In this blog, Hampshire EMTAS Specialist Teacher Advisor Jamie Earnshaw explores best practice provision in relation to the placement of learners with EAL in 'ability' groups, sets or streams in primary and secondary school settings.
Typically, any decisions on which group, set or stream to place
learners in are based on their perceived academic ability. If learners with EAL are placed in
groups, sets or streams merely according to their proficiency in English, or
what they can demonstrate in English, it might take some learners many years
before being able to access appropriately cognitively challenging tasks in the
upper groups, sets or streams, given the timescales involved in learners
reaching a similar level of English to their monolingual peers. For example, generally
speaking, younger learners who start to learn English in Key Stage 1 can take
between 7 and 10 years to acquire full cognitive academic language proficiency
(CALP) in their use of English across the curriculum. Older learners with
better developed language and literacy skills in their first languages may take
between 5 and 7 years to achieve CALP.
It is vital to
keep in mind that a learner’s proficiency in English is not necessarily representative
of their cognitive ability and of their understanding of subjects or topics if
demonstrated in their first language (L1). Schools should therefore make any
decisions to group, set or stream learners on a multitude of factors, not
solely based on a learner’s level of proficiency in English, keeping in mind
that a newly arrived learner of EAL is unlikely to have a sufficient level of
English to demonstrate their full knowledge or abilities.
assessing learners with EAL, and consequently when making any decisions
relating to the placement of learners in groups, sets or streams, schools
should collect a range of information, including their prior education and
skills in L1.
this principle in mind, standardised tests should be avoided for early stage
learners of EAL and results from such tests should not be used to inform the
placement of learners with EAL into groups, sets or streams.
Why should L1 help to inform decisions on the placement of learners with EAL?
Cummins (1984, 1996)[i]
highlights the interdependency of a pupil’s academic skills in L1 and a second
language – known as common underlying proficiency.
underlying proficiency allows some aspects of cognitive/academic or
literacy-related skills to transfer across languages, including: conceptual
knowledge, subject matter knowledge, higher-order thinking skills, reading
strategies and writing composition skills’[ii]
therefore be the case that a learner understands ideas or concepts in L1,
including those which are more abstract and complex, and is confidently able to
demonstrate this understanding in L1. However, when asked to demonstrate their
understanding in English, they might lack the necessary language of instruction
to fully understand the task they are being asked to complete, or, equally,
they might not have a sufficient command of English vocabulary or language
structures to be able to convey their understanding to school staff or peers,
who do not share the same language medium.
assessment of a learner with EAL will help to provide a more accurate
determination of a learner’s existing knowledge and skillset, rather than
merely what they are able to demonstrate through the medium of spoken or
The importance of appropriate placement of learners with EAL
highlights the fundamental fact that all learners achieve more when they view
the learning environment as positive and supportive[iii]
and therefore, any decisions on groups, sets and streams should look to
facilitate the appropriate level of cognitive demand for the individual
learner. This is pivotal in ensuring the positive learning journey of learners
with EAL and in supporting their progression to developing full CALP.
a key part of language learning is having access to a range of strong written
and verbal models of English, which is most likely to be found in higher
ability groups, sets or streams. This should be a fundamental consideration
when making decisions on the placement of learners with EAL.
The Bell Foundation research highlights how it ‘seems as though EAL learners are too often considered to be ‘learning disabled’ and/or classified as SEN[D] rather than simply being less proficient in English’.[iv]
distinction between EAL and SEND is explicitly stated in the Children and
Families Act 2014, section 20 (4):
child or young person does not have a learning difficulty or disability solely
because the language (or form of language) in which he or she is or will be
taught is different from a language (or form of language) which is or has been
spoken at home.’
learners with EAL are no more likely to have SEND than any other learner. Learners
with EAL should not therefore be automatically placed in lower sets with SEND
with EAL, like their monolingual peers, generally understand the principles
around placement of learners in groups, sets or streams and are therefore aware
that they are grouped with peers of a similar academic ability. By
inappropriately placing a learner with EAL with other learners who are of low
underlying cognitive ability or who have SEND, it is likely to be demeaning and
demotivating for them. Indeed, according to research from The Bell Foundation,
where learners were ‘not fully stretched because of insufficient staff
assessment and knowledge of their prior learning and attainment, their motivation
levels dropped and their behaviour in school could deteriorate’. i[v]
it is important that the activities and tasks offered to learners with EAL are
appropriate for their cognitive ability. Thus, for example, offering a reading
task to a pupil with EAL from a storybook that is well below their age may be
counter-productive because although the language demand may be lower, the
images and concepts may be inappropriate and serve to demean rather than help.
Tasks for learners with EAL should be cognitively challenging and language is
best acquired when there is a clear context within which the pupil is learning
the target language.
this in mind, back-yearing or deceleration, where learners are placed in a year
group below their chronological age, should, in the vast majority of cases, be
What if a learner with EAL does not have prior knowledge or understanding in a particular subject area?
principle that a pupil’s proficiency in English will increase more quickly
alongside accurate, fluent users of English, providing positive models for both
language and behaviour, is widely accepted.
to research from the DfE:
is … vital that pupils learning English have the opportunity to hear positive language
models, and so groupings need to be managed carefully to ensure that this
should therefore keep in mind, even where it is determined that a learner with
EAL lacks sufficient knowledge or skills more generally in a specific subject
area, their placement in a group, set or stream should facilitate their access
to positive language models. The placement of a learner with EAL in a mid to
higher ability group is more likely to provide the range of opportunities to
hear and see language being modelled appropriately - a vital part of language
Fundamentally, the proper and accurate assessment of learners with
EAL, to determine their academic proficiency beyond what they are able to
demonstrate in English, is vital. Furthermore, when placing learners with EAL
in groups, sets or streams, the need for access to appropriate models of
written and verbal English, which underlines language learning, should be at
the forefront of any such decisions.
1.) Place learners with EAL in groups, sets
or streams which facilitate access to a range of positive models of written and
verbal English. This is a fundamental principle of language learning.
2.) Use accurate and appropriate individual
assessment of learners’ academic and cognitive ability, including through L1,
to inform decisions on their placement in groups, sets or streams.
3.) As part of the assessment process,
collate as much information as possible about learners with EAL, including
proficiency in L1, prior educational experiences and pedagogical approaches
learners are familiar with.
4.) Involve learners and their
parents/carers in the decision-making process as much as possible. Seek the
views of learners and provide regular opportunities for review. Be prepared to
explain any decisions to parents/carers and provide opportunities for them to
ask any questions they might have.
5.) Avoid automatically placing learners
with EAL in groups, sets or streams purely because there are additional adults
available to support. This is only likely to be beneficial if staff have
received specific EAL-focused language learning training.
6.) Avoid relying on the results of
standardised tests to inform the placement of learners with EAL in groups, sets
7.) Ensure regular monitoring and tracking
of learners with EAL and provide regular opportunities for reviewing the
groups, sets or streams of learners with EAL.
8.) Promote the use of a learner’s L1 in
school to help with access to the curriculum. Training from EMTAS could help
staff to identify how learners with EAL could use L1 effectively in school
9.) Recognise the difference between the
needs of, and appropriate support for, a pupil with SEND, with that of an EAL learner
not backyear or decelerate learners with EAL as a matter of course. This will
only be appropriate in a limited number of cases and should only be done in
consultation with Hampshire EMTAS so that the full range of factors of any such
decision can be considered.
opportunities for learners with EAL to have access to peers who can model
language and skills in an appropriate way. This will also facilitate
opportunities for learners with EAL to practise using the target language in
meaningful contexts. Ensure that EAL learners’ peers are trained effectively to
support them in this way.
12.) Be wary of using KS2 SATs
outcomes for learners with EAL in order to determine sets, groups or streams at
KS3. Learners of EAL, particularly those who joined a UK school for the
first time during Key Stage 2, may have suppressed KS2 results due to not
having had enough time to fully ‘catch up’ with their monolingual peers. Any algorithm that generates end of KS4 predictions based on KS2 SATs results,
or any setting decisions based on those suppressed KS2 SATs outcomes, may lower
teacher expectations of what that learner may be able to achieve given a
further 5 years’ education in the UK system.
Contact firstname.lastname@example.org for further support and guidance. One
of our Specialist Teacher Advisors will be able to provide further advice for
[i] Cummins, J. (1984) Bilingualism
and Special Education: Issues in Assessment and Pedagogy. Clevedon:
Multilingual Matters. ISBN: 0-905028-13-9
J. (1996) Knowledge, Power, and Identity in Teaching English as a Second
Language. In Genesee, F. (Ed.) Educating Second Language Children: The
Whole Child, the Whole Curriculum, the Whole Community. Cambridge University
Press. ISBN: 0-521-45797-1
[ii] Rosamond, S. et
al.(2003) Distinguishing the Difference: SEN or EAL – an effective
step-by-step procedure for identifying the learning needs of EAL pupils causing
concern. Birmingham Advisory Support Service, Birmingham City Council
[iii] Dorman, J.P.,
Aldridge, J.M. & Fraser, B.J. (2006) Using Students' Assessment of
Classroom Environment to Develop a Typology of Secondary School Classrooms.
International Education Journal, 7(7), 906-915
[iv] The Bell Foundation
(2015) School Approaches to the Education of EAL Students: Language
Development, Social Integration and Achievement
[v] The Bell Foundation
(2015) School Approaches to the Education of EAL Students: Language
Development, Social Integration and Achievement
[vi] Department for
Education and Skills (2002) Access
and engagement in ICT: teaching pupils for whom English is an additional
Hampshire EMTAS Position Statement on the placement of learners with EAL in
groups, sets or streams on our Moodle here.
information on assessment of learners with EAL, see the section on assessment
in our Guidance Library here. Also, see our e-learning module on assessing L1 here.
Hampshire EMTAS guidance on Standardised testing and EAL learners.
further information on back-yearing/deceleration, please see the full Hampshire EMTAS guidance on deceleration
for learners of English as an Additional Language.
guidance on the distinction between EAL and SEND can be found on the Hampshire EMTAS
The Hampshire EMTAS Specialist Teacher Advisors have been supporting schools to complete the EAL Excellence Award for over a year now. Many schools have successfully earned their Bronze and Silver awards and are already working hard to achieve the next level up. Working with schools to drive EAL practice and provision forward through the EAL Excellence Award has highlighted areas of support which the EMTAS Teacher team has been keen to address.
One particular aspect of EAL good practice which many schools have had to consider is the use of first language as a tool for learning. Whilst most could confidently say that pupils felt comfortable speaking their languages at school (a feature evidenced at Bronze level), EAL co-ordinators felt that pupils could be better encouraged to use their languages to access the curriculum in the classroom (a feature evidenced at Silver level). In response to this, the EMTAS Teachers have been working closely with their schools to introduce ideas and strategies to support this and they are now keen to share their work with the EAL community.
Discover our brand new materials which consist of a narrated animation (below) with supporting material you will find attached to this blog: a transcript, activities based around the animation and an aide-mémoire summarising key strategies. Our work is still ongoing with a brand new piece of EAL elearning currently under development – watch this space!
At a recent EMTAS teachers’ meeting we had an interesting conversation about how often we find ourselves repeating the same messages to practitioners about what good practice looks like for schools working with new arrival learners of EAL. We wondered what methods beyond face to face training and written guidance might be effective at communicating those core principles.
Of course we already have various ways of communicating good practice principles to schools in our local authority and the wider educational community, including via School Electronic Communications, Young Interpreter newsletters, our Twitter account @HampshireEMTAS, online EAL training materials and even posting on national outlets such as the EAL-Bilingual Google group.
In thinking about new ways to communicate our messages, we were inspired by Rochdale Local Authority’s brilliant video ‘Our Story’, which explores the feelings of new arrivals on their first few days at their new school. We decided to produce our own video that focused on how to settle, induct, assess and teach new arrivals to ensure they have the best possible start in the UK education system.
To produce our video, we decided on a software tool called Videoscribe (from Sparkol). For those of you unfamiliar with this technology, Videoscribe produces those videos where a hand draws images on a white canvas to the accompaniment of a narration and possibly a musical score.
The first task was to write a script to cover the key messages:
baseline assessment, with the avoidance of standardised testing
valuing linguistic and cultural diversity
building upon the skills and aptitudes of each child
mainstreaming teaching and learning
Having written a script, we pooled our ideas around choosing a strong metaphor through which we could visualise the main ideas (sports day theme) and any potential images that would need to be drawn. Working with a local artist we then incorporated those drawings with the narration into the Videoscribe software. The resulting video can be viewed below:
Do signpost this to colleagues, and let us know what you think.
Hampshire EMTAS Specialist Teacher Advisor Chris Pim busts popular EAL myths
Anyone who works with EAL learners, particularly those at an early stage of learning English, knows how challenging this can be. The only common factor besides varied exposure to English is that these pupils have another influencing language in their background. In all other respects they vary as much from each other as non EAL pupils. Not only do we, as practitioners, need to consider the overall aptitude of a learner but also complex issues such as proficiency in first language, cultural factors, previous learning experiences and family circumstances. This makes effective support for EAL learners particularly difficult and raises some important questions. How do we know whether our current provision is working? How do we know that an alternative intervention or set of support strategies might not produce more effective results?
As a specialist teacher adviser, working for an established ethnic minority achievement team, I have come to an understanding about what I believe works best with EAL learners at different stages of acquiring English. My assumptions have been informed by looking at findings from more than 40 years of research, as well as observation and personal experience over many years working in this sector. Yet sometimes there would appear to be a mismatch between what happens on a practical level in schools and my understanding of best practice. So why would this be the case?
On one level it is my belief that effective provision for EAL learners can, at times, seem counter- intuitive. Take the issue of whether new arrivals should have acquired a basic level of English before entering mainstream provision. This is still a perpetuating myth, as it seems pretty clear that pupils would have a better chance of engaging with the curriculum if they had a good grasp of colloquial English, than if they didn’t. Whilst at face value that is undoubtedly true, the alternatives on offer in terms of offering a bespoke curriculum outside of the mainstream do most pupils no favours, either in terms of accelerating their development of academic English or enabling them to acquire curriculum-specific skills and knowledge. In addition, it has been shown to knock self- esteem and is a very expensive form of intervention. Except in rare circumstances most pupils simply do not need this level of intervention so long as they are being taught well in the mainstream.
It may be that an English first approach persists as an idea and a practice because it makes us as practitioners feel more comfortable; we project our feelings of inadequacy as we see new to English learners struggling with the undoubtedly challenging demands of learning new knowledge in an unfamiliar language. It is the same fear as restricting pupils’ use of their own first language as a tool for learning. We don’t understand what children might be saying, don’t know what bilingual sources to use and can’t mark their work if they write in an unfamiliar language. Therefore, some believe these types of approaches are to be avoided, despite unequivocal evidence that this benefits most learners who are orally fluent and literate in one or more other languages.
One widely held belief goes like this: Our early stage learners of English would do better if we reduce the cognitive challenge in the work, perhaps grouping them with ‘less able’ pupils where there is often an additional adult available to offer support to the whole group. In some cases, this belief extends to withdrawing pupils for an intervention session, either 1:1 with an adult or in a small group guided session. To be clear, grouping EAL learners with less able pupils and significant amounts of withdrawal intervention are not effective approaches for all sorts of reasons. Guided sessions also tend to limit the quality of peer-to-peer dialogue which is generally unhelpful for very early stage learners of EAL.
What I find interesting is that pupils often say they like this approach, possibly because they are receiving more attention from an adult than normal and therefore feel they must be learning something. But is it enough to implement a strategy simply because children enjoy it? Withdrawal intervention for early stage EAL learners is also popular with some practitioners who believe that their pupils make good progress in this setting. Yet it is my belief that this is a pedagogical placebo. By this I mean that any reasonable intervention from an adult is likely to help a pupil make progress. But will this be more successful than what the pupil would have received if they had remained in a well-taught mainstream lesson with the class teacher?
My advice is to keep early beginner EAL learners in the classroom as much as possible. Provide these pupils with the same curriculum and experiences as their peers, support access with sound EAL pedagogy and offer them alternative ways of demonstrating their learning.
Explore the following links for guidance around good practice teaching and learning for early stage learners of EAL: