Principles into Practice with EAL learners in Crisis Teaching

New NALDIC executives Eowyn Crisfield and Joanna Borysiak pioneered a novel approach to NALDIC’s very successful Regional Interest Group (RIG) network, by hosting the very first virtual RIG meeting last month. Members of the Oxfordshire RIG were joined by colleagues from all over the country for a session on meeting the needs of EAL learners in lockdown by NALDIC vice-chair Hamish Chalmers. We feel it was a huge success, and look forward to exploring other new and exciting ways to keep the community connected going forward. In this post, Eowyn summarises the main content of the meeting using three principles for crisis teaching.

In the first instance, it is important to remember that we are all – parents, teachers, students – in crisis mode, and there is no ideal teaching and learning situation for any students right now. That said, there are particular challenges for our EAL students at this time. One aspect of this is simply that there is significant cross-over between EAL status and measures of family situation, such as Pupil Premium. This means that EAL students are more likely to live in homes with less access to adequate technology to follow online curricula than their more advantaged peers. In addition, EAL learners are less likely to be receiving specific support for learning in crisis teaching, and potentially live in environments where little English is spoken and parents/caregivers may struggle to provide support for learning in English. We have defined three principles to help educators navigate this complex situation.

Consider the level of English first, then the content

It is unrealistic to expect EAL learners to complete the same work, in the same ways as non-EAL children, especially given the lack of available support from schools and the potential lack of adequate support at home. Rather than focusing on content that is simply not accessible, it is preferable to assign work to students that is manageable, and will benefit their development in English. There are a variety of resources online that can allow teachers to select content that will be accessible for their students according to level of English. BBC Bitesize and the Oak Academy are both putting up lessons linked to the different curricular areas, for all year groups. These resources can be used to provide different levels of lessons in areas where there is a spiral curriculum. For example, if you are doing states of matter in Year 8 Science, there will be a lesson from the KS2 curriculum on the same topic, but which uses simpler examples and more accessible language. For students who are new to English, the Year 8 version will not be accessible at all, but the KS2 version might be. For students who are not quite able to access the Year 8 version, the KS2 version can be used as a springboard to understanding the key concepts, which will then improve access to the Year 8 version.

The British Council website has content that is designed to help children learn English, but not specific to school subjects. This content can be helpful in providing students with on-going input to develop their English when not at school. As it is levelled, you can find resources on all skill areas that will accessible to different levels of English. If the curriculum is simply not accessible to a new to English student, providing support for their English language development will be more successful, and more useful to them than spending time on resources that they simply can’t understand.

The bottom line is that EAL students should be doing work that is meaningful and accessible. Providing them with work that they cannot manage will be demoralising, and they are more likely to disengage entirely. Providing them with work that is manageable and develops their English will have more long-term positive impact that trying to get them to do work that is not comprehensible to them.

When delivering content, differentiation for EAL is non-negotiable

The second principle is that it is simply not good practice to give EAL students the same learning activities as their monolingual peers without adapting them in some way to meet their needs. If an activity is at an appropriate level of challenge for a fluent English speaker, it may well be incomprehensible for the EAL student. The cognitive load of trying to work through language that you do not understand, to learn content that you do not know, is setting EAL students up for failure. If you need to give the same resource/task, there are many ways to differentiate for your EAL learners.

  • Using graphic organisers: A Venn diagram shows similar/different relationships, a timeline show order of events, a mind map shows connections. Graphic organisers can be used to visually support conceptual understandings, and to support the nature of the task at hand. For students with limited English, a graphic organiser with key words/information already completed can act as a guide in a reading or writing activity, and can allow students to represent knowledge in a visual way, rather than through extended writing.
  • Providing vocabulary boxes: Vocabulary boxes can be used to help students tune in to key concepts, to focus their attention on the important parts of text when writing, and to include all important aspects of a topic when writing. They help students by explicitly framing the important ideas in text (written or spoken) so that they can focus in on only the most important sections when the whole text is overwhelming. They can also be used to build key vocabulary for assessments.
  • Sentence starters: EAL students have a double job when approaching a writing task: putting their ideas and knowledge on paper, and trying to find the English words/sentences to explain their ideas. Providing newer to English students with a writing framework alleviates some of the cognitive load by supporting the English aspect and allowing them to concentrate on their ideas. Simple sentence starters such as ‘I agreed with the author because…’ set up a correct sentence structure which can be completed by the student, and then serves as a correct model for other sentences. More complex writing tasks can be supported by a series of sentence starters that allow the student to create a whole paragraph or short answer. This allows the teacher to see what the student really knows/understands, rather than only what they can say at their level of English.

This is just a sample of ways to differentiate work, and shows how simple it can be to provide one extra layer of support, to allow your EAL students to understand tasks and resources, and share their learning with you.

Parents’ primary role is L1

This is perhaps the most important of the principles, particularly for families that do not have easy access to technology. Time that parents spend talking, playing, telling stories to their children, in their own languages, is building cognitive development that will enhance school performance. The research on the link between home language development and English development at school is strong and should be considered central to our advice to EAL families at this time. If students cannot access the resources suggested above, and if their level of English makes even differentiated resources in a take-home pack too challenging, then the best case scenario is to have them continue to develop in their own language. A simple document for parents outlining some of the topics that they could cover (counting up to 100, shapes and size, etc.) for younger learners, with advice on having conversations about these topics in the home language, will provide families with a clear way to provide some support for learning. If they parents are not confident in English, run the document through Google translate and send it home; it may not be perfect, but the effort will be appreciated. For older learners, sourcing books in their other languages (paper or audio) will help them keep developing in that language, and give them a focus for their time. There are different platforms providing free products in different languages right now, most of which will work on a smart phone.

For children in situations where doing curricular work at home is simply not possible, development in the home language is key to continued learning. For students who can access the curriculum, continued development in the home language is still the main job for the parents; they should not be pressured into speaking English with their children, or to trying to support schoolwork that cannot be done by their child. Their vital role is to continue to connect with their children and provide support in the language of the home and heart.

These are what we propose to be the key principles to providing the most valuable learning opportunities and experiences for EAL children in this time of disrupted schooling. Focusing on what we can do for our EAL students, and what will serve them best means thinking critically about what is necessary and what is flexible.

Below is a video of the seminar and a copy of the slides used during the RIG meeting, with links to the resources suggested by Hamish. It also includes key points from NALDIC’s response to the Ofqual guidance to teachers on calculating replacement grades. If you have not read the full response, please do so here. is a publication of NALDIC, the subject association for EAL. Visit to become a member.