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From “good enough” to great: Best practice with higher level EAL learners

There is a consistent pattern in schools today of increasing numbers of students with an EAL designation and a concurrent decreasing in funding for EAL. This leads to natural tensions between the explicit needs of learners with EAL and the ability of schools to meet these needs. Often this means that students who are new to English get support, but as soon as they are “good enough” they become mainstream students in terms of teaching and learning. The differences between daily proficiency and academic proficiency in a language are not always obvious or easy to tease out, and thus are often left unattended to in schools. Students, especially older ones, can often masquerade as fluent English speakers due to strong conversational skills, but find the language necessary for complex academic tasks to be beyond them. This can present not as a language issue, but as a learning issue, where students appear to be simply unable to understand complex content or produce complex content.

Many schools have now begun to use Cummins’ distinction between conversational fluency (BICS) and academic fluency (CALP) as a guideline for understanding how long it takes for students to reach native- like levels in these very different kinds of languag[1] [EC2] e (1-2 years for BICS, 3-7 years for CALP). Understanding these windows is useful information for teachers, but it doesn’t necessarily give any clear insight into how teachers should reach these students at their level, or how to ensure continued access to the curriculum and to language development after they have reached the “good enough” stage. These learners are often coded as Stage C (Developing Competence) and need consistent and appropriate support to move into Stage D (Competent), and then onwards to Stage E (Fluent).

A further concept from Cummins’ can help answer this critical question: How do we ensure that EAL students continue to progress in the higher stages of language development?


Quadrants 1 and 2 represent activities that are not cognitively challenging to learners, such having basic conversations, copying notes, etc.. Quadrants 3 and 4 represent activities that are cognitively challenging for learners, such as maths problems, scientific concepts, etc. The major challenge when teaching older learners is that the content of the curriculum is by its nature cognitively challenging. This is how learning happens, especially in secondary school. Thus, complex learning must be attended to, or these learners will experience delays in content-learning which can have long-term effects. Teachers are therefore tasked with finding ways to make cognitively challenging content accessible to students who are still developing CALP. The key to this is in the division between Quadrants 1/3 and 2/4. Quadrants 1 & 3 represent content that has contextual support. This often happens automatically in the early years of schooling, when teachers continuously use context-rich ways to deliver material, including body language, gestures, pictures, models, etc. As learners become more cognitively mature, teachers tend to move away from consistent provision of contextual support, on the understanding that learners also need to learn to function in Quadrant 4, dealing with cognitively demanding content without contextual support. This is the normal progression of learning, which is modeled in textbooks and teaching materials through secondary and into higher education.

The big but for language learners is that they are not on the same progression in terms of cognitive capacity in English as the other students, which means that if they are given the same teaching and same tasks they will struggle, not due to ability, but due to lack of full access to the materials and content. One simple strategy that teachers can use to consistently provide contextual support for learners in stages C & D is the use of graphic organisers to support different aspects of learning. This allows students to grasp the conceptual relationships through the visual, and also allows for differentiation in input and output. Ensuring advanced students have full access to the content will them provide them with enhanced learning and language development opportunities, thus supporting them as they progress into higher levels of language development.

A second useful strategy is to have learners use their own languages for parts of the learning cycle. Generally, a learning cycle can be defined in the following manner:


When approaching new topics with an important conceptual basis, ensuring understanding can be difficult. Having students gather input about a new topic in their own language can promote secure content knowledge, which will then allow them to graft on new English language content as well. Use of the home language can be beneficial for processing new content, by placing students in same-language groups so they have the opportunity to support each other and confirm understanding. And finally, use of home language in the output phase can allow teachers to gauge what the student knows as opposed to what they can say/write in English.

It is important to note that all of these accommodations should be happening across the curriculum, not only in EAL classes or support sessions. Language development happens in all subject areas, and language development is critical for success in all subject areas. Schools that have an EAL teacher or department should consider it a part of their remit to provide information about these key areas of development for intermediate-advanced learners to all subject teachers, and to model and advocate for the use of scaffolding strategies to help all students to continue to progress into full academic and cognitive proficiency in English. Schools who are supporting language learners without an EAL specialist also have a duty to provide suitable support for learners and should therefore designate a key staff member to take on the task of learning about these key issues. Although the BICS/CALP designation is a natural continuum, the amount and type of support that learners get in the development phase can impact how quickly they progress through from BICS to CALP and onwards. It is therefore in the best interests of both students and teachers to consider this a focus point for best practice in working with students with EAL.

Note: The stages of language development referred to are from the Bell Foundation EAL Assessment Framework for Schools

Further reading

Cary, S. (2007). Working with English Language Learners: Answers to teachers top ten questions. Heinemann: Portsmouth.

Cummins, J. (2008). BICS and CALP: Empirical and Theoretical Status of the Distinction. In B. Street, & N. Hornberger (Eds.), Encyclopedia of Language and Education (Vol. Volume 2: LIteracy, pp. 71-83). Springer Science and Business Media.

Genesee, F., Lindholm-Leary, K., Saunders, W., & Christian, D. (2006). Educating English Language Learners. Cambridge : Cambridge University Press.

Gibbons, P. (2011). English Learners Academic, Literacy and Thinking: Learning in the challenge zone. Portsmouth: Heinemann.

Gibbons, P. (2014). Scaffolding Language, Scaffolding Learning (2 ed.). Portsmouth: Heinemann.

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