Key strategies for supporting pupils with their language acquisition, as well as helping them to feel valued and included, from Penny Whelan.

I don’t know about you, but when I had my own class, one of the times that I felt I really struggled as a teacher was when I was presented with a new student who spoke absolutely no English. It wasn’t that I hadn’t been told about their imminent arrival, or that I hadn’t had lots of training on supporting pupils with English as an Additional Language (EAL), it was that I initially panicked about how I was going to cope with having them in my classroom. What was I going to do with them? They weren’t going to understand anything I had planned; they weren’t going to be able to answer questions or access the test I was supposed to be giving that week. They weren’t going to be able to understand me, and I wasn’t going to be able to understand them.

That was the problem. I was so focussed on how difficult it was going to be for me at that moment in time that I hadn’t thought about how much courage it would take for them to come to school every day in a new country, in a new school with new and unfamiliar people, rules and routines. However, the second they walked in that door, I knew that I would be doing the very best I could for that child, as every teacher across the world does. I needed to work a little bit harder to make things more accessible for them, but that’s what I was doing already for all of the pupils in my class; the SEND children, the above average children, the below average children, the children that needed different approaches to spark their imagination, and those that needed less distraction and more focus. And I began to think about what that child would bring to the class, the richness and diversity that they would be adding to, and I thought about how I wanted to make them feel about themselves – valued, included, comfortable, happy.

It can create feelings of anxiety in teachers when you’re told that there will be a child arriving with no English but imagine how that child feels entering your room – and how you can make them feel when they leave it at the end of the day.

What can you do to support a pupil in your class with EAL?

So, are all children with EAL the same? Of course not! There are different stages of EAL and, although we often focus on new arrivals with no or limited English, there are also children in your class and school who speak two or  more languages fluently and can switch between them. Each of them is at a different stage of their development. You will have some who are fluent in speaking their home language but cannot read or write in it, and some whose parents cannot speak much English or are learning to speak, read and write it themselves. Then there are those children who are advanced bilingual learners – they may have been raised speaking two languages simultaneously and be excellent at both. This doesn’t mean that they don’t still need support, but it will vary according to the stage of English acquisition they are at.

Starting point:

  • Find out as much as you can about that pupil – where they have come from, whether they have travelled through other countries, what language/s they speak, who they live with, what their interests are; anything to help you understand what they have experienced and what their needs are.
  • Assess their stage of English language acquisition, preferably in their home language if you can. The Bell Foundation has a plethora of resources and a fantastic assessment framework with tutorials, webinars and supporting tracking tools and classroom strategies.
  • Build a relationship with them. Make them feel comfortable, valued and included. Smile at them and spend time getting to know them.


There are lots of resources and interventions designed to help children to learn English but supporting them in class is down to the strategies and approaches you adopt. You can use multilingual resources and physical resources, games and more, but there is no one single way.

Pre-teach key vocabulary

Use word mats with symbols and pictures, use lots of visuals, explain vocabulary before the lesson, allow them to look words up in picture dictionaries etc. Revisit after a lesson and at a later date. Use retrieval practice methods to help embed vocabulary into long-term memory.

Use games

Let the children play games that encourage speaking and listening. Barrier games are great for this. A barrier game uses a physical barrier between the two players (an open book, a small screen, an open laptop, etc) and the children have to talk to each other to draw a picture and explain to the other player what they have drawn or have a selection of shapes/animals/ objects that they place on a picture or grid whilst explaining to their partner. It’s all about conversation and giving instructions.

Give time

Give EAL children additional time to think about what they want to say. Let them have thinking time, write it down, rehearse it with someone, draw it, etc. ‘Talking partners’ is great for children to practise answering a question with a partner and help them to build confidence and rehearse the language before they feed back to a teacher or group.

Use books

Does your school have some dual-language books? If you do, send some home with the child so they can read in their home language and then practise in English. This is also great for parents who are learning English, as they can hear their child read and learn together.  Do you have any picture dictionaries? These are great for all children to be able to help them identify words they want to use in speech or writing. You may also find bilingual picture dictionaries helpful.

Multilingual displays

You might want to label some of the items in your room in English and a child’s home language, as well as with pictures or symbols. This will help children to navigate the classroom more independently, as well as helping them in their language acquisition. Make the displays you put up multilingual too. If you know there are children in your classroom who speak different languages, try to include and value them.

Use appropriate software

See if your school has any software that might help to support your EAL learners. There are lots of software providers that have developed useful programs – Clicker is one example. You can use a word processor which will speak back to you and will offer a predictive text function, pictures and symbols accompanying words and will also allow you to create word banks, e-books and more.

Communicate with parents

Getting parents on board is crucial, as we all know. You might need to use a translator for parents’ evening or for those calls home, but if you are able to include the family, it will be hugely appreciated and helpful. Try to translate letters you send home and make sure that the school website has a translation tool available on it.


This is an important one. Translanguaging is about allowing and encouraging a pupil to use the languages they know to access English. They can talk to others in their home language, they can use words that they know in English and flit between languages to help them make sense of what they are doing. There is extensive research on translanguaging, such as this EAL Journal article, and it is an important tool in helping EAL learners to access the curriculum.

When you let children discuss topics or questions in small groups or pairs, why not seat them in groups that share the same language? Allow them to talk in any language they wish before rehearsing and offering their opinions in English. It is widely understood that continuing to learn and develop in your first language will also help you to learn your additional language. Speaking in their home language allows children to really get to grips with and understand the question before they then feed back to the teacher or others. For more information on translanguaging, check out Ofelia Garcia.

Having English as an additional language shouldn’t be a barrier to accessing the curriculum and it’s down to us as educators to make the necessary adjustments, just as we do for all learners in our classroom, to ensure that those with EAL are fully included in the classroom and able to make progress in line with their peers.

A huge thank you to Annelouise Jordan for her help with this!


  • Penny Whelan

    Penny Whelan is a primary assistant headteacher and SENCO in Bedfordshire. Penny works part-time and is also an EAL coordinator, a specialist leader of Education, Emotional Literacy Support Assistant and Coach. Penny is the operations manager for the Schools Linking Network in her Local Authority. She is passionate about SEND, inclusion, diversity and community cohesion.
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