EYFS: English as an Additional Language - Second best?

The EAL requirements reveal a lack of knowledge about how language is learned, say early years consultants Tricia Carroll and Anne O'Connor.

'For children whose home language is not English, providers must take reasonable steps to provide opportunities for children to develop and use their home language in play and learning, supporting their language development at home. Providers must also ensure that children have sufficient opportunities to learn and reach a good standard in English language during the EYFS, ensuring children are ready to benefit from the opportunities available to them when they begin Year 1. When assessing communication, language and literacy skills, practitioners must assess children's skills in English. If a child does not have a strong grasp of English language, practitioners must explore the child's skills in the home language with parents and/or carers, to establish whether there is cause for concern about language delay.' (Statutory Framework, paragraph 1.8)

Reassuring though it is to see a paragraph devoted to speakers of English as an Additional Language (EAL) in the revised statutory framework, some key questions do leap out:

  • If children access the EYFS at all ages and for varying periods of time, how can it be possible to ensure all children reach the same good standard in English language by the end of the phase?
  • Why is there a perception that lack of skill in English must be due to generalised language delay?
  • Where is the recognition that learning a second language is not the same as learning a first?
  • Where is the understanding of the stages of second language learning, which might include a 'silent' period?
  • Where is assessment of the learning environment and its impact on additional language learning?
  • Why is it assumed that only proficient users of English can benefit from learning opportunities in Year 1?
  • Is English always to be the medium for assessment in CLL?

Commenting on using English as the medium for assessment, a Department for Education spokesperson says, 'Settings must ensure that children have enough opportunity to learn and develop their English. They must also acknowledge and respect a child's home language, and take steps to allow children the opportunity to use and develop their home language in discussion with parents.

'We recognise that just because a child's English isn't well developed by the time they are five, this doesn't mean they do not possess sufficiently developed language skills.

'Year 1 teachers need to know how well children are developing in English so that they can provide the right support for them when they enter their class. Therefore, the requirement is for children's communication, language and literacy to be assessed in English. However, there is no reason why providers and schools cannot also assess communication, language and literacy in the child's home language as well. All other early learning goals can be assessed in the child's home language where it is appropriate.'

Luckily, the non-statutory Development Matters contains lots of useful pointers to support practitioners working with children with EAL. The difficulty, as ever, is that suggestions for good practice in the densely worded grids and across the age bands can lose some of their impact.

Nor can they provide the underpinning knowledge that practitioners need if they are new to working with children with EAL. For example, many practitioners are still unclear why it is important to 'Encourage parents whose children are learning English as an additional language to continue to encourage use of the first language at home' (Development Matters, page 19).

In addition, this fundamental piece of guidance is just as crucial for practitioners working with any age child in the EYFS (and beyond) who may well miss it, tucked away, as it is, in the 16-26 months age band.


Practitioners need to know - and understand - why:

  • being bilingual is an asset to learning and that children with EAL learn English best when their home language is well supported and continues to develop at home and in the setting. Practitioners have a responsibility to help parents understand the value of continuing to use the first language in the home
  • children with EAL demonstrate competence through their first language in all areas of learning and development
  • learning English as an additional language is not the same process as learning English as a mother tongue. Assessment of bilingual children's developing skills in English is of most use to Year 1 teachers when set in this context
  • Bilingual children learn most successfully in environments where they have a sense of belonging and where they feel respected, stimulated and can contribute on their own terms within warm, trusting relationships with knowledgeable adults
  • Environments that are good for children with English as an additional language are good for all children.

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