Supporting the teaching of EAL through play

Written by: Sam Flatman | Published:

Expert Sam Flatman offers us four ways to support the teaching of English as an additional language through play

As a learning resource, the benefits of play are often underrated, especially alongside more formal methods of teaching. But in many circumstances, play-based learning can actually prove to be most effective form of education.

This is certainly the case for EAL (English as an additional language) students who are struggling to get to grips with the English language.

Currently, UK schools tend to favour total immersion techniques for EAL learning, which excludes the use of any language other than English. While this places all children on the same equal footing, it can lead to non-native speakers feeling isolated from their peers because of their inability to socialise with them.

That’s not to say that total immersion isn’t a valid practice, it simply means that more needs to be done to ensure these social barriers are quickly broken down.

Play is the ideal catalyst for social interaction because it allows children to actively engage with one another. Simple games and activities often do more to cement associations in pupils’ minds than tests or rigorous study ever can, which is why they should be at the forefront of language learning. Play is a known medium for communication and cooperation and can lead to a much clearer understanding of how language works.

Communication through cooperative play

Children don’t necessarily need to be talking to begin understanding one another. Often exploring new materials and toys together can be enough to kickstart communication, providing them with common ground to investigate.

Nearly all new skills are learnt through observation and exploration and language is no different. In fact, most of us learn to communicate through careful study of our parents as youngsters, attempting to imitate their speech and body movements.

As a teacher of EAL students, it is important that you allocate specific times to cooperative play. This can be adult-directed, but needn’t necessarily be overly structured. Children are incredibly adept at creating games for themselves and, as long as no-one is excluded from these, adult intervention may not be needed. Introduce open-ended toys that get children thinking and talking, but steer clear of dictating the rules yourself.

Using word games

Children who aren’t actively engaged with what they are learning will usually become bored of trying. There is a reason we teach preschoolers simple rhymes and actions to remember parts of the body or letters of the alphabet.

Students who make associations between movement and language are often better at committing words to memory. For EAL learners, it can be the visual cue they need to begin matching names with objects, providing them with genuine context.

Crucially, play keeps things fresh and exciting. Repetitively reciting nouns and verbs to children might teach them to recognise the words, but won’t always lead them to make strong connections between sentences and their meaning. A game like “head, shoulders, knees and toes” presents children with an opportunity to remember the body parts in a way that is fun and engaging.

Developing social skills with role-play

Active engagement can also be fostered through the use of imaginative play in the classroom. Role-playing games strengthen children’s understanding of common experiences such as cooking in the kitchen or visiting the doctor’s. While EAL learners may not be able to interact with their classmates immediately, they will begin to recognise the role-played scenarios from their home life and use this recognition to help them get to grips with the language that is being used.

Often it can help if practitioners pair more advanced EAL learners with those who are just starting out, providing a bilingual bridge between them and the rest of the group. However, this isn’t always practical, especially in schools who only cater for a small number of EAL students.

Using bilingual flashcards in the place of a buddy can also be effective, as long as students are encouraged to use the English form more often than their native tongue.

Opportunities to talk

Sometimes language learning can become so focused on writing and reading exercises that children aren’t afforded enough time to simply talk through ideas with support staff. The more an EAL learner is allowed to express themselves, the easier it will be for them to begin using English. While it is important for children to learn to read and write in a new language, it is all for nothing if they can’t put these language skills into verbal practice.

Although total immersion might be the perfect solution for some, it is worth bearing in mind that not all children will be confident enough to begin speaking in English straightaway.

Having bilingual members of staff on hand to discuss new words and phrases with EAL students can help them understand when it is appropriate to use them and when it isn’t. Helping them match words with pictures or encouraging them to work in groups to practise new vocabulary will enable them to slowly use new words with more confidence.


With more than one million non-native speakers now enrolled in schools in the UK, classrooms that are set up to deal with EAL are becoming an increasingly common necessity. Through visual and active learning children can begin to put their understanding into practice, providing them with a solid platform to build upon.

  • Sam Flatman is an outdoor learning specialist and an educational consultant for Pentagon Play.

Further resources

  • Play for a Change: The Importance of Play in Children’s Lives – a review of research (Chapter 3), Play England, 2008:
  • The Value of Songs and Chants for Young Learners, paper by Elizabeth Forster, British Council Primary School in Madrid (Encuentro 16, Journal of Research and Innovation in the Language Classroom, 2006):
  • Do’s and Don’ts For Teaching Visual Learners in a Language Class, Anne Vize, Bright Hub Education, 2013:
  • Role-play in English Language Teaching, Feng Liu & Yun Ding School of Foreign Languages, Qingdao University of Science and Technology, China, 2009:
  • Five Tips for Getting the ESL Student Talking, Marc Anderson, Edutopia, 2013:

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