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SEN and EAL: Webinar Summary

It can be much harder to identify pupils with special educational needs if they don’t have English as their first language, as explored in our latest webinar. The first step to supporting pupils with SEN and EAL is understanding the difference between the terms. 

Identifying SEN in children with EAL requires particular care to determine whether lack of progress is due to limitations in English proficiency or a potential SEND. Difficulties related solely to having EAL are not SEND, but it can be a challenge to tell where pupils’ difficulties originate from. To find out whether difficulties are related to EAL needs or a possible SEND, we need to take into account a number of factors. These include length of time in the country, English proficiency, previous educational experiences, and ability in other languages.

Pupil background 

Although length of time in the UK is not always directly correlated to pupil progress, second language acquisition research shows that pupils typically have an initial ‘silent period’ and then take up to two years to develop Basic Interpersonal Communication Skills. Cognitive Academic Language Proficiency continues to develop for around seven years. So, if an EAL pupil is quiet for the first six months or takes longer to develop academic writing, this is not something to worry about.

Educational culture differs internationally, so pupils may have different expectations of school and take time to adjust. Asking for help may seem unacceptable to a pupil with EAL, or they may be used to calling teachers by their first name. Sometimes, cultural differences can lead to misunderstanding and appear as behavioural concerns, so it is useful to learn about pupils’ prior learning experiences. 

Ability in other languages

EAL pupils may have high levels of cognitive ability in subjects within languages other than English, but struggle to access tasks due to the linguistic challenge. Before deciding that the pupil is low ability or may have an SEND, make sure you have differentiated the task appropriately, reducing the linguistic challenge while keeping cognitive demands an appropriate level for the pupil. Avoid placing EAL pupils in low-ability sets due to language needs as this can lead to disengagement and lack of motivation. Instead, provide appropriate support to help teach subject-specific vocabulary and academic skills.


What else do we need to find out?

Regular assessment of English proficiency enables you to keep track of progress across proficiency levels, highlight weaker skills, and assess areas to develop. Along with this, gathering information about pupils’ progress in curriculum subjects can help you to identify a possible SEN. If everything possible has been done to make tasks appropriate for a pupil’s proficiency level, you may then want to investigate a SEND. In addition, observation of pupils in more practical subjects can give you an idea of how they interact with peers, as well as other areas like coordination, motor skills, or possible sensory needs.

Gather as much background information as possible. This could be through conversations with parents, other agencies and the pupil themselves. Making sure that pupils with EAL have the opportunity to speak to a trusted person in school to ask questions and share their experiences is important for the child’s wellbeing. It can also often answer questions we might have about their prior learning, or reveal reasons behind certain behaviours. 

If you do have a concern that a pupil may have SEN and EAL, communication between SEN departments, EAL teachers, form teachers, and subject teachers, as well as open and positive relationships with parents, will help to build a detailed picture of the child and their needs, making the process of assessing for SEN smoother. Click here for the webinar Q&A!

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