Raising the Bar: working with EAL in RPE

Setting the scene.

I was sitting, last week, at the back of a year 7 lesson in an 11-18 comprehensive (yes, they still exist!) of over 1600 pupils. Here  over 58 languages are spoken and the nationalities and ethnicities, the faiths and cultures, represented in the classroom are very diverse.

We had been briefed, expertly, by the school’s assistant Head about the school’s history, its record of academic success and the strength the school has made of its ability to value these many languages. The school involves students in small-scale research projects which, in turn, help staff understand how to address EAL and bilingual learners’ needs.

We had also been exposed to the experience of being additional language learners ourselves, having been taught, briefly, how to draw a triangle within a circle within a square despite the fact none of us understood the language we were being taught in! Barriers and expectations about how we use language to learn had very quickly, in this way, been broken down and all twenty trainees (and their subject lecturer!) were well aware, as they prepared for their lesson study, just how important it is for all teachers to have up their sleeve a series of useful and useable EAL strategies!

The lesson began. It was being taught, in parallel with another lesson (identical except for the teacher), as part of a series of lessons devised to develop students’ thinking and listening skills. Opportunities were available for all students (EAL or not) to think about the stimulus, develop questions about it and engage in dialogue with peers on a one-one level, a group level and on a whole class level. The stimulus involved an image (reincarnation) because images or artefacts are accessible regardless of a language barrier. Synonyms, word banks and glossaries were also available to enable students to access difficult language. As lesson studiers we all had a lesson plan, with EAL strategies throughout the lesson marked clearly in red – and a seating plan with EAL and other learning needs marked. The teacher herself was in her second year of teaching.


What a joy the lesson proved to be! Within a minute the request to ask questions of the image led to a question about infinity (the symbol linking the woman/birth and the old man/death). This question, asked by an EAL student (which we could see from the seating plan), was followed rapidly by many others, until instructions came to continue the discussion in small groups, decide on the question each small group of four wanted us to discuss and hand that to the teacher on a post-it note. She then very carefully told the whole group, back together, that she would read the titles twice and on the third time they were to vote for the P4C question they wanted to discuss as a whole class. At no point did the teacher lower the level of pace or challenge of the lesson to ‘accommodate’ different language learning needs. At no point (judging by the enthusiasm evident in the room), did she change her expectation that everyone would be able to access and engage with the topic. At no point did she try to pre-determine what question we ‘should’ be studying.

Which is why, after half an hour and an entirely well organised shift from being ‘behind desks’ to being ‘in a circle’ these thirty mixed ability, mixed language, mixed ability eleven year olds were cheerfully discussing their favourite question of the seven submitted:

“what challenges do we face beyond the grave?”

More from the land of lesson study next week, but perhaps you’ll forgive me for asking: why, given the undoubted enthusiasm of so many young people, from so many different cultural, faith and language backgrounds, to look at ‘big questions’ like this, do we so often underestimate the level at which they can enter into any spirituality related debate?

To be continued……

Key terms

EAL (English as an additional language): Students who are learning English to add to their preferred language/s. They may be fluent in English, may not speak English at all or may have a level of English anywhere between.

Preferred language: the language a bilingual student feels most comfortable with. This may be different for different tasks and situations. It may not be the first language the student learned – many bilingual students are actually multilingual.

Key web references:

www.collaborativelearning.org (basic principles for good differentiation, including EAL)

http://bit.ly/cfbtlanguage.doc (an account of one school’s excellent practice).


A blog for mentors (RPE)