EAL pupils in primary school: 6 ways to support them

Around a fifth of primary school pupils have English as an additional language, according to the latest Department of Education data. This proportion is expected to rise in the number of people seeking asylum in the UK – the year ending March 2022 saw an increase of 56 per cent from the previous year.

It’s so important, then, that primary teachers have a range of strategies in place when it comes to supporting EAL learners in the classroom. I have been working with these students for over a decade, and these are the six techniques that I’ve learned to support them, while developing their ability to learn and use English.

Tips to support EAL primary school pupils

1. Teacher interactions

It is tempting, when working with a child who is in the “silent period” of language acquisition, or has very limited English, to ask questions continually and to have an open discussion. However, this form of interaction can be stressful for a child and discourage discussion from them.

Instead, talk and play with the child and narrate what you, or they, are doing. As you use items, emphasize the vocabulary and model simple sentences: for example, you use items, point to them, such as “red spade”.

If other children speak English, close by, model the language with them. This approach gives the EAL pupil exposure to any pressure without language.

2. Use visual timetables and display your routines

Knowing what’s happening in the classroom is important and safe and secure inside the classroom.

Create a visual timetable to understand: This should include photos of the children completing each activity, and, if possible, their home language. If this is not the case, send the timetable home and encourage parents to do this.

A pictorial display of key routines within the class can be helpful. Whenever a transition takes place, like packing and unpacking bags, displaying the point, and talking through the routine, EAL learners.


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3. Use musical prompts to mark transitions

Sound prompts support all children but especially those who have EAL. They may not understand your spoken instruction but use a consistent prompt, such as a chime on a triangle just before the tidy-up time.

The same tidy-up music will build on that understanding of what to take at the time. I also include a “hello” and “goodbye” song to mark this transition and bring children to the carpet area.

4. Use differentiation based language

When teaching, it is incredibly important to pitch language to the different levels of English within your class. You may have native speakers, advanced / intermediate speakers and beginner users of English.

Depending on your class, differentiation can take place at language level grouping in small groups, and the texts used, especially in guided reading, will need to be differentiated, too.

Blank’s Levels of Questioning (1978), using their comprehension, is the key to ensuring that I am aware of their levels. In language groups, I guarantee that there is a chance for them to repeat language structures. All children should be able to access whole-class teaching. EAL learners close to a learning assistant, who can translate or provide further explanations.

5. Whole-class work

When working on ideas and concepts, especially if they are new to the children, provide visuals and support for real objects. Where possible “bridge” to their home language provided by both English and their home language. More difficult concepts of translation are incredibly valuable, where possible.

When modeling sentences and new vocabulary, try to match this to movement, to help build understanding and to help retain these ideas. For example, when teaching recounts, actions that represent “moving to”, “went with” (two arms over imaginary people) and “went by” (making a motion as if you are driving), are an excellent non-verbal, visual cue to remind children of necessary words. Ensure that you repeat the action at least six times in embedded language.

6. Small-group work

When working with a small group, make sure the EAL children are close to you. By doing this, you can be aware of engagement and offer support. If you are asking questions or encouraging discussion, give an EAL child lots of opportunities and experience modeling, by yourself and their peers, and let them take their turn later in the discussion.

Picture prompts are especially helpful in scaffolding language. For example, when discussing the weekend, ask parents to send you a photo. You can then pick out vocabulary and scaffold questions. Even better, facilitate discussions first in the home language and after the entire English discussion.

Jess Gosling is an international teacher and author Becoming a Successful International Teacher ‘. She tweets @JessGosling2

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