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Removing Barriers to Learning: Progressing from EAL to Bilingual

Problems are a part of life. Look around your classroom and you will observe a myriad of issues. That marking pile, the reports, the child with Tourette’s, the child who can’t sit still. You could let those problems drive you crazy or you could do something about them! Problems only remain so if you do not act. That was the intention of our Veema training in Braeburn School, Kenya. We were united in our problem: high numbers of EAL students. We came together to take action.
Many of the teachers had been EAL students at one time in their lives. Could they remember how it felt? Splitting the group into two, we immersed ourselves in a newly invented culture and language. One culture was obsessed with trading cards and did not like physical contact. They spoke only with the first letter of words and screamed if you got too close. The second segregated men and women. The women hugged every few minutes and talked only of their achievements. Speaking in single words, the men spoke only of their women’s achievements. Once comfortable with their roles, we began visiting each other’s cultures and attempting to integrate. Following the simulation, we reflected upon our experiences as EAL learners moving from one culture to another. Some important realisations were uncovered as we looked through the eyes of our pupils.

A Few Important Realisations: 

  • People had felt excited to come into a new culture. They wondered what it would be like and had high hopes. As soon as they entered, it was overwhelming and their excitement turned to fear. 
  • As a person existing in the culture, the newcomer was a hindrance. People admitted that, as soon as they realised that the new person did not know how to behave or communicate, they attempted to distance themselves from them. 
  • People coming into the trading card culture had been provided with their own cards. At first, they had no idea how to use them but they reported that this tool was a comfort as they had something solid that could be used as a starting point. 
  • When people managed to integrate, they felt joy from the experience. They started in silent fear but ended feeling accomplished. 

Knowing intellectually what it is like to be an EAL learner is not the same as experiencing the feelings it really creates. Many of the barriers that were identified in our pre-task observation of students such as: refusing to answer questions, sullen attitude and even aggression could be better understood by being in their position. Staff used their realisations to begin exploring ways to make the integration more comfortable and provide tools to support their journey towards feeling the joy of being able to communicate with their peers. 

Every context is different and every child has needs individual to their own barriers. We examined examples of good practice and tools that worked for the many. We also looked at categories of EAL learner as a ladder from the silent phase all the way up to bilingual. Using SOLO taxonomy as a ladder towards success, we saw each phase as part of their journey. 

Prestructural: Silent phase – no prior learning in this language. 

Unistructural: Simple, single words

Multistructural: Many words and phrases but parrot like in response. Unable to put old learning into a new context

Relational: Many words and phrases, able to put old learning into new context and adapt language to new situations. 

Extended Abstract: Bilingual 

Any taxonomy of learning could be used to create a success ladder for your EAL students. Having a structure towards success can support you in identifying the right strategies for their current learning. For example, if you have a child who is multistructural, you know that their next step is to play with different scenarios for using old learning in new ways. Or, if you have a child who is prestructural, you need to use their home language to an advantage to allow them to learn the simple, single words that will start them on the ladder to bilingual. Being in the position of an EAL learner reminded us that EAL is not SEN. Tasks must be intellectually stimulating at the right level for the learner. A simple substitution table is appropriate for learning the new language but the task must help them feel rewards from learning or they may turn off school. Using their home language can be a helpful way to engage them at the right intellectual level. Substitution tables are appropriate at this stage but must not become relied upon as your goal is always to climb towards bilingual. We did not examine these strategies complacently. The teachers were asked to question everything. How could that work for me? 

Teachers produced excellent ideas in their final session to take back to their schools and implement. Whole school frameworks built around the SOLO structure, ideas for targeted intervention, ways of working across the curriculum to embed new language, individual resources and more were planned so that they could have a huge impact upon their own learners’ barriers to learning and keep in mind the goal of bilingual for all. EAL is one of the many problems that we face as classroom teachers but remember
, it only remains a problem if you do not take action. 


Lisa Ashes is a Teaching and Learning Consultant for Veema Education, Guru and Author. She believes that education is about developing minds for the future. She also believes that many schools fall short of producing ‘a fully rounded end product’ because they fail to coordinate learning across all of their departments. She has therefore made it her mission to transform how teachers think about the curriculum so that they can begin to deliver a whole school approach to education. To achieve this she helps teachers develop both personally and professionally by empowering them to collaborate with others within and outside of their particular department. Lisa is now taking this message of collaboration around the world. So, having developed teams of advanced practitioners in Ghana, she is now in Nepal where she is using her strategies to help create a culture of continual self-improvement among the country’s teachers. Lisa is passionate about such projects and in using her expertise in learning and education to develop coaching programmes for schools. So, in her latest book ‘Manglish’, she considers how English and Maths can be creatively brought together to improve both literacy and numeracy throughout the whole school and provides practical ideas and strategies for doing this. Her other published books include: There is another way and Don’t change the light bulbs — A compendium of expertise from the UK’s most switched-on educators.

  • Bilingual
  • CPD
  • EAL
  • English as an additional language
  • Kenya
  • Language
  • Teaching
  • Veema