Published on: 24 Aug 2016

To successfully support EAL students, teachers need to build as good a picture as they can of ability, strengths, weaknesses, attitudes.

Assessing students with English as an additional language

By Sue Thompson, Senior Publisher, GL Assessment

Regardless of subject, language is key when it comes to the ability of a student to access the curriculum. Not only does academic work demand a great deal of reading and writing, much of the interaction with teachers and other students is dependent on the spoken word. In short, language is involved in all school activities.

This is an important consideration for schools when you take into account the increase in the UK of the number of students with English as an additional language (EAL). Recent figures from the Department for Education reveal that this group makes up 18% of the primary school population and 13% of students in secondary schools in England while statistics from 2014 show that EAL students form a majority in one in nine schools. However, this group will include children from established communities, new arrivals with a history of education in their home country, children with little or no prior education and older students arriving midway through the secondary phase.

Schools are doing a great job supporting their students with many developing local solutions to fit their precise situation which may have been affected by changes to funding and structural changes at the LA. By the time EAL students get to GCSE level, the attainment gap between EAL students and those with English as a first language is below 3%. Considering this figure includes all EAL students – including those arriving into secondary education with very little or no English at all – it appears that schools are adapting well and they are doing so quickly.

To successfully support EAL students, teachers need to build as good a picture as they can of ability, strengths, weaknesses, attitudes. Schools use a mix of formal and informal strategies to do this for each student, including gathering information on prior education and level of English. When it comes to using more formal assessments to build a whole school or year group profile, schools tend to use the same assessments as for all other students. So what should a school consider when assessing EAL students?

Verbal vs. non-verbal reasoning

A verbal reasoning assessment measures a student’s potential to learn through English. It is therefore not unexpected that verbal reasoning scores for EAL students tend to be lower. For this reason, schools can learn a lot more about the ability of EAL students if they also assess their non-verbal reasoning skills. This is because students do not require English language skills to understand the questions and can draw on verbal skills in their first language to help them solve the task. This isn’t to say that a non-verbal reasoning test should replace a verbal reasoning test. Over time, the results from both can build an even fuller picture. Put differently:

Regular and systematic assessment is key

Assessing on a one-off basis will provide teachers with a snapshot; however, assessment really comes into its own when it is done on a regular and systematic basis. This is the case with all students but perhaps even more so with those who have English as an additional language because teachers should be able to clearly see the improvement in a student’s verbal profile over time. Where this can’t be seen, there may be a deficit in language generally – meaning in the student’s first language – that needs investigating.

Understanding precedes speaking and writing

When learning a second language, understanding generally precedes speaking and writing. Pupils with limited exposure to English can usually understand more than they can say and many will choose to be silent until they have acquired a certain level of understanding through listening. It is therefore a good idea to include a receptive language measure as well as an assessment of expressive language, particularly with younger children.

Assessing attitudes

With EAL students, there is always the danger that teachers jump too quickly to the conclusion that language is the main barrier to learning when in fact it could be something completely different. Looking at pupils’ attitudes to school is a good way of ensuring that there isn’t something standing in the way of learning that would otherwise remain hidden.

Such measures have the added benefit that there is a high level of flexibility in how they are delivered to EAL students. For example, they can be translated into a different language or an assistant can help ensure the student has understood the questions correctly. Results can be extremely helpful and revealing for all students and, in the case of EAL students, may point to an underlying cause that has nothing to do with their competence in the English language.


As a final point it is probably worth mentioning that additional language learning takes time but perhaps not as long as is generally assumed. As explained by Constant Leung, Professor of Educational Linguistics at King’s College London, students in school environments that are supportive of EAL development tend to take “approximately eighteen months or so to develop a reasonable level of spoken fluency for everyday purposes and five or more years to develop peer-level academic English competence.”

Does your school need help in assessing students with English as an additional language?
Read our new Assessment in Focus paper.

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