The importance of maintaining high expectations for pupils with English as an additional language [EAL]:

Fionnuala Spicer is a newly qualified teacher from the University of Warwick. Prior to the PGCE year, she worked at a primary school in Bristol whilst completing her master’s degree in Education at the University of Bristol. It was through her experience in a diverse multicultural primary school in the South West where she worked with a high proportion of children who were bilingual that provided the inspiration for researching the issue of EAL more deeply through the lens of initial teacher education.

In England, the Teacher Standards (DfE, 2020) dictate the professional and moral duty of teachers and stakeholders to respond to the needs of all pupils, raise aspirations and set high expectations. Part 1: TS 2, 5 and Part 2 of the Teacher Standards depict the expectations placed upon teachers to “Set high expectations which inspire, motivate and challenge pupils” to subsequently “Promote good progress and outcomes by pupils” (DfE, 2020). This is particularly meaningful as Flanagan et al., (2020) notes, teachers have a significant influence on the outcomes of their pupils academically, socially, and emotionally as higher expectations are associated with stronger academic performance whereas low expectations have been directly linked with lower academic performance. This is supported by the National Curriculum guidance for England which stipulates the responsibility for teachers to consider the needs of pupils whose first language is not English and to monitor the trajectory of their progress in accordance with additional factors such as pupil age, length of time in England, prior educational experiences, and ability in other languages. This guidance also acknowledges the priority for teachers to promote inclusivity in the classroom for pupils with EAL as it highlights how their ability to engage in the curriculum content may be in advance of their proficiency in English, therefore recognising that teachers should aim to provide pupils with plentiful opportunities to immerse themselves in English and further enhance their communication skills.

As Cajkler and Hall (2009) note, there is however a significant variability in the amount and effectiveness of the preparation for teachers in teaching pupils with EAL and this remains an issue as identified by Lucas et al., (2008) who argue that this results in pupils with EAL being viewed as “an abstraction, defined by their lack of proficiency in English, and likely to be perceived through prevalent media stereotypes of immigrants”. Murtagh and Francis (2011) argue that when teachers are given direct contact with EAL pupils, it provides teachers with the knowledge surrounding the diversity amongst EAL pupils “diversity of languages, cultures, native countries, personalities, academic backgrounds and abilities”.

Defining pupils with English as an additional language [EAL]

In exploring the issue of English as an additional language, it is worthwhile to consider the umbrella definition of EAL as pupils with EAL are a heterogenous group with English language skills which span the full continuum of proficiency, ranging from pupils with minimal English through to pupils who are effectively bilingual. Research has demonstrated that due to greater international mobility, an increasing proportion of children around the world grow up learning multiple languages. Therefore, the label of EAL is complex as pupils are regarded as having EAL based on language exposure in the family home, yet the EAL label does not provide a clear indication of English language proficiency.

The complexity in the position of EAL pupils should not be undermined as they often have to simultaneously negotiate two worlds and cultures: a British curriculum, British values, English in school and then a different language and culture at home. The circumstances of some EAL pupils, particularly those new to England should not be ignored as they often have to negotiate additional factors alongside their education such as separation from extended family, culture shock and a complete absence of familiarity.

The Minorities Achievement and Attainment Service details how English as an additional language (EAL) refers to learners whose first language is not English. This covers the following:


  • Pupils arriving from other countries whose first language is not English.
  • Pupils who have lived in the UK for a long time and may appear to be fluent, but who also speak another language at home. These pupils are not always fluent in their literacy levels.
  • Pupils who have been born in the UK but English is not their home language.
  • Pupils who have a parent who speaks a language other than English and the child communicates in that other language with the parent (bi-lingual children).

Minorities Achievement and Attainment Service, Norwich

The National Subject Association for EAL and the Bell Foundation have also noted the impact factors which affect EAL pupil’s educational outcomes:

  • The age at which pupils enter the educational system.
  • Their previous experience of schooling and literacy in their first language.
  • Their knowledge, skills and understanding of languages and the school curriculum .
  • Home and community expectations and understanding of the education system.
  • Support structures for learning and language development at home and at school.

International new arrivals (INAs) are pupils who have entered the United Kingdom in the last two years and these are also exempt from taking SATS if they have been in the country for less than 2 years at the time of the tests. Sub-groups include:

• First generation- Children who were born outside of the UK and have since resettled in the UK with their family

• Second/third generation- Children who were born in the UK into a migrant or dual-heritage family.

• Migrant worker- Children whose parents have moved to work in Britain.

• Asylum seeker/refugee- Children who have moved with/without their parents to escape war, persecution, and tragic events.

It has been recognised however that pupils with EAL continue to underachieve next to their monolingual peers and this demands further exploration. Pupils with EAL are frequently beset by many barriers in their school experiences including but not limited to:

Barriers for EAL pupils in school:

  • Social and cultural challenges
  • Language difficulties which can lead to pupils with EAL not having their physiological needs met- this can translate into pupils having decreased trust in their teachers which can create disengagement with learning.
  • Persistent anxiety
  • Barriers to parental engagement (language barrier) and/or inflexible parental employment thus making it challenging for parents to meet with teachers at the start/end of the school day and form a supportive partnership.
  • Feeling ‘out of place’ – lack of representation in the classroom of home culture/language to establish a sense of pupil belonging.
  • Misconceptions/stereotyping from peers thus making it difficult to develop and sustain meaningful friendships.
  • Lack of self-efficacy from EAL pupils and their teachers alike- inadequacy in some initial teacher training programmes to equip educators with the skills and knowledge to support pupils with EAL and reflect this in their planning and practice.
  • Absence of regular opportunities for pupils with EAL to demonstrate their academic ability thus resulting in low expectations from teachers which can discourage EAL pupils and cause frustration.
  • For pupils who are refugees- trauma, multi-faceted grief, disruption to learning, loss of normality.

For Teacher Education there is a unique opportunity therefore to consider how to support pupils with EAL in schools and how to support educators working with these pupils.


Pupil achievement, self-esteem and self-efficacy rooted in teacher’s expectations:

It has been proven that teachers’ general expectations for their pupils’ performance and teachers own teaching self-efficacy predicts pupil’s achievement. Research has since demonstrated that when teachers hold higher expectations for their pupils with EAL, their academic achievements increase as all pupils including those who are linguistically and culturally diverse achieve stronger educational outcomes when teacher’s expectations are high. The importance of teacher expectations in facilitating pupils learning has been widely acknowledged in the field of Education for some time (Rubie-Davies, 2008) as when pupils are aware of the high expectations their teachers have for them, they achieve more, experience a greater sense of esteem and improved competence as learners which increases engagement. Rosenthal and Jacobson (1968) agree as they have argued that teacher expectations act as a self-fulfilling prophecy because student achievement reflects expectations, thus influencing both teacher and pupil behaviour and subsequent performance (Ready and Wright, 2001). Rosenthal and Jacobson’s study (1968) demonstrated how even when based on erroneous information, teacher’s expectations communicated both verbally and non-verbally can influence pupil’s academic performance, impacting on student success more than a student’s own motivation (National Center for Education Statistics NCES; Babad et al., 1989). In comparison to low expectation pupils, studies have demonstrated that teachers demonstrate a positive bias in evaluating the work of high expectation students, thus providing them with more response opportunities, more challenging instruction, increased praise, and interaction which embodies a supportive and caring approach (Brophy, 1983; Jussim and Eccles, 1992). Booth and Gerard (2011) posit that a positive self-esteem has been viewed as a desirable attribute for pupils, yet as Timmermans et al., (2015) argue, teachers can have biased expectations for most pupils in their class (general bias) or for subgroups of pupils (specific bias) and it is these biased teacher expectations which seem to be the product of student characteristics such as gender, ethnicity and socioeconomic status (De Boer et al., 2010).


Importance of avoiding a deficit model of teaching to avoid communicating/setting low expectations:

In teaching pupils with EAL, it is important that where teachers feel overwhelmed by at times the complexities of teaching EAL pupils, care should be taken to avoid misidentifying EAL pupils as having a learning difficulty if they display behaviours such as inattention in class or difficulty keeping up with peers (Tangen & Spooner-Lane, 2008). As the SEND Code of Practice stipulates “Children must not be regarded as having a learning difficulty solely because the language or form of language in their home is different from the language in which they will be taught”. Despite this, growing evidence has drawn attention to how some students with EAL are being misidentified by teachers as having learning difficulties when in reality, many of these students do not have any form of a learning difficulty (Brown, 2004; Artiles & Klinger, 2006; Gersten & Baker, 2003).

It is significant therefore that teachers have the skills set to identify behaviours that are associated with second language acquisition in order to understand the differences without contributing towards a culture of blame which creates low expectations for EAL pupils and fails to safeguard their self-worth. Tangen and Spooner-Lane (2008) propose therefore that teachers must acknowledge that pupils with EAL must learn new concepts in a different language with a new cultural reference and therefore they must make accommodations in their teaching for pupils with EAL as without adequate foundations (limited teacher preparation/limited resources), a deficit mode of teaching can be established which forces EAL pupils into a sink or swim situation (Lo Bianco and Freebody, 1997). A suggestion therefore, for how to avoid a deficit model of teaching when interacting with EAL pupils is to have educators embrace the opportunity to work with EAL pupils and to bridge the cultural distance that may be felt between themselves and their students (Gersten, 1999). Wheatley (2002) acknowledges that teacher doubt can cause teachers to retreat into safe teaching practices which involve little risk taking for themselves and their students, particularly for teachers who feel overwhelmed in teaching students with EAL. A recommendation to mediate this can revolve around instead of educators focusing on the perceived deficits of pupils with EAL, they should place their focus on what their pupils can do and use this to lead their expectations.

The value of differentiated support:

It is well known and supported within the field of Education that differentiated support is a valuable tool in any educator’s toolbox for meeting the needs of all pupils, facilitating progress, and ensuring sustained engagement in learning. As Hammond (2012) amongst others argue, differentiated support which acknowledges the unique needs and individual language proficiency is particularly vital for pupils with EAL to provide them with equitable access to the curriculum (Amniana & Gadour, 2007). The value of differentiated support can be found in the way it places a strong emphasis on equity and access for all (Hammond, 2012) and embraces the concept of inclusivity in the classroom through meeting students where they are at in their learning, whilst driving progress forward. As O’Toole and Skinner (2018) note, teachers should strive to provide differentiated support for pupils with EAL in a way which includes them fully in all elements of teaching and learning, in a manner which ensures that their achievement is on par with their English- speaking monolingual peers. They therefore recommend that when working with pupils with EAL, teachers should allow for the provision of plentiful listening time, frequent social interaction, collaboration, and visuals (O’Toole and Skinner) as it is this which provides EAL pupils with the opportunity and subsequent motivation/confidence to develop their language proficiency. The 2009 Australian Curriculum Initiative supports this approach of differentiated support as they argue that an alternative curriculum for students regarded as disadvantaged does not treat them equitably. They posit instead that it is more beneficial for educators to set the same high expectations for all pupils and to provide differentiated levels of support to ensure that all students have a fair opportunity to meet those high expectations. It has also been widely acknowledged that educators working with pupils with EAL should recognise the distinction between conversational language which is typically embedded in context and supported by paralinguistic cues (Little, 2010), otherwise known as ‘playground language’ typically acquired in two years (Gubbons, 1991) and academic language which is context reduced and more abstract. Academic language comprises more complex features and vocabulary, including persuading, classifying, and speculating and therefore although pupils with EAL may be proficient in their ‘playground language’, differentiated support is frequently integral to support pupils with EAL in their grasp of academic language.

Academic attainment and social, emotional, behavioural functioning for pupils with EAL dependent on English language proficiency:


Throughout England, pupils with EAL collectively display poorer attainment than their monolingual peers during primary school and beyond. This trend is revealed in national education assessments which record the attainment of all state funded primary school pupils at the end of Reception, Key Stage 1 SATS and Key Stage 2 SATS. As Gooch and Norbury (2017) note, assessments have demonstrated that the attainment gap between pupils with EAL and their monolingual peers is widest in the curriculum area of speaking in Reception, speaking, and listening in Year 2 and reading in Year 6. Hoff (2013) agrees and maintains that proficiency in the language of instruction is essential for pupils with EAL to understand the teacher and as a precursor for reading, and therefore although there is considerable variation in the academic attainment amongst pupils with EAL, English language proficiency is likely to be the integral predictor of attainment (Strand et al., 2015). This is built upon in studies (Whiteside, 2017) which have reported moderately strong positive associations between pupil proficiency in the language of education and early literacy, reading, spelling, mathematics, and general academic attainment amongst bilingual children (Prevoo et al., 2015). This is also supported by Halle et al., (2012) who acknowledge that English language proficiency is also associated with social, emotional, and behavioural functioning in pupils with EAL as research has highlighted how children with EAL at school entry who were proficient in English showed better behaviour, attention, and eagerness to learn and greater growth in English and Maths than their monolingual peers. Calvo and Bialystok (2014) have also demonstrated that bilingual children display enhanced executive functioning and enhanced inhibition (Poarch and Van Hell, 2012) although Engel de Abreu et al., (2014) oppose this and argue that enhanced executive functioning in bilingual children is dependent on them having a high level of language proficiency in both languages.


Raising standards for pupils with EAL and maintaining high expectations:

It is arguably the aim of every educator to promote pupil progress and raise standards in education. However, as Sood and Mistry (2012) note, there is a particular need to build on the achievements of pupils with EAL and to narrow the attainment gap which is pervasive across many levels of education. Hester de Boer et al., (2018) amongst others (Dusek and Joseph, 1983) have since recognised that teacher expectations are correlated with student achievement. However, the self-efficacy of teachers and EAL pupils is vital as teachers need to trust that they can make a difference and help EAL pupils to achieve. To hold high expectations for their pupils, including those with EAL, teachers first need to feel confident in their own ability to support their EAL pupils and facilitate their academic progress whilst EAL pupils need to have a strong sense of self-efficacy and they need to see that their teachers believe in them, have high expectations and are invested in their learning.


Research has demonstrated that an array of strategies and influences exist which can be utilised to raise standards for pupils with EAL, in particular: the continued professional development of educators, consistency in approaches, a ‘can-do’ culture, quality of support and care, high self-esteem amongst teachers and pupils, strong relationships characterised by mutual respect and effective tracking of pupil progress (Sood and Mistry, 2012). Research has since demonstrated the importance of a whole team approach between school staff across all levels of education to raise standards and improve educational outcomes for pupils with EAL. The value of a team approach means that there is support for educators in planning and the provision of resources, a widespread approach of consistent teaching methods and systemic approaches which effectively monitor pupil progress. The Education Hub builds on this and maintains that to raise standards for pupils with EAL, teaching should be inclusive in its empowerment to affirm the identities of all pupils and the linguistic and cultural integration of EAL pupils should be given precedence alongside the presence of additive bilingualism. Research has demonstrated that pupils have a deep awareness through teachers’ attitudes, tone, words, and non-verbal communication of their expectations on them and this exemplifies the necessity of having high expectations (education equity) and the cultivation of excellence.

As Saphier (2016) notes, teachers should convince their students that they can develop their ability and they should be genuine in sending three critical messages when communicating high expectations “this is important”, “you can do it” and “I am not going to give up on you”(p.2).


High expectations in the classroom looks like:

  • Having procedures in place that students manage themselves.
  • Communicate learning intentions and success criteria with students.
  • Manage behaviour positively and proactively.
  • Make more positive statements and create a positive class climate.
  • Link achievement to motivation, effort, and goal setting.
  • Provide students with opportunities (and encourage these opportunities) for students to work with a variety of peers for positive peer modelling.
  • Providing specific, instructional feedback about students achievement in relation to learning goals.
  • Base learning opportunities around students interests for motivation.
  • Respond to students’ incorrect answers by exploring the wrong answer, rephrasing explanations or scaffolding the student to the correct answer.

A holistic approach which embraces a range of strategies, with a focus on talk and vocabulary development throughout the curriculum and the promotion of pupils’ first language as a tool for learning is therefore beneficial in raising standards for pupils with EAL and communicating high expectations (Sood and Mistry, 2012). Excellence should be always modelled and promoted in the classroom as one consistent finding in education research is that high expectations are the most reliable catalyst for high student achievement, including in pupils who do not have a history of successful academic achievement (Sherwood, 2017). When teachers model excellence every day, it communicates a message to students that excellence is the expectation and this propels results forward as it recognises pupil potential and the growth of ability (The Pygmalion Effect: Solomon, 2014). However, it is proven that high expectations should not be centred solely on academic success, but on the development of social and emotional competencies, development of good moral character, the expectation that pupils will build and maintain friendships, display behaviour to learn and contribute to a positive classroom climate.