Working with the new EAL ‘stages’


Kamil Trzebiatowski is an EAL Coordinator in Hull. In this guest post, he writes about his experiences of trying to adapt his school’s EAL assessment to the new EAL stages of proficiency.

Two years ago, I devised a thorough system of EAL assessment for the secondary school where I am an EAL Coordinator. Feeling that any single system would always be be insufficient for the local context of a single school and a single community, I pulled different systems and descriptors and amalgamated them into one system: this included elements of the NASSEA levels, yes, but also adaptations from Austrialian ESL Scales and ACARA, amongst others.

Then the murky and rather generalising new DfE EAL stages of proficiency came in. Don’t get me wrong, I do think that moving from defining any bilingual learner in our schools as ‘EAL’ – regardless of whether they might be a new arrival, a refugee with no prior schooling or a heritage bilingual speaker – to actually distinguishing between them in some manner is a step in the right direction. However, speaking from the classroom, this raises a number of issues.

First, no training has been provided regarding this change: not to myself, any member of the SLT or to our data analyst, who is going to be responsible for entering the data. There has been very little time to train teachers in the new requirement since it became official at the end of the last school year. Since I work at a school with close to 30% EAL intake (almost 200 students), I wouldn’t be able to spend a long time with each learner myself. Nor am I willing to conduct entrance tests for EAL support: given the time constraints, that would have to be a reading and writing test, with no opportunity to assess listening and speaking. It would also run counter to my conviction that EAL proficiency judgements need to be arrived at through observation of students over time. Dylan William in ‘The Validity of Teacher Assessments’, indeed, says that written standardised tests can only assess limited forms of competence. The only other option is to delegate at least some of the responsibility to at least some subject teachers. After all, they are in a perfect position to observe the EAL learners.

This is where, in my school at least, the real issues begin. The stages are very broad – particularly since they do not make any distinction between listening, speaking, reading and writing – and teachers are still going to struggle to interpret them. Statements such as ‘Literacy will require ongoing support, particularly for understanding text and writing’ (stage C) could be applied to any stage of English language acquisition. Stage C appears to be a very wide band, and I expect many teachers at my workplace will assign large numbers of EAL students to this stage – precisely because the descriptors are open to interpretation. This means that it likely to result in inaccuracies – and that’s at a school which has a Coordinator!

We have very little opportunity for whole-staff EAL training at my school, so we are always going to struggle to share our specialist knowledge with subject teachers. From this perspective, you might think I’d welcome the opportunity to involve teachers in the assessment of our learners – and I do. However, this is not the way to do it: asking them to make judgements based on a set of rather vague ‘stages’ without having an opportunity to learn more about language assessment. I think all teachers, whatever they teach, like precision. As such, the stage descriptors will only bring confusion, not clarity. In fact, I think it is somewhat insulting to anyone teaching young people to present them with such imprecision Luckily, we can use guides produced by the EAL community – such as the the very helpful Solihull guide, which makes the ever-so-important distinction between the four language skills, and the detailed guidance in the EAL Journal.

At my school, if need be, I can walk over to my colleagues if they are in doubt when assessing our EAL learners for the purposes of the school census and offer support. Even so, colleagues are often worried and uncertain at the prospect of assessing language proficiency.