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Exploring support for children with English as an Additional Language in the early years

The number of young children with English as an Additional Language (EAL) entering early years has risen sharply over recent years. DfE report on Attainment of pupils with English as an additional language, 2019, highlights that at the end of Key Stage 2 in 2017/18, 17% of all pupils had EAL and 79% of these had joined in Reception.

Children with EAL come from a diverse range of ethnicities, cultures, backgrounds, experiences, and situations. Families can range from asylum seekers to economic migrants and there can be high mobility until they are eventually able to settle. Like many young children, learners of EAL may find it difficult to settle into a new setting. In addition to the English language support need, they may not have any prior experience of early years settings. Parents’ own English and experience of early years and the British Education system may be limited. So, meeting their unique and individual support needs effectively within the early years provision can be a complex and daunting task.


Definition of EAL  

To deliver a successful provision, we need to first understand the definition of EAL and how it relates to the children it characterises.  ‘EAL’ is an umbrella term used to describe children acquiring English within the education context.

This group of learners are not homogenous and are represented through a range of dimensions, development, learning levels and linguistic experiences. Some children are newly arrived with little or no English, some are born in the UK and have varying degrees of English, for some English is the dominant language whilst others are competent bilinguals.  We cannot assume children do not have existing knowledge and language skills needed for cognitive development because they do not speak English.

“Young children within the broad development span of 0-5yrs may be anywhere along the language development continuum in one or more languages. Some will be beginners in one language, but proficient in another; others will be on varying stages of fluency in one or more languages.  The term EAL also recognises that many children learning English in settings are already developing more than one home language and adding English to their repertoire.”

PNS Guidance for EYFS, Supporting children learning EAL, 2007

Though an old definition, it is still the best fit for early years as it captures not only the rich language repertoire but also the breadth, fluency, and competency of each language.  It acknowledges the prior knowledge and skill.    




Identifying and assessing EAL support needs

Young children learn an additional language in very much the same way as they learn their first language. However, they have a double task of learning a new language (English) and learning to learn in it (content of the curriculum). This is an uneven and contextually dependent process.  EAL pedagogy and strategies are distinct in meeting both the language and learning needs of the children with EAL across the curriculum. 

In early years, learners of EAL will express their understanding of the world in one or more languages, or they may be “silent”. Some children can be silent for many months and may be processing the new language whilst still developing their home language.

It is important for practitioners to identify all the languages the children are exposed to and the levels within them. Thus, they are better placed to provide the appropriate language development support, and differentiating between EAL and other support needs such as SEND and SLCN.

Good provision ensures that effective and holistic assessment is in place to identify key English language acquisition gaps alongside the learning (ELGs). EAL assessments such as NASSEA (The Northern Association of Support Services for Equality and Achievement) are effective tools to use alongside observational assessment and are linked to the ELGs so that priorities can be identified to develop English language acquisition alongside knowledge and concepts across the areas of learning in EYFS.

Within the current EYFS framework, it is only development in the Communication, Language and Literacy ELG that requires assessment in English only. As other ELGs do not require children to show their understanding through English, opportunities should be provided for learners of EAL to hear and use their home language to show their understanding and progress in these areas of learning. Practitioners may only get a partial picture in contexts where English is the sole medium of communication.


Parents in Partnership

Research by Education Endowment Fund shows that children’s successful outcomes are highly dependent on effective parental engagement and involvement. Early years settings are required to involve parents/carers in their child’s development, learning and assessment and must have cohesive systems in place to initiate good working relationships. Provision must ensure that parents with EAL have the same access to parental involvement as all parents. Potential barriers may be limited English, knowledge of the British education system, different educational experiences, mismatch of expectations, understanding of play-based learning and trauma from their circumstances. They may have misconceptions that English should be prioritised at the expense of their home language.




Top strategies for success

Create a warm, welcoming, and culturally inclusive environment

·         Everyone should be seen, heard, and valued equally.

·         Resources and displays will tell their own story about your setting.

Know your children

·         Make a point of discovering the languages spoken and heard by the children at home so they can be included within your setting.

·         Check the level of development in home language as well in English to establish a starting point for support. This will assist with early identification of support needs as well as highlight the children’s interests, prior experience, skills, talents, language, culture, and learning, all integral to building on continued new learning.  

Allow children the silent period

·         Do not pressurise the children to talk, but involve them. Provide visual or non-verbal communication where possible.

·         Ensure that the child is not silent at home as that would raise exploration into other support needs.

Parents in partnership

·         Build an accurate picture of the children and families and ‘really know’ them.  Meet the parents early on to collect detailed information about their cultural and linguistic backgrounds.

·         Involve the key person in all the information gathering and sharing. They will be crucial for developing those positive and safe relationships and enabling the parents to be truly involved in their child’s development, learning and assessment. Parents will disclose more if they feel understood and trust you.

·         Create opportunities for practitioners to be available to talk to parents and support them in their children’s learning so they feel valued and heard.

·         Offer drop-ins and parent workshops to build parental confidence.

·         Invite parents to read a book in their home language, share their stories and experiences, attend stay and play sessions.

·         Signpost to relevant services, e.g., community groups, libraries, toddler groups – parents with EAL may be unaware of these peripheral services. 

·         Develop ways of communication such as interpreters, translations, same language parent champions.

·         Contact local supplementary (faith, language & cultural) schools and community groups for support and to learn about the communities.

Keep the home language alive

·         A fundamental approach to supporting children with EAL is to build on existing language acquisition skills from the home language. By actively helping to maintain and develop the home language, you are supporting the skills and concept development in both languages. Home language becomes the ‘hanging pegs’ for building new learning through existing knowledge and skills.

·         Home language is also central to developing and maintaining self-esteem and identity. Getting the pronunciation of the children’s name correct will making them feel welcome. Raise the status of home languages so children and parents feel included and are proud of their cultural and linguistic heritage.

·         Show parents/carers the benefits of bilingualism so they understand the significant role it plays in their child’s development. Encourage parents to maintain home language so it is not lost . Bilingual welcome walls, displays and books are a great way of reinforcing the importance of home language. 

Use an EAL assessment system to identify the gaps in language and learning

·         Introduce and embed critical EAL assessment within the core assessment practice to inform, plan and deliver the next steps in language progression via a contextualised provision.  

Critical language support

·         Speaking and listening must be central to all activities. Plan language focused and practical activities to support concept building and to introduce, model and rehearse new vocabulary in context. Use visual prompts such as pictorial timetables and dual language resources to link existing learning to new learning. Rhymes, songs, book related talk and stories with repetitive language patterns are very useful to encourage exploratory talk and support the language demand. Social language will be acquired through regular exposure so focus on the development of academic language needed to access the learning.


Children with EAL have the potential of being high achievers and successful lifelong learners. By creating a culturally inclusive early years provision, which values the significant role of the first language, we can lay solid foundations of learning.



Further resources:  




Meeting the needs of Young Children with EAL. Malini Mistry and Krishan Sood, 2020, Routledge publishers

Supporting Identity, Diversity and Language in the Early Years, Siraj-Blatchford & Priscilla Clarke, 2000, Open University Press 

100 ideas for Early Years practitioners: Supporting EAL learners, Marianne Sargent, 2016, Bloomsbury

Sejal Payne
Sejal Payne is a specialist bespoke education consultant with many years of skills and expertise in supporting school improvement. Sejal is a dedicated, knowledgeable and highly experienced consultant with over 15 years of working in schools and within local authority, supporting the provision of Black and Minority Ethnic Pupils, including pupils with English as an Additional Language and working collaboratively with the schools to identify areas of development and address the gaps. Her experience ranges from Early Years to secondary school.

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