Understanding EAL children’s performance in both languages

By Marta Wesierska

Many of the children in UK primary schools are identified as EAL learners. Coming from various language backgrounds (many different first languages – “L1s”) and with varied ability levels of English (their second language – “L2”) the language and literacy development of these children is likely to vary compared to their monolingual native speaking English peers.

Furthermore, assessment of this group of children usually focuses on their abilities in English, overlooking their performance in their native tongue. This is partly due to a lack of assessment measures in languages other than English and researchers with the necessary language abilities to administer them (although efforts are underway to create such tools, for example the recent Receptive Vocabulary Assessment App).

In my research, I have aimed to broaden the understanding of the performance of EAL children within the areas of pre-literacy, oral language, and reading from the perspective of their first and second languages. To achieve this, I have been working with a group of Polish EAL pupils and two control groups of their monolingual Polish and English peers.

The findings of my PhD research have identified areas of strengths and weaknesses in this sample of children in both languages. One of the most striking findings is the EAL group’s substantial weaknesses in oral language in both English (L2) and Polish (L1). This is particularly relevant due to the impact of oral language skills on reading comprehension in later grades. Therefore, one of the implications for teachers of EAL pupils is continued attention to L2 oral language to close this performance gap between them and their monolingual peers and to improve subsequent reading comprehension in the L2. First language is still relevant however: one of my studies has shown L1 phonics to be a significant predictor of both L1 and L2 decoding and L1 decoding to significantly predict L2 reading comprehension in the EAL sample. Therefore, L1 phonics intervention could potentially be used to support reading comprehension in L2, in this population of children. To sum up it is important that both teachers and practitioners are aware of a child’s EAL profile and abilities in all languages spoken in order to reduce the risk of misidentification and inform instruction.