Language rich

Supporting EAL learners

According to Elly Tobin. the needs of learners in international schools have changed dramatically over recent years and at Consilium we have seen a shift from school populations being largely English speaking expats to host national students with limited inital English proficiency seeking an international education through the medium of English.

 Language and EAL students

Learning any language is about being able to communicate with others to do the things you want to do and say the things you want to say in that language. Language is not learned in a strict way but in a messy jumble of words and actions as we strive to communicate in a language that is not our own.

Language is acquired globally rather than in a linear way (Carrol 2007, Cummins 2000).  Thus our second language students should be engaged in a wide range of activities with more proficient users of English where students talk to each other, exchanging dialogue and finding solutions to classroom tasks together.

Research tells us it can take between 5 and 7 years to reach native speaker academic proficiency in a second language. In this case there is no time to lose.

In our international schools we need to create a wealth of opportunities for English language enrichment for EAL learners of all ages. As one writer put it “we need to give our EAL students a whole range of language experiences, not a string of language one bead at a time”.

The multi-lingual classroom should be rich in diversity of tasks, input and experiences that promote the use of language in a variety of forms, which enable the less proficient users of English to make meaning from contextual clues.

Specialist EAL teachers often have to have at least a passing knowledge of the demands of the curriculum throughout the school in order to support their students.  However, with a high proportion of EAL learners in a school, both specialist EAL teachers and those in the mainstream classrooms must understand the needs of their EAL students and strive to include language development  as well as content delivery in all their planning.

Subject teachers and EAL

Subject teachers with little or no formal training in EAL must rely on their own good sense and their sensitivity to their students’ needs.  It will be up to them to adjust their curriculum to make it accessible to the students they teach.  A student’s second language will develop globally just as their first language does and both develop best in a variety of rich contexts.  It is important that schools also recognise that cognitive development is as important as language development. It is never good to put students with limited English proficiency in a lower age group  thinking the curriculum will be less content driven and less intense. Though this may make understanding some content easier for EAL learners, it is still important for them to be learning in an age appropriate environment. All teachers need to help students untangle the language mesh that faces them in the curriculum.

Top tips for all teachers

So what essential tips are there for both EAL teachers and mainstream teachers teaching in multi-lingual classrooms?

  • Make sure first of all, that language, in this case English, is everywhere.
  • Classrooms should be covered in the vocabulary and structures that students will need on a daily basis.
  • Words around the room are the best form of decoration
  • Teachers need to engage in conversation with all students even when the brand new students in the class seem shy and unable to respond.
Every lesson is a language lesson

Teachers across the school need to create a rich source of language and not one of language poverty.  Every lesson must have a language development aspect to it as well as the core content delivery. The intended learning needs to be clear to all the students and careful thought should be given to the groups that EAL students work with.  Sometimes allowing the student to use their first language can help the learning and this is OK.  In fact sometimes placing like-language groups together can be an learning advantage.

The EAL checklist for all teachers:
  • Emphasise in every lesson a language development aspect as well as the content learning
  • Avoid having students manipulate linguistic and cultural codes (have one accessible and one difficult but not both)
  • Give positive feedback on making meaning and limit criticism of errors ( all errors are learning steps)
  • Provide background information to allow focus on vocabulary and structure
  • Have vocabulary visible around the room
  • Have set times established for oral discussion in every single class
  • Have students work in groups with mixed language proficiency
  • Have charts for standard information and commonly used expressions visible around your classroom and refer to them frequently
  • Understand the time factor in accomplishing all tasks, especially for the EAL students, and adjust your expectations accordingly
  • Be prepared to modify the language of the tasks you set but not the intellectual challenge of them.

Schools that are aware of and act on the needs of EAL students will thrive and the jewels in their crown will often be the successes of EAL students who so often emerge to be the stars.


Awarded an OBE in the 2019 New Year Honours List for services to education and young people, Elly Tobin was formerly the Principal of Joseph Chamberlain College. Now working full-time with Consilium, Elly is also Director of the College for International Citizenship, a prestigious pre-university summer school for international students held annually in Birmingham.


Feature image: Andrzej Rembowski, Pixabay

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