Blog entry by Astrid Dinneen

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by Astrid Dinneen - Thursday, 27 January 2022, 12:02 PM
Anyone in the world

By Chris Pim

In this 100th blog I take a Janusian look at the whole field of EAL, celebrating the significant progress that has been made over many years, as well as touching on a few worrying trends that might give cause for concern in the future. I hope that my thoughts will be received not so much as a ‘Swan Song’ but more as a conversation piece.

Over the last 25 years, as a specialist teacher advisor working in two local authorities, as an independent consultant and an author, I have seen many changes in policy and practice with respect to children and families from BME backgrounds and those learning EAL. Changes which have broadly been for the better. 

Most encouraging is the fact that the attainment of pupils learning EAL has improved enormously over time. Whilst there are still groups that continually under-attain, and results are not always consistent across the country, the gap in attainment between EAL learners and their non-EAL peers has continued to narrow throughout key stages and across virtually all subjects. It is likely that a generational change is partly responsible for these data. There is no doubt that research into English Language Learning in general is better articulated than in the past and findings have become much more effectively communicated through training and guidance materials; consequently, practitioners are more equipped to cater for the needs of EAL learners than before. Credit where credit is due, continuous funding from government for Local Authorities and schools has been a major factor in these successes, not-withstanding that the funding is no longer ring-fenced for EAL work and now comes directly to schools or is used to buy-back a central LA ethnic minority achievement service through a locally agreed formula. 

In the past, EAL has been routinely conflated with SEN in the minds of practitioners, and pupils would often be grouped inappropriately with less able learners. Pupils learning EAL could be withdrawn from the mainstream classroom for lengthy and usually unnecessary interventions, were usually denied full access to the curriculum and were frequently offered cognitively undemanding work. This often resulted in lowered self-esteem and stagnant rates of progress for learners, not just in acquisition of English but also academic progress in all subjects. These practices have largely been eradicated in recent years and in fact rather than seeing EAL learners as language disabled, practitioners understand that in fact bi/multilingualism is an asset and that proficiency in first and other language can be used as a tool for wider learning. Indeed, in the most supportive schools EAL learners act as supportive buddies for newly arrived pupils, become language ambassadors or get trained through the nationally recognised Young Interpreter Scheme. 

Practitioners now have a more grounded understanding of their EAL learners than before because schools conduct robust baseline assessments for them. Using one of a range of EAL assessment frameworks that have been developed in the last few years, practitioners can track Proficiency in English (PiE) in a granular way for all their EAL learners, rather than relying upon National curriculum levels for English which were never a good fit for looking at English language acquisition across the curriculum. The BELL Foundation’s EAL assessment framework, the one recommended for school use in Hampshire, is extremely well thought through. It is a formative tool that is expressed via a set of ‘can do’ statements on a 5-point scale from New to English through to Competent across the 4 strands of English. 

All this is very encouraging, but there are clouds on the horizon. Currently there is a distinct absence of governmental narrative around EAL practice and provision. This lack of a national focus is reinforced by how infrequently EAL appears to be referenced in Ofsted reports and the recent removal of the person in post as the National Lead for EAL, ESOL and Gypsy, Roma and Travellers is worrying. For a while the DfE required all schools to report Proficiency in English (PiE) data for every EAL learner on roll. However, this is no longer required - why this is a retrograde step was effectively articulated by NALDIC in a June 2018 position statement. 

It is also concerning how many LA ethnic minority achievement services across the country have been lost or become drastically reduced in size. Worrying amounts of digital book burning have also taken place in recent years around EAL pedagogy, for example due to a change in government in 2010. However, if you know where to look, superb guidance developed years ago through the National Strategies is still available eg via the National Archives. 

Within this self-inflicted vacuum we must look to national organisations to take the lead and provide unequivocal and freely accessible materials and guidance. The BELL Foundation should be commended for their recent work in this area. It is worrying how much online material now sits behind paywalls, something which is perhaps a sign of the times. It is encouraging, however, to still find beacons of EAL excellence online, such as free learning materials provided by the Collaborative Learning Project. There are also open access materials available via some local authorities, such as EAL Highland and the Hampshire EMTAS guidance library, to name just two. The EAL-bilingual Google group is still a useful place for sharing good practice, although there is scope to develop this further as more of an altruistic, collaborative, forum rather than its increasing use as a marketplace for selling services. 

There are a few well established companies producing brilliant tools and resources. Mantra Lingua, as an example, has decades long experience in working with EAL practitioners to produce bilingual materials, bespoke products and clever digital tools. Long may they continue to do so. There are other companies also producing credible, tried and tested tools and resources that are broadly EAL-friendly, such as TextHelp, Talking Products, Cricksoft and ScanningPens to name just a few. 

However, I also have some concerns about the increasing numbers of individuals/companies crashing in upon the EAL market. At times it seems like the Wild West, where sales representatives canter into town plying their latest cure-all tonics to the unwary or those looking for a quick fix. Despite bold claims, in my opinion, some of these products are no more than costly pedagogical placebos and at worst have detrimental impact on the children they purport to help. It is incumbent on all of us to check the credibility of any research claims made about these products to ensure they are EAL-friendly, that their implementation fits best practice principles and that scarce money is not being wasted. 

We know a lot about what works best for pupils learning EAL (a synthesis can be accessed via The EAL MESHGuide), but we need continued research in the area. Whatever we decide to do, I would suggest investing time in researching things we don’t know rather than things that we implicitly do know. A recent long-term piece of rigorous research by Steve Strand and Dr Ariel Lindorff, Department of Education, University of Oxford (see article by BELL Foundation) established that it can take a long time for young New to English learners to achieve Competency (on average, more than 6 years for children starting in reception). Whilst this research did quantify empirically some potential rates of progress for PiE as assessed on the BELL Foundation EAL assessment framework, this finding is unlikely to be a major surprise to most practitioners. Neither will be the revelation that PiE significantly impacts overall attainment for learners of EAL throughout all key stages. Really, who knew? 

So, what should we be researching then? How do we know what is important to help shape future practice and provision? Asking practitioners working in real contexts would be a good start. This is precisely what researchers at Oxford Brookes University have started to do. Distilling research proposals from the wider community of EAL practitioners they have defined a list of 10 potential areas for future research. Number 1 on the list, for example: What is the impact of inclusion teaching vs pull out teaching for EAL learners? This seems like an interesting and timely area of study. Implicitly I have always believed that withdrawal provision for EAL learners is rarely as successful as high-quality teaching in mainstream classrooms. However, there has been little rigorous research in this area to back up my assumption. I shall be interested to see the results. 

I would like to finally finish by thanking the many amazing pupils, parents and dedicated professionals I have had the pleasure to work with and which has sustained me in my lengthy career working in this field.

Setting Research Priorities for English as an Additional Language: What do stakeholders want from EAL research? Chalmers, H. 2021 (Oxford Brookes University)
Ofsted removes one of the voices for EAL in the inspectorate. NALDIC journal blog. Chalmers, H. 2021.
Excellence and Enjoyment: Learning and teaching for bilingual children in the primary years, PNS, 2006.
DCSF (2009) Ensuring the attainment of more advanced learners of English as an additional language (EAL), Nottingham:DCSF
EAL MESHGuide, Coles, S., Flynn, N., Pim C.
Hampshire EMTAS Guidance Library
Collaborative Learning Project
The Young Interpreter Scheme®
New Report: Proficiency in English is central to understanding the educational attainment of learners using EAL, but how long does it take to achieve, and what support do these learners need? Blog article, BELL Foundation
EAL Highland
Mantra Lingua
The BELL Foundation (EAL Programme)
The BELL Foundation EAL Assessment Framework
EAL-Bilingual Google group
Withdrawal of English as an Additional Language (EAL) proficiency data from the Schools Census returns, NALDIC, 2018

[ Modified: Monday, 7 February 2022, 10:41 AM ]