Closing the Covid-19 gap for EAL pupils

Written by: Emily Curran | Published:
Image: Adobe Stock

Headteacher Update has previously outlined the risks presented by Covid-19 to learning and progress for specific pupils with English as an additional language. Continuing this focus, Emily Curran now offers some practical socially distanced strategies to support EAL pupils during the pandemic

In an article in Headteacher Update in October, The Bell Foundation’s Silvana Richardson outlined specific pupils for whom English is an additional language (EAL) who will need significant and intensive catch-up support to close an attainment gap that has been intensified by the first national Covid-19 lockdown (Richardson, 2020).

In the article, we discovered that these pupils are typically:

  • Pupils who are new to English or in the early stages of English language acquisition.
  • Late-arriving pupils who use EAL.
  • Pupils from certain language groups.
  • Pupils who use EAL from economically disadvantaged households.

Not only do these learners need to catch-up on missed curriculum content, but also on missed English language development opportunities. Most notably, they may have had a limited or lack of exposure to a broad range of English language models, including the academic language needed to be successful across the curriculum. EAL learners may also have had a period with limited opportunity to develop their listening, speaking, reading, and their writing skills in English.

The strategies below provide practical ideas for how you, classroom practitioners, can help learners to catch-up. They centre around scaffolding learning (so that learners can access and complete tasks at a level that is suitable to them), and consolidating and reinforcing key language (to help learners remember vocabulary and language structures, and boost confidence).

All strategies listed below are appropriate for the socially distanced classroom and include adaptations for home learning. These strategies provide valuable, sustainable ways to help learners at different levels of language proficiency access the curriculum.

Substitution tables

Substitution tables are useful for scaffolding speaking and writing, and focus on the development of a particular language structure. They are tables with columns that provide different options which learners choose from to create their own sentences. For example, when writing about coastal towns, a learner might look at the substitution table below and write or say “There” from the first column, and then from the next column will need to choose between “is” or “are” depending on the following word, e.g. “There is a pier” or “There are pebbles”.

Substitution tables are particularly useful for learners who are new to English or at the early acquisition stage as they give learners the language that they need to be able to speak or write about a curriculum task. This language is given in the correct order (which is helpful as word order can vary in different languages). Learners therefore choose from each column in the order given, rather than creating the sentences from scratch. In this sense, substitution tables make talking or writing about a curriculum subject more accessible.

To support learners with substitution tables you could use pictures or visuals, which are helpful in clarifying meaning, and can be used for learners of all ages. For writing tasks, encourage learners to use the substitution table to orally rehearse before writing.

If the learner has access to a computer or mobile device, they could record themselves speaking using a substitution table at home and send it to you via the school’s learning platform.

Curriculum-relevant videos with subtitles

Using curriculum-relevant videos with subtitles in English provides learners with exposure to the academic language needed to understand curriculum content more fully, which they may have had a lack of, or limited exposure to since March.

Using subtitles allows learners to match the sounds of words to their written form, so if a learner is exposed to a new word for the first time, they will both see and hear it. Pupils may also have learnt subject content in their home language (in prior schooling). Therefore, watching curriculum-relevant videos using subtitles in their home language helps them with knowledge transfer.

Subtitled videos are also useful when used individually as learners can listen in their own time, pausing and replaying relevant sections, perhaps with the help of a parent or carer if necessary.

Visuals and flashcards

Visuals (photographs, pictures, diagrams and graphic organisers) can be extremely helpful in clarifying meaning, organising thoughts and ideas, and reviewing and consolidating understanding. They are particularly useful for new to English learners or those with limited English literacy skills, as the visual cues provide additional support. Here are some ways to use them:

To scaffold understanding of descriptions or instructions: Display images on the board and point to/show the picture at the time the instructions/descriptions are given. For example, in a science lesson, when describing a vertebrate, you could point to a picture of a backbone on the board as you talk about it. This is particularly helpful for those who are new to English.

Odd one out: Show learners a group of images on the board and ask them to decide which is the odd one out. To do this in a socially distanced classroom, learners write their answers on individual mini-whiteboards and hold up their boards. Follow up by asking them to explain their choice. A learner who is new to English may need language support (such as sentence frames) to answer follow-up questions.

Graphic organisers: These include flow diagrams, Venn diagrams, bar charts, tables, timelines and fishbone diagrams. Use these to present information or give them to learners to complete. Providing an example or model will help learners to do this independently. These can be particularly useful for learners who are new to English or at the early acquisition stage.

Flashcards: If your learners have access to a computer or device, you could ask them to use Quizlet, a flashcard website/app, which has a bank of different flashcards and allows users to create their own sets. Alternatively, learners could make flashcards using paper and pen.

Pre-teaching vocabulary and key language

Providing learners who are new to English or at the early acquisition stage with key language before the lesson can help them to access the content more fully. To do this, consider what language pupils will need in order to access the lesson content. This includes thinking about:

  • What language they need to understand instructions (put a cross next to…, tick…, decide…).
  • Difficult subject-specific vocabulary (pollinate, demonstrate).
  • General academic vocabulary (we found that…, the use of…).
  • Unknown everyday language (turn over, put in).
  • Grammar, sentence structures and functional language (the passive voice, as in “a flower is pollinated…”; language of justification “the reason for X is Y”).
  • How new words are pronounced.

After identifying the language your learners need, you can give them a list of key words/phrases to translate and/or look up in a dictionary before the lesson.

In socially distanced classrooms, pre-teaching can give learners a better chance of accessing the language they need with less one-to-one teacher contact.

To further support learners, ask them to work closely with other learners with the same first language, or with learners who can provide good English language models.

You could also upload a list of key language to your learning platform and provide feedback by using the comments function on Word or by videoing yourself.

Barrier games

Barrier games are a type of information gap activity played by two pupils. Each learner has information that the other needs to find out. For example, learners each have a shape. They need to find out what shape their partner has and draw it. To find this out, they need to ask their partner questions and then also describe their own shape. Typically, pupils are separated by a barrier, perhaps a folder, or they sit back-to-back so they cannot see one another’s work.

Barrier games give learners the opportunity to develop their speaking and listening skills, as well as develop/practise language for communication (for instance, requesting clarification), which they may have had limited opportunity to do since March.

To further support learners, you could do a worked example and display this on the board. You may also want to provide a substitution table or speaking frame.

To use barrier games online in real time, learners could use breakout rooms in online classrooms, such as Skype or Zoom. To set this up, send each learner the information they need before the lesson. To do this asynchronously (i.e. not in real time), ask learners to record themselves and then upload their recordings to a safe, shared learning space.

  • Emily Curran is a trainer at The Bell Foundation, a charity working to overcome exclusion through language education. Visit

Further information & resources

  • Closing the gap: Supporting disadvantaged pupils with EAL is a free webinar taking place from 4pm on November 25. It will explore practical ideas for how teachers can help disadvantaged EAL pupils to catch up:
  • To access the first article in this series – Richardson: What kind of support will EAL pupils need this term and beyond? Headteacher Update, October 2020 – visit

Resources from The Bell Foundation include

Other resources include

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