Meeting Diverse Learners’ Needs: EAL Students in the UK

Needs and Issues Affecting EAL Learners

School students that learn English as their additional language or EAL learners present a unique population in terms of the key educational needs and everyday issues affecting their engagement in classroom activities. Representing more than 20% of pupils in the primary school system in the UK, EAL learners are affected by a significant achievement gap when it comes to literacy and linguistic knowledge (Bowyer-Crane et al., 2017, p. 772). Modern experts unanimously advocate for the development of measures to support early literacy skills in young EALs, thus ameliorating differences in achievement and reading proficiency at the next educational level (Bowyer-Crane et al., 2017). One contributor to the need for specialized language support in elementary EALs refers to differences in the degree of exposure to English before entering school. Monolingual primary students have an undeniable advantage over EALs since they can apply their actual vocabulary to draw stable links between the graphic and acoustic representations of terms (Bowyer-Crane et al., 2017). Thus, the most obvious specific education-related issue refers to limitations in the understanding of age-appropriate lesson content in English that finds reflected in insufficient literacy and comprehension skills.

EAL students’ educational needs also include the opportunity to receive the necessary services, including extra support and guidance, without feeling excluded from mainstream classrooms. At the same time, the Department for Education requires teachers to consider these students’ proficiency levels and other characteristics during assessments (The Bell Foundation, n.d.b.). As Badock and Birdi (2017) mention, it is not uncommon for EAL students to need extra assistance, including support from school librarians, when preparing for school examinations. One potentially beneficial approach to preventing EAL students’ exclusion is to develop partnerships between mainstream school teachers and EAL professionals (Badock and Birdi, 2017). In such partnerships, language-related differences are understood as a source of knowledge development and cultural awareness rather than a barrier to learning (Badock and Birdi, 2017). However, the implementation of partnership teaching models may require significant financial investments and changes to funding allocation practices, which is a potential source of challenges.

Another problematic area for EAL students relates to the need for uninterrupted English learning despite the necessity to take extended visits to their home countries for different reasons. It is common for EAL learners to have large families outside the UK. There is a multitude of family circumstances, including wedding ceremonies, critical family celebrations, or funeral events, that may require EAL students’ presence at home (Driver and Pim, 2018). Nevertheless, as Driver and Pim (2018) highlight, the occasional need for extended visits can create two problems, including conflicts between these students’ families and teachers and the lack of procedures to support learning during trips. Regarding the first issue, it might be problematic to fully meet EAL students’ need for such visits since their trips may coincide in time with exam seasons (Driver and Pim, 2018). Next, in terms of uninterrupted learning, it may be reasonable to increase the use of technology-mediated learning, such as videoconferencing, to guarantee EAL students’ engagement even during trips (Driver and Pim, 2018). However, this goal might be challenging to achieve due to teachers’ and students’ varying technological literacy and similar barriers.

To continue, the quality of educational services offered to EAL students presents another potential area of concern and an issue that may exacerbate the academic achievement gap by language status even more. In a series of studies conducted between 2009 and 2013, it has been shown that a substantial number of practicing teachers do not demonstrate adequate knowledge needed to teach EAL students (Flynn and Curdt-Christiansen, 2018). As an example, in their exploratory study conducted in 2009, Cajkler and Hall found out that newly qualified school teachers were not confident in assessing EAL pupils’ performance and instructional needs (Flynn and Curdt-Christiansen, 2018). Moreover, in the mentioned study, the participants cited and demonstrated difficulties in integrating new students speaking other languages aside from English into standard classroom activities (Flynn and Curdt-Christiansen, 2018). Therefore, teachers’ unpreparedness to evaluate and serve children with unique instructional needs presents an issue.

The aforementioned problem, such as service quality, might be challenging to address in the UK education system due to a high degree of heterogeneity within this student population. For instance, in her discussion of the approaches to educating EAL pupils, Demie (2018) takes a critical stance toward the introduction of EAL as a separate variable to guide instruction and facilitate learner classification. As the researcher highlights, the EAL includes both proficient speakers and those with minimal previous exposure to English, students from extremely diverse backgrounds, recent migrants, etc. (Demie, 2018). Considering the possible effects of these differences on the comprehension of English and the speed of proficiency development, the use of EAL as a broad category may affect the accuracy of performance measurement (Demie, 2018). Consequently, the presence of these confounding factors may create a diversity of learning needs in the discussed group. For example, the linguistic distance between an EAL student’s home language and English may affect the required amount of extra guidance, but the individualization of teaching is not always easy to implement since it requires substantial resources.

Strategies to Meet EAL Students’ Needs and Their Effectiveness

Current education policies in England favor inclusion rather than specialized provision when it comes to EAL students, but the degree to which this approach promotes their academic success deserves attention. Nowadays, the Department for Education does not require specific curriculum frameworks for EALs, and they should have other specific needs to be taught separately (The Bell Foundation, n.d.a.; The Bell Foundation, n.d.b). As per studies conducted in England, EAL students’ presence in mainstream classrooms does not affect native speakers’ attainment and access to services (National Association for Language Development in the Curriculum, n.d.). Based on the recent findings reported by the Bell Foundation, EAL students in England need about three years to eliminate language barriers, but currently provided mainstream education does not always meet these needs (Hutchinson, 2018). Thus, the poor academic achievement of EAL students that arrive in the UK a short time before exams suggest the presence of unmet needs related to specialized and intensive language learning support (Hutchinson, 2018). Therefore, from the viewpoint of educational outcomes, many see current approaches to teaching EALs as ignorant of their unique linguistic needs.

One argument against the current mainstream approach to EAL education and for more specialized provision refers to the inconsistency of mainstreaming and the gap between policy and practice. Particularly, in the case study research of ten different schools in England, the Institute of Education demonstrates that “withdrawing EAL pupils” is a widespread practice despite the proclaimed principle of inclusion (Badock and Birdi, 2017, p. 74). Another manifestation of the aforementioned gap can be seen in studies that explore mainstream teachers’ reactions to EAL provision and the distribution of responsibilities. For instance, as per Franson’s study of teachers’ perspectives on the mainstreaming of EAL pupils, these practitioners consistently report a lack of confidence when it comes to supporting these students (Badock and Birdi, 2017). Worse still, the cited study found mainstream teachers’ tendency to regard EAL provision as the responsibility of other professionals (Badock and Birdi, 2017). These findings suggest the disadvantages of being an EAL pupil in the mainstream, such as teachers’ insufficient ability to support such students while making them feel included in every aspect of classroom activities.

Aside from these improvement areas, there are multiple strategies with significant positive effects. As Mistry and Sood (2010) highlight, different ways of making EAL pupils feel welcome regardless of cultural characteristics, religious affiliations, and race actually support learning. Such strategies may include increasing workforce diversity, hiring bilingual assistants, and the use of guided practice (Mistry and Sood, 2010). Aimed at increasing cultural inclusion, such approaches can prevent EAL students from feeling marginalized, stereotyped, or misunderstood, thus adding to their psychological comfort at school. Peer buddy programs, in which EAL students are paired with bilingual peers that are fluent in English, are also helpful and beneficial for language learning and socialization in EALs (Driver and Pim, 2018). In their systematic review, Oxley and De Cat (2019) compare more than twenty primary/secondary school interventions in terms of language knowledge gains. Instructional techniques that emphasize subject-specific vocabulary, explicit vocabulary teaching, and book reading have been shown to lead to knowledge gains, especially in EAL students with minimal exposure to English (Oxley and De Cat, 2019). Thus, the known positive strategies stress cultural inclusion and interventions in vocabulary learning.

Despite a number of effective strategies known, school professionals’ limited training in working with EAL students is among the reasons why the mainstreaming approach might be less effective than expected. Although being regarded as beneficial to learning, the provision of specialist support to EAL students is constantly reported to be insufficient in the UK (Badock and Birdi, 2017; Hutchinson, 2018). Modern research stresses EAL students’ unmet need for vocabulary learning interventions in mainstream classrooms (Dixon, Thomson, and Fricke, 2020). In their mixed-methods research, Badock and Birdi (2017) demonstrate that extending EAL provision by involving school librarians in supporting EAL students might be central to improving current policy. Even the presence of EAL professionals in UK schools does not eliminate the risks of negative outcomes stemming from teachers’ poor knowledge regarding EAL pupils’ backgrounds (Schneider and Arnot, 2017). In certain instances, such knowledge gaps lead to unnecessary generalizations and unfair assumptions about EAL students, especially recent migrants (Schneider and Arnot, 2017). Although the current inclusive approach is aimed at good purposes, such as preparing children to participate in their new communities, teachers’ training remains a critical barrier to success.

The absence of policy to support mainstream teachers’ continuous education and the development of the specialist workforce pertains to the key problems affecting EAL pupils in the UK. In his report, Hutchinson (2018) compares the arrangements for EAL students in England and jurisdictions in four English-speaking countries (the United States, Australia, New Zealand, and Canada). He concludes that provisions outside England place “much greater emphasis on guidance,” definitions of support measures for EAL students, and policies to guarantee adequate provision in areas with small EAL populations (Hutchinson, 2018, p. 9). Additionally, England’s current EAL policy’s effectiveness is affected by the absence of initiatives that would guarantee “national oversight or provision of professional qualifications, staff development, and specialist roles” (Hutchinson, 2018, p. 9). Considering the conclusions above, the lack of unified procedures and rules regarding EAL students’ education might be partially responsible for the persistent achievement gap by language status.


Finally, EAL students in the UK have a variety of needs to be met. According to research literature, language learning support, especially when it comes to interventions to improve vocabulary knowledge, is necessary and can facilitate the comprehension of new content. The opportunity to receive the required guidance without feeling excluded at school is another need that is aimed to be addressed by means of current policy. To achieve academic success, these students need high-quality educational services and teachers’ professional attitudes to student assessment. Barriers to remaining connected with their native environments are another potentially important issue, and available strategies include technology-mediated learning and clear school policies regarding extended visits.

The currently implemented inclusive approach to EAL school students’ education is ambiguous in terms of effectiveness. Its advantages may include the development of a sense of belonging and the encouragement of friendships between culturally diverse learners and their monolingual peers. Despite that, both independent researchers and organizations stress the actual limitations of the current strategy. Among them is the absence of definitive policies to prepare teachers for working with EAL learners and teachers’ limited understanding of these students’ backgrounds and their effects on performance. The selection and availability of approaches to support vocabulary learning in EAL students in mainstream classrooms is another gap to be addressed in the future.

Reference List

Badock, A. and Birdi, B. (2017) ‘Here to support anybody who needs to come? An investigation of the provision for EAL pupils in secondary school libraries in England’, New Review of Children’s Literature and Librarianship, 23(1), pp. 70-93. Web.

The Bell Foundation (n.d.a) EAL provision. Web.

The Bell Foundation. (n.d.b.) Education policy: learners who use EAL in England. Web.

Bowyer-Crane, C. et al. (2017) ‘Early literacy and comprehension skills in children learning English as an additional language and monolingual children with language weaknesses’, Reading and Writing, 30(4), pp. 771-790. Web.

Demie, F. (2018) ‘English as an additional language and attainment in primary schools in England’, Journal of Multilingual and Multicultural Development, 39(3), pp. 210-223. Web.

Dixon, C., Thomson, J. and Fricke, S. (2020) ‘Language and reading development in children learning English as an additional language in primary school in England’, Journal of Research in Reading, 43(3), pp. 309-328. Web.

Driver, C. and Pim, C. (2018) 100 ideas for secondary teachers: supporting EAL learners. London, Bloomsbury Education.

Flynn, N. and Curdt-Christiansen, X. L. (2018) ‘Intentions versus enactment: making sense of policy and practice for teaching English as an additional language’, Language and Education, pp. 1-18. Web.

Hutchinson, J. (2018) Educational outcomes of children with English as an additional language. Oxford, The Bell Foundation.

Mistry, M. and Sood, K. (2010) ‘English as an additional language: assumptions and challenges’, Management in Education, 24(3), pp. 111-114. Web.

National Association for Language Development in the Curriculum (n.d.) EAL research summaries. Web.

Oxley, E. and De Cat, C. (2019) ‘A systematic review of language and literacy interventions in children and adolescents with English as an additional language (EAL)’, The Language Learning Journal, pp. 1-23. Web.

Schneider, C. and Arnot, M. (2017) ‘An exploration of school communication approaches for newly arrived EAL students: applying three dimensions of organisational communication theory’, Cambridge Journal of Education, pp. 1–18. Web.

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ChalkyPapers. "Meeting Diverse Learners’ Needs: EAL Students in the UK." May 18, 2022.