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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