Stages of additional language learning

It is important to note that in planning for EAL learners, attention to their stage of language and literacy development is more important than relating their attainment to curriculum-led levels which are designed for monolingual learners. Measuring pupils only by their developing English is a deficit approach which ignores heritage languages and does not take account of multilingualism as an asset.

There is substantial UK-based research indicating the fact that pupils’ English proficiency level is the key indicator relevant to their success in school. See, for example, studies from Feyisa Demie, Steve Strand listed in the section called References to research used in this guide.

Stages of additional language learning are not linear. The rate of progress and the order of language acquisition will vary between pupils according to influencing factors such as: the proximity of the child’s first language to the letters and sounds of English, the way in which the classroom environment scaffolds spoken language use, the attitude of the school to additional languages, the motivation of the child to learn English. However, in attempting to define a sequence for additional language acquisition the following may provide a useful benchmark:

  • Continued use of the first language

  • Silent phase (can last up to six months)

  • Use of single words

  • Use of phrases etc.

  • Use of more complex English

There are no mandatory UK-based ways of naming children’s different levels of proficiency. There was, however, a framework for measuring proficiency in English introduced by the Department for Education  (2016), and subsequently developed by the Bell Foundation, that you can find here

Different regions/countries and different local authorities may have their own developed frameworks. For the purposes of this guide, we have selected three stages that best describe the broad levels of language and literacy development that teachers are likely to need to plan for when working with their EAL learners.


This describes a pupil who has just arrived in school, who may or may not have also just arrived in the UK, and who has had very limited or no exposure to English.


This describes a pupil who has been in school for a period of time and can use English to communicate anything from basic needs to a range of curriculum concepts. This pupil will still need support to gain full meaning from texts and to be able to express themselves academically in writing.


From around two years of continuous exposure to English, it is broadly accepted that children will have developed basic communication skills (BICS) and be on a journey to full academic proficiency (CALP). Towards the end of acquiring full competence EAL learners may well be out-performing their monolingual peers but under-attaining in terms of their true capabilities. They will still need support with academic language use in order that they maximise their potential. Research suggests that it can take up to 10 years to develop full academic proficiency, depending on circumstances, and for this reason pupils may need specific interventions and accelerated targets (Birmingham Advisory Support Service, 2003).

For more guidance on assessing where pupils are in their English language learning, and on how to set targets for development see the section on Planning and Assessment of EAL Learners.