Understanding and Supporting Pupils with English as an Additional Language

By Leila Harris


The Department for Education (DfE) defines a pupil as having English as an additional language (EAL) if the pupil was exposed to any language other than English during their early years and continues to be exposed to that language in the home or in the community (2018).

The EAL community is a diverse group with varying levels of English.  Furthermore, this group is growing.  It was recognised in January 2018 that 21.2% of pupils were classed as having EAL, an increase of approximately 3.7% since 2012 (DfE, 2012, 2018).  Through this paper I provide an insight into how schools may be able to provide appropriate provision to cater for and support the distinct needs of this group of pupils.

I will attempt to demonstrate this by addressing three questions:

  • What is EAL?
  • What does an inclusive school culture and ethos look like?
  • How can we best support our pupils with EAL in school?

Despite the significant number of pupils who speak English as an Additional Language, there seems to be very little guidance and training for teachers about how to support bilingual pupils.  I address the questions listed above and through my exploration of each question, provide examples based on my personal experiences as a practitioner working in a large and socioeconomically diverse setting in north west London.

At the school in which I work, over forty-nine different languages are spoken and each year group from Reception to Year 6 has more than 90% EAL.  This paper is borne out of reflections on the work that we have done in my school around teaching and learning for bilingual pupils.  We are incredibly proud of the range of languages spoken and it’s humbling to see the pride our children take in sharing their languages, cultures and heritages with others in our school community.  The value system and ethos we have developed is nourished by all members of the school community contributing and demonstrating care, respect and curiosity in each other’s language, heritage and cultures.

What is EAL? 

This question is deceptively simple to answer.  I have already detailed the definition given by the DfE which defines EAL as a child who was exposed to any language other than English during early development and continues to be exposed to it in the home or community.

The complexity of the definition needs to be explored as this covers a wide range of pupils including: those who arrive from other countries and whose first language is not English; those who have lived in the UK for a long time and may appear to be fluent but who also speak another language at home; those who were born in the UK but for whom the home language is not English. There is additionally the range of their school experiences to be considered, which may have been in this country or abroad, or alternatively, no school experience.

There seems to be a range of terms used for pupils with EAL including English as a Second Language (ESL) and ‘bilingual’.  However, it is more inclusive to use the term ‘EAL’ or ‘multilingual’ as English may be a third or fourth language spoken, rather than a second (Sword, 2021).  The reported figure of EAL pupils across the UK is 21.1%, but I suspect this figure is likely to be much higher.

It is possible that some families may not feel comfortable to share their home language and heritage with schools, or perhaps there is a misunderstanding around the term EAL, which may be considered to be a child who does not speak English well, if at all.  This has implications for schools and the messages they convey to families about the value they place on bilingual pupils.

It is evident that EAL pupils are not a homogenous group and that a single approach to supporting them to access the curriculum and achieve their potential cannot be found.  Pupils who speak English as an additional language face many challenges.  As well as acquiring vocabulary, picking up pronunciation and understanding grammatical structures, pupils will also need to be able to learn through the English language.

What does an inclusive school culture and ethos look like?

Understanding the school community is critical but this goes beyond the facts and figures about the number of EAL pupils and languages spoken.  In my role I have realised the underlying importance of developing strong and positive relationships within the school community.  Encouraging pupils to learn a few key words and phrases in other children’s languages is a simple way to show that you want everyone to be included, feel special and valued.

A possible way to facilitate pupils to feel included and reduce feelings of isolation and segregation is for them to take on the role of ‘teacher’ to the rest of the class to teach key words and greetings.

Additionally, if children are new arrivals and speak little or no English, hearing a familiar greeting can reassure a child who finds themselves in an unfamiliar setting, with people who may not be able to communicate in their language and with other life elements such as food which are also unfamiliar.

Building links between the school and families may also go beyond the direct school community and may include local businesses, places of worship and other local organisations.  These are the places and people the pupils look to for help in shaping their outlook on their world as well as the aspirations that they hold for themselves.

The complexity and diversity of this growing group of bilingual pupils in schools is astounding but should be celebrated. All our pupils are entitled to equal access to a broad and balanced school curriculum and the learning and using of more than one language is an asset. Research has shown that good development of a child’s home language has a positive effect on the development of other languages (Sharples, 2021).

In my school context, pupils are celebrated as ‘Language Ambassadors’ and are given responsibilities to help to guide new families around the school explaining the school day, structure and routines in their home language.  This serves to create a positive atmosphere in which being able to speak other languages is valued and encouraged as teachers actively ask pupils to do this and take on the role of translator.

To truly show how diversity is celebrated and valued it needs to be promoted across the whole school; in the displays, the ways we teach and the work we do.  This also includes using home languages in lessons so that pupils are able to access the curriculum whilst learning and acquiring the English language.  By encouraging collaborative learning activities, pupils are encouraged to discuss their learning. Vygotsky (1978) reminds us that dialogue with a more expert other is crucial as this helps to develop one’s own language, the complexity of language and language structures within a purposeful context.

Families need to be reassured by practitioners in schools that bilingual pupils should be encouraged to speak, retell stories, sing rhymes and songs in their home language, firstly to continue their cultural and linguistic traditions and heritage but also secondly as use of home languages provides structures that may also be transferred to English.

This has been referred to as Translanguaging’ – “the act performed by bilinguals of accessing different linguistic features or various modes of what are described as autonomous languages, in order to maximize communicative potential.” García (2009, p. 140).  Translanguaging pedagogy challenges are what Jim Cummins (2008) called the ‘two solitudes’ approach to bilingualism, in which languages were kept strictly separate. National events such as ‘International Mother Language Day’ provide opportunities for children to share parts of their culture, heritage and traditions.

As community groups begin to grow across the school, one way of supporting pupils to promote their language is to facilitate first language groups.   This can also be shared across the whole school through an assembly to which children’s families may also be invited.  In my school context, we used international mother language day to draw together a whole school themed week celebrating diversity.  The week was called ‘sharing lives through love’ and pupils were asked to share poems and rhymes in their home languages which were displayed around the school; pupils were asked to come to school in their traditional dress and create classroom signs displayed in their home language (for example: wash your hands with soap; book corner; please switch lights off when you leave the room).  Seeing scripts in other languages around the school building which pupils identify with is a visible way of demonstrating how different languages are encouraged and valued.

Inviting the children’s families in to school is a way of breaking down barriers between the school and the pupil’s family.  Our school hosts coffee mornings twice a week.  One of these sessions is specifically for Afghani mums who are keen to connect with others as well as learn English.

Given the context and school community, our school has developed and built a connected curriculum which places the children’s learning within a clear context.  In this way, the pupils’ learning across the curriculum is connected (rather than being taught discretely) which helps to provide opportunities to build on learning, as well as build a range of opportunities to hear and use a rich language and vocabulary.  In addition, a wider global dimension can always be extrapolated from the curriculum to make direct links to pupils, as well as making the curriculum relevant to them.  For example: when learning about traditional stories, stories from a range of cultures can also be incorporated; in Maths when learning counting songs and rhymes, alternative songs in different languages can also be shared; when learning time pupils could link this with finding the time in their home country; when writing instructions for how to play a playground game, traditional games from other countries may also be included.

Celebrations across the school year are another way of connecting the curriculum and making learning accessible and relevant to pupils.  Our school were asked to contribute to a ‘community cookbook’ which shared recipes from their culture for celebratory events.

Creating an inclusive culture and ethos must, however, be treated with sensitivity.  Some things that teachers here may consider to be common practice and ‘normal’ may not be so for students from other cultures.  For example: in China, teachers are seen as authority figures and there is very little teacher-student interaction.  In fact, speaking to the teacher may be considered as daring and may make a student feel uncomfortable, particularly if asked to express their own thoughts and ideas (Wan, 2001; Zhang and Xu, 2007).  This can be addressed through the culture and learning climate promoted so that pupils are encouraged to work and learn collaboratively, use discussion as a tool to explore learning and staff model and facilitate this to be done respectfully.

How can we best support our pupils with EAL in school?

Throughout this article the complexity of the EAL group has been highlighted.  As educators, it is our duty and responsibility to support all pupils.  It seems appropriate that students from other countries be included in lessons by being made to feel comfortable to share their culture and experiences of which there are two main benefits.  Firstly, the pupil’s self-esteem and engagement with learning is heightened and secondly, this helps peers to better understand other perspectives.  Research suggests that pupils with EAL who have had appropriate support often outperform their monolingual peers (Bialystok and Craik, 2010).  As practitioners, we also carry a responsibility to provide a rich language environment in which pupils are facilitated to hear, understand and ultimately use through speech or writing.

Below is a list of some ideas which may support EAL pupils in the classroom to access and actively participate in learning.    Although it may seem that many of the strategies could also serve to benefit all learners, specifically for bilingual pupils these need to be accompanied with rich language as well as opportunities for purposeful and meaningful talk.

Activating a pupil’s prior learning enables learners to build on what the child already knows and builds the interconnections between ideas.  In the classroom, this may involve a pre-teaching session (prior to the main lesson) in which pupils are introduced to key vocabulary.  For example: when cooking, groups of pupils may be asked to help gather the equipment and ingredients needed so they are familiar with key words.

Based on my experience and observations of working in a multilingual classroom, I have observed that visual prompts for the children (e.g. real artefacts, film clips) support EAL learners to access their learning.  It is most useful to use ‘real life’ photos as opposed to ‘comic style’ pictures as these do not always represent the items accurately.  Furthermore, the use of actions and songs can help to provide visual cues to facilitate language learning.  As an example of this in the classroom, children are facilitated to retell a story incorporating story language using the Talk for Writing technique (Corbett and Strong, 2017).

Providing purposeful and meaningful opportunities to work collaboratively in mixed ability groups serves to increase student engagement and gives EAL pupils an opportunity to practise speaking in a less intimidating context.  Encouraging pupils to speak in lessons could include children using their home language, as well as displaying their work in their own home language, and using technology to support translating work during a lesson.  It is crucial that EAL children are paired with supportive peers who are perceived as being good role models.   Providing families with a newsletter outlining key vocabulary is a useful way of communicating what we will be learning as well as making this accessible to pupils in a variety of languages.

Using talk partners is a useful way to allow pupils to think of what they want to say and rehearse how to say it before sharing this with a wider audience.  Similarly, the use of speaking frames, writing frames and sentence starters which provide models of sentence construction is a good way to help develop language and build in more complex language structures, as well as supporting the children to create sentences independently.  The building of more complex sentences may also be supported by programmes such as Widgits (symbols to support communication), colourful semantics and the like as they help to visually prompt children to build longer and more complex sentences with details.  Once a question has been asked, it may be useful to give pupils an extra minute or two as ‘thinking time’ before asking pupils to share their ideas with a larger group.

It is also important to understand that language learners go through several stages on their journey to language fluency.  Most children with EAL, particularly if new to the country, go through a silent period and will begin speaking when they feel confident to do so.  It can be tiring, frustrating and has the potential to be embarrassing if you are unable to understand what is happening or make yourself understood in the classroom.  This may manifest as challenging behaviour.  Most children respond well to empathising with the challenges they are facing and encouraging them to persevere.

At the beginning of this section I commented that practitioners have a responsibility to model a variety of rich language and vocabulary.  However, it is also important to be aware of phrases and idioms such as ‘a rainy day’ or ‘I’ll let you off the hook’ as they will need further explanation.  We also cannot and should not do this isolation, and so it makes sense to use translators and dual language texts for children and their families so we can encourage them to use their culture and traditions to support learning in this country.


Through this article I have discussed how multilingualism in schools should be considered as an asset.  This is supported by the research particularly as EAL pupils who have received appropriate support often outperform their monolingual peers (Bialystok, 2010).  Research has also shown that students in schools with high percentages of pupils with EAL have an enhanced ability to think creatively and to use higher order cognitive thinking skills (Sword, 2021).

Through the promotion of collaborative working and pupil talk rich lessons, the creative thinking skills may also be shared and benefit monolingual speakers.  Our responsibility as staff working in schools should be to provide a rich language environment for all, in which staff model and provide the children with opportunities for purposeful talk to support language development and learning.

Schools may be seen as microcosms for society and through this lens we have an opportunity to shape future generations and society through the children and families we work with.  If we demonstrate how it is possible to welcome those with different abilities, share our similarities and celebrate our differences we will have planted a seed to support the growth and development of a global community in which we can work and learn together as respectful and caring citizens.



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Corbett, P. and Strong, J. (2017) Creating Storytellers and Writers

Cummins, J. (2008) Teaching for Transfer: Challenging the two solitudes assumption in bilingual education. In: Jim Cummins and Nancy H. Hornberger (eds). Encyclopaedia of Language and Education Vol. 5: Bilingual Education (2nd edition edition). Boston: Springer Science + Business Media.

Garcia, O. (2006) Education, multilingualism and translanguaging in the 21st century. In: Ajit Mohanty, Minati Panda, Robert Phillipson and Tove Skutnabb-Kangas (eds). Multilingual Education for Social Justice: Globalising the Local

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Department for Education (2018) Schools, Pupils and their Characteristics, January 2012

Department for Education (2018) Schools, Pupils and their Characteristics, January 2018

NALDIC (2016) What is Translanguaging? – EAL Journal

Sharples, R. (2021) Teaching EAL: Evidence-Based Strategies for the Classroom and School

Multilingual Matters: Bristol

Sword, R. (2021) How to Support EAL Students in the Classroom

Vygotsky, L. S. (1978). Mind in society: The development of higher psychological processes. Massachusetts: Harvard University Press

Wan, G. (2001) The learning experience of Chinese students in American universities: A crosscultural perspective

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Zhang, Z., & Xu, J. (2007) Chinese graduate students’ adaptation to learning in America: A cultural perspective. Journal of Chinese Overseas, 3(1), 147-158

Zhang, Z., & Xu, J. (2007b). Understanding Chinese international graduate students’ adaptation to learning in North America: A cultural perspective. Higher Education Perspectives, 3(1),45-59


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