Covid recovery: What kind of support will EAL pupils need this term and beyond?

Written by: Silvana Richardson | Published:
Image: Adobe Stock

Teaching and learning post-lockdown presents many challenges. Silvana Richardson considers how we can support the most disadvantaged EAL pupils, who as well as suffering a hit to their learning, may have also experienced a language learning loss...

By now many articles, blog posts and reports will have dealt with how to close the disadvantage gap and support the most disadvantaged pupils as they return to school this term.

Not least, Headteacher Update’s recent series of four Back to School Guides, including the Teaching and Learning edition (Headteacher Update, 2020). You might have also seen the Education Endowment Foundation’s rapid evidence assessment on the impact of the lockdown (EEF, 2020a) and learnt, unsurprisingly, that it is highly likely to have widened the attainment gap between disadvantaged children and their peers, with different projections estimating the gap widening from 11 to 75 per cent.

Meanwhile, the Education Policy Institute’s (EPI) recent report on the state of education in England (Hutchinson et al, 2020) found that the attainment gap between disadvantaged pupils and their peers has stopped closing for the first time in a decade.

And the National Foundation for Educational Research’s (NFER) research on the challenges facing schools and pupils this term (Sharp et al, 2020) highlights that nearly all the teachers (98 per cent) who participated in the study report that their pupils are behind where they would normally expect them to be in their curriculum learning at the end of the 2019/20 school year, and that, on average, the gap between disadvantaged pupils and their peers has increased by 46 per cent.

However, apart from the EPI report, there has been little focus on the needs of disadvantaged children with English as an additional language (EAL) who have a double challenge to overcome.

RESOURCES AND STRATEGIES FOR EAL PUPILS: This article is complemented by a follow up piece advising on some of the best teaching strategies and resources we can use to support EAL pupils this term. Read this article here.

Many of the pupils within this broad and heterogeneous group will be disadvantaged by school closures and will need “catch-up” support of a specific sort.

In addition to the challenges posed by the lockdown in relation to pupils being behind normal expectations of where they might be, and on top of the learning loss experienced by disadvantaged children, many EAL learners will have also experienced a language learning loss.

Disadvantaged pupils with EAL

There are specific groups of EAL pupils who underperform against the national average. These groups will need significant and intensive support over and above normal expectations:

Pupils who are new to English or in the early stages of English language acquisition: Research from The Bell Foundation finds learners’ proficiency in English is central to their educational attainment and the type and length of support they need (Strand & Lindorff, 2020). Pupils’ attainment increases with greater English proficiency, indicating a strong link between proficiency in English and educational achievement.

While EAL pupils who are New to English or at the Early Acquisition stage score below the national average, those who are Developing Competence are very close to the national average and those who are Competent or Fluent score significantly above the national average. Learners’ proficiency in English explains as much as 22 per cent of the variation in EAL pupils’ achievement compared to the typical three to four per cent that can be statistically explained by gender, free school meal status and ethnicity.

Late-arriving EAL pupils: The EPI report previously mentioned has found that at the end of primary school, late-arriving EAL pupils are 15.5 months behind pupils whose first language is English and at the end of secondary, they are 20.7 months behind.

Pupils from certain language groups: Research from EPI and The Bell Foundation (Hutchinson, 2018) has uncovered that attainment is affected by first language. Pupils belonging to certain language groups have attainment below the national expected standard, even for children who had arrived in English state-funded schools as infants. These language groups include Pashto, Panjabi, Turkish, Portuguese, Czech and Slovak, and in particular late-arriving children with Pashto as a first language.

EAL pupils from economically disadvantaged households: During the lockdown, economically disadvantaged EAL pupils faced the same challenges as many disadvantaged children for whom English is their first language, such as limited or no access to technology, the internet and resources in the home, and issues around their parents’ availability and/or ability to support their learning.

However, the lockdown will have had an additional impact on disadvantaged EAL pupils, particularly for those whose parents are also New to English or at the early stages of acquisition, have limited literacy skills in English, or are not sufficiently familiar with how the English education system works. These parents are likely to have experienced both linguistic and systemic barriers which may have made it difficult or even impossible for them to support their children’s remote learning.

Specific challenges faced by learners with EAL

Due to the lockdown, many pupils with EAL will have had much less exposure to the broad range of models of English, including the academic English needed for examinations, that their immersion in mainstream classes guarantees. Likewise, they may have had insufficient or no opportunities to rehearse and practise speaking in English, particularly in curriculum contexts, using academic English and in the sort of situations that they need practice to be ready for examinations. As a result, these learners are likely to have made limited progress in the four domains of language knowledge and use (listening, speaking, reading and viewing, and writing), which will put them at a disadvantage when it comes to accessing the curriculum and demonstrating curriculum learning.

‘Catch-up’ support for learners with EAL

Getting support right may not be easy as schools prioritise learners’ health and wellbeing and adapting to new norms and routines around social distancing, while designing a remote learning plan in case of further lockdowns or cases of self-isolation.

However, here are some steps that can help. First, start with an initial assessment or re-assessment of the individual EAL pupil’s English language proficiency in the four domains of language use (listening, speaking, reading and viewing, and writing), alongside the identification of pupils’ curriculum learning gaps and catch-up needs.

The results of this baseline assessment will allow teachers to identify specific support needs and underscore targeted support strategies and learning objectives for each individual pupil. The Bell Foundation’s evidence-informed and freely available EAL Assessment Framework for Schools is a useful tool to support this.

Second, plan and resource this support as a long-term strategy beyond the compensation phase (rather than as a quick fix), as recommended by the NFER research (Sharp et al, 2020).

Initially, extra support during the compensation phase should help learners to make up for missed exposure to English and practice by providing consolidation and reinforcement activities. Curriculum-relevant videos with subtitles in English, accessible podcasts and texts and tasks that enable them to rehearse multiple times, committing new words and phrases to memory, will all be beneficial. Specific EAL strategies will be dealt with in our next article for Headteacher Update, due to be published in November.

This support should also help them to make rapid progress to higher levels of proficiency. Pre-teaching new key language and providing language models, greater scaffolding to understand and produce texts, and feedback that upgrades and extends newly learnt language are just a few of the strategies that can have a sustained impact on attainment and progress. Also, focusing on academic English will enable learners to access the curriculum and learn apace.

It is crucial that CPD programmes for teachers and support staff during this compensation period and beyond focus on developing skills and approaches to supporting the language development needed for EAL students to catch-up, so that teachers and other relevant support staff, including tutors from the government-funded National Tutoring Programme for disadvantaged pupils (EEF, 2020b):

  • Are able to assess the English language proficiency of their learners, using informal formative assessment methods.
  • Understand the impact of language learning loss during the period of school closures and the additional support required by disadvantaged EAL pupils in these circumstances.
  • Are able to target teaching to ensure accelerated language development takes place alongside the curriculum.

There are also key implications for the deployment of teaching and support staff at the forefront of this support effort. While it may be tempting to seek low-cost solutions at a time when there are so many conflicting demands on schools’ budgets, deploying non-specialist EAL and/or inexperienced support staff will not be the most effective strategy in the long term. In order for disadvantaged EAL pupils to make rapid progress, support staff need to have a solid understanding and know-how of EAL pedagogy.

If well supported at this stage, learners with EAL can do well, and the impact of these measures is likely to be powerful and long-lasting.

  • Silvana Richardson is programme quality manager at The Bell Foundation. The author would like to thank Diana Sutton for her comments. The Bell Foundation is a charity working to overcome exclusion through language education. For details, visit

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