EAL in Early Years:
13 Ways to Offer a More Inclusive Environment
All without breaking the bank.

Providing for EAL in the early years is never an easy task. Children with English as an Additional Language (EAL) can find it difficult to get comfortable in an unfamiliar environment, and it’s down to you to accommodate them.

What’s more, finding the time and resources to give these children the attention they need is not easy with higher ratios, and many nurseries simply can’t afford to provide additional support.

Hopefully, that’s where we can step in. Inclusive practice for EAL in early years is absolutely essential to make sure no child is left behind. Every child should be able to develop alongside their peers and get to school prepared and ready to continue their learning. That’s why we’ve put together 13 ideas to improve the experience of EAL children at your setting – without breaking the bank.

The stages of learning english

When you’re working with EAL children in the early years it’s important that all your practitioners understand the different stages in which children with an additional language learn to speak.

Understanding these stages is crucial to making sure that no child gets pushed too hard before they’re ready. Appreciating the rate at which children learn will help all of your practitioners to make the right choices for every child.

  1. The silent period – Often the child will start with a silent period, possibly combined with gestures and some use of their home language. This is not a passive time, but the time at which they will be applying what they know to new contexts. Continue to speak to them as much as possible and try to pick up on non-verbal responses when possible. Can last around six months.
  2. Echoing words – The child may echo words or very short phrases in response to the practitioners. For example, if you ask them ‘Do you want to go outside?’ this may be met with ‘Outside’ or ‘Go outside’. All attempts to speak should be heavily encouraged and praised.
  3. Language with meaning – They’ll start to copy chunks of speech that give real meaning, such as ‘Daddy will come soon, or ‘My turn’.
  4. Joining in – You’ll start to notice increased involvement with refrains in stories and songs, learned by imitating other children.
  5. One word, many meanings – This stage is characterised by single word answers (usually nouns) that the children use to perform a variety of functions including questioning, responding and naming things.
  6. Multiple words – Independent use of two or three-word phrases will start to become commonplace, usually with function words omitted. This is usually about communicating meaning such as wants or dislikes and can be accompanied by non-verbal gestures.
  7. Extended phrases – Children will start to use extended phrases that include verbs, adjectives and nouns.
  8. Normal speech – Eventually this will lead to longer sentences and general speaking competence, although some minor irregularities are likely to still be present as a result of the difference in usage of things like tenses compared to their home language.

Thanks go to Dorset County Council for this brilliant document which informed this list and much else in this article.

Time to get your provision ready

Now that you have some food for thought to understand the development of English within the early years, it’s time to turn to a few ideas that might help you to offer a more inclusive setting to every child.

1. Involving their home language

EAL in early years is really about two things. First ensuring the children are comfortable in their new setting, and then ensuring there are plenty of engaging learning opportunities for them to develop their skills

Because EAL children will initially be most comfortable with their own language, it’s important that you prepare the setting with notices, labels and books in that language wherever possible. It will help them to associate this new experience with something more familiar.

This can be a challenge, especially when you have multiple home languages across the setting. Take advantage of tools like Google Translate in real-time to help children understand the context. You can even get some pointers on pronunciation if you’re trying out a word or two yourself.

2. Spending time with the parents

To give the child a comforting environment at the setting, you need to know what comforting means to them.

This is where time spent with parents comes in. They can help you with proper pronunciation of their name, some survival language, and give you the family background to understand the context to the child’s community.

There can often be religious and dietary differences to what you might be used to, and learning about the kind of activities they enjoy can help you plan learning experiences that are both familiar and challenging.

3. Listening activities are a priority

Focusing on listening activities to begin with should allow children to absorb as much as possible and gradually increase their confidence. Many children won’t be ready to speak yet, and letting them absorb as much as possible will be much more helpful than pushing them to speak before they’re ready.

A listening corner where the children can independently play different audio samples can help. When you’re telling stories make sure to use exaggerated tone and body language to give them non-verbal clues throughout.

You can find more communication and language activity inspiration over on our EYFS article on the subject.

4. Choosing a buddy

One powerful way to help a child who is struggling to integrate into the nursery is to pair them up with a naturally caring, friendly, nurturing child in the setting. So long as the child understands the language limitations of their new buddy, it can be a huge boost to children who have EAL in early years.

For one, they are more likely to be included within the community of the setting, and they also can learn by imitation when they don’t fully understand something. Having someone to copy can save an awful lot of confusion.

5. Getting their name right

OK, so this one’s pretty simple, but so many people don’t pay enough attention to it. You need to make sure you get it right. You need to make sure your staff get it right. You even need to take steps to help your children to get it right.

It’s unbelievably alienating to children with EAL in early years when people get their name wrong, and will only add to any alienation they’re already feeling.

6. Survival language

Try to take the time to learn certain ‘survival words’ in the child’s language, and encourage their key person to do the same. Essentially, think about the sort of words you’d need to know in a situation where you didn’t know the language.

It could be things like:

  • Greetings
  • Toilet questions
  • Drink
  • Snack
  • Hungry
  • Yes/No

This should also be your focus once the child starts to become more verbal, and the words you should be encouraging parents to use whenever possible at home.

7. Going beyond words

We’ve already mentioned it a few times, but non-verbal cues and materials are essential when you’re trying to educate children with EAL in early years. Story sacks, visual timetables and various visual prompts can help you with this. Try to find ways to illustrate certain routines without having to use words.

One thing to be aware of is that you need to understand the different use of facial expressions and personal space that may vary from culture to culture. What might have positive connotations in the U.K may be negative elsewhere. This is where you research counts and your interactions with parents can be crucial.

8. Get physical

Physical activities can be invaluable for EAL children in the early years. Games like Simon Says are uniquely placed to actually help develop language because they mix language learning with physical movement.

Children are most likely to learn when they’re engaged, and that’s why physical games can help children to associate a variety of vocabulary with the real world. What’s more, reinforcing understanding through making a physical movement can help to commit ideas to memory more easily.

9. Understand differences and behaviour

As we’ve already mentioned, understanding the differences between cultures is important. There might be differences in the amount of physical contact, eating practices, eye contact or the meaning of certain gestures, for example.

What’s more, you need to understand why children may display what seems like typically ‘bad behaviour’. For example, tired or uninterested EAL learners might be like that because they are stressed or struggling with the adjustment. It’s tough learning a new language! Equally, aggressive behaviour can be part of the way in which they communicate when they’re non-verbal. Adjusting your mindset with this in mind is important, as is making attempts to explain behaviour to the non-EAL children in your setting.

10. Understand familiar activities

Familiarity is important when children are learning. Find something that your EAL children are comfortable and happy doing and apply it to your planning. This is where your parent meetings will come in handy.

During the activity, your practitioners can talk to and support them using English. This is where they will learn the best – when they are doing an activity that they are engaged and familiar with.

11. Time to sing

Repetition is good for children of all abilities, but it’s particularly valuable with children who have EAL in early years. You can use story sacks and other non-verbal cues to scaffold their understanding, and you’ll find that with time the children will start to imitate and repeat certain parts.

Need some inspiration? We’ve noted down our favourite 15 nursery rhyme songs to give you some inspiration!

12. Introduce another language

‘Not another language!’ I can hear you say. But bear with us on this one.

While you may be concerned that introducing another language could only add to the confusion, having French or Spanish classes in your nursery can help to make EAL children more comfortable. The other children will develop empathy for how it feels to not fully understand how to communicate, and it also gives the children with EAL a chance to work on something at the same rate as their peers.

13. Get support

If you haven’t already, make sure to reach out to your LA to hear about the support that they offer for nurseries with a large EAL cohort. For example, they might be able to help you with stuff like:

  • Translator services
  • Paid additional hours for staff to do home visits
  • Cultural events to attract families
  • Translated guidelines and advice packs
  • Dual text storybooks

The Complete (and free) SEN Guide

Interested in more? Download the full guide to preparing an inclusive environment for every SEN child.

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