Teachers’ perceptions and recognition of EAL learners with additional needs

The EAL Journal publishes plain language summaries of Master’s and PhD research. In this post Felicity Parry summarises her dissertation project on teachers perceptions about bilingualism and special educational needs.

Felicity Parry

Background: Why I did the research?

Teachers are in an advantageous position to spot initial ‘red flags’ of concern about their EAL pupils. However, there is uncertainty around what an EAL learner with special educational needs (SEN) ‘looks like’ in terms of their academic and language abilities, in comparison with a typically developing EAL learner.

Is what you’re seeing part of typical bilingual language development, or a sign of underlying difficulties independent of their language status? Does this child need to be assessed by other professionals? I wanted to know how comfortable or how challenged teachers felt when making these kinds of choices. They may have relied on their own perceptions towards bilingualism to inform these decisions.

We all have perceptions about the world and those in it, whether these be positive, negative, or something in between. There has been very little UK-based research in this area, so British teachers’ perceptions are not yet well known. Why talk about perceptions? Well, they are important because perceptions can influence people’s behaviours and actions. In a teacher’s case, they could help promote more effective EAL teaching and decision-making, or they could be a barrier preventing accurate identification of SEN in EAL learners. It is unclear whether perceptions can help or hinder teachers, so this made me want to investigate this area.

My aim was to link the areas of teachers’ perceptions and SEN together, particularly focusing on EAL learners with language disorders. My key questions were:

  1. What perceptions do teachers hold towards bilingualism?
  2. Can teachers accurately recognise signs of language disorders in EAL learners?
  3. Do teachers’ perceptions towards bilingualism influence how accurately they recognise language disorders in EAL learners?

What I did

44 primary school teachers based in England filled in an online survey; all teachers were monolingual English speakers. The survey had 2 main sections:

  • One section asked teachers how much they agreed with a set of statements about bilingualism and its place in education, to gather teachers’ perceptions of the issue.
  • The other section contained descriptions of four hypothetical EAL learners. Each description contained: the child’s age, languages known and used, previous and current schooling, and any difficulties (both academic and language-based) that they were currently facing. Two descriptions presented children with difficulties related to language disorders, while the remaining two presented children encountering challenges associated with developing bilingually without SEN. The teachers read these descriptions, and then reported how much they agreed with statements relating to each child, for example: “specific EAL support is all this child needs to succeed”, and “this child’s educational progress is slower than I would expect of an EAL child”. This was to see if teachers could accurately make a distinction between EAL learners with and without language disorders.

What I found

Let’s revisit my 3 key questions:

1. What perceptions do teachers hold towards bilingualism?

An encouraging finding was that all teachers reported neutral to extremely positive perceptions towards bilingualism overall. No teachers demonstrated a negative perception on average, although some individual statement responses showed some negative leanings.

Almost all the teachers agreed with the statement that “EAL pupils, even those new to English, can immediately succeed in some curriculum subjects”, and almost all disagreed with the statement “I feel that specific EAL training for teachers is unnecessary”. Other statements had little consensus across the group of teachers, such as: “It is important that people in the UK learn a language in addition to English”.

2. Can teachers accurately recognise signs of language disorders in EAL learners?

I found that the teachers’ ability to recognise signs of language disorders in the described EAL learners varied. A crucial observation was that on average, teachers responded with ‘unsure/neither agree nor disagree’ to the provided statements more often than not for every child, both those described as typically developing and those described as having a language disorder.

3. Do teachers’ perceptions towards bilingualism influence how accurately they recognise language disorders in EAL learners?

After analysis, I found that perceptions towards bilingualism didn’t influence how accurately a teacher could recognise signs of language disorders (or of typical bilingual language development) in the described EAL learners. This indicates that perceptions and language disorder recognition are two areas that function independently of each other.

What does it mean?

My findings show that perceptions towards bilingualism, at least positive ones, do not affect how well a teacher can recognise language disorders in EAL learners. This does not necessarily mean that positive perceptions aren’t beneficial, only that my research was not wide-ranging enough to identify what benefits they may have overall.

What we can see is that teachers felt uncertain when observing EAL learners. A potential effect of this uncertainty could be that EAL learners’ access to the national curriculum and general wellbeing are negatively affected. This could result in typically developing EAL learners being held back and/or EAL learners with SEN being left behind.

Hopefully my research will make teachers more mindful of their own uncertainties, and help them to consider barriers that may impact the effective teaching of EAL learners in their classrooms.My research also promotes teachers’ involvement in early language disorder identification and decision-making about EAL learners, particularly during the time prior to formal assessment. As research into language disorders in EAL learners is still in its early stages however, my research only scratched the surface of an area that needs more exploring.

My PhD research will therefore investigate in more detail how teachers identify signs of additional needs in their EAL pupils, discover the reasoning behind their decisions, and explore what factors affect this. This will shed more light on suitable assessments and interventions to fulfil every EAL learner’s potential, whether they be typically developing or have SEN.

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