EAL Learners and Oracy

Below we discuss why this is, as well as some considerations to bear in mind to ensure these students get the most out of their oracy education.

Over 1 in 5 children in England’s schools are learning English as an Additional Language. Providing a high-quality oracy education is an excellent way to support EAL learners to access learning and flourish in our classrooms.

Identify language needs of your EAL learners

Research shows that it is a student’s level of proficiency in English, rather than their status as an EAL learner, which affects their educational outcomes. In fact, the language needs of your students learning EAL will vary considerably because of the diversity of children learning English as an Additional Language. For example, you may have a student join your class who is newly arrived in the country with little or no English, but who is entirely fluent in her own language and whose home life includes rich conversations (Student A). Or, you may teach a child whose family has been in the UK for a few generations, who is spoken to in another language at home, and who has a good grasp of social English, but who doesn’t have a sophisticated grasp of grammar or vocabulary in any language (Student B).

One way to understand the needs of these children is American researcher Jim Cummins’ 1979 Iceberg Model.  In this analogy, the Common Underlying Proficiency in any language is more important than the peaks, which are the language(s) that the student operates in. Child A above, who has little or no English at present, is actually better set up for language proficiency once they have grasped the ‘surface features’ i.e. speaking, listening, reading and writing of English. Child B runs the risk of having passable social language (what Cummins called Basic Interpersonal Communication Skills), but weak academic language (known as Cognitive Academic Language Proficiency) in any language. 

It is a good idea to try to find out what languages are spoken at home by your students and to what level. What languages do they hear at home? What languages do they speak (this may be different)? Can they read and write in these languages? If so, is their level appropriate for their age? Do they attend classes to continue to develop their proficiency in these languages, as many multilingual children do? If you are struggling to work out a student’s language needs, a home language assessment can help establish what a learner can do in their own language(s) and enable you to make a comparison between that and their level of English. 

Encourage multilingualism through oracy 

Cummins’ model highlights the importance of encouraging multilingualism; the better students are in their home language(s) the better they will be in English. To this end, it is important to encourage parents to help students continue developing all their languages. 

Make sure that parents know that oracy homework can and should be conducted in the language that is most natural / strongest in the household. You could consider bringing parents into the school to read or teach parts of their language to demonstrate that other languages are also used for communication. 

In school, encourage the use of home languages in oracy tasks if you have students who speak the same language as it can help foster connections between English and their home language. This may be particularly useful for new arrivals to the school. Use dictionaries and translation tools if needed and consider translating the Oracy Framework into students’ home languages, emphasising that these skills are not unique to English. We have currently collected translations of the Oracy Framework in Italian, German, Arabic and Welsh– if you translate the Framework into any other languages, please do share with us. 

Give the firm message that all languages are welcomed in the school and, while English might be the predominant one in school life, knowing other languages is something to be proud of and celebrate. Projects celebrating multilingualism through oracy such as multilingual storytelling can help raise the profile of community languages at your school. The Young Interpreters Scheme is also an excellent way for children to practice their oracy skills (and sometimes their home languages) by welcoming new arrivals. 

Practice academic language through oracy 

While developing oracy in any language is hugely important, EAL learners do have an important need to develop their academic English in order to thrive at school. It is widely accepted that it takes second language learners approximately two years to achieve functional social use of a second language (at which point many people mistake them for fluent), but four to seven years to achieve a level of academic linguistic proficiency comparable to monolingual English speaking peers, see here and here.  

Oracy is an excellent means of developing all learners’ proficiency in academic language. After all, the first way we learn grammar in our first language is by understanding and responding to spoken language rather than through direct instruction. For example, as children we learn about tenses when adults say things like ‘Remember we went to the beach yesterday?’ or ‘Oh, you’ve brought your dolly today!’ Many courses designed for Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages (TESOL) rely heavily on communicative, oracy based methods for this reason. 

Oracy rich classroom practice in your school will provide these opportunities for students to practice oral language in meaningful contexts. Depending on the oracy needs of your students learning EAL, they may benefit from pre-teaching target vocabulary, sentence starters and visuals or graphic organizers.  Frequent repetition is very important when internalising new language structures, as well as having the confidence to take part. One effective and inclusive way of doing this is through language drills such as ‘I went to the Market’ (which can be adapted to different curriculum content), or songs and rhymes. 

Allow a silent period 

Although it is important for EAL children to be encouraged to communicate, students who are new to English often go through a silent period. Linguist Stephen Krashen has studied second language acquisition in depth, concluding that we learn languages when we understand messages, or are exposed to ‘comprehensible input’. Students at the beginning stages of learning EAL therefore need exposure to lots of spoken language that they can understand, but should not be forced to produce it. Strategies for supporting quiet children with their oracy, such as developing the physical strand and creating a culture where all communication is valued can be used here, as they can help lessen students’ anxiety during this period. This is important as research by Krashen showed that the rate of language acquisition decreases if we are under stress.

Use rich contexts for talk and keep cognitive challenge appropriate 

Providing rich contexts for talk, such as concrete experiences like making bread or conducting an experiment are particularly important for students learning EAL as it helps activate any prior knowledge they may have in another language, allowing them to access content at the appropriate level. 

Cummins’ matrix is a useful way of thinking about this. The horizontal axis represents how much context there is in a piece of learning, ranging from something ‘context embedded’ where the learner could use facial expressions, real objects and pictures, to ‘context reduced’ lessons, which rely heavily on language to understand and take part. Oracy tasks that provide a high level of context and which are also cognitively demanding (at a level appropriate for the student) are in Quadrant B.

It’s time for us to see students learning EAL as oracy-rich, rather than oracy-poor. Let’s celebrate multilingualism and ensure that our students are proud of their linguistic diversity, viewing it as a strength rather than an obstacle to be overcome. 

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