EAL or SEND? How schools can assess beginners of English more quickly

At Naldic’s Conference 27, Dr Anne-Margaret Smith gave an excellent presentation on how schools can assess and support EAL learners with possible SEND, swiftly and efficiently.

Here is a summary of the main points for you.

General observations relating to EAL and SEND

  1. Recognised needs like dyslexia, AD(H)D and dyscalculia are often interlinked, rather than isolated conditions in pupils. Many of these conditions have non-linguistic characteristics such as slow development in fine motor control which are observable in a child, regardless of their ability to communicate in English.
  2. Differentiating between EAL and SEND can take time. However, pupils learning EAL need to be assessed before they are competent English speakers, or they will not get the help they require early enough.
  3. The language or languages pupils already speak are an important factor in assessing for SEND as different languages can affect how easily pupils learn English. Similarly, cultural practices can affect assessment; if a child fails to make eye contact with an assessor, is this a sign of autism or a cultural behaviour showing respect for an adult?
  4. Many assessments for SEND are predicated on a monolingual population and are therefore not easily transferred to meet the needs of pupils speaking and learning EAL.

What information should schools collect when assessing for EAL/SEND?

The student’s background.

This is enormously important as it helps to establish a student’s prior learning and life experiences.

Each student may arrive speaking a range of different languages or dialects that they use to interact with various family members and the wider community. One of these languages may be more dominant than the others; the student might be literate in it or receiving community schooling in it.

In addition, the student’s parents might have experienced a very different style of education and have conflicting views on how their child should be taught in the UK.

Also, parents can tell you if their children already have diagnosed conditions, such as hearing loss, that have been treated before their arrival in the UK.

Gathering information

Gathering as much information on the student’s background adds to an overall assessment of who the student is and what they have already achieved. How can this been done most effectively?


If a new student is suspected of having possible special needs, schools can gather information on their behaviour through immediate observations. These need to be systematic and involve all staff who encounter the student during the day. This includes lunchtime supervisory staff.


Additionally, the school could give out questionnaires to parents/carers and the students themselves to find out what barriers to learning they recognise or have noticed. Parents will often have clear understandings of their children’s behaviours that might impact on their experience of school.

The student’s literacy development

It is important to understand the full extent of a student’s linguistic repertoire and literacy skills, in other languages as well as English

Assessing literacy in home languages

To achieve this, schools can ask pupils to write a piece of text in their preferred language. You might not be able to read the text yourself, but, as a literate adult, you can tell if a text is written fluently, punctuated and organised in some way by paragraphs or bullet points. You can also tell if a student has any possible fine motor control issues as you watch them write.

If the student can’t write independently yet, give them a copying task.

Ask them to read in their first language using a bilingual text. Again, you might not understand it, but you can tell from the speed, intonation and hesitancy of the reader whether they are fluent at that level or not, even if the text is relatively simple.

It is also possible to find out how well pupils can scan a text by using symbols and signs, rather than letters. See our downloadable EAL assessment materials for an example you can use.

The student’s memory and their speed of processing

To assess a student’s memory, Anne-Margaret suggested taking English out of the test.

Auditory memory: Ask the student to give you the names of some of their friends or family members.

  • Write them on individual notes for you to refer to.
  • Say one name. Can the student repeat it back to you?
  • Say three names. Can the student repeat these in the correct order? And so on.

Visual memory: To assess a pupil’s visual memory, you can play a form of Kim’s Game using shapes. To ensure that pupils don’t need to rely on English, give them a visual list of the shapes to refer to.

  • Put the shapes on the table and allow the pupil time to look at them. Name the shapes together if the student is able to.
  • Then, cover the shapes, removing one without the student seeing it.
  • Take away the cover and ask the student to either name the missing shape or point to it on a visual list.
  • Repeat by taking away two, three or four shapes.
  • Follow this link to our EAL assessment materials 

Phonetic discrimination: To understand whether pupils learning EAL can discriminate between different phonemes, use words that they know.

  • For example, if they know the word chair, ask them to say it, “Chair”, then ask them to take away the ‘ch’ and say the rest.
  • You might need to demonstrate this yourself with an example first.
  • You can repeat this with final phonemes in different words.
  • “This is your lunch. Can you say lunch? Now can you say it without the ‘ch’ sound?”

In this way you are isolating sounds and determining if the student can hear them, without the student having to be a fluent speaker of English. See our  EAL assessment materials for ideas.

Feedback to children following an assessment

It is ethically important to feedback to students once you have assessed them.

However, the terminology that sometimes gets used in formal assessments might not be readily transferred into the pupil’s home language, even if you have a translator available. Therefore, Anne-Margaret recommends simplifying the outcomes in a student-friendly way. Here is the example she gave:

“I notice your can remember things that you see, better than things when you hear them. Let’s work on helping you to remember things that you hear.”

For some of the activities cited in this blog, please go to our Teaching Resources for EAL page and download the free examples.

Get in touch with our team