EAL pupils in primary school: 6 ways to support them

Around a fifth of primary school pupils have English as an additional language, according to the latest Department for Education data. This proportion is expected to rise as the number of people seeking asylum in the UK increases – the year ending March 2022 saw an increase of 56 per cent from the previous year.

It’s so important, then, that primary teachers have a range of strategies in their toolkit when it comes to supporting EAL learners in the classroom. I’ve been working with these students for over a decade, and these are the six techniques that I’ve learned to support them to progress, while developing their ability to learn and use English.

Tips to support EAL primary school pupils

1. Teacher interactions

It is tempting, when working with a child who is within the “silent period” of language acquisition, or has very limited English, to continuously ask questions to try to elicit a discussion. However, this form of interaction can be stressful for a child and discourage them from discussion.

Instead, talk and play alongside the child and narrate what you, or they, are doing. As you use items, emphasize the vocabulary and model simple sentences: for example, as you use items, point to them, such as “red spade”.

If other children who speak English are close by, model the language with them. This approach gives the EAL pupil exposure to language without any pressure.

2. Use visual timetables and display your routines

Children need to feel safe and secure within the classroom – understanding what happens over the course of the day is important.

Create a visual timetable to aid understanding: this should include photos of the children completing each activity, and, if possible, should be translated into their home language. If this is not possible within school, send the timetable home and encourage parents to do this.

A pictorial display of key routines within class can be helpful. Whenever a transition takes place, like packing and unpacking bags, point towards the display, and talk through the routine with EAL learners.


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3. Use musical prompts to mark transitions

Sound prompts support all children but especially those who have EAL. They may not understand your spoken instruction but using a consistent prompt, such as a chime on a triangle just before tidy-up time, can help them understand the following transition.

The same tidy-up music will build an understanding on what should take place at that time. I also include a “hello” and “goodbye” song to mark this transition and bring children to the carpet area.

4. Use differentiation based on language

When teaching, it is incredibly important to pitch language to the different levels of English within your class. You may have native speakers, advanced / intermediate speakers and beginner users of English.

Depending on your class, differentiation can take place by language level grouping in small groups, and the texts used, especially in guided reading,, will need to be differentiated, too.

I ensure that I am aware of their levels of understanding by checking their comprehension using Blank’s Levels of Questioning (1978). In the groups with the children who are at the “parroting” stage of language learning, I ensure that there is a chance for them to repeat back language structures. All children should be able to access learning in whole-class teaching. One strategy to support this is to sit EAL learners close to a learning assistant, who can translate or provide further explanations.

5. Whole-class work

When working on ideas and concepts, especially if they are new to the children, provide visuals and real objects to support understanding. Where possible “bridge” to their home language by providing the word in both English and their home language. Translation of more difficult concepts is incredibly valuable, where possible.

When modeling sentences and new vocabulary, try to match this to movement, to help build understanding and to help retain these ideas. For example, when teaching recounts, actions that represent “went to” (finger moving forward), “went with” (two arms over the shoulders of imaginary people) and “went by” (making a motion as if you are driving), are an excellent non-verbal, visual cue to remind children of necessary words. Ensure that you repeat the action at least six times to embed language.

6. Small-group work

When working with a small group, make sure the EAL children are close to you. By doing this, you can be aware of engagement and offer support. If you are asking questions or encouraging discussion, give an EAL child lots of opportunities to experience modeling, by yourself and their peers, and let them take their turn later in a discussion.

Picture prompts are particularly helpful in scaffolding language. For example, when discussing the weekend, ask parents to send a photo to you in advance and provide a short description. You can then pick out vocabulary and scaffold questions. Even better, facilitate discussions first in the home language and complete the English discussion after.

Jess Gosling is an international teacher and author of Becoming a Successful International Teacher ‘. She tweets @ JessGosling2

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