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Last reviewed on 11 September 2017
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How can schools help pupils with EAL access the curriculum? We relay advice from our associate experts on teaching pupils with little or no English, and link to school policies and teaching resources. We also include a case study from a school on responding to growing EAL needs.

We spoke to 2 of our associate education experts, Diane Leedham and Charlotte Raby, for advice on how schools can help pupils with little or no English access whole-class teaching sessions.

Getting to know pupils’ needs

Diane said that pupils with English as an additional language (EAL) will have a wide variety of needs, and will have strengths and weaknesses in different skills.

She recommended having an initial meeting with the parents of a pupil with EAL, using an interpreter if necessary. This is important to understand the pupil’s starting point and context, and to get to know them as an individual.

Such factors will help the school identify the skills that the pupil needs ... in order to effectively access the curriculum 

The school should try to find out about the pupil’s:

  • Personality, for example whether they are normally shy or outspoken
  • Proficiency in their native language, and whether they have any issues with articulation or fluency
  • Educational background, including whether they have attended school before and whether they may have an existing special educational need (SEN)
  • Experience of language at home, including how proficient the pupil's parents are in English

Such factors will help the school identify the skills that the pupil needs to develop in order to effectively access the curriculum. She added that these pupils' needs will also be informed by the demands of the curriculum.

Organising the classroom

Diane recommended seating new learners who have EAL with the most fluent English speakers in the class.

She cautioned against seating all EAL pupils together, as this will not help develop their English language skills. She said that support from another EAL learner with the same first language can be useful to a new pupil with little to no English, particularly where the other pupil has a much higher fluency in English.

She also recommended using teaching assistants (TAs) and support staff to work with pupils who have very low levels of English. However, these TAs should have the appropriate training to help them effectively support EAL pupils.

Differentiating activities

Diane said that, in her opinion, it is important to adapt whole-class activities to individual pupils.

Class teachers must ensure that they are maintaining a high level of cognitive challenge while also allowing pupils to access the same content as the rest of the class.

They could allow pupils to express their learning in a different way, for example by using:

  • Visual cues
  • Gap-fill exercises
  • Sentence frames
  • Word cards

Many of the techniques aimed at teaching EAL learners can also be beneficial to pupils who do not have EAL, particularly in a primary school setting where all children are learning literacy and language.

She added that allowing pupils to express some ideas in their first language can help motivate pupils and move learning forwards.

Supporting new arrivals

An article from The Guardian looks at the techniques being used by schools to break down language barriers for pupils with EAL.

It includes an example of a school where pupils with no English spend the first 6 weeks of school on an intensive English course before being integrated into mainstream lessons.

Using targeted interventions

Diane told us that EAL learners should be integrated into whole-class teaching sessions as much as possible.

However, she said there will be times when pupils will benefit from a more focused language intervention away from the rest of the class. For example, a small group session might prepare vocabulary and context that is needed for the main lesson.

She advised schools to plan interventions carefully so that pupils are not missing out on other learning experiences.

Music, art and PE, for example, are good social and language-learning opportunities and should not be missed.

Periods for extended silent reading or writing activities, however, may be a good chance to work on EAL pupils’ language targets away from the rest of the class.

Phonics and reading lessons

Charlotte Raby, one of our experts with extensive experience teaching literacy, suggested that pupils who cannot read or speak English could be put on a ‘learn to read’ scheme to teach them core reading skills. In her view, these pupils should not be taught literacy until they can read.

She suggested that, instead, while other pupils have literacy lessons, the pupils with EAL could be placed in phonics/reading lessons to teach them how to decode words and understand books suitable for their reading level. These lessons should instruct pupils about:

  • Word comprehension
  • Basic sentence construction
  • Inferential comprehension

Pupils could then access the literacy curriculum once they are able to read using a simple phonic code.

Another article from The Key includes guidance on supporting vocabulary development for pupils with EAL and/or special educational needs (SEN).

Developing staff knowledge

Diane also suggested that if the school has had a sudden increase in the number of pupils with EAL, it might consider offering continuing professional development (CPD) for staff.

CPD Toolkit from The Key

The Key has developed a training module on supporting, engaging and empowering pupils with EAL, as part of our CPD Toolkit. 

It is made up of 3 sessions: 

  • Understanding the complexity of identifying and providing for pupils with EAL
  • Supporting new arrivals
  • Maximising progress 

Each module includes presentation slides, video and handouts, and detailed facilitator briefing notes that provide guidance on how to deliver each session.

You can download the module here:

Resources for teachers

EAL Nexus

EAL Nexus is an area of the British Council which has guidance on how to support and teach learners with EAL.

[Make] the verbal curriculum more visual

It suggests some key features of EAL pedagogy, including:

  • Making the verbal curriculum more visual
  • Developing interactive and collaborative teaching and learning styles
  • Using drama and role play
  • Providing opportunities to talk before writing

For each technique, there is a more detailed ‘Great idea’ page with examples and ideas of how to use it in practice. The final section of these pages looks at whether and how the technique can be used with the whole class.


The National Association for Language Development in the Curriculum (NALDIC) has developed guidance for working with EAL learners. It includes some subject-specific resources to teach pupils with EAL and help them access the curriculum.

Our blog - Key Insights

Leadership in schools with EAL learners

In a post on our Key insights blog, Diane Leedham writes about the 4 main leadership and management issues for schools with EAL learners.


EAL specialists have developed an evidence-based Mapping Educational Specialist knowHow (MESH) Guide to EAL. It aims to support teachers working with EAL learners, as well as senior leaders.

It has guidance on aspects of EAL including:

  • Grouping learners
  • Using first language to support pupils’ learning
  • Personalising provision and increasing independence

There are also sections on speaking, reading and writing English at new, beginner and advanced levels.

Please note that the inclusion of these resources is for reference only, and does not constitute a recommendation from The Key.

Maths and science: guidance

EAL Nexus

EAL Nexus also has some subject-specific guidance for teaching EAL learners in maths and science.

The maths guidance includes sections on:

  • What is 'Mathematical English'?
  • Teaching subject specific vocabulary
  • Assessing EAL learners' progress and attainment in maths

The science guidance covers topics such as:

  • What is 'Scientific English'?
  • Supporting EAL learners to tackle unfamiliar scientific language
  • Assessing their prior learning in science

National Strategies

NALDIC has published guidance from the National Strategies about supporting Key Stage (KS) 3 pupils to access maths and science. The documents are based on guidance from specialist teachers and advisers.

The maths document contains guidance on:

  • Speaking and listening
  • Suggested activities
  • Supporting teaching and learning before the lesson, during starter activities, main teaching activities and plenaries

The science document includes similar content, but also has sections on:

  • Scientific literacy
  • Developing pupils' visualisation skills in science

Pupils in the later stages of learning English: research

... many pupils with EAL need continuing help even when their spoken English is fluent

Ofsted published a research report in 2002 about how secondary schools support pupils with EAL in the later stages of learning English. The report is now archived and can be found on the Digital Education Resource Archive (DERA).

On page 3, it says that one of its main findings was:

The schools generally targeted support on KS3 ... but all of them recognised that many pupils with EAL need continuing help even when their spoken English is fluent.

It says that interventions were more effective when:

  • Decisions about support were made on a whole-school level
  • Support focused on specific departments or areas of work

Recommendations on page 4 include:

  • Training for all staff on their role in continuing language support for pupils with EAL
  • Access to advice from qualified EAL practitioners
  • Managing additional support appropriately, and monitoring its impact

Strategy in a school's EAL policy

Primary school in Croydon

Robert Fitzroy Academy includes information about EAL learners in its inclusion policy. On page 5 it says the school is:

… strongly committed to celebrating cultural diversity and promoting equality of opportunity for all EAL pupils both at an early stage of English language acquisition and more advanced bilingual learners.

Teaching staff provide a variety of ways for pupils to record their work, including recording in their first/home language

On page 6 it sets out some of the strategies used to help pupils with EAL access the curriculum. For example, it says teaching staff provide:

  • Additional visual support (for example, posters, demonstration, use of gesture)
  • Additional verbal support (for example, repetition, modelling, peer support)
  • Collaborative activities that involve purposeful talk and encourage active participation
  • Scaffolding for language and learning
  • A variety of ways for pupils to record their work, including recording in their first/home language

According to the school and college performance tables from the Department for Education (DfE), 36.5% of pupils at Robert Fitzroy Academy do not have English as their first language.

You can find more examples of EAL policies from schools in another of our articles.

Case study: responding to growing EAL needs

John Collier is deputy headteacher at Belgrave St Bartholomew’s Academy in Stoke-on-Trent, where 63.7% of pupils have EAL according to the DfE's data. The school is currently developing its EAL support due to growing EAL needs and lessening local authority support.

Basing practice on research

John told us the school has recently joined a 3-year ‘Language for Results’ programme run by The Bell Foundation, a charity which aims to promote intercultural understanding through language education.

The programme is helping the school keep up to date with important research on EAL, which will underpin its practice in future.

For example, the programme directed the school towards Pauline Gibbons' planning framework (2002), which focuses on the importance of planning the language functions needed to help pupils with EAL access whole-class teaching.

The framework might be used in school by a TA running a pre-class session with EAL learners to prepare the vocabulary and language structures needed to understand the main lesson.

NALDIC has more information about Gibbons’ planning framework.

Networking with other schools

John said that the Language for Results programme will allow staff to share and collaborate with other schools in the network, which will be an important part of improving the school’s provision for EAL learners.


Diane Leedham is an education consultant. She has been a local authority lead for English as an additional language and the head of department at a secondary school.

Charlotte Raby is an education consultant, teacher and writer. Her extensive experience includes teaching literacy, training teachers on Assessment for Learning, and working with pupils with special educational needs.

This article was updated in response to a question from a school leader at a large urban secondary school in the south west.

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