EAL recovery: Creating opportunities for talk

Written by: Sarah Moodie | Published:
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As the pandemic continues, promoting oracy and opportunities to talk will be crucial to supporting the recovery of students who use English as an additional language. Sarah Moodie offers some ideas

“There is no doubt that the disruption to some students’ education will have been more severe than others.”

Thus begins the equality assessment of the government’s consultation over examination arrangements for 2022 (DfE, 2021). It goes on to name learners using English as an additional language (EAL) as one of these groups and to voice concern that “attainment gaps between different groups of students might grow in 2022.”

The impact of restricted schooling during the pandemic has been widely documented, although much of what has been noted may well prove to be the tip of an educational iceberg.

As far as EAL students are concerned, it is worth remembering that they are not a heterogeneous group, and as such, had widely differing experiences during lockdowns and partial school closures, as indeed did all learners.

Some were eligible to attend school in person throughout the pandemic, some were learning remotely. Of those learning from home some had access to suitable technologies, a quiet working space, a time-keeper, lunch – others were less fortunate. While many had parents/carers who were able to engage with them over their school-work, others did not.

Some groups of learners with EAL are already more at risk of underachievement, as detailed in a previous Headteacher Update article by Silvana Richardson (2020). So, what, if any, are the common factors and what can schools and teachers do to address them?

In research commissioned by The Bell Foundation (Scott, 2021), teachers were asked their perceptions of the effects of the pandemic on the learning of EAL students. A recurring theme was that of having lost confidence in speaking.

This was one representative response from a primary teacher based in the East Midlands: “These children have arrived back at school very quiet and subdued; they have lost a lot of the vocabulary they were learning and some that they were confident with and are lacking in confidence to speak.”

Talk in the learning process has been diminished for all students, with 81 per cent of headteachers identifying oracy as a high priority as schools re-open (APPG, 2021). For pupils who use EAL, the role of talk in English is crucial not only to their subject learning, but to their developing English language proficiency. And it is precisely this proficiency which will ultimately influence their level of attainment (Strand &Hessel, 2018).

In an EAL context, language is often divided into social and academic. Emphasis is rightly awarded to the academic vocabulary and structures needed to access curriculum content and, ultimately, pass exams. However, the social aspect of language, with its links to wellbeing and belonging, is equally important, especially to early stage and recently arrived learners using EAL, who are adjusting to a new culture and host community.

In order to develop social language in English, these pupils need to be in social situations where English is used, be that in playgrounds, clubs, extra-curricular activities, or group activities in lessons. Social language is initiated through talk, and this develops along a continuum into written language and more formal speech.

At a classroom level, the distinction is not always clear, with social and academic language often overlapping or meshing together. Educational theorists such as Vygotsky and Mercer, have highlighted the value of what Mercer calls exploratory talk, which helps extend thinking and learning through engaging with others' ideas in a supportive setting. This is what has been missing for most students, and (at least in English) for pupils who use EAL in particular, over the course of the pandemic. The aim of this article is to suggest some strategies which schools can employ in order to get the wheels of talk rolling again.

It’s good to talk

So, how can we begin to redress the language loss resulting from a lack of social and structured talk? The strategies below have been divided into whole school, classroom, and homework ideas. Many of them will benefit all students, not just those who use EAL.


Robust EAL assessment procedures: If your school is already using an assessment framework, such as The Bell Foundation’s EAL Assessment Framework, then now is a good time to re-assess the proficiency in English of your learners using EAL, perhaps starting with the oracy descriptors, and plan to help them progress.

Consult the learners: How do they feel the disruptions to schooling have affected them and what do they think would help? Find out via a survey or questionnaire, although a friendlier model would be for pastoral staff or senior leaders to interview students in small groups.

Tutoring: If your school is using catch-up tutors, make sure they are conversant with EAL pedagogy and use talk as a learning tool. There is training available from The Bell Foundation. Consider after-school language-focused interventions, preferably delivered by an EAL professional. These could be based on social as well as academic language, e.g. informal discussions, voicing an opinion, agreeing and disagreeing, framing questions.

Buddy groups: New arrivals particularly benefit from buddies, who can help them navigate both the academic and social aspects of school while also modelling language.

Conversation café: This could be a lunch-time or after-school activity. Fluent in English volunteers (for example older pupils or sixth-formers from partner schools) sit around tables and chat to EAL learners. This can be popular with sixth-formers interested in teaching or TEFL careers, or to satisfy Duke of Edinburgh criteria. It can take various forms, perhaps using conversation prompt cards or playing board games.

Language in action. More ambitious, fun, and potentially a great deal messier, how about building a worm farm or doing some clay modelling? Any activity which nurtures social talk will do. Think about what might work in your context.

Linguistic resources available: Do not discount the value of the learners’ home languages. Language skills are transferrable. Anything you can say or write in your first language, you have the potential to say and write in another language. So do allow and encourage social talk in all your school’s languages.

Smaller and more interactive assemblies: With a greater emphasis on student voice.

Classroom strategies

An article in Headteacher Update in November suggested some useful teaching strategies for learners using EAL in socially distanced classrooms (Curran, 2020). Building on these, here are some ideas which focusing oracy:

Promote talk: Start by working in pairs and small groups, then moving into whole class discussions and presentations. This provides opportunities for learners to rehearse and gain confidence before speaking to a large group. Setting very clear ground rules about valuing contributions, listening attentively, and responding positively will make all students feel more comfortable speaking aloud.

Have a word wall (or screen): Add any new words, including words in other languages with translations. Every so often as an end of lesson activity, get students to make up a sentence using a given number of the words, or give a definition of a word and let the class identify it.

Use collaborative learning activities: These include sequencing exercises, jigsaw activities and graphic organisers which encourage exploratory talk. They can then be developed into more formal presentations. The teacher will need to model and make explicit the linguistic changes which occur when casual speech becomes formalised (see below for further resources from The Bell Foundation).

Dictogloss: This activity develops the links between listening, speaking and writing (again, see below for details).

Drama and role play: There are many ways to use this across the curriculum and the teacher is not required to be a proficient actor, nor does the classroom have to be turned upside down. For example, the teacher could play reporter and interview learners who are witnesses to, say, the Roman invasion of AD43. Drama and role play create opportunities for practising speaking in meaningful contexts and for new-to-English learners to communicate with peers (see below).

Home languages: If some learners are reluctant or presently unable to speak much in English, consider encouraging them to work in their home languages first (L1), and then, perhaps with help, transfer these ideas into English. They can make bilingual posters for display, label diagrams in L1 and transfer this information to sentences in English or discuss in one language and present in another. All of these are examples of translanguaging, which has been proven to facilitate learning.

Homework strategies

It is difficult to set speaking homework, but here are a few ideas which might be useful, depending on your context. Speaking is intrinsically linked to listening, which can be done at home. Homework can also be used to prepare for speaking activities, which will give learners time to engage in inner speech and think about how they will formulate their thoughts for an audience.

  • Older pupils might be able to make a video or podcast. For example, instead of completing written work about the Roman army, they could prepare and film a three-minute talk on the topic or record themselves answering questions.
  • Research a topic at home with a view to discussing it in class. This could involve parents/carers. For older pupils, this could be part of a jigsaw activity, where each member of a group researches a different aspect of the topic and information is pooled, thus necessitating speaking and listening. The group could then construct a presentation, transforming their group discussions into more formal language.
  • Read (part of) a book at home with a view to discussing it in class.
  • Watch videos, podcasts, interviews and so on which provide curriculum content alongside models of spoken English.
  • Outside activities such as nature walks or surveys – which are then reported back in class – might be a welcome activity post-lockdown. These could involve parents/carers and speaking in family languages.


It seems apposite to end with the words of a pupil speaking to the All-Party Parliamentary Group investigation into oracy (APPG, 2021): “Everyone in the world needs to know about oracy and feel comfortable to use their voice in all subjects. You should use oracy to help you feel confident and valued in everyday use, whatever age you are.”

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

Further information & references

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