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Supporting English as an Additional Language (EAL) at transition to school - Supporting EAL - Strategies to support EAL

Educators can support and encourage children in their acquisition of English as an additional language through a wide range of strategies that foster high quality interactions, enable modelling and create strong context for the development of language.


Watch how schools and services support English language development.

Sustained shared thinking

Research has shown that high quality adult–child verbal interactions are a vital factor in positive learning outcomes for children. These interactions can occur through sustained shared thinking.

Sustained shared thinking occurs when children and educators work together in ways that provide opportunities to discuss and think about problems or challenges in a serious, extended way. These situations allow for explicit teaching of language, modelling, questioning, phrasing and rephrasing of responses.

Concrete tasks, such as making pancakes, provide the opportunity to teach language in context. Teachers can model correct use of language, allow children to use the language, rephrase for them and use full sentences.

Encouraging learners to take part in quality interactions

A child’s ability to take part in quality interactions is not solely dependent on their knowledge of English and their ability to engage in talk with others. Other factors that impact or influence a child’s motivation include:

  • Have they developed the ability to use meta-cognitive levels of language to think and process information?
  • How confident are they?
  • Are they risk takers or inclined to be tentative?

Educators can help young learners to participate in quality interactions through:

  • encouraging the child to take charge of interactions
  • expressing confidence in the child’s language use
  • making the interaction enjoyable and involving the child’s friends and others.

Strategies to help develop sustained shared communication

Educators can use these strategies to help structure learning opportunities for explicit teaching of language skills:

  • tuning in: listening carefully to what is being said, ensuring that children have time to ask or answer questions, observing the child and responding to their nonverbal communication
  • showing genuine interest: maintaining eye contact, listening attentively, offering encouragement, affirming the learner’s talk
  • providing silence: allowing time for the learner to respond
  • giving your own views with justification: I especially liked that because ...
  • elaborating: tell me more about that
  • recapping: ‘So you think that …’
  • clarifying ideas: ‘That’s right, the ice melts when it gets hot.’
  • suggesting: ‘You might like to try it this way.’
  • reminding: ‘Don’t forget that you said you will help put the toys away.’
  • predicting: ’What do you think will happen next?’
  • speculating: ‘Do you think the three bears would have liked Goldilocks to come to live with them as their friend?’
  • asking open questions: ‘How did you …? Why does this …? What happens next? What do you think?’
  • offering information: ‘I can tell you ...’
  • modelling thinking: ‘I have to think hard about what I am going to buy for tea on the way home from kindergarten. We are having spaghetti with meat sauce so I need to get some mince and tomatoes.’
  • prompting retelling through questions: ‘Tell me which part was most exciting …’

Further information on sustained shared thinking:

Conceptualising progression in the pedagogy of play and sustained shared thinking in early childhood education

National Quality Standard PLP e Newsletter No 43, 2012 Sustained shared thinking

Assessing learners’ readiness to engage

In order to support learners and develop their skills in thinking and reflection, educators need to consider a number of factors:

  • Social and emotional development – Are children confident to speak out, to take risks and express their point of view?
  • Motivation and dispositions to learn – Do children demonstrate persistence when faced with difficult situations or problems?
  • Cognitive development – Have the children reached a stage in their language development where they are able to think and reflect on topics of conversation?
  • Linguistic competence – Have children reached a stage of grammatical development where they can explain and give reasons? Can they discuss a plan of action or resolve complex situations?
  • Reflective responses – Can children ask open-ended questions and show imagination and curiosity?

Further information: Adapt scaffolding to early childhood

Using reflection to support EAL

When children are engaged in reflection they go beyond merely reporting what they have done. They become aware of what they have learned in the process and what was interesting, how they feel about it and what they can do to build on or extend the experience.

Reflection consolidates knowledge, so it can be generalised to other situations, thereby leading to further prediction and evaluation.

Further information on reflection: ‘Quality Interactions in the Early Years’ Professor Iram Siraj-Blatchford, 2005

Gradual release of responsibility model – I do it, we do it, you do it

In the initial stages of learning EAL, children need a great deal of support from their teachers.

As children become more confident and their language skills develop, the teacher can incrementally withdraw support and allow the children to become more independent.

The gradual release of responsibility model of instruction focuses on shifting responsibility to the learner to perform a task. It helps children become capable thinkers and learners, and is an effective approach for improving literacy achievement, reading comprehension and literacy outcomes for English language learners.

Further information: Effective Use of the Gradual Release of Responsibility Model By Dr. Douglas Fisher

Nonverbal communication

All cultures use nonverbal communication, such as facial expressions, gestures and body language to convey meaning. The meaning of this communication will vary from culture to culture and can be subject to misinterpretation.

Children need assistance in recognising nonverbal language, especially where it may differ from their own.

Oral language

In the years before school, the emphasis is on strengthening oral language. This includes positive attitudes to maintaining the home language as well as learning English.

Writing and print

Children enjoy writing letters and numbers and they recognise that print conveys meaning. They make connections between visual images, such as signs and logos, and actions or meanings.

They enjoy seeing their words written. Some children will demonstrate skills in writing in languages other than English.

Children may start to write their own names and recognise them when they are written for them. They may know some of the sounds that letters make.

Knowledge of books and other media

Providing children with opportunities to interact with books and other media (including computers, digital cameras, DVDs) supports their language development:

  • Children begin to demonstrate an understanding that words have a structure and purpose, and they will make a connection between the illustrations and the story.
  • They engage in discussions around books and stories, both fiction and nonfiction.
  • They respond to a wide variety of texts, and enjoy reading with other children and adults.
  • They demonstrate knowledge of the way books work, and can handle books appropriately, turning the pages and responding to illustrations or rhyme and repetition.

Establishing the environment

Children learning EAL benefit from an environment that encourages and supports interaction.

The arrangement of the indoor and outdoor space in the early childhood setting should allow for young children to learn through active involvement in their environment as well as have opportunities for children to be alone.

The provision of a stimulating and challenging environment provides opportunities for children to make choices and decisions.

Creating environmental scaffolds

Educators can offer communication support for EAL learners by establishing a stable physical environment that is engaging, includes exposure to materials that interest the children, has multiple opportunities for social interaction and co-learning and where the educators themselves are co-participants.

Within this environmental scaffold, children’s learning is supported by the predictable language of the context that ensures language is taught and modelled. These scaffolds include:

  • routine events
  • visual clues and gestures
  • language used at routine times, greetings, instructions
  • linguistic cues – calls for attention and attention-holding devices
  • behavioural expectations
  • repetition and singing
  • small and large group activities
  • use of visual materials
  • rule-based play.

Routine language

Routine language used by educators helps cue learners in.

Once learners become absorbed in the context of the group they are able to use social cues that enable them to observe the actions of others and copy them.

Learners can also participate in daily classroom events using social routines to jointly construct with others their identities and social rules.

Stability, predictability and flexibility

Stable and predictable learning environments provide a framework that assists the learners to understand and anticipate events, sequences, expectations of behaviour and language used within each part of the pattern.

Flexibility enables the educators and the learners to make adjustments to cater for individual desires or needs.

Appropriate learning challenges

Environments that provide a range of appropriate learning challenges enable matches to occur for each learner.

The features to which an individual learner responds will depend partly on what the learner brings to the context and how the context responds to what they bring.

Learners respond differently to the same environment. It may be rich in stimulating matches for one particular learner but not so for another learner who comes to it with different attitudes, skills and knowledge. Or it may assist a learner at one stage of language development but not at a later stage.

Physical environment

The physical environment should include play and learning resources that positively reflect the children’s cultural and linguistic identity and experiences, including:

  • books, posters, labels
  • community language newspapers
  • food packets that display a variety of scripts.

Play situations

Play situations provide ideal opportunities for young learners to acquire EAL, as the speech is highly predictable, patterned and repetitious and well contextualised, making it ideal for the learner and allowing them to be free to experiment with the language.

Children confident in speaking in their home language may use this during free play, as they are not constrained by lack of vocabulary and can use their imagination more freely.

Opportunities to play outside are beneficial, as most children tend to be less inhibited in their language use in an outdoor environment. Practitioner observations have shown that children commonly make at least five times as many utterances outdoors as they do inside.

Playing games

Language can be acquired and taught very effectively through playing games. The focus is on participation and enjoyment in a non-threatening and relaxed situation.

The organisation of the games and the scaffolding support provided by educators assists the learners to take part, using the comprehension and level of English they have at that time.

These activities and games are beneficial for young learners:

  • picture lotto
  • snap and other card games
  • sequential cards
  • children’s board games like snakes and ladders
  • counting games
  • puzzles and jigsaws.

Games that do not require a verbal response allow less confident children to participate.

Structured adult-directed play

Structured adult-directed play including card games, matching games and outdoor games provides the opportunity for EAL learners to hear natural language directed to the ‘here and now’, such as instructions for playing the game, rules of turn-taking and new information and vocabulary in context.

Listening games

Because children learning EAL are used to tuning in to different speech sounds they will usually enjoy and succeed at games based on auditory discrimination.

These games support their speaking and listening skills and have the potential to enhance self-esteem through providing a vehicle for successful interaction.

Playing games bilingually

Many of the games that encourage communication can be played bilingually, in the home language or in English.

Children’s language development can be facilitated at these group times by an adult, for example a bilingual educator or parent, or a child with more English proficiency. Children can be paired together for games. Educators can use the children’s interaction in these games to observe their language and assess their level of comprehension and skill in English.

See this link for further ideas on building supportive environments and teaching resources.