Reading comprehension is the key to accessing the curriculum.

Natalie Smith is researching reading and EAL for her PhD at the University of York. In this post, she talks about a gap in our knowledge base and describes how her research aims to provide new insights.

A person’s ability to understand written text is not only crucial for their achievement in school – with a rapid shift from ‘learning to read’ in KS1 to ‘reading to learn’ towards the end of primary education (Chall 1983) – it is hugely important for adult life. The literacy skills that are acquired in childhood are the foundation on which future academic success is built, so it is important that all children become successful readers. Research has provided a wealth of information about the development of skilled monolingual readers, but this evidence base is lacking when it comes to children learning EAL, particularly in a UK educational context.

Research has suggested that children learning EAL often fall behind their monolingual peers on measures of listening and reading comprehension (McKendry & Murphy 2011), though research within the UK is not extensive. Hutchinson et al. (2003) report that children learning EAL in the UK perform, on average, one year behind their monolingual peers on measures of reading comprehension. This apparent pattern of relative underachievement perhaps suggests that the literacy needs of children learning EAL are not fully understood and/or are not being met.

My research, therefore, aims to understand which specific skills underpin reading comprehension for both monolingual and EAL children. In my longitudinal field work I use standardised and bespoke measures to explore a range of linguistic and cognitive skills important to reading comprehension. In the first and third year this will include measures of vocabulary, grammatical knowledge, working memory, phonological awareness, listening comprehension and speed of lexical access (how quickly words can be brought to mind). The second year will involve a number of underexplored measures and their contribution to reading comprehension, such as morphological awareness and the knowledge of multi-word phrases. I am working with children in Y2 and Y4 and will follow the development of all participants over time – into Y3/Y5 and then Y4/Y6. My aim is to develop an evidence base that will allow insight into the differences and similarities between English-speaking monolingual children and children who use English as an additional language in two different year groups in the UK. By following these children over time I am able to explore which specific skills predict reading comprehension and what patterns emerge for the children at different ages. For example, are there significant differences in any of the measures between the monolingual children and the children learning EAL? If so, does that gap widen, diminish or remain the same as they progress through school? Ultimately, the patterns that emerge will extend our understanding and enable the development of effective pedagogical support.

One of the key issues concerning this line of research, however, is with the term ‘EAL’. The term conflates a very wide range of young people, making it difficult to apply findings from one study to the wider population. For example, there are huge variations in factors such as first-language (L1) proficiency, socio-economic status, the writing system of the L1, parents’ English-language proficiency, the L1 of peers within a school, exposure to linguistic and literacy practices in the home. The list goes on. Irrespective of these differences, these children are all categorised as ‘EAL’.

This raises further questions about how to approach EAL research. Should research focus on just one language heritage so that findings can then be applied to this specific group of learners? Or should individual studies try to incorporate a range of languages to reflect the multilingualism of many classrooms?  My research will explore both; I have a multilingual population of EAL pupils in one school and a Punjabi-speaking population of EAL pupils in another (as well as their monolingual peers). Though there are many variables to control for and many challenges to account for, this longitudinal research will hopefully yield some insightful results.

To echo the point that many researchers are making, we need to push for research in this field and we need to collaborate with each other to develop a holistic and coherent understanding of our EAL children. I would be very interested in your experiences and thoughts!



Chall, J. S. (1983). Learning to read: The great debate. McGraw-Hill.

Hutchinson, J. M., H. E. Whiteley, C. D. Smith & L. Connors (2003). The developmental progression of comprehension‐related skills in children learning EAL. Journal of Research in Reading 26, 19-32.

McKendry, M. G. & V. A. Murphy (2011). A comparative study of listening comprehension measures in English as an additional language and native English-speaking primary school children. Evaluation & Research in Education 24, 17-40.