What is EAL?

According to government statistics, approximately 17% of students at the end of key stage 2 are classed as having English as an additional language (EAL). That’s nearly 1 in 6 students in our primary schools, 79% of which join in the reception year. Many of these children will be in early years settings prior to that, so as early years practitioners, we need to be able to help these students access the curriculum and do everything in our power to make sure these children are not disadvantaged by their EAL status.

The percentage of EAL children varies widely from as little as 0.9% in more rural areas to 76% in some inner city areas. Some schools and nurseries have counted the number of languages other than English spoken by their children as over 40. Since all children, regardless of their language are entitled to equal access to the whole curriculum, how can we effectively help these students to make the same progress as native English speakers?

The first step is to correctly identify children who have EAL and according to Ofsted, all EAL children should be recorded on the school census. There are many reasons why children may have EAL, and it is certainly not a guaranteed predictor of poor achievement. Many EAL children are fluent in English or become fluent in English as they progress through school. However, many still struggle to access the education system as fully as those whose first language is English. The government definition of a pupil with EAL is “a pupil whose first language is other than English.” And a first language is defined as “the language to which the child was initially exposed during early development and continues to use this language in the home and community.”

This therefore includes:

  • Pupils arriving from other countries and whose first language is not English
  • Pupils who have lived in the UK for a long time and may appear to be fluent, but who also speak another language at home
  • Pupils who have been born in the UK, but for whom the home language is not English
  • Pupils who have a parent who speaks a language other than English and the child communicates with them in that language (i.e. bi-lingual children)

British citizens can still have EAL. According to a 2020 Government report, 30% of EAL pupils are white, 41% are Asian and 13% are black, compared with 85% of pupils with English first language being white, 4% black and 4% Asian). However, they are similar to pupils with English as a first language in terms of other characteristics with 51% being male, 25% being disadvantaged and 13% having a special educational need. For children with SEN and EAL, it may be more difficult to identify EAL status due to other SEN issues.

Supporting children with EAL can be difficult and many early years practitioners can struggle to communicate effectively with EAL children because of the language barrier. However, it is important to realise that in the early years, children have a very high propensity to learn, so can develop quickly with the right support. And sometimes it is the inexperience of practitioners rather than the language barrier which is the biggest problem. So how can we best support EAL children? Oxfordshire County Council have produced an very informative guide on how to do this which you can access here and we have some best practice ideas below.

It’s not just about visual aids

It’s important to understand that it’s not just about picking up new vocabulary and grammar when learning English. Many children may have to learn an entirely new set of sounds, new intonation patterns, a new alphabet, new social conventions and non-verbal signals too. In addition, they may feel isolated and anxious going into a setting they cannot initially understand. Best practice would begin supporting these students even before they have started attending your setting and may include:

  • Application forms which clearly identify the first language of the child
  • A home visit (in 2s) to the family to assess the level of English of the parents as well as the child
  • Ensuring that everyone in the setting is using the correct spellings and pronunciations of the children’s and parent’s names
  • Training for staff on how to best support EAL students.

Once children are attending your setting, there are a number of strategies that can help students to feel welcome, included and able to access the curriculum. These can include:

  • Using visual aids and signs that the child can easily recognise (e.g. toilets/playground)
  • Cutting down language to avoid being overwhelmed – this means not necessarily using full sentences but making sure that the essence of the communication is understood – remember that words make up only 7% of communication so using intonation, gestures and facial expressions helps
  • Translating ‘survival’ words which are given and explained to the child so they understand the basics, such as where the toilets are, where they eat, how to introduce themselves and say ‘hello’ and ‘goodbye’ and to ask for help
  • Other signs and information in their own first language. Promoting and using their first language as well as English will help them feel understood and more involved and will reinforce the value of different cultures and languages
  • Using repetition and speaking slowly and clearly
  • Opportunities to speak and practice English in small groups
  • Opportunities to read and to be read to in English, and at times, in their own first language
  • Learning through play where learning is natural and achieved through osmosis
  • Staff who have access to translation materials
  • Taking the extra time to ensure that messages and home communications have been properly understood
  • Using stickers and praise.

Involve parents

The parents of an EAL child can be a great resource to help ease the transition into nursery, and support them with leaning English at home. Ask parents for lists of keywords, and exchange translations so that the parents can use English word labels at home too.

There are benefits too

According to research, good development of a child’s first language has a positive effect on the development of other languages and situations where children are able to speak additional languages. It should also be valued as a positive skill. Learning and using more than one language creates additional learning opportunities for adults too and can often bring a rich cultural tradition to the setting to help increase understanding and tolerance.

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