Supporting new starters with EAL

Written by: Beth Walton | Published:
Image: iStock

As another new school year gets underway, how can you more effectively support new arrivals who might not speak English at home? Beth Walton looks at five key steps to giving good all-round support

At The Key, we know that providing effective support for pupils with English as an additional language (EAL) is a challenge for many schools.

School leaders have told us that lack of funding to secure further support, and the rigidity of curriculum/assessments is putting pressure on them, and yet figures from the Department for Education (DfE) show that the number of pupils with EAL has been steadily rising over the last 10 years. More than one in five (21 per cent) pupils in state-funded primary schools speak a language other than English in their home.

So how can you engage and empower your new pupils with EAL during the coming school year?

Establish a good relationship with parents

If you have new pupils starting at your school with EAL, try to set up a meeting with their parents early in the term. This will help you understand each pupil’s starting point, get to know more about them as an individual and identify the skills they need to access the curriculum. Before the meeting, you could speak to parents and decide whether an interpreter is necessary. During the meeting, you could ask about their child’s:

  • Personality – are they shy or outspoken?
  • Proficiency in their native language, and whether they have any issues with articulation and fluency.
  • Educational background, including whether they’ve attended school before and whether they have any SEN.
  • Experience of language at home.

Going forward, you could appoint a nominated point of contact in the school for parents whose first language also isn’t English. This person can maintain a good relationship with the parents, and direct them to further support.

One school in Southampton encourages parents to share skills in a parent-led cookery group. Parents take it in turns to show other parents how to make a meal from their culture, and at the end of the session everyone eats together. The school also asks parents to teach their skills to pupils in lessons.

Parents have taught pupils their national dances and songs, for example, and have demonstrated costumes and crafts as a way to celebrate the different cultures of pupils and their families.

Assess and track language skills

Establishing a framework for assessing pupils’ language proficiency can help you and your teachers work out pupils’ baseline level and track their progress towards fluency in English.

The DfE requires schools to include EAL proficiency levels on an A to E scale for the January school census. You could use these codes as a starting point, although the descriptors are very broad.

A more detailed model for assessing and tracking proficiency ideally takes into account pupils’ ages, backgrounds and whether proficiency varies across the language skills (reading, writing, comprehension and speaking).

One method is to compile a portfolio of evidence which demonstrates a pupil’s language performance in different contexts. This could include their proficiency in their first language. Maintain and update this portfolio to track the pupil’s proficiency over the year. If you’re unsure, or don’t have much experience with EAL, it may be worth getting an EAL specialist on board to help you develop your assessment framework.

Adapt your classroom and engage other pupils

The classroom environment can have a significant impact on pupils’ language acquisition. The Ethnic Minority Achievement Support Service of Milton Keynes Council suggests that teaching the whole class to say a few words in the pupil’s home language is a good place to start. You can also ensure your staff know to:

  • Seat new pupils with EAL next to the most fluent English speakers in the class.
  • Avoid seating all pupils with EAL together, as this will not help their English skills and may hinder integration.
  • Set up a buddy system, where pupils with EAL are paired with pupils who are fluent in English. If possible, their buddy will also speak their first language so they can check their partner’s understanding of the curriculum.
  • Provide visual prompts where possible.
  • Prioritise new curriculum learning and the development of appropriate subject-specific language.

It’s important to remember that many of the techniques aimed at teaching EAL learners can also be beneficial to other pupils.

Use targeted interventions wisely

There are many advantages to integrating pupils with EAL into whole-class lessons as much as possible.

However, there may be some exceptions. New arrivals with EAL may benefit from a curriculum-focused induction period or intensive language support in the early stages. For example, some schools send pupils with very little or no English on an intensive English course before they join mainstream lessons.

Before a main lesson, you could run booster classes to explain specialist vocabulary and context that will be used throughout the class. If literacy lessons are too advanced, you could arrange alternative sessions to teach the pupils basic phonics knowledge.

Ensure pupils can take part in the whole curriculum

It is important that interventions and additional provision do not take pupils with EAL away from other curriculum subjects, such as art, music, food technology and PE. These subjects provide good opportunities for pupils to acquire language and social skills in a different context, and to interact with their peers. Enabling pupils with EAL to shine in practical activities can also provide them with a big confidence boost.

If you’re not sure how to facilitate this yourself, organisations such as Artis Education help schools to use performing arts lessons to support pupils with EAL. In one school, Artis’ specialists asked pupils to express emotive and abstract words in literacy through dance and drama, and this enhanced pupils’ understanding and helped improve their reading comprehension.

Whether it be whole-school assemblies teaching all pupils basic phrases or international bake-off competitions, your school’s ethos and attitude could make all the difference in boosting confidence and ensuring pupils with EAL are able to thrive.

  • Beth Walton is a specialist researcher at The Key, which provides impartial leadership and management support to schools in England.

Further information

For more guidance on how to support, engage and empower pupils with EAL, The Key’s CPD Toolkit is at

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