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How often does a classroom teacher approach an EAL teacher with the words, “I don’t know how to help this learner! I have no experience with English language learners”? There are a few key principles and strategies that can easily be shared to empower teachers to provide an educational environment that is conducive to language learning.

Knowing your learner is central

Most importantly, as with all our learners, we need to provide our EAL learners with a welcoming environment and actively focus on getting to know them. There are some simple steps we can take which will ensure that we understand our learners' needs and can respond appropriately. Start by finding out basic information about their family and cultural background so you have some insight into their different perspectives. Become familiar with their cultural orientation towards personal space, eye contact and touch, in addition to their attitude to work and leisure, competition or co-operation. This helps to avoid stereotyping which can lead to problems if a learner doesn’t conform to the stereotype. For example, not all Chinese students are motivated and good at Maths! Where necessary, provide opportunities for your locally-born learners to learn about cultural differences to help them become more inclusive.

Knowing a learner’s educational background is paramount to setting up a programme of study. What’s their literacy level in their home language? What’s their educational background? Some learners may have significant gaps in their schooling due to previous circumstances. These questions help us to build an understanding of our learners’ needs. It is a good idea to create predictable routines, procedures and expectations for our new learners. Consistently using the same instructional words will assist our EAL learners in recognising the language and enable them to respond appropriately, whilst at the same time lowering their anxiety levels and helping them settle into their new learning environment.

Oral language development is the basic starting point

“To read and write, we must be able to speak. To speak, we must be able to listen and understand.” (Nahna, (2019).

Start by promoting oral language skills by providing opportunities for learners to interact. It may take time for EAL learners to develop confidence but setting up a buddy system, for example, will support learners, and promote interaction and friendship. Including learning tasks that encourage speaking and listening will extend opportunities for the EAL learners to understand and increase their knowledge and use of the language. View the attached resource for ideas on how to promote oral language.

As teachers we are often unaware of the complexity of our own use of language, such as the range of vocabulary, the language structures, and the different use of academic versus social language. Because of this, we need to take time to modify our own speech so that it is paced appropriately and clear, whilst maintaining a natural rhythm and tone. Including gestures, visual aids, images and realia can be useful. In a classroom setting, our learners need to be able to differentiate between social and academic language. Therefore, we need to know the characteristics of academic language at word and sentence level, in order to be able to make this difference very clear.

Teach content and language together

Every lesson should have two learning outcomes: a content learning outcome and a language learning outcome. Check that your EAL learners understand what they are aiming for; this will support their motivation and set expectations for them. Support students with basic literacy skills and Integrate language and curriculum teaching. Once you have identified learners’ strengths and interests, try to match these, where possible, to the curriculum. As with all learners, EAL learners arrive with lots of prior knowledge. Tapping into this empowers our learners by providing opportunities for them to express their opinions and talk about past experiences. This therefore enables our EAL learners to add to the collective knowledge of the class and extend the thinking of all learners. This will, in turn, motivate and encourage EAL learners to engage and persevere.

Teach content and language together

Just as literacy is fundamental for every curriculum area, so is regular vocabulary learning for EAL learners. They need to know the technical content words and be aware that some words can be used in different ways, depending on if the context is social or academic. For example, the word 'table' has distinctly different meanings according to the context. Once our EAL learners have learnt the necessary vocabulary, reading and writing will become more accessible. View the attached resource for ideas on how to extend vocabulary and scaffold reading and writing.

Check in regularly!

By checking in with effective formative feedback, we can determine whether the teaching content and presentation is at the appropriate level. This also allows us to adjust our approach to meet the needs of individual learners. In some situations, such as when spoken errors occur, it is appropriate to give immediate corrective feedback. View the attached resource for some simple, regular ‘check in’ and error correction techniques.

Final thoughts

Planning and preparing lessons may take a little longer when teaching EAL learners, but it is well worth the effort and very rewarding to see our learners settled and making good progress. Feedback/feedforward assessments will guide the planning but remember that programmes need regular revisiting. Although a lesson has been adapted for one EAL learner, that does not necessarily mean it will fit the needs of all EAL learners. In implementing a few extra steps in our planning and instructional methodology, we can demonstrate respect and celebrate the multilingualism and diversity that EAL learners bring to their classes where shared knowledge, understanding and experiences can benefit all.


MESHGuides The challenges facing EAL learners 

NZCER National Survey Primary. (2019) Providing for English language learners

Penn State College of Education How can I support ELLs in my classroom?

“To read and write, we must be able to speak. To speak, we must be able to listen and understand.” (Nahna, (2019).

Further learning - Blog

Graph and problem-solving activity
Created: Wed 4th Mar 2020

It is often easier for learners who are new to English to cope with the arithmetic areas of the mathematics curriculum, rather than with problem-solving activities, as the former require the use of less English. It is important that children learning EAL are familiar with and able to use mathematical language to achieve their potential in all areas of the subject.

Literacy: Student writing
Created: Wed 7th Sep 2022

Schools often have a number of students who are not yet literate in English. Whilst this includes English-speaking children who are only just learning to read and write, it also covers other groups of learners, including:

  • 'pre-literate' learners who come from an oral language tradition where there is no written form of the language. This can make the concepts of reading and writing very difficult to grasp.

Created: Sat 28th Feb 2015

Feedback is the buzz-word and, as with most things, it is not being reinvented, but constantly readapted. In recent years, we see more formal national approach. One can become overwhelmed with the copious elements that need to be considered when feeding back to learners.