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Achieving Proficiency in English is the key to academic success, but it takes longer than you think, new report finds

Proficiency in English is central to understanding the educational attainment of learners using EAL, but how long does it take to achieve, and what support do these learners need?

The latest report in a research programme on the educational attainment of children with English as an Additional Language (EAL), published today¹, provides vital insights into how long it takes, and what support is needed, to enable learners who are New to English to achieve proficiency in English.  A key finding is that it takes two-thirds of pupils who start in Reception at the lowest level of English language proficiency (New to English) more than six years to progress to the highest levels of proficiency (Competent or Fluent)².  However, funding is only available to support these learners for three years.  This demonstrates that more specialised support is required for this hugely diverse cohort of learners.

Professor Steve Strand, Department of Education, University of Oxford, lead research author highlights, 

“Our research demonstrates that Proficiency in English is the key to understanding educational attainment and that it is important for determining the length and type of support required to meet the language development needs of EAL learners³. Our finding that over three-quarters of pupils who start in Reception as New to English progress to Developing Competence, the middle proficiency level, by the end of primary school is promising, in that most of these pupils are likely to be able to access the English language curriculum in secondary school.  However, the fact that, even six years after starting Reception as New to English, only around one-third of pupils have transitioned to Competent or above, is concerning; this suggests that while many pupils have achieved oral proficiency in English, relatively few gain academic linguistic proficiency⁴ in this timeframe.”

As there are over 1.5 million learners recorded as EAL in England, it is likely that many teachers will be working in, or have experience of, teaching multilingual classes.  Research shows that learners using EAL are a diverse and heterogeneous group with country of birth, time of arrival in the school system, first language spoken, previous education and background all contributing to that diversity and their likely educational achievement⁵.  

Research has shown that the definition of EAL used in the national data collection is limited because it gives no indication of a student’s proficiency in the English language. For example, the EAL group will include second or third generation ethnic minority students who speak English fluently but have a second language as part of their cultural heritage, alongside new arrivals to the English school system with no English’⁶. 

In a Reception year classroom you could find Helje.  Helje was born in the UK, his father is a banker and his mother is a teacher.  Helje is bilingual, he speaks both English and Finnish fluently for his age.  Helje is recorded in the School Census as EAL because he speaks more than one language at home.

In this diverse classroom you could also find Rajah, who has fled war and persecution in Syria, has had no formal education, and does not speak English.  She is struggling to understand instructions from teachers or where her classroom is, as she does not understand the signage. Rajah’s form teacher is the school’s EAL co-ordinator and understands the importance of, and need for, assessing Rajah’s Proficiency in English language on arrival and also throughout her time at school.  Rajah is initially recorded as ‘New to English’².  

From the first time Rajah is recorded as speaking English as an Additional Language in the School Census her school will receive three years of funding to support her to develop English language proficiency.  However, the research published today demonstrates that given Rajah’s background:

  • It is likely that Rajah will be amongst the 78% of pupils who were assessed as New to English when they joined Reception who have progressed to mid-level proficiency, but not the highest levels of proficiency, by the time they leave primary school. 
  • At this level Rajah will be able to participate in learning activities with increasing independence, will be able to express herself orally in English but with some inaccuracies and will need on-going literacy support. 
  • The quicker Rajah progresses through the early stages of proficiency then, on average, the higher her attainment at Key Stage 2.  

“This is the latest report in our programme of EAL research which shines a light on EAL learners’ achievement. It consistently demonstrates that learners using EAL are highly diverse, that there is a correlation between Proficiency in English and the length of time it takes learners to reach the highest level of proficiency needed for achieving academically, and that Proficiency in English is the major factor influencing the educational achievement and the degree of support a pupil using EAL will require.  It shows that learners who start with the lowest levels of proficiency may struggle to access the curriculum and become increasingly at a disadvantage if they progress slowly in developing their English language skills.  Research has also shown that at high levels of proficiency there are positive associations between bilingualism and achievement.  What can be a barrier to achievement is low proficiency in the language of instruction at school.  Pupils need to be supported so that they can acquire the proficiency that they need to succeed.” Diana Sutton, Director, The Bell Foundation

In conclusion, as a result of these findings schools are urged to continue using robust processes to assess EAL learners.  Through initial and on-going assessment of both language ability and cognitive skills, schools can establish the level of need among individual learners.  Through the application of tailored targets and support strategies for teaching and learning, teachers can support their learners to progress to higher levels of proficiency.  Through achieving academic linguistic proficiency learners will be able to fully participate in school and access the curriculum and, as a result, to fulfil their academic potential.


¹ Strand, S. & Lindorff, A. (2020) ‘English as an Additional Language: Proficiency in English, educational achievement and rate of progression in English language learning’, University of Oxford, The Bell Foundation and Unbound Philanthropy

² The Department for Education’s five-point Proficiency in English Scale (now withdrawn) ranged from ‘A’ New to English, through ‘B’ Early Acquisition, ‘C’ Developing Competence, ‘D’ Competent, to ‘E’ Fluent

³ Strand, S. & Hessel, A. (2018) ‘English as an Additional Language, Proficiency in English and pupils’ educational achievement: An analysis of Local Authority data’, University of Oxford, The Bell Foundation and Unbound Philanthropy,  

⁴ Academic linguistic proficiency refers to mastery of abstract and formal communication relating to specific subject areas which contributes to educational success. This includes listening, speaking, reading, and writing about subject area content material, as well as skills such as comparing, classifying, synthesizing, evaluating, and inferring. (Cummins, 1981, 2000)

⁵ Hutchinson, J. (2018) ‘Educational Outcomes of Children with English as an Additional Language’, Education Policy Institute, The Bell Foundation and Unbound Philanthropy, 

⁶ Strand, S. Malmberg, L. & Hall, J. (2015) ‘English as an Additional Language (EAL) and educational achievement in England: An analysis of the National Pupil Database’, University of Oxford, Education Endowment Foundation, The Bell Foundation and Unbound Philanthropy,

The executive summary of this report is also available in Welsh

Professor Steve Strand, Department of Education, University of Oxford, will be presenting a webinar on this research on Thursday 27 February 2020 at 4pm, find out more here:

The report, written by Professor Steve Strand and Dr Ariel Lindorff, Department of Education, University of Oxford, analysed Proficiency in English data from the Welsh Pupil Level Annual School Census (PLASC).  The Welsh Government has been recording the Proficiency in English of pupils annually since 2009, which provided data for this cross-sectional and longitudinal study.  In total 3,528,064 anonymised pupil records across a nine-year period (from Reception to Year 11) were analysed.  As the data is recorded using the same five-point PIE scale as the one used in England in 2017-2018 the research team found that the group was comparable to that in the English National Pupil Database and therefore the findings are as relevant in England as they are in Wales.

Proficiency in English data was only collected for pupils whose first language is not either English or Welsh, so speakers of Welsh are not considered to have EAL. The ratings are specifically of Proficiency in English, not of Proficiency in Welsh. The report uses the shorthand ‘English/Welsh speakers’ for the group of pupils who speak English and/or Welsh, to contrast them with the EAL group.

This is the latest report in a series of research on EAL. 

The Executive Summary includes details on the key findings from some of the previous reports, which analysed trends in the relationship between EAL and educational achievement, including:

  • Strand, Malmberg and Hall (2015):
    • In 2019, ‘The EAL population in English schools was 1.56 million EAL pupils, constituting just under one-in-five (19.6%) of all pupils aged 5-16. While one-quarter of schools had <1% of pupils recorded as EAL, in around 1 in 11 schools EAL pupils constituted >50% of the pupil roll, so need was very concentrated in some schools.’
    • ‘There was huge variation in the educational results achieved by pupils classified as EAL, risk factors include Special Educational Needs, socio-economic deprivation, gender and season of birth’
    • ‘The definition of EAL used in the National Pupil Database is limited because it gives no indication of a student’s proficiency in the English language as it includes both second generation ethnic minority students and new arrivals in the English school system with no English’
    • ‘Proficiency in the English language is the major factor influencing the educational achievement and the degree of support an EAL student will require, and it is low Proficiency in English associated with international arrivals that is proxied by the risk factors identified above’
  • Strand and Hessel (2018):
    • ‘EAL pupils varied widely in terms of their degree of Proficiency in English. In the context of mainstream schooling in England this was not a trivial observation. Teaching is almost entirely delivered through the medium of English language, be it texts, video or audio materials, or in classroom discussions. A group of pupils who can only access this information to a limited degree is also less likely to perform to their full potential.
    • ‘What mattered most for EAL pupils’ degree of English proficiency was not their ethnicity, gender or FSM eligibility, but their age’
    • ‘Language support is particularly important in the early years of primary education in order to allow pupils to access the curriculum from the earliest stage’. Although support is also needed for those arriving late into the school system.
    • ‘Proficiency in English could explain 22% of the variation in EAL pupils’ achievement, compared to the typical 3-4% that can be statistically explained using gender, Free School Meal status and ethnicity’
    • Being bilingual can have positive associations with achievement as pupils rated Competent or Fluent in English typically have higher educational achievement than monolingual peers.  However, pupils who are New to English, Early Acquisition or Developing Competence will need support to acquire the Proficiency in English they need to develop to their full potential.

About The Bell Foundation: The Bell Foundation is a charity which aims to overcome exclusion through language education by working with partners on innovation, research, training and practical interventions. Through generating and applying evidence, we aim to change practice, policy and systems for children, adults and communities in the UK disadvantaged through language.  

The Bell Foundation provides an EAL Assessment Framework, and a digital Tracker which automatically provide suggested tailored support strategies for each learner and a reporting tool which provides and records termly progress which can be shared with other teachers and parents.  The tools, one set each for EYFS, primary schools and secondary schools, have been developed by leading academics, have won a prestigious British Council ELTons Award for Local Innovation, are designed for busy teachers and are free to download.

  • EAL Assessment Framework and Digital Tracker/Reporting tool, along with instructional videos, can be accessed here:
  • Free resources and Great Ideas support strategies can be accessed here:
  • The Foundation also provides research, free webinars and training courses (online, blended and face-to-face), more information on these can be found on the Foundation’s website:

About the Department of Education, University of Oxford: The Department of Education started out as a department for training teachers, and is now also renowned for its research excellence. It was ranked first in the UK in the most recent Research Excellence Framework (REF) and is the highest ranked education faculty in Europe by the 2020 Times Higher Education’s World University Rankings subject league. The department has many research collaborations within the social sciences division and of course the University more widely. Our research is outward-facing, with projects that are transformative not just for the research field, but for governments, charities, industry and all levels of the educational sector. The department also stays true to its origins and provides excellence in teacher education, having achieved the highest possible grades by the Office for Standards in Education (OFSTED) for six consecutive inspections and is recognised as an ‘outstanding’ provider.

About Unbound Philanthropy: Unbound Philanthropy is an independent private grant-making foundation that works to ensure that migrants and refugees are treated with respect and engage with their new communities. We support pragmatic, innovative, and responsive approaches to immigration and immigrant integration in the United States and United Kingdom.

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