5 Strategies to Support Beginner EAL Learners in Writing

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Supporting EAL learners writing will depend on the proficiency of the learner. It is important that teachers consider the language proficiency of EAL learners before considering effective strategies to support writing.

This post will look consider EAL learners that are new to English or in the early acquisition stage of their language proficiency. These terms come from the DFE proficiency scales which can act as a guide on how to support EAL learners in your class. For a more comprehensive proficiency scale consider The Bell Foundation’s assessment framework and accompanying classroom strategies resources.

The proficiency scales state that new to English EAL learners ‘Needs a considerable amount of EAL support‘ and that early acquisition learners ‘Still needs a significant amount of EAL support to access the curriculum.’

The proficiency descriptors also state that new to English EAL learners might be ‘May be copying/repeating some words or phrases.’ For early acquisition stage learners the descriptors suggest that ‘May have developed some skills in reading and writing. May have become familiar with some subject specific vocabulary.’

Although not comprehensive these descriptors do offer some insight that classroom teachers could use when they consider how best to support beginner EAL learners.

For a more comprehensive document on EAL learners progression in writing you could look at the work carried out in Australia. The link here is a 90 page document that gives descriptions of different stages in language development for learners from foundation to Grade 10 (Australian system).

Beginner EAL learners will probably be able to write single words or short phrases and anything beyond this might prove problematic unless the right support is given.

Here are 5 strategies that could be used to support these learners in your classrooms:

  1. Substitution Tables – As you can see in the image below, substitution tables break sentences into manageable chunks. Learners have to join words and phrases together to make sentences. As you can see, this substitution table is from a lesson on cells in science. In this way the activity is related to what learners are learning about in the classroom – it is contextually related to the lesson.

2. Gap fills – Gap fills can be a useful strategy for beginner EAL learners to complete. As with substitution tables, the gap fill should be related to the content area that learners are studying about. Also, it might be best to focus on gap fills that develop language rather than content knowledge for beginner EAL learners. By this I mean focus on the development of such things as: using the right tense (past or present), adjectives, nouns, connectives etc.

3. Mixed up or jumbled sentences – jumbled sentences are a good strategy to use with EAL beginners because it helps them to learn sentence construction. Learners have to put the words in order to make sentences, again related to the content area that learners are studying. I use this website ‘Half a Crossword‘ to make my jumbled sentences. It does it all for you! You just have to type the sentences you want jumbled and it does the rest for you.

4. Copy Correctly! – Copying is not ideal but there are times when it might have its place in the classroom. For instance, if you have an EAL learner that is a complete beginner then copying might help them to formulate letters, words and sentences. Copy correctly could be used because learners are given a choice of two sentences only one of which is correct. Learners have to copy the correct sentence. As with all the strategies, these sentences should be based on what is being learned in the classroom / lesson.

5. Dictogloss – dictogloss is a great strategy to develop writing. It also involves all 4 skills of reading, writing, listening and speaking. Beginner EAL learners might find the strategy overwhelming but I pair them with more proficient EAL learners or monolingual partners because they can be very supportive of beginner EAL learners. To support your beginner you could give them some of the words from the text you read to the class or give them a list of words to listen out for and they have to circle the words they hear. From here they can work with their more skilled partner in recreating the text you have read to them.

Beginner EAL learners require a lot support to access some of the more complex writing tasks that they face in lessons. However, they can access these lessons if the right support is given to them. That support, whether it be one of the strategies above or a different strategy should always be related to the content area that they are studying. Furthermore, in the initial stages of language development, the writing strategy should probably focus on language development as opposed to recalling content knowledge.

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