EAL: Supporting new arrivals in your primary school

Written by: Emma Parsons | Published:
Image: Adobe Stock

Many primary schools will have new arrivals this September who have English as an additional language. Continuing our series on EAL, Emma Parsons recommends effective induction procedures, an EAL assessment tool, and differentiation strategies and resources for use in the classroom

When a new arrival with little or no English joins a class, teachers may feel frustrated and lack confidence in providing their pupil with the right support. In fact, on-going inclusive, differentiated classroom practice goes a long way in supporting new English as an additional language (EAL) learners. This article is intended to provide best practice for primary teachers in meeting the needs of their new EAL learners.

The term EAL is used to describe a diverse group of pupils for whom English is an additional language. The government’s definition of an EAL learner includes anyone who has been exposed to a language other than English during early childhood “and continues to be exposed to this language in the home or the community”. Many EAL learners are UK-born.

New arrivals

International migrants, including refugees, asylum-seekers, children of people working or studying in the UK and economic migrants from overseas, may be described as new arrivals.

New arrivals are a very diverse group. They can range from “new to English” to “fluent” in terms of their English language development. They can arrive at any age and with widely different socio-economic and educational backgrounds. Some come from privileged urban backgrounds having had a high standard of education, others have had little or interrupted schooling or may have experienced traumatic events.

Admissions and induction

Children learn best when they feel secure and valued, so the first challenge is to make new arrivals feel welcome and help staff to make appropriate plans to include them.

Initial admissions meeting

Think about who should conduct the interview and if an interpreter is needed. When communicating via an interpreter look at and talk to the parents or the child/young person, not the interpreter. Be mindful that even if parents have difficulty speaking English they may still understand what you say.

Consider what questions should be asked in order to gather information that will be useful in supporting the pupil’s learning and wellbeing. What languages does the pupil/family speak (read and write)? What about the pupil’s English? What is the pupil’s learning history?


What systems are in place that will make the pupil and their family feel welcome in the school? Is there information for EAL parents on the school website? Provide a guide for parents with useful information about the school: the school day, classroom routines, homework, term dates and uniforms. This guide should be written in clear and simple English with helpful illustrations. Some schools have translated welcome booklets (Mantra Lingua, for example, has developed a welcome booklet app in 30 languages – see further information).

Preparation and planning for the new arrival

If possible, arrange for the child to start school three to four days after the admissions meeting. This gives both the school and the family time to get organised. Ensure the class teacher and any other key adults are supplied with relevant information gathered at the admissions meeting. Make sure the class teacher will be in the class on the pupil’s first day and start with a half day until lunchtime.

The first days and weeks

Make efforts to pronounce and spell names accurately. Organise “buddies” for the new arrival and brief them carefully. It is advisable to share the buddy role between two or three pupils. It is helpful if the buddy can speak the new arrival’s first language, but it is more important that they are empathetic and have the necessary emotional intelligence. If possible, organise home-language mentors – bilingual staff members or older pupils – who can “visit” the class occasionally or look out for the pupil in the playground and the lunch hall. Arrange a quiet space for prayer if needed.


Although the Department for Education (DfE) recently withdrew the requirement for schools to report on the English language proficiency of their EAL learners, The Bell Foundation highly recommends that schools continue to assess learners with EAL in order to achieve the best outcomes, even if they are not required to report on it.

It is important to establish through assessment both a learner’s proficiency in English and also their knowledge and competence in a subject. For example, a learner may have covered the content in their home country but may lack the vocabulary to express it, or alternatively may have had limited prior education in their country of origin.

So it is key to establish a real understanding of the learner’s competencies and abilities through assessment. Observation and informal assessment can be carried out from day one, but any formal testing of the pupil’s English should be postponed for two to three weeks. Once they have had a chance to settle, then you could consider conducting a standalone baseline initial assessment of their English proficiency using appropriate assessment tools (standalone initial assessment tasks/tests are available – mostly from EAL or ex-EAL departments of local authorities – but at present there is no DfE-approved or widely recommended initial assessment).

For pupils who are at the early stages of acquiring English, it is not recommended to use age-related school-wide assessments (such as spelling and reading tests) as gaps in vocabulary and cultural references can lead to skewed results which do not provide a meaningful level or information for supporting the pupil.

A best-fit judgement of a pupil’s English proficiency level can be arrived at by using an evidence-based assessment framework, such as The Bell Foundation’s EAL Assessment Framework for Schools, which is free to download. The Framework supports the teaching and learning of EAL pupils: it is designed so that English proficiency can be easily assessed within the context of the curriculum. The level descriptors can also act as targets for pupils to progress to the next level. For every proficiency band, there is a set of strategies and recommended resources for supporting pupils within that band.

Curriculum access

Supporting an EAL learner to acquire English and access the curriculum is vital. The following recommendations are from The Bell Foundation and the EAL Nexus website.

Using the pupil’s home language

Learning should not wait for a pupil to acquire English. If possible, arrange for the pupil to have some support from a same-language adult in the school, class buddy and/or, at times, older pupil. Online translation tools can be useful and can help a pupil to participate in class activities, but be aware that you may get some inaccurate translations for some longer chunks of language. Use the speaker button on Google Translate and involve the pupil in doing the same (see further information). Encourage older pupils to research topics online in their home language. Provide dual language books for the pupil to read in class and to take home.

Adult support

In the short term, “new to English” new arrivals can benefit from short, regular and frequent sessions outside the classroom for learning English basics, including daily social greetings/exchanges, making/responding to requests, school and classroom vocabulary and phrases, and language for expressing lack of understanding. However, it is important to ensure that provision for new arrivals is not separate but integrated into all subject areas.

Whenever possible, make use of additional support from a teaching assistant (or other adult) in the classroom – even if it is only for a few minutes of pre-teaching vocabulary or a quick sketch on a mini-whiteboard to aid understanding (see further information for more classroom support ideas).

If there is already adult support for SEN pupils, sometimes the same/similar resources and support will benefit an EAL pupil, but EAL is not an underlying learning difficulty. Do not always group new-to-English EAL learners with SEN learners (if you think an EAL learner may also have an underlying SEN, arrange for a home-language assessment and involve the SENCO and a speech and language therapist in monitoring their progress).

In-class support

EAL is not a subject, like history, maths or Spanish. EAL learners have a double job to do: learn English and learn through English at the same time. The following are realistic and feasible teaching and learning strategies for teachers drawn from on-going differentiation in the classroom. They are primarily aimed at new arrivals in Band A – “new to English” in primary school. However, many of the strategies are recommended for more advanced EAL learners and can be used for the language development of all learners.

  • Prepare visual support – visual timetables, multilingual instruction mats, “survival” fans (e.g. I need the toilet; I feel sick), word banks, writing frames (EAL Nexus has curriculum-related visual support; you can create visual word banks and frames using software such as Communicate in Print).
  • Provide an EAL picture dictionary (such as Collins First English Words) and an age-appropriate bilingual dictionary (such as from Mantra Lingua).
  • Sit the learner near you where they can see your face straight on.
  • Use your own face, voice and body as a resource – gestures, mimes, exaggerated facial expressions.
  • Speak clearly and slowly, avoiding idiomatic language.
  • Sit the learner next to pupils who are supportive language role models.
  • Give single-step instructions. Repeat same instructional phase.
  • Point to what you are talking about (key word/picture).
  • Target the learner daily for simple differentiated “Yes/No” questions.
  • Allow the learner thinking time before answering questions.
  • When going round class, have a mini whiteboard or notebook to hand for quick drawings, to create “choices” in order to prompt a response (liquid/solid?) or to reinforce key words.
  • Plan for, teach and model vocabulary and language structures needed for the task/subject (see the teaching notes accompanying each teaching resource on the EAL Nexus website).
  • Teach key words and phrases (see the EAL Nexus Great Ideas pages).
  • Use Directed Activities Relating to Text (DARTs): sorting, matching, sequencing, labelling, gap-fills, writing frames, substitution tables (see EAL Nexus Great Ideas pages).
  • Communicate with home: keep parents informed of topics being covered in class (to research and discuss in their home language) and give parents useful websites, such as the British Council’s Learn English Kids and BBC Bitesize KS1.
  • Homework: regularly send home visual vocabulary flashcards starting with school and classroom language (available from the British Council’s Learn English Kids website ). Pupils should practise these at school with an additional adult or language-model buddy.


The key to supporting new EAL arrivals is providing a whole-school inclusive culture, welcoming induction, differentiated classrooms, appropriately timed and on-going assessment (formative, summative and contextual), tailored support strategies and parental involvement. 

  • Emma Parsons is a Bell Foundation associate at The Bell Foundation, 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 disadvantaged through language.

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