8 – Supporting the Needs of EAL Learners

Danielle Clatney


Teachers welcome a variety of students into their classrooms throughout the school year.  Over the last ten years or so, the growing population of learners of English as an Additional Language (EAL) has dramatically changed the classroom composition in many Saskatchewan schools and in schools across Canada.  In Saskatchewan, “The Ministry of Education describes learners of EAL as speakers of other languages who are adding English to their language repertoire in order to access the English language curriculum and achieve grade level outcomes” (Prokopchuk, 2014, p. 82).  Since most EAL students spend the majority of their day in mainstream classrooms, their needs cannot be met by an EAL teacher specialist alone.  Coelho (2012) emphasized, “All teachers need to be prepared to support L2Ls (Second Language Learners) so that they can learn the language of instruction and experience success with the curriculum” (p. 148).  The numbers of EAL learners making their way into my own mainstream elementary classes have emphasized the important role that all teachers play in the education of EAL learners and the need to explore best practices for teaching them.  This essay will demonstrate how equity in instruction and assessment is possible for all students, not just EAL learners, if teachers implement five key practices that have proven to be effective for students learning English.

Five Key Practices to Support the Needs of EAL Learners


  • Culturally Responsive Teaching

One key practice that supports EAL learner needs is moving towards culturally responsive teaching.  The Ontario Ministry of Education Student Achievement Division (2013) emphasized, “In order to ensure that all students feel safe, welcomed and accepted, and inspired to succeed in a culture of high expectations for learning, schools and classrooms must be responsive to culture” (p. 1).  They encourage embracing a collaborative approach to learning by building strong relationships with students’ families, cultural groups, and community partners.  Another key component of culturally responsive teaching is viewing student diversity in terms of student strengths that enhance learning rather than as challenges or deficits of the student.  This includes encouraging students to use their first language to support and represent their learning.  As well, “Connecting new learning to prior knowledge and experience helps L2Ls to learn the language they need to express knowledge and skills they already have in their own language” (Coelho, 2012, p. 233).

Teachers can draw on student languages and experiences to represent their knowledge in the curriculum in a meaningful way that can allow them to see themselves reflected in classroom learning.  Helmer and Eddy (2012) advised, “We must note the differences, acknowledge their validity, create mechanisms to uncover their positive benefits, and incorporate them into our teaching as a way of building bridges among students, and between our students and ourselves” (p. 22).  In doing this, we create a positive and accepting culturally responsive teaching environment.


  • Integrated Language and Content Instruction

The second key practice that supports the needs of EAL learners is the integration of language and content instruction.  Genesee and Lindholm-Leary (2013) state “People do not learn language and then use it; rather, they learn language by using it” (p. 3). Coelho (2012) recommends content-based instruction, or integrated language and content instruction, as an approach to use with EAL learners.  She explains that in this approach, students learn the language by talking, listening to, reading, and writing about content or subject matter.  The content area and academic task determine the presentation of grammatical items as required.  Coelho (2012) further explains, “Academic language occurs mainly in the classroom and therefore is best learned through engagement with the curriculum, adapted as necessary according to the students’ level of proficiency in the language” (p. 61).  She suggested that the best way to acquire a language is by using it to do something meaningful, such as learning how to play a game, solving a word problem in math, or working on a group project.  One way to achieve this is through inquiry learning, which allows the teacher to facilitate learning through active student involvement in constructing knowledge, which builds information-processing and problem-solving skills.  Coelho (2012) writes that “Every teacher needs to incorporate direct instruction on essential academic vocabulary that arises within the context of the lesson and model the use of vocabulary acquisition strategies that students can apply to their own reading” (p. 317).  This allows for improved comprehension and works towards independent learning.  By combining language and content instruction, EAL learners can progress in language learning while working towards the same curriculum outcomes as their peers.

One other point to keep in mind with integrated language and content instruction is the necessity to focus on outcome assessment in content areas.  Helmer and Eddy (2012) stress “If the objective of a lesson is to ensure that students understand content, evaluate their speaking and writing for content, not grammar” (p. 118).  Student performance should be assessed in ways that do not depend on their proficiency in English.  This is where differentiation comes in.


  • Differentiated Instruction Guided by Levels of Language Proficiency

Using levels of language proficiency to guide differentiated instruction is the third key practice that supports EAL learners.  In Saskatchewan, the Ministry of Education (2013) introduced the Common Framework of Reference (CFR).  This provincial language reference scale is based on the Common European Framework of Reference (CEFR), created by the Council of Europe, and allows teachers to monitor progress of EAL learners by identifying and charting language proficiency levels.  It also facilitates student self-assessment with a Can Do Self-Assessment Scale.  Coelho (2016) emphasizes that:

Using tools designed for use with ELLs informs teachers whether the student is progressing appropriately along a normal path of development for ELLs, and what the next steps should be, with the goal of enabling the ELL to catch up to native speakers of the same age within a five- or six-year period. (p. 286)

EAL learners are often unable to meet curriculum outcomes in the exact same way as native speakers of English.  Gottlieb (2006) asserts, “The skills and knowledge associated with content take precedence and the language demands are adjusted according to the students’ language proficiency levels” (p. 64).  Teachers differentiate instruction by providing clear, simple oral and written instructions, by slowing down their speech slightly, by using developmentally appropriate comprehensible input, by allowing extra time for students to comprehend key concepts, formulate answers, and complete assignments, and by varying the length or complexity of assignments. Helmer and Eddy (2012) pointed out, “Projects that involve using many different skills give EAL learners an opportunity to participate more fully, demonstrating their range of talents and abilities” (p. 63).  Differentiated instruction allows students to highlight their strengths.

Coelho (2016) also encourages differentiation through the use the alternative assessment strategies to enable students to demonstrate learning in ways that do not depend completely on their proficiency in English.  One strategy involves removing or lowering the language barrier by allowing use of the first language or dictionaries. Other strategies include simplifying language, giving oral tests, allowing students to physically show what they know, using cloze passages or graphic organizers, and asking fewer questions on tests. Teachers can also provide models representing a range of performance, provide opportunities for practice and feedback before actual assessment, use assessment portfolios or learning journals, and provide extra time to complete work being assessed.  Differentiation of both instruction and assessment is critical for EAL learner success.


  • Scaffolding Learning

The fourth key practice that supports EAL learners is the use of the scaffolding strategy of teaching and learning.  Coelho (2012) explains that scaffolding allows the teacher, as an expert, to make success attainable for all students by providing “support that enables students to achieve levels of performance beyond their independent level and gradually moving them towards independence at that level so that they can begin working at the next, with continued scaffolding” (p. 102).  The Ontario Ministry of Education (2009) advised, “Unless there is plenty of scaffolding to support comprehension, ELLs may spend large amounts of time sitting at their desks, with little understanding of what is happening around them” (p. 5).  In a basic way, scaffolding learning may include using gestures, facial expressions, pictures, or realia to clarify concepts and support comprehension and it is essential to ensure EAL learner success and the development of language skills.

Reiss (2005) states that there are two types of language skills (Cummins,1984) and that EAL learners must transition from one to the other for academic needs at school.  Basic Interpersonal Communicative Skills (BICS) is the language of everyday activities that takes one to three years to acquire.  Cognitive Academic Language Proficiency (CALP) skills involve the language of the classroom and require students to do things with language that are more abstract and cognitively complex.  This language typically takes five to seven years to acquire.  Roessingh (2016) stressed that academic vocabulary (CALP) must be taught with a focus on words that are high utility or general academic words that travel across curricular boundaries (sometimes referred to as Tier 2 words).  Students must shift from learning to read to reading to learn.  Prokopchuk (2014) articulated, “Learners of EAL need to move beyond conversational language toward academic language and this transition requires strategic, targeted support over time” (p. 82).  Scaffolding can provide this support.

Cummins and Early (2015) recommend the use of specific instructional strategies to scaffold students’ ability to understand and use academic language.  These include the use of graphic organizers and visuals, writing frameworks and templates, hands-on experiences, collaborative group work, guided projects, use of L1 for a variety of purposes, supporting students in acquiring efficient learning strategies, and clarifying language features and structures.  The Ontario Ministry of Education (2009) also recommends pre-teaching key vocabulary words before a lesson, encouraging oral rehearsal of key ideas or vocabulary, and checking often for comprehension.  Helmer and Eddy (2012) recognized, “The importance of establishing clear, consistent routines and expectations, as well as the students’ continuing need for feedback and support, cannot be overemphasized” (p. 117).  Scaffolding learning is a long-term process for EAL learners and their teachers.


  • Opportunities for Interaction

Coelho (2012) reinforces the fifth key practice to support EAL learners in her statement, “L2Ls need frequent sustained interaction with native-speaker peers and adults in order to learn the language to a high standard of performance” (p. 61).  She notes that “Opportunities for purposeful talk enable students to clarify ideas, share their knowledge and experience, and solve problems collaboratively” (p. 228).  Coelho believes that this authentic interaction provides opportunities to negotiate meaning and allows EAL learners to develop oral fluency, grammatical accuracy, and an adequate vocabulary when they receive comprehensible input, produce meaningful output, and receive supportive feedback to enable them to refine their language use.  Genesee and Lindholm-Leary (2013) assert “Authentic communication in the classroom about matters of academic importance provides critical context for learning the communicative functions of the new language” (p. 6).  This kind of authentic interaction can be facilitated through small-group activities that challenge EAL learners to participate orally rather than passively and take place in a learning environment where EAL learners feel safe to experiment with the language.  Relevant, authentic tasks that use hands-on, interactive learning and have real-life application can be very effective in promoting purposeful, interactive language use to the benefit of EAL learners.  Teachers should also remember that opportunities for interaction occur inside and outside of the classroom at school.  Helmer and Eddy (2012) suggest, “Encouraging EAL learners to participate in extracurricular activities supports their social, emotional, cultural and linguistic adjustment” (p. 121).  Teachers can support EAL learners by encouraging interaction in all school environments.

Conclusion and Reflection

All teachers play an important role in the successful integration of EAL learners into the classroom and school environment throughout the school year.  The growing population of EAL students has created a need for teachers to re-evaluate their approaches to teaching in order to allow EAL students to experience success with school curricula. Gottlieb (2006) recognized, “There are instructional strategies, supports, and methods that facilitate English language learners’ language development and conceptual understanding” (p. 70).  By moving toward culturally responsive teaching, integrating language and content instruction, differentiating instruction guided by levels of language proficiency, scaffolding learning, and providing opportunities for interaction, teachers will gradually implement the five key practices to support EAL learners and create equity in instruction and assessment for all learners.  I have used these five key practices while teaching Core French and Social Studies from Grades 1-8, and I look forward to challenging myself professionally as I ensure that these five practices continue to be evident in my own teaching.  Not only will I be supporting the unique needs of my EAL learners, I will be supporting all learners, because all students can benefit from these teaching practices.



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