The experiences of secondary school students with EAL: perceptions, priorities and pedagogy

Graham Hall

The British Council has recently published a paper focusing on The experiences of secondary school students with English as an additional language: perceptions, priorities and pedagogy. The paper reports on a project undertaken by Graham Hall, of Northumbria University, with the support of a British Council ELT Research Award, and is aimed at practitioners (both those working in EAL-oriented services or with a school-level responsibility for EAL students and also ‘mainstream’ teachers of school curricula subjects), school managers, and other policy-makers.

The project explored the experiences of secondary-level EAL students living and studying in schools on Tyneside in the north-east of England. Like many parts of the UK, Tyneside is becoming an increasingly an important centre for immigration and for the teaching of children with EAL, partly as a consequence of the government’s policy of dispersing asylum seekers around the country. Thus, the challenges surrounding EAL, if not ‘new’, are often new in scale, while local experiences, perspectives and expertise remain under-researched and, perhaps, under-shared. Consequently, the project aimed to consider the implications of these student experiences for pedagogic practice, practitioners and other stakeholders in the field, not only for those working in this project’s particular setting, but for those working with secondary-level EAL students elsewhere in the UK and also internationally, in EMI environments.

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The paper therefore brings together the perspectives of EAL students and their teachers in two case-study schools, drawing on focus group and interview data in tandem with classroom observations. It also explores whether the perspectives and school experiences of EAL students from differing geographical backgrounds, with differing migration and educational histories, and with differing skills and abilities varied.

The report offers clear evidence that, while students who speak English as an Additional Language may to some extent face ‘a commonality of issues’, they are individuals who experience school in differing ways. Coming from a diverse range of backgrounds, EAL students bring with them to school a range of prior experiences and abilities which overlap, inter-relate and combine in complex ways that underpin an individual pupil’s school life. Teacher (and institutional) awareness of individuals’ backgrounds, prior experiences, skills and repertoires is central to developing a fuller understanding of, and offering support for, any challenges particular students might face both in the classroom and in school more generally.

The paper also explores how the relationship between language, access to the curriculum and identity is a central issue for EAL students. However, it also suggests that for many, perceived needs and priorities change over time. Students with less English proficiency, who in this study were often Immediate New Arrivals in school, are unsurprisingly very concerned with developing their immediate language and communication skills, in order to access the curriculum, participate more fully in class, and develop social networks in the classroom and beyond. Although their own language and home or heritage culture is a central part of their lives and identities, their key focus is the development of the English skills necessary to succeed at school. However, for students who are more proficient in English, perhaps those who have been in the UK for a longer period and who are more familiar with UK school culture(s), the need to maintain their own (i.e., home/heritage) identity is prioritised in contexts where differences between their home and the school environment are not widely recognised. From this perspective, therefore, it is possible to think of EAL speakers not only as students who need supporting and resourcing, but also as students who are themselves a multilingual and multicultural resource from whom others can learn and through which schools might celebrate diversity.

Graham is an Associate Professor in Applied Linguistics/TESOL at Northumbria University and author of Exploring English Language Teaching (Routledge 2011/17). Follow him on Twitter @ghinwhitleybay. is a publication of NALDIC, the subject association for EAL. Visit to become a member.