In recent years the number of learners speaking English as an additional language (EAL) in UK schools has seen a huge increase. The percentage of pupils who are bilingual or have EAL varies from school to school and across areas but there are more than a million children between 5–18 years old in UK schools who speak in excess of 360 languages between them. The National Association for Language Development in the Curriculum (NALDIC) reports that EAL learners represent the norm in schools in the UK, and that bilingualism is the most common human state, being more common than monolingualism globally.

With figures like these, it’s clear that all teachers need to feel confident in teaching EAL learners. Having to support pupils speaking a number of different languages can seem a daunting task but armed with the appropriate knowledge and resources it is a rewarding challenge. The most important step in any challenge is the first step. The first step in gaining confidence in teaching children who have EAL is to have a positive attitude towards bilingualism and to gain an appreciation of the advantages that it offers pupils.

It’s not difficult to understand that bilingual speakers might have an advantage when learning other languages and have better linguistic skills but research shows us that the benefits extend beyond language learning. Learning another language stretches your mind intellectually, requiring you to focus on the structure and sounds of the language and to understanding implied meaning.

The part of the brain called the executive function has been proven to be stronger in bilinguals and this means that they find it easier to focus and are better at avoiding distractions. Executive function also gives bilinguals better cognitive control over information, allowing them to switch tasks and multitask more easily and be better at problem solving and critical thinking bilingual. Bilingual children develop a strong sense of cultural identity which can impact on their sense of self-worth and their mental health. The more languages a person speaks, the more people from different cultures they are able to communicate with and learn from, giving access to a much wider “world view”. Being fluent in more than one language makes travel easier and opens up international job opportunities.

Having taken the first step towards appreciating the advantages of speaking more than one language, the next step is to provide appropriate support for pupils in your class who have EAL. Here, too, having a positive attitude helps. Having pupils from a wide variety of cultures provides a good starting point for classroom discussion and information gathering about other cultures. Pupils can be invited to share their traditions and stories with their classmates. Not only does this provide a learning opportunity for everyone in the class but it also helps to reinforce the bilingual pupils’ self-worth as well as their pride in their cultural heritage.

Although children with EAL have a number of linguistic and cognitive advantages, they cannot be thought of as a “homogenous” group. It is important to find the strengths and weaknesses of each individual pupil when they join your school. Limited exposure to English or limited experience of formal education shouldn’t be mistaken for a learning or language difficulty. Children with EAL should not be included in language intervention groups with children with speech, language and communication needs (SLCN). Giving a pupil with EAL inappropriate tasks that don’t challenge them cognitively is likely to impact on their self-image and self-esteem. They should be supported to engage activities which are increasingly challenging, using their own language to scaffold their learning and the classroom environment, where they are surrounded by good models of English, is the best place for this to happen.

Despite these advantages, there will be students who have English as an additional language who do have language difficulties. These difficulties can only be identified through thorough investigation which will involve discussion with the parents and carers and where possible, input from other speakers of the child’s first language. Only if the child is struggling to develop their first language should they be considered as having a speech, language, and communication need (SLCN).

Although Language Link cannot be used to identify a language difficulty in any language other than English, it can prove a useful tool in identifying which areas of English a pupil finds challenging. It can also be used to check that a pupil with EAL is making progress and that the difference between their understanding of English and that of their peers is narrowing.

Rather than being daunted by the challenge, welcoming and celebrating difference in the classroom will lead to a much more fulfilling experience for teachers and all pupils, whatever their cultural or language background.

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