Supporting learners with English as an additional language will be more challenging than ever this year, but also more necessary, writes Silvana Richardson – so here are some tips to get it right

As schools prepare for the start of the academic year, attainment gaps are a national focus like never before. In this context, it is essential that renewed attention is paid to supporting learners who speak English as an Additional Language (EAL)particularly those who are new to or in the early stages of English language acquisition.

New research published yesterday by the Education Policy Institute shows that ‘at the end of primary school, late-arriving EAL pupils are 15.5 months behind native English speakers; at secondary, they are 20.7 months behind’.

Previous research from The Bell Foundation shows this is because learners’ proficiency in English is central to their educational attainment and the type and length of support they need. In fact, it explains as much as 22 per cent of the variation in EAL pupils’ achievement compared to the typical 3 to 4 per cent that can be statistically explained by gender, free school meal status and ethnicity.

Research also shows that this group is hugely diverse, with country of origin, first language spoken, previous education and background all affecting the tailored support each learner needs.

School closures mean EAL learners may not have had access to models of good English language

This year, the challenge may be greater than ever to get that support right. School closures mean many EAL learners – and particularly those with the lowest levels of proficiency in English – may not have had access to sufficient, or possibly any, models of good English language. Likewise, they may have had insufficient or no opportunities to rehearse and practise speaking in English, particularly academic English language. As a result, these learners are likely to have made limited progress in the four domains of language knowledge and use (listening, speaking, reading and viewing, and writing).

Closing the attainment gaps for all learners using EAL must therefore start with an initial (re-)assessment of learners’ English language proficiency in these four domains. The results of this baseline assessment of learners’ current proficiency will allow schools to identify specific support needs and underscore targeted support strategies and learning objectives for each individual pupil.

An initial compensation phase starting in September will support learners to make up for missed exposure and practice by providing homework consolidation and reinforcement activities. Curriculum-relevant videos with subtitles in English, accessible podcasts and texts and tasks that enable them to rehearse multiple times, committing new words and phrases to memory will all be beneficial.

It will also support them to make rapid progress to higher levels of proficiency. Pre-teaching new key language and providing language models, greater scaffolding to understand and produce texts, and feedback that upgrades and extends newly learnt language are just a few of the strategies that can have a sustained impact on attainment and progress. Also, focusing on academic English will enable learners to fully access the curriculum as a whole and, as a result, fulfil their academic potential.

Getting this support right will not be easy in the context of what is likely to be a disruptive period for teachers and students, as they adapt to new norms and routines around social distancing. For learners who use EAL, the impact of these measures is likely to be greater than for their peers.

Collaborative activities conducted in pairs and small groups are particularly conducive to language development, yet they are precisely the type of activity the COVID context will preclude for the foreseeable future. Barrier games, and online games and activities where pupils work virtually rather than physically together may not fully compensate for that, but they will allow teaching and learning to continue apace.

Teachers have demonstrated amazing commitment to their students, and especially their most vulnerable ones, throughout this pandemic. As term begins and pressure builds to close gaps, getting support right for learners who use EAL is achievable and likely to have extensive impact for this group.