‘Put simply, bilingualism is the ability to use two languages’ (Franson, 2007). Chin and Wigglesworth (2007) state that it is rare to find an individual who does not have one language which is more dominant than the other. For many bilingual children, the dominant language is one they use at home, whereas the weaker language is the language they use at school.

Seventy percent of the world’s population is bilingual and regularly uses more than one language in daily life. NALDIC (National Association for Language Development in the Curriculum) has found that there are more than a million children between 5-18 years old in UK schools who speak in excess of 360 languages between them. In addition, the DfE state that in Primary Schools, 21.2% of pupils are exposed to language known or believed to be other than English in their home. These facts would suggest that, in reality, bilingualism is the norm.

In 2016, the DfE introduced the use of descriptors for EAL (English as an Additional language) levels of proficiency. These descriptors determine what level of language proficiency the pupil has in an English school. The English schools were required by the government to report bilingual pupils’ levels of English Language proficiency in their 2017 School Census.

These descriptors were helpful for teachers and schools to see what level of English proficiency their pupils with EAL had and whether they had improved or not over the year. They were set out through letters A-E, where A describes a pupil new to the English Language and E describes a pupil who is as fluent in English Language as a native speaker of English. The School Census 2017 to 2018 Guide stated that the EAL proficiency descriptors would help the department understand how effective the education sector is for pupils with EAL. In addition, NALDIC strongly supported these EAL proficiency descriptors saying that they are ‘vital to assess the language proficiencies of EAL learners accurately’. The information gained from these proficiency levels will help teachers to plan the curriculum for these pupils with EAL and to see where improvement is needed.

Code Description
A – New to English
  • May use first language for learning and other purposes.
  • May remain completely silent in the classroom.
  • May be copying/repeating some words or phrases.
  • May understand some everyday expressions in English but may have minimal or no literacy in English.
  • Needs a considerable amount of EAL support.
B – Early Acquisition
  • May follow day to day social communication in English and participate in learning activities with support.
  • Beginning to use spoken English for social purposes.
  • May understand simple instructions and can follow narrative/accounts with visual support.
  • May have developed some skills in reading and writing.
  • May have become familiar with some subject specific vocabulary.
C – Developing Competence
  • May participate in learning activities with increasing independence.
  • Able to express self orally in English, but structural inaccuracies are still apparent.
  • Literacy will require ongoing support, particularly for understanding text and writing.
  • May be able to follow abstract concepts and more complex written English.
D – Competent
  • Oral English will be developing well, enabling successful engagement in activities across the curriculum.
  • Can read and understand a wide variety of texts.
  • Written English may lack complexity and contain occasional evidence of errors in structure.
  • Needs some support to access subtle nuances of meaning, to refine English usage, and to develop abstract vocabulary.
E – Fluent
  • Can operate across the curriculum to a level of competence equivalent to that of a pupil who uses English as their first language.

However, after the 2017 School Census, the DfE decided to remove the requirement to use these EAL proficiency descriptors, making it difficult to see how pupils with EAL were progressing in their acquisition of English. Without these descriptors we are unable to see what level of proficiency in English bilingual pupils have reached. This is why NALDIC still recommends that schools use these EAL proficiency descriptors internally so that they can have this information for their own database.

EAL proficiency descriptors have successfully been used in Wales for some time now, and in Scotland they use a similar set of descriptors. The DfE state that ‘Learners of EAL have, on average, lower levels of attainment than pupils whose first language is English.’ So, in order to improve this attainment we need to know what level of proficiency the pupil has.

A set of standardised descriptors provides a valuable tool for teachers and schools to examine the support needs and language acquisition progress of their bilingual pupils. It is vital to have accurate data regarding the language proficiencies of the EAL learners in our schools in order to inform curriculum planning, resource allocation and teacher development to ensure the best possible provision for our linguistically diverse population.

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