Research School Network: The Known and the Unknown in EAL and Education Challenges and Ways forward

The Known and the Unknown in EAL and Education

Challenges and Ways forward

by Research Schools Network
on the

Victoria Murphy, Department of Education, University of Oxford

There are things known and there are things unknown, and in between are the doors of perception.” – Aldous Huxley

What is EAL?

Bilingualism is the norm. Some estimates suggest that over half the world’s population speak more than one language (Grosjean, 2014). The international growth (and dominance) of the bilingual population is manifest in English schools, where currently over 20% of the primary school population is made of up children with English as an Additional Language (EAL). The Department for Education define EAL as: 

Where a child was exposed to the language during early development and continues to be exposed to this language in the home or in the community. If a child was exposed to more than one language (which may include English) during early development the language other than English should be recorded, irrespective of the child’s proficiency in English.

The DfE’s conceptualisation of EAL is problematic in numerous ways.

We know from a number of studies that the EAL population is highly heterogeneous, representing one in five children at primary level, over 360 different home languages, and a considerable range of different educational outcomes (Strand, Malmberg & Hall, 2015; Hutchinson, 2018). This definition does not, therefore, provide sufficient specification of sub-groupings of EAL pupils so as to allow us to make meaningful predictions about their educational and/​or linguistic needs. Additionally, the DfE’s definition of EAL does not address the child’s proficiency in either English, or their language used at home.

Numerous studies have clearly shown that one of the most significant predictors of a child’s academic achievement is their proficiency in English (Demie & Strand, 2006; Whiteside, Gooch & Norbury, 2016). Consequently, the DfE implemented the Proficiency in English (PiE) scales, intended to be used by teachers to assess their EAL pupils’ fluency in English. This assessment enabled teachers to identify those children who would need specific and targeted support and track children’s English language development as they navigate through the curriculum.

The DfE has since withdrawn the PiE scales from the school census data, a move widely criticised by NALDIC, the subject specialist association for EAL. A recent report by Strand and Hessel (2018) demonstrated that the PiE scales predicts academic outcomes in EAL pupils, hence we have good evidence to support their use in schools. Therefore, continued use of these PiE scales is strongly recommended.

Academic Achievement in EAL

Strand, Malmberg and Hall (2015), and more recently Hutchinson (2018), have shown that there is considerable variability in the academic achievement of EAL pupils.

Analysing EAL pupils as an over-arching group masks the key dimensions on which children with EAL will vary in their academic achievement. Some of these include proficiency in English, socioeconomic status (SES), children with missing prior attainment data, and specific language groupings. These factors are all more predictive of academic achievement than whether the child is tagged as EAL in the National Pupil Database. We therefore need to consider these issues carefully so as to develop a more nuanced understanding of what may negatively impact on EAL children’s academic achievement.

Language and literacy and EAL

Research has clearly demonstrated that children who come to school with weak language and communication skills are more likely to struggle by Year 2 (Whiteside, Gooch & Norbury, 2016). Many studies have shown a tendency for children with EAL to struggle with aspects of literacy such as reading comprehension (Murphy, 2018) and components of writing (Murphy, Kyriacou & Menon, 2015). Vocabulary is a strong predictor of both reading comprehension and writing and is often under-developed in the majority language (English) of EAL pupils relative to English first language children.

These findings underscore why supporting language, particularly oral language, in EAL pupils is so important. Murphy and Unthiah (2015) and more recently Oxley and De Cat (2018) have reviewed key educational interventions shown to be successful in developing the English language and literacy skills of EAL pupils. These interventions tend to focus on word-level skills in classrooms. Unfortunately, there are few interventions on these important issues carried out in the UK context and so further research is needed in this area.

Ways forward

Despite the fact that there are increasing numbers of EAL pupils in English schools, both resourcing and policy references have been reduced year on year since 2010 (Flynn & Curdt-Christiansen, 2018). Pedagogical guidance regarding EAL does not figure much in curricular guidance, OfSTED frameworks, or the new ITT framework.

Initial Teacher Education (ITE) programmes tend not to include much about best practice for EAL pupils in their programmes, no doubt in part because EAL is not a specific curricular subject. However, this means that the teacher workforce emerges from their ITE experiences relatively under-prepared to face the exciting but nonetheless challenging prospect of the multilingual classroom.

Some researchers have suggested that a translanguaging’ approach to pedagogy, where the teacher draws from all the known languages in a child’s repertoire, is most effective in supporting multilingual pupils (Wei, 2018). This may indeed by a profitable way forward; the evidence base does not yet exist to enable us to develop informed guidance regarding multilingual pedagogy. This is an urgent area of need for future research, which should ideally be co-constructed with practitioners to be maximally relevant to teachers and students.

Committed Leadership and evidence-informed decision-making is required to enable us to help prepare the million plus EAL pupils in our primary schools to achieve their full potential.

We live in a multilingual world. Therefore, we need to abolish the monolingual mindset within our educational settings and beyond.


Demie, F. & Strand, S. (2006). English language acquisition and educational attainment at the end of secondary school. Educational Studies, 32, 215 – 231. doi:10.1080/03055690600631119

Flynn, N. & Curdt-Christiansen, X.L. (2018). Intentions versus enactment: Making sense of policy and practice for teaching English as an additional language. Language and Education, 32(5), 410 – 427.

Grosjean, F. (2014). Chasing down those 65%: What is the percentage of bilinguals in the world today. Blog from Psychology Today. Retrieved from:

Hutchinson, J. (2018). Educational outcomes of children with English as an Additional Language.

Murphy, V.A., Kyriacou, M. & Menon, P. (2015). Profiling writing challenges in children with English as an Additional Language. Report for The Nuffield Foundation.

Murphy, V.A. & Unthiah, A. (2015). A systematic review of intervention research examining English language and literacy development in children with English as an additional language (EAL). Research Report for the Education Endowment Foundation, Bell Foundation and Unbound Philanthropy.

Murphy, V.A. (2018). Literacy development in linguistically diverse pupils. In D. Miller, F. Bayram, J. Rothman & L. Serratrice (Eds). Bilingual Cognition and Language: The state of the science across its subfields. Studies in Bilingualism, 54, Amsterdam: John Benjamins

Oxley, E. & De Cat, C. (2018). A systematic review of language and literacy interventions in children and adolescents with English as an additional language.

Strand, S., & Demie, F. (2005). English language acquisition and educational attainment at the end of primary school. Educational Studies, 31, 275 – 291. doi:10.1080/ 03055690500236613

Strand, S., Malmberg, L. & Hall, J. (2015). English as an additional language (EAL) and educational achievement in England: An analysis of the National Pupil Database. Report for the Educational Endowment Foundation. London, UK

Strand, S. & Hessel, A. (2018). English as an additional language, proficiency in English and pupils’ educational achievement: An analysis of local authority data. Published by The Bell Foundation:

Wei, Li. (2018). Translanguaging as a practical theory of language. Applied Linguistics. 39(1), 9 – 30

Whiteside, K.E., Gooch, D. & Norbury, C.F. (2016). English language proficiency and early school attainment among children learning English as an additional language. Child Development, DOI: 10.1111/cdev.12615

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