Supporting bilingual learners in the Early Years

    Published: 09 September 2020

    Children join our settings with a unique set of skills and abilities. Some children are fortunate enough to have a home language other than English. Natasha DaSilva from HfL’s Early Years Team takes us through her experience of working with one particular child who was at early stages of learning English and highlights strategies that can be helpful when working with children for whom English is not their first language:

    Ahead of lock down I had a mixed Early Years class of 25 children. Among these, 14 children were learning English as an additional language (EAL). There was a range of home languages spoken, and while I had a large group of Bangla speaking children, all of them were at varying levels of English proficiency on entry to school. At our handover meeting ahead of home visits our attention was drawn to one of the children with EAL who stood out as needing additional support.


    Toy Figures


    Child N, a summer born girl, learning English as an additional language, had been to Nursery and was from a family already known to school but had not yet begun using English language at school. Interactions between school and home were limited.

    Cultural values and expectations

    When we arrived at her home visit she was engaged in a play date with an English-speaking neighbour of the same age. Both children played together smiling, nodding and drawing alongside each other but with little oral communication. On entry to the home mum apologised for her “not speaking good English” and I instantly felt her insecurities around the situation. I sat down with the girls drawing alongside them and commenting on their play, while my TA spoke to child N’s mum, who responded with an offer of tea and food. I kindly refused but the disheartened look on mum’s face quickly encouraged me to change my mind. On return from the kitchen she brought a range of cooked delights and some juice and placed them on a small table in the middle of a rug. The girls both took a biscuit and sat on the floor around the table, following their lead I also sat down on the rug to join them. N’s mum smiled, sat on the floor next to us and offered us a drink. It was clear that our willingness to join her routine had meant so much to her; she wanted to make us feel welcome and by accepting we, in turn, helped her to feel more comfortable. 

    Giving time for silence

    When joining the class in September I rarely heard N speak, neither to me nor to her peers. She would frequently make her way to either the snack or play dough table, initially sitting alongside two other girls who spoke the same home language as her. Observations made on N in the first few weeks of settling showed little evidence of spoken language, but there were many examples of her use of non-verbal communication to share her cognitive understanding; making eye contact with peers, smiling and offering objects for others use. She would pour out cereal for others and take turns with playdoh tools independently and this led me to assume she was happy in the setting and that she understood some of the rules of play.

    As we moved through the autumn term my colleague and I had many conversations about N, discussing how we could better support her language development and how we could encourage her to engage more readily with other groups of children. She would often join us at an activity with a smile if we asked her to, but rarely chose to join in voluntarily and shied away from language opportunities within a group. We asked the two girls with the same home language to talk to her using their first language to encourage her to participate in group play. Her response to their Bangla invite was to laugh and shake her head, the girls explained, “She doesn’t talk to us, and she is just laughing.”

    Following the NALDIC stages of Early Bilingual learning we were able to identify that she was at the non-verbal stage of additional language learning. As a team we decided to continue to play alongside her using language to commentate our actions, name and describe objects but not put pressure on her to join in with play.

    Create opportunities to find out more about the cultural routines and home life experiences of your cohort. Valuing and building trust with the family can help children to settle more quickly. Try to accept offers of hospitality during home visits if you can. This can go a long way towards building the relationship of trust.

    Not long in to the second half of the autumn term during singing registration in the afternoon, my TA sang N’s name, as always, and she responded by singing her name back!  We were both shocked and excited but not sure whether to praise her for her contribution or to treat it matter-of-factly. As I looked over to her she made eye contact with me and I gave her a proud smile. She returned the smile but quickly bowed her head shyly. Nevertheless, she had a bounce in her step all afternoon.

    Make sure that all practitioners working with children with EAL in the early years understand the different stages in which children with an additional language learn to speak. This ensures that children are given time to progress in language as and when they are ready. Giving children these opportunities helps practitioners to make accurate assessment and planning to cater for each individuals language needs.  

    “The silent period is not something that we as teachers should feel threatened by. It is a natural part of second language acquisition and EAL learners will vary in the amount of time that they are silent.”

    (EAL in the Daylight 2019)


    Children at Fountain


    Using communication with parents and building opportunities through play

    As the term progressed N began to join in more readily with group role play opportunities, echoing words she heard from other children, answering yes or shaking her head in response to questions or comments but was still reluctant to engage in conversation orally. In her parent review meeting mum explained that at home she has begun using English words to communicate with her dad, who speaks in English at work, and has started talking to shop keepers when they are shopping. Following this, we created a supermarket in our role play area to see if this would encourage her to transfer her home experiences to her play. The next Monday morning, when entering school N instantly noticed the supermarket role play. She excitedly put her coat away and went straight to scanning food and placing it into a basket. I approached the shop and sat on the floor and she welcomed me in to her play “you mummy” she laughed and placed a doll in my lap. The role play continued, almost all morning. As other children joined I deliberately left the play to observe. Sometime later she came to get me, pointing to the dolly and giving me a carton of milk. Through taking account of the knowledge gained from this short interaction, with her parents we were able to offer opportunities that matched her cognitive functioning in a way that allowed her to practise language rehearsal in her own time.

    Ensure that parents of EAL learners have a voice and recognise their value in building their child’s learning story.

    The importance of language play

    In the Spring term N began engaging in small world activities and sensory challenges with a wider range of children, She remained reluctant to verbally join in with conversation but would laugh alongside her peers and observations demonstrated that her concentration had improved, looking more frequently and for longer periods into others faces of her peers as they spoke, which we assumed was helping her to establish contextual meaning. We also noticed that she began to gravitate closer to the front of the carpet at story time and would excitedly join in with story repetition more often. 

    Look for cues that children are beginning to attune to English, joining in with games, following instructions and the use of non-verbal communication.


    Family in park


    At N’s spring review meeting both school and parents noted such a change in N’s enthusiasm for school. She was talking at home about the friends she had made and her confidence in school was growing. Targets were agreed with her parents for her to continue taking risks in new learning situations and to begin sharing her own ideas with others. 

    A key action for supporting settling your EAL children is give them time to play in rich environments that challenge their cognitive ability but give time for them to absorb and explore language.

    N did not return to school following the Covid-19 closures and will not re-join until year 1. While positive foundations were put into place to build secure relationships with home, I suspect that further nurture and encouragement will be needed to rebuild her confidence in taking language risks in a new environment and with new staff in September.

    If you would like more ideas for how to help children who are learning English as a new language in Early Years settings, you could join our online course:

    Supporting children with English as an additional language, on Thursday 25th February 2021

    Further reading

    The silent period

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