strand & Demie, 2005; Strand, Malmberg & Hall, 2015; Strand & Hessel, 2018).

The research report mentioned above (Strand & Hessel, 2018), which analysed the January 2017 School Census data of more than 140,000 pupils attending 1,569 schools in six local authorities, found that proficiency in English is central to understanding achievement and levels of need among pupils with EAL.

The research demonstrates that proficiency in English can explain 22 per cent of the variation in EAL pupils’ achievement compared to the typical three to four per cent that can be statistically explained using gender, free school meal status and ethnicity. This indicates that proficiency in English predicts unique variation in pupil achievement.

The research also found that pupils New to English or at the Early acquisition stage attain below the national average, those with Developing competence attain very close to the national average, while the pupils assessed as Competent or Fluent attain significantly above the national average. These findings confirm that assessing pupil’s proficiency in English is a valuable indicator to understand language proficiency and to predict attainment.

Previous research commissioned by The Bell Foundation, Unbound Philanthropy, and the Education Endowment Foundation demonstrated that it is “proficiency in the English language (that) is the major factor influencing the degree of support an individual student will require, and schools will need to be able to assess this need accurately” (Strand, Malmberg & Hall, 2015).

With such a solid evidence base, schools with EAL learners should consider developing valid and reliable formative assessment processes. Knowledge about the language proficiency of EAL learners 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 the life of their school and community.

While it is important for teachers to take account of the evidence of the development of EAL pupils’ English language proficiency, it is also crucial that any assessment carried out also considers an EAL learner’s cognitive skills and previous educational experience. Evidence shows that proficiency in English is essential to helping learners to succeed and this makes assessment an important part of educational provision.

Tools for assessing proficiency in English of EAL pupils

For schools and teachers an important first step in supporting EAL learners to achieve their full potential, with particular reference to English language development, is to use an EAL assessment framework. This framework should be used to identify what a pupil can do, enable diagnosis of needs and individualisation of learning, so as to inform curriculum provision and promote potential development.

An example of this is The Bell Foundation’s EAL Assessment Framework for Schools, an evidence-informed, curriculum-based, easy-to-use framework for assessing English language proficiency developed by Cambridge University and Kings College London.

It provides a set of standards to assist schools in establishing English language proficiency and was specifically designed to support teaching and learning by enabling teachers and EAL coordinators to generate targets to guide individual learner progress.

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

EAL learners typically develop communicative language quite quickly but can take longer to develop the language needed for academic success. Using a framework in the assessment of English language proficiency highlights that it is not just those New to English who require support, it also signposts targets for those learners working at bands C and D to help them to catch up with monolingual peers in the development of cognitive and academic language proficiency.

The benefits of assessment

Conducting a thorough and robust EAL assessment process can make a key difference in enabling EAL learners to achieve at age-expected outcomes or above. It can help both practitioners and pupils in the following ways:

  • If EAL co-ordinators, teachers and teaching assistants understand the English language needs of their pupils, they can then help pupils to access the language of the curriculum and develop their English at the same time.
  • It spotlights the learner’s needs in a particular area of language – an EAL learner may appear to be fluent because they can converse easily, but this “fluency” can be deceptive. Language proficiency can vary across the four strands of language use in different curriculum areas.
  • It helps teachers teach all EAL learners – it is not just for the New to English learners, but is important for all EAL/bilingual learners.
  • Assessment is fair and inclusive as it recognises a learner’s potential and affects their life chances.

Tips for assessing proficiency in English

We now move on to offer you some top assessment tips for practitioners:

  • Assess English language proficiency using an EAL framework. This enables accurate and purposeful assessments of what a learner can do in English, as well as providing a road map for progression to support the teaching and learning of EAL learners.
  • Build a pupil profile to gain a broader picture of your EAL learner. Seek out, record and share the following:
    • English language background: Has the learner had any prior English language input? Does the learner have any qualifications in English language from their home country?
    • Previous education: How much previous education has the EAL learner had? Have there been any gaps or interruptions in their education? What are typical teaching styles and expectations in the home country? What expectations were there with regard to parental involvement? What was the learner’s attainment at their previous school?
    • Language and literacy practices: What languages are spoken at home? Are these languages spoken by the EAL learner? Who speaks which language to whom? Are there other families nearby that share the EAL learner’s language?
  • Carry out assessments in an environment that is familiar to the EAL learner in order to avoid undue stress. It is good practice to give the newly arrived EAL learner a period of time to settle in before carrying out an assessment. Informal assessment and observations can be carried out from day one, but any formal testing of the pupil’s English should be postponed for two to three weeks.
  • Assess English language proficiency across the four language strands (listening, speaking, reading and viewing, and writing). Pupils are likely to have different abilities in each strand, so it is important to gain an understanding of what he/she can/cannot do in each area to target appropriate support.
  • English language use and development takes place in different contexts. This means that there may be aspects of the curriculum which the pupils cannot access because they have no experience of learning it before. Consider the following contexts when assessing what a learner can/cannot do in English:
    • Acquiring academic content.
    • Demonstrating learning.
    • Following instructions and understanding teacher feedback.
    • Using age-appropriate language.
    • Using social language in and outside the classroom.
  • If possible, carry out an assessment in the learner’s home language. This can provide crucial information that will enhance the assessment of a learner with EAL when triangulated against other in-school evidence, such as classroom observations and background information gathered.
  • Use on-going assessment throughout the academic year to identify progress and set language targets which are appropriate for the EAL learner’s needs. Use information gained from on-going assessment to feed into planning, teaching and learning.
  • Develop tailored support strategies that allow EAL learners to fully access the curriculum and achieve their potential. The Bell Foundation has developed a set of classroom support strategies (which are free to download) intended to work alongside the EAL Assessment Framework for Schools. These strategies are designed to be used by teachers, teaching assistants and other practitioners to help EAL learners develop the levels of English proficiency needed and successfully access the curriculum.


Being recorded as having EAL does not predict likely attainment. However, a learner’s proficiency in English does. By using valid and reliable assessment to establish the EAL learner’s current proficiency in English language, alongside other background information, schools can provide individually tailored targets and support strategies for teaching and learning, ultimately allowing learners to develop their language skills and fully access the curriculum as well as achieve an inclusive school.

Katherine Solomon is training manager at The Bell Foundation which is a charity working to overcome exclusion through language education by working with partners on innovation, research, training and practical interventions. Through generating and applying evidence, the Foundation aims to change practice, policy and systems for children, adults and communities in the UK with English as an Additional Language.

EAL best practice series

The next best practice article in this series, to be published in January, will provide practical ways to support EAL learners at each stage of their language development. The strategies cover the four strands of language knowledge and adopt the same five bands of English language proficiency. To read the previous articles in this series, go to

Further information

  • English as an Additional Language, Proficiency in English and Pupils’ Educational Achievement: An analysis of local authority data, Strand & Hessel, 2018:
  • To visit the EAL Nexus website, go to
  • The Bell Foundation’s EAL Assessment Framework and Support Strategies for Schools can be found at

This material is protected by MA Education Limited copyright.
See Terms and Conditions.


Please view our Terms and Conditions before leaving a comment.

Change the CAPTCHA codeSpeak the CAPTCHA code
Sign up Headteacher update Bulletin
About Us

Headteacher Update is a magazine, website, podcast and regular ebulletin dedicated to the primary school leadership team. We tackle a wide range of leadership issues, offering best practice, case studies and in-depth information, advice and guidance. Headteacher Update magazine is distributed free to approximately 20,000 primary school headteachers.

Learn more about Headteacher update


Register to receive regular updates on primary education news delivered free to your inbox.