Last reviewed 6 September 2019

Early years providers are welcoming increasing numbers of young children who are learning English as an additional language (EAL), and must ensure that their provisions are inclusive and fully supportive of every child in their care, writes Elizabeth Walker.

For some practitioners this is a new experience while others are already successfully managing provisions with families from diverse cultural and linguistic backgrounds.

It is vital to remember that each child will have a unique background and will be at a different stage of learning English: some children will be bilingual whereas others will have had very little exposure to English. Therefore early years provisions should offer support which reflects the language development and individual needs of each child.

The Early Years Foundation Stage (EYFS) framework states that for children whose home language is not English, providers must take reasonable steps to provide opportunities for children to develop and use their home language in play and learning, supporting their language development at home.

Meeting the family

Building positive relationships with the family is the first step in supporting a child learning EAL and home visits are the ideal way to meet parents and carers and share information before the child starts at the provision.

If the parents speak little English it may be necessary to ask the local authority (LA) for support in finding an interpreter to attend the home visit or ask if there is a bilingual member of the family or friend who can help with translation. Key points to ask the family at the home visit include:

  • the child’s first language

  • the child’s name and correct pronunciation

  • family background — brothers, sisters, etc

  • religion

  • festivals or celebrations the family observes

  • customs and diet

  • the child’s experiences, likes and dislikes, worries or difficulties.

The key worker should ensure that they share the following information at the home visit:

  • times and days of the sessions that the child is attending

  • details of fees and grants

  • information about the meals, drinks or snacks provided or whether the child needs to bring a packed lunch, etc

  • the type of activities on offer.

The key worker should also:

  • offer to complete any registration forms together

  • ask the family if they have any questions or worries

  • explain that the provision welcomes and celebrates different languages and cultures

  • explain that the key worker and other staff members are always happy to discuss any future questions or concerns

  • reassure parents that maintaining and developing their home language will benefit their children and support their developing skills in English.

Welcoming environment

It is important that the child and the family are made to feel as welcome as possible. The environment should celebrate cultural diversity and different languages through wall displays and other resources. Examples of good practice include:

  • displaying a welcome sign in many languages, including those spoken in the provision

  • welcoming all children and parents using correct names and pronunciations

  • learning some key words in the child’s first language

  • helping children to feel safe and secure by using gestures, smiles and signs

  • ensuring that children and parents can access and refer to a daily timetable with pictures so that they can become aware of the routines and structure of the sessions

  • ensuring familiar resources are available which positively reflect the child’s experience and cultural background, such as books, dressing up clothes and dolls, CDs and story tapes, pictures and posters, etc

  • using signs or other visuals to signal different activity areas and help children navigate the provision

  • ensuring that books and stories shared with children have clear illustrations and are supported by props and puppets

  • involving parents and families wherever possible in the provision’s events or open mornings

  • enabling opportunities for visitors, musicians or storytellers from a range of cultures to visit

  • using bilingual staff where possible as key workers for children learning EAL.

Activities and resources

Early years provisions are rich in opportunities for social and language development. They provide children learning EAL with experiences that allow them to develop their English language acquisition while continuing to build upon their home language in a safe environment.

It is important to offer resources and activities that reflect the backgrounds and cultures of the children, such as:

  • books and story tapes in dual languages

  • stories or fairy tales from different cultures

  • books, posters, toys and puzzles that reflect positive images of different cultures

  • musical instruments and music from around the world

  • story sacks to create a clear context for stories

  • dolls and small world figures that reflect different ethnic groups

  • dressing up and role play reflecting different cultures

  • cooking using recipes/ingredients from different cuisines

  • activities celebrating different festivals from around the world.

Learning and development

The EYFS framework states that providers must ensure that children have sufficient opportunities to learn and reach a good standard in English language during the EYFS, ensuring children are ready to benefit from the opportunities available to them when they begin Year 1. When assessing communication, language and literacy skills, practitioners must assess children’s skills in English. If a child does not have a strong grasp of English language, practitioners must explore the child’s skills in the home language with parents and/or carers, to establish whether there is cause for concern about language delay.

It is vital to remember that speaking more than one language is an asset and provides learning opportunities for both children and adults in the provision. Encouraging continued development of the first language supports the child’s learning, wellbeing and sense of identity. Key points to consider when supporting children learning EAL include the following.

  • Children learning EAL are as able as any other children, and the learning experiences planned for them should be no less challenging.

  • Additional visual support is vital for children learning EAL.

  • Many children go through a “silent phase” when learning a new language. This may last for several months but is not usually a cause for concern. During this time, the child is absorbing what they are learning and building on their understanding in preparation for when they feel ready to speak.

  • Understanding is always in advance of spoken language and it is important that children do not feel under pressure to speak until they feel confident.

  • Praise and encouragement should be given for all attempted communication, whether verbal or through gesture.

  • Children should be allowed time to observe and given sufficient time to respond to questions.

  • Children learning EAL may switch between languages or mix two languages when they are speaking.

  • Children with EAL benefit from being in small groups with English-speaking children and should be encouraged to explore all areas of play and activities.

  • Use of the first language with peers and/or bilingual assistants should be encouraged where this is possible.

  • Staff should speak clearly using short simple sentences and limiting questions.

  • Activities should be provided where the language is predictable or repetitive eg rhymes/songs/books based on repetition.

  • Children should be given roles and tasks which enable them to join in activities using little or no spoken English, eg sharing out food at snack time.

  • Staff should continue talking with children even if they don’t respond in words, praising minimal efforts to communicate.

  • Children learning EAL may tire quickly.

  • Observations of children’s communication skills, including non-verbal gestures and body language, must be recorded and progress tracked with parents and staff.

  • Children’s early attempts at mark making in different scripts should be praised and valued.

Good practice and action points

Early years managers need to ensure that EAL support is consistent across all areas of the organisation and that there is equitable and inclusive provision for all children. Best practice includes:

  • developing strong partnerships with other services and agencies, such as speech and language therapists, social workers and health visitors to provide joined-up support for EAL learners

  • demonstrating equality of opportunity and anti-discriminatory practice across all areas of the provision

  • providing support and training to all staff on EAL, equality and diversity

  • managing transitions effectively by sharing all relevant information on EAL learners with the next provision or school

  • accessing additional EAL support from the LA including translations services

  • working in partnership with families of EAL learners and developing good provision–home links

  • developing policies that include provision for working with children and families learning EAL.

Further information