The case of the invisible learner: moving competent speakers of EAL towards fluency

The ‘invisible’ English as an Additional Language (EAL) learner

Children who are graded C (using the government’s A-E language assessment levels) are often ‘invisible’ learners. They have overcome the first hurdle of acquiring basic, conversational English, a process taking between 1 and 2 years. However, the journey to full academic proficiency is longer and, for many children, an unsupported path. Developing competence (level C) can lead to assumptions by supporting adults that pupils’ English is sufficiently well developed to cope with a full and fast-paced curriculum. This is not always the case as it can take a further 3 to 6 years for students to become proficient in English. If you need any convincing, see our research infographic – ‘English as an Additional Language for Pupils. How long does it take to acquire English fluency for pupils in years 6-11’.

.This concept of ‘invisible’ learners was reiterated by Carol Philips, an executive head with years of experience in the field of teaching English as an Additional Language. She told a recent West Midlands Naldic meeting about a two-year CPD project she had helped to run which focused on academic language and was designed to up-skill secondary teachers across all subjects. Its aim was to focus on pupils who were developing their English competency, but still required support to become proficient users.

What did the CPD teach staff?

  • Session 1 looked at developing EAL learners and theories underpinning good EAL practice.
  • Session 2 examined the demands of grammar in curriculum subjects and how this translates into classroom practice.
  • Session 3 discussed complex and extended texts across different subjects and how to develop pupils’ extended writing.

Teachers revised (or learned) many aspects of English grammar. They were reminded of areas that more advanced EAL learners still struggle with – abstract nouns, passive voice, modal verbs etc.  Most importantly, perhaps, they considered how to talk about language and develop meta-language.

By examining texts from their subjects, teachers quickly realised where pupils learning EAL might struggle. They were then encouraged to think how they could pre-teach elements of the text. What background knowledge did students needs? What were the significant hooks they could hang vocabulary and language learning on?

Visuals (film, pictures, artefacts, graphics) were used to encourage predictive strategies linked to curriculum texts. For example:

  • Pupils wrote down 8 -15 words that might appear in a text, discussing some of the vocabulary in detail and exploring unfamiliar words.
  • They wrote down 3 questions relating to the words and predicted the answers.
  • Having listened to the questions again, they were given the text to read and consider, ‘How close were your answers?’ and  ‘Which of your predicted words appeared in the text?’

These types of predictive, pre-reading strategies helped pupils (and staff) anticipate and understand complex texts. The children really enjoyed the format.

Improving children’s writing skills

Teachers learned how to raise pupils’ writing levels through noticing aspects of language in academic texts. For example, higher-level texts have more nominalisation (when verbs are converted into nouns, e.g. solve becomes solution). Staff were also reminded to choose, deconstruct and model high-quality texts so that pupils could develop the same characteristics in their course work.

Feedback from subject teachers

Feedback from subject teachers was very positive. The CPD had a great impact on teachers’ attitudes towards language learning, with several commenting on how they realised that teaching English was not just the responsibility of the English department. The training changed teachers’ approaches to their subject, emphasising the importance of language learning alongside cognitive and academic content learning.  

As for the ‘invisible’ Cs, they no longer had anywhere to hide in a language-rich and supportive learning environment.

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