How to Engage EAL Students in the Classroom

Published: November 28th, 2023

Teaching students with English as an additional language can be one of the most rewarding things you can do, but it’s not without its challenges.

One of the most difficult tasks is keeping EAL learners motivated and engaged. Transitioning to a new school, home, and surroundings can be tricky, so you must be aware of this and implement measures to ensure students feel supported and welcome.

To help you teach students with EAL, we put this guide together. Here, we explore ten tips for engaging EAL learners and the benefits of doing so.

What is EAL?

EAL stands for English as an additional language, and it refers to teaching English to students who natively speak other languages.

You may see EAL students referred to in different ways, like ‘students with ESL’ (English as a second language) or bilingual, but it is generally considered more inclusive to say English as an additional language. This is because some children may already know more than one language before learning English.

What are the challenges of teaching EAL learners?

English language learners typically vary in proficiency, so you will likely have to amend your teaching style to support EAL learners.

When students first join your school after moving from another country, the adjustment period can be difficult, and some children may go through a silent period due to heightened feelings of shyness. This can be caused by the pressures of trying to learn English and adapt to a new life. While this can be difficult, you must accept this and give students time to feel more comfortable in their new surroundings, and there are plenty of strategies for engaging shy and quiet students in the classroom.

Explore more challenges and how you can change your teaching strategies to benefit the language development of EAL students in our blogs on How to Use Technology for Teaching English as an Additional Language (EAL) and How to Engage International Students

Ten tips for teaching students with EAL

Teaching students with EAL can be tricky, so you might find it best to take an individualised approach to tasks to ensure each child is adequately supported. To help children get used to the language demands of learning English, implement these ten teaching strategies:

1. Use scaffold instructions

Scaffold instructions provide support and guidance that is gradually reduced as students develop confidence and independence in their learning.

Scaffolding enables students to build on a foundation of knowledge. To do this successfully, you must first assess what prior knowledge your students have and then determine the learning objectives. To help you, we’ve outlined a typical scaffolding model below:

  • Breaking directions into small segments
  • Talking students through the task while they complete it
  • Grouping students so they can discuss the task
  • Allowing students to do more research, e.g. by recommending wider reading

2. Keep it straightforward

When you communicate with students, you mustn’t complicate things. You can avoid this by simplifying the language you use and speaking clearly. You should also try to keep directions concise to help students answer more confidently, which is particularly important while students are in the early stages of learning a new language.

One way you can do this is by avoiding open-ended questions, like “How would you describe the school to other students?”. These can be difficult to answer and may alienate an EAL learner if they don’t feel confident speaking English.

3. Make it culturally relevant

Referring course topics and subjects back to EAL learners will make it easier for them to understand. This could include asking them to write about where they’re from or introducing diverse texts and materials that represent various cultures and backgrounds. By relating lessons to students’ experiences, you make learning more meaningful and theories resonate deeper.

4. Utilise role-playing activities

Role-playing activities, either with fellow students or with teachers, foster active participation and allow students to practice English in ‘real’ situations. By playing a character, EAL learners can feel less self-conscious and more willing to express themselves, which can improve language fluency.

5. Encourage students to work together

When students work together, it can alleviate the pressure of presenting to the whole class. Additionally, it helps EAL learners build strong relationships with fellow students and fosters an inclusive learning environment.

Similarly, you should attempt to learn about where students are from to accommodate their needs better and be conscious of cultural differences. For example, in some East Asian countries, making eye contact can be disrespectful, so try to avoid this.

For more guidance on ways to encourage teamwork in your classrooms, read our full guide on collaborative and cooperative learning.

6. Use realia, flashcards, and more

Using objects that students are familiar with can help to enhance their vocabulary. Visual aids like flashcards can enhance comprehension and bridge language gaps – making abstract concepts easier to understand.

Likewise, incorporating multimedia resources into lessons, e.g. through using an interactive display, can make learning English more engaging and enjoyable for EAL students.

7. Appeal to all learning styles

Tailoring course materials to different learning styles will help students succeed and retain information, building their confidence and making topics more accessible.

8. Involve parents

By working with parents and making them aware of course materials, they can take steps to consolidate what has been taught at school.

Creating a collaborative partnership with parents can ensure a more comprehensive and well-rounded learning experience that benefits the student and helps their family integrate into the school community.

Inviting parents to support at-home learning can also form part of a more holistic teaching approach, which can reduce overall pressure on teachers and enable them to deliver more valuable instructions during lessons. 

9. Provide clear feedback

Constructive, clear and actionable feedback is vital for EAL students as it can provide a clear understanding of progress, build confidence and facilitate effective communication.

The first step is to outline goals and help EAL learners understand what is expected of them. Next, you must set goals for students to work towards and achieve. Having clear, defined targets in place highlights areas for development and can boost confidence as you acknowledge the student’s efforts and achievements.

10. Be patient

Learning to speak English takes time and effort, so the most important thing you can do is be patient and empathetic to your students. Creating a supportive environment, celebrating progress and providing positive reinforcement are crucial to engaging EAL learners and helping them to achieve success.

Being mindful of meeting individual needs of your students and offering more support where necessary will help you build an inclusive learning environment where EAL learners feel comfortable and confident.

The benefits of providing EAL teaching

While challenges are associated with teaching EAL students, it is crucial to remember how rewarding it can be. Welcoming students from other countries into your school is advantageous for the whole school community for these reasons:

1. Academic achievement

Supporting EAL learners enhances students’ understanding of core subjects, benefitting their overall academic performance. As students become more confident communicators, they will naturally participate in more classroom discussions, which is advantageous to their own learning and others as they present new ideas.

2. Increased integration

Teaching EAL fosters communication skills and can help students make friends and feel a part of the school community. Meanwhile, promoting diversity and an inclusive school environment can increase acceptance and tolerance.

3. Boosts cultural awareness

As well as helping EAL learners, language learning can have a positive impact on other students in your school. Teaching students about the cultural differences between them and their peers from other countries builds awareness.

4. Improved cognitive development

Learning multiple languages enhances cognitive abilities like problem-solving and multitasking skills. Additionally, multilingual people are often more creative than people who speak one language. You can encourage native-speaking students to pursue second language acquisition for these same reasons.

How can technology be used to engage ESL students?

One of the most essential tools in your arsenal when trying to engage EAL learners is technology. From researching topics to make them culturally relevant to your students to adding multimedia elements, like animations and audio clips, to appeal to kids with visual and auditory learning styles, leveraging technology can help to simplify otherwise tricky teaching strategies.

Here are just four examples of how to engage EAL learners:

  1. Multisensory learning: As well as appealing to kids with auditory and visual learning styles, interactive whiteboards can appeal to kinaesthetic and reading and writing learners through educational games that get kids on their feet and by displaying text and organising group reading sessions.
  2. Taking learning home: Depending on your relationship with EAL learner’s parents, you can email tasks home to ensure kids can access a full range of materials and gain a deeper understanding of concepts.
  3. Accessing digital resources: One of the easiest ways to make theories and lessons culturally relevant is by going on virtual field trips and exploring famous landmarks. This gives students an immersive experience and can enhance their cultural understanding of England.
  4. Language learning: Using the display, you can hold group exercises, like rearranging sentences and filling in blanks, to make learning more hands-on.

When planning lessons and considering how to engage EAL students, ensure your interactive whiteboard is integral to your plans. The large screen of the Promethean ActivPanel, for instance, can be used for quizzes and to play educational games, which increases engagement and makes learning feel less like learning.

For more advice on increasing engagement in your lessons, head to the Promethean blog, where you’ll find the following guides to help you increase student engagement: