Deciphering the term EAL is vital to making education more accessible

It’s an everyday scene up and down the country,  students grab their schoolbags and issue hurried goodbyes to their parents or carers as they set off for another day in the classroom.

Almost one in five of those youngsters, being waved off at the school gate or front door, will not be saying their farewells in English.

Lost in translation

Some 1.64million state school pupils are classed as speaking English as an additional language (EAL) generally meaning they speak another language at home.

Importantly, it does not mean they are all newly-arrived in the UK, lack a good grasp of English, will inevitably be low academic achievers or are unable to comprehend standard exams.

What I have learned working with EAL students and in my post graduate research is that the label covers a huge diversity of linguistic and academic ability.

This needs to be clearly understood if we’re to help every young person achieve their full potential.

What EAL does mean and what it doesn't

One of the biggest myths is that EAL automatically equals low attainment.

EAL status itself is a poor predictor of GCSE outcomes. English language proficiency is much better.

In fact, those with high fluency levels can outperform first-language English counterparts.

The label also covers a vast spectrum of linguistic abilities from those born in the UK and schooled from Reception, to 15-year-old new arrivals with little or no English.

Students with EAL are such a diverse group, understanding what it means is a key consideration for improving outcomes.

Who are students with EAL?

For instance, how strong is the student’s home language? How proficient is their English?

Some are completely bi-lingual using both languages daily with family and friends.

Others only speak English at school meaning their vocabulary may encompass complex academic terms but does not stretch to mundane household words such as plunger or carpet cleaner.

Another question is do their literacy and verbal skills match up? Some speak English far better than they write or read it. That category may fall through the cracks.   

Lowering linguistic barriers

This leads us to the use of language in assessments

For those still acquiring language skills, subjects that rely heavily on text and language, such as English or history, may pose more difficulties.

Formula-rich subjects like maths and physics, however, have smaller obstacles.

These bi/multi-lingual students may also well be better placed to excel in other languages thanks to existing linguistic skills.

While EAL learners can, and do, perform well in assessments, exam boards can take steps to ensure papers are as accessible as possible.

For example, the passive voice can be difficult to process and ‘trip-up’ students in the stress of the exam hall. Demanding vocabulary or complex sentences also hinders fair assessment.

Culture and context can be another unnecessary barrier.

The context in which a question is set can make a huge difference to someone from a different culture’s ability to answer it.

Unfamiliar contexts can throw students off course and a relatively obscure cultural reference might stop them understanding the question altogether.

Teaching students with EAL is not straightforward

Finally, there needs to be support for newly arrived learners.

Being new to the UK and English can make the first few years of education stressful.

Those who arrive in KS4 may find this compounded by the fact their peers are preparing for exams they are unable to sit or might struggle with.

Schools can be at a loss as how best to support these young people. Teachers struggle with the lack of certification for the KS4 cohort with English language difficulties as well as the safeguarding issues of putting youngsters in FE colleges to study entry level English Speakers of Other Languages.

What can be done to help EAL students reach their full potential?

There are assessments schools can use to certify EAL students’ English skills. For example, AQA’s unique Unit Award Scheme offers units mapped to GCSEs and other qualifications.

This kind of support can ensure EAL students aren’t ignored or forgotten and by certifying each step they make, it can boost their confidence too.

But we have to be careful with the label EAL.

Sometimes it might be helpful in identifying those needing support, but other times English proficiency is really what we’re talking about.

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