The challenges facing EAL learners

Multilingual learners face a triple challenge in their learning. They have to acquire both colloquial and academic English; they must develop the knowledge, skills and understanding of that curriculum; they must also overcome the culturally-bound aspect of schooling. EAL learners, particularly new arrivals, may struggle in these three areas for a while as they learn to catch up with their peers. (NALDIC, 2009)

Social and cultural challenges:

  • New arrivals in particular can feel isolated and bewildered by school; particularly if they come from a country where they were too young to have started formal education or if their schooling has been patchy and interrupted. Kelleen Toohey’s (2003) three-year study of EAL learners in Canada captures how schools provide communities of practice in fine detail.
  • School starting age varies between countries, thus teachers cannot assume that a pupil arriving to start school in England has had the same number of years in schools as an English pupil the same age will have had.
  • The classroom will have routines that are unfamiliar and potentially exclude a new to English learner if not made explicit. (See research by Cameron, Moon and Bygate 1996)
  • Pupils new to English will have trouble making their basic needs known and this will exacerbate feelings of isolation. Play times outside can be particularly isolating.

Language and learning related challenges:

  • Research shows that some teachers perceive some groups of minority ethnic pupils as ‘model minorities’. For example, there is evidence that Indian and Chinese pupils are perceived as high achievers in the UK and USA and a suggestion that in the UK Polish pupils are perceived generically as highly motivated. This can lead to problems for pupils who do not conform to the stereotype. (See research by Li, 2005; Ng, Lee & Pak, 2007; Flynn, 2019)
  • Conversely pupils from other minority ethnic groups might typically be perceived as under-performing and their progress affected by low teacher expectation. (See research by Gilborn and Mirza,2000; Strand, 2007)
  • The teaching and learning approaches in the new school may differ substantially from those in the child’s home country. They may be more didactic and less talk-based for example so that activities requiring open-ended problem solving and discussion will be unfamiliar.
  • The language of learning will be full of vocabulary and concepts that are specific to each curriculum area taught, and potentially unfamiliar to the EAL learner.
  • EAL is sometimes considered in the same category as a special educational need and pupils are inappropriately grouped with low attaining pupils; most notably this restricts access to good role models for spoken English. This can mask true potential and lead to activities that are not appropriately cognitively engaging. (See section on Grouping Your EAL Learners)
  • Languages that are alphabetic, like English, differ in the way that letters and sounds map on to each other: for example, in Spanish the letter ‘b’ is pronounced more as an English ‘v’ would be spoken; in Polish there are 32 letters including 9 vowels, but Q, V and X are excluded. Some languages are logographic rather than alphabetic meaning that their symbols represent words themselves (e.g. Chinese languages). All of these differences represent a range of difficulties for new to English learners in accessing written English. (See also section on New to English Learners and Writing)