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Author: Jessica Tweedie

What tools are there if you have a sixth sense that something is not quite right?

At what point does a teacher start to question whether an EAL student’s lack of progress is due to English Language Development (ELD) issues or due to specific learning differences (SpLD).

These questions come up again and again. Learning English as an Additional Language is not a learning difficulty, however 20% of EAL students will follow the norm of having specific learning differences (Chapter 1, SFR24/2012, GovUK). Therefore, there is a possibility that an EAL student has SpLDs.

Identification is difficult for a number of reasons:

  • Often there is the complication of a student learning the skills of reading and writing in a language they are not yet speaking.  This means that their literacy learning follows a different pattern and speed.
  • They may be coming to English from a different alphabetic system, which they now have to learn.
  • Students do not all have the same aptitude for language learning and so the pattern and speed of ELD varies.
  • The home environment varies from student to student, as does both the style and content of previous schooling and this all has an impact on ELD.
  • Many of the assessment tools available for identifying learning differences are very language heavy – meaning EAL students do not understand the question being asked or have the vocabulary to answer the questions.
  • Standardized tests may be norm referenced to a very different language population, so the results may not be valid.

Often in primary schools it takes a student around 2-3 years to exit from an EAL programme.  It is usually towards the end of that period that a student, whose previous lack of progress was sited as an ‘EAL issue’, may start to be flagged as having a learning difference.

This delay in diagnosis may compound the difficulty in making progress in ELD and obviously may have impact on the student’s self esteem.  With no specific learning difference established, strategies to support the student’s learning may piecemeal and lack focus.

The question is how to flag and identify learning differences early on?

Interestingly, there is a professional development day focused entirely on EAL and SEN. Its run by Anne Margaret Smith (  She is currently a lecturer at the University of Cumbria and her background is in learning support with strong links to TEFL teaching.   She has mainly worked with secondary and older students.   The question she is trying to find strategies to answer is:

How to meet the needs of EAL and ESOL learners whose teachers suspect that their barriers to learning are not purely language based?

If we can identify the learning difference, we can develop strategies to support the student’s learning.

The focus of the training was ‘Cognitive Assessments for Multilingual Learners’ (CAML).  She has put together a suite of activities that offer a student profile (a qualitative approach) for SEN and EAL teachers – helping to identify specific ‘dyslexia type’ learning differences in their student.  As far as possible the assessment uses non-verbal communication techniques.  Currently the tools look at ‘dyslexia’ type learning differences.  This includes assessments for auditory memory, visual memory, rapid automatic naming and phonological awareness.

Anne Margaret Smith is careful to point out that the assessment materials are just tools and do not make a diagnosis in themselves.  It is through drawing a ‘holistic’ profile - observing patterns of behaviour, gathering background information and interpreting the results of the assessments in the light of this information that a diagnosis can be drawn.

The day is enlightening and participants come away with a toolbox they can use with students.  There are still issues around the fact that the assessments are targeted at older learners, however  trialing of some assessments in the schools has begin with the aim to see how this can be adapted for the primary sector.  It seems to be a good step towards building a bridge for EAL students with SpLD.

In Jessica Tweedie's next article, she will look at how to draw up a language profile for new arrivals (and later stage learners), which includes drawing a more ‘holistic’ profile which may give indications that there may be other learning needs to consider when teaching a new arrival.


Children with special educational needs: an analysis – 2012 - Chapter 1: SFR24/2012, access here

Anne Maragret Smith - access here

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