Practical Case Studies Series #2 – SEN or Semilingual EAL?

Student E and the Mystery of Semilingualism

Student E was present during my first interview lesson when I wanted to work in London schools. He had his head on the desk, in the small, hot EAL classroom and seemed generally unwell. I remember stopping the lesson and saying, ‘I might not get the job, but something is not right with this child. Should he go to medical?’ Perhaps it was prophetic. I did get the job, but something wasn’t right with this student. In the next two years, he continued to cause concern, not just for his inability to progress at all, either linguistically or academically, but for his increasingly erratic and socially risky behaviour in and out of school.


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Practical Case Study Series #1 – SEN or EAL?

Student N: The slow processor

Student N was a casual admission, i.e., mid-year, and came to our secondary school directly into Year 9. She seemed happy, socially confident and willing to learn, but was extremely slow to acquire English. In the group of students who were all new admissions, she was making the slowest progress out of all of them.

This concerned us as, in the UK system, she was immediately forced into exam classes and needed to acquire English at an accelerated rate. Was she SEN? How would we know? What information was needed to evaluate her? How could we document our decision-making process to ensure validity of approach?

Normal bilingual learner or special need?

Using hypothesis testing

Frederickson and Cline (1991, 2015 ) suggest a comprehensive framework of information gathering when assessing whether an EAL student is experiencing curriculum difficulties due to cognitive deficiency or to a need for linguistic and socio-cultural adjustment. These are a part of a ‘hypothesis-testing approach’ (Frederickson and Cline 1991, Hall 2001) where possible variables contributing to the educational difficulty are considered and eliminated as part of the assessment of possible SEN in an EAL child.

These include:

  1. Background: gaining a full picture of the child’s previous educational experience;
  2. Language: conducting a first-language assessment to ascertain whether the child is working at an age-appropriate level in their own language;
  3. Communication Skills: observations of pupil interaction in classroom and play contexts, as well as gathering observational information from community language or religious schools as part of a multi-cultural approach;
  4. Differentiation: checking that appropriate classroom provision for EAL language learning need is effectively used;
  5. Affective Filters: investigating emotional and psychological factors affecting achievement such as past trauma, racist bullying or other environmental stresses; (Frederickson and Cline 1991, Pim 2010)
  6. Testing: considering raw data on national standardised tests but as a minimal part of the whole picture. See note.
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9 Strategies to Try with EAL Students Today

So, I promised EAL would be made easy…well…easier. EAL students have one big problem and it’s NOT learning English. It’s learning enough academic English, fast enough, to get through whatever exam is coming. Their problem is not actual language acquisition, it’s the speed of acquisition. So providing support to access the curriculum must be done in a way that allows the EAL student to put chunks of useful language to good use right away.

That is why we have to start with higher academic language. An EAL student of good cognitive ability will be able to learn ‘nevertheless’ just as well as ‘but’. Remember that they do not have the same difficulties with multi-syllabic words as native-born, low-literacy students.

Chances are, they come from a language system that uses a highly complicated set of letter strings and are very used to longer words. Many other languages agglutinate, i.e., they ‘glue’ words together, like in Spanish, German, Hungarian or Turkish, resulting in hugely long words!

Top Tip: Pair work and group work allow fluent peers to model good English and EAL students to practice saying it. Work this into your lesson as often as you can for any key stage!

Below are nine general ways to build this support into your lesson structure, including how a teaching assistant (TA) can be a second pair of eyes and ears for you in your class.

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And you’re writing a blog because…..

Oy vey! Where do I begin? I’m a born and bred New Yorker transplanted to small-town Essex. I became a teacher by accident. I stayed out of stubborn determination (and parenthood). I succeeded because I used my painful journey of being a foreigner in an incomprehensible and inflexible social institution to help kids who were or felt different.

I made huge mistakes. I was a nightmare for the people that managed me or worked with me. I kept going. I got better. I kept hold of my unique perspective and valued it in the face of lots of cultural static. I got on people’s nerves. I got a Masters to back up my mouth. I moved to a London school where suddenly I fit better, faced bigger challenges and began to gain some humility.

I was asked to train as a Special Educational Needs Co-ordinator to do my job (and another person’s job) better. I accepted. I worked 11-hour days to be of service to a tough and complex community. I experienced things that changed me forever. I moved on to preserve my health, my marriage and my family. I face different challenges at another school now. But I am a better teacher with more perspective, more humility and a much bigger arsenal of secret weapons and effective approaches.

I’m still a New Yorker. I’m still a pain in the ass(et). BUT I am an absolute asset to any school, any classroom, any set of students or parents, anybody I train and, now, to you. Read my blog. Enjoy. Go forth. Kick butt. Conquer ignorance. ‘Nuff said.

Laura Tarantini-Amor, EAL Made Easy