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Why is EAL so complex?

Every once in a while a school contacts me and asks me to do a redesign for their EAL provision, expecting that it will take a couple of days and be focused on schedules and materials (programmes). If only it could be that easy! While schools are complicated in many ways, creating and delivering good EAL provision remains one of our biggest challenges. This is the first in a series of four blog posts exploring the complexities of EAL, and some pathways forward for EAL specialists and departments to consider. They are based on a closing keynote that I delivered at the DIPS EAL conference at the International School of Delft in March 2023.


Why is EAL provision so complex?


The first reason for the complexity of EAL is people, starting with the students who are at the centre of our provisions. 'EAL' is a label that is used in different ways and for different purposes, with no centralised guidelines for schools that sit outside national systems (and even for schools that sit inside national systems if no clear guidance is provided). Far from being a homogenous group, in fact each classroom will be unique in the profiles of students with EAL. Some of the factors that need to be taken into account when designing provision are:

  • Language background of students

  • Proficiency in English

  • Length of stay

  • Past educational experiences

  • Age

People also includes teachers and parents. Teacher background, training, attitudes and comfort level in working with multilingual learners all need to be taken into account when designing provision; the stronger your teachers the better your EAL provision, and the less it will be onerous organisationally. Parental expectations, language background, and availability to support are all variables as well.


This variable encompasses both the school programme, in terms of curriculum, and the EAL programme itself. The school curriculum needs to be the driver for EAL provision, so there is no one size fits all 'EAL Programme'. The EAL programme needs to be designed for the school, based on the people involved, and on the content and assessment requirements of the curriculum. The design process must recognise the unique needs of learners at different ages and stages, and needs to include support from EAL specialists as well as classroom teachers. It is at this stage that someone often says 'Every teacher is a language teacher', which in my experience is usually something the administration rely on but which is rarely true in practice, unless a school has developed a thorough programme of professional development for teachers.


The final variable is place. We can interpret place in many ways, such as where the school is situated, or where the EAL provision is located in a school, both of which are important. Designing strong EAL provision for a school in an English-speaking country is different from designing for a school situated in a country where English is not used outside the school. When I talk about place in terms of EAL, I mean the physical space it has in a school, as well as the place within the curriculum and ethos; how well it is integrated into the fabric of the school, which also encompasses people and programmes.


Each of these elements needs to be a part of the design or review of an EAL programme, to help understand the particular needs of the students in any one school, the strengths of the team, and where development is needed. Reflecting on our people, programmes, and the place of and for EAL in our school will become the framework through which we can design a fit for purpose approach for our students.

I will use these three lenses to explore three key areas for development of EAL in schools, which are advocacy, partnerships, and systematicity - stay tuned for the following three blog posts!


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