The EAL learner

learners of English as an Additional Language

Learning an additional language

How long does it take to learn English as an additional language?

Learners initially develop Basic Interpersonal Communication Skills (BICS) which can take up to 2 years for proficiency. This is the day to day language needed for social interaction.

Sometimes, when students first encounter a dominant English speaking environment, e.g. school, they can remain in a silent period which may last from a few days to months. During this period, they are acquiring receptive language through listening, watching and working on making sense of what’s happening around them.

The development of Cognitive Academic Language Proficiency (CALP) generally takes between 5 and 7 years. Academic language (listening, speaking, reading and writing) is necessary for students to successfully access the school curriculum. Academic language acquisition is more than simply understanding and using content or subject specific vocabulary. It includes skills such as comparing, classifying, synthesising, evaluating and inferring.

The rate at which learners develop SAE skills is dependent on:

  • previous educational experience
  • similarities or differences between the learner’s first language and SAE
  • learner’s well-being, motivation and personality
  • proficiency in their first language

*Please note: if learners have had no prior schooling, disrupted schooling or are suffering trauma, it may take 7-10 years to acquire academic language proficiency.

What does it involve?

Language learning is developmental and happens over time. It involves the acquisition of a complex communication system, composed of the interrelating linguistic elements of communicating, social usage, meanings, structures, vocabulary, word formation and sounds.   Fluent speakers of a language use the entire set of all  linguistic elements almost automatically.

What does English language development look like for EAL students?

The ACARA resource English as an Additional Language or Dialect: Teacher Resource  describes a progression of English language learning typical of students learning English as an additional language.

Teachers can use this progression to:

  • understand the broad phases of English language learning that EAL students are likely to experience
  • identify where their EAL students are located on the progression and the nature of their speaking, listening, reading/ viewing and writing skills
  • monitor the English language progression of their EAL students.

The characteristics of learners at each of the stages of English language learning are described.

Limited Literacy background  Students with little or no experience of literacy in any language. This is the ‘pre-production stage’ when students may remain in a ‘silent period’.

Beginning English  Students with some print literacy in their first language.

Emerging English  Students who have a growing degree of print literacy and oral language competency with English.

Developing English  Students who are further developing their knowledge of print literacy and oral language competency with English.

Consolidating English  Students who have a sound knowledge of spoken and written English, including a growing competency with academic English.

There will be noticeable differences between a student at the beginning of the phase and at the end of the phase.

Learners may be at different phases across the language modes of listening, speaking, reading/viewing and writing.

For further elaboration and information please refer to English as an Additional Language or Dialect: Teacher Resources

What is the role of a student’s first language?

The maintenance of a learner’s first language is vital for conceptual development.  Hearing a rich and broad vocabulary and a range of language structures in the first language is important because, when ready, these same skills and understandings will transfer into the student’s use of English.

Interacting both within and outside of the school/ classroom environment using their first language benefits EAL learners in developing their English proficiency in addition to the maintenance of important cultural and community ties linked to identity.   Listening, speaking, reading and writing in their first language develops confidence and success in learning for EAL students, bridging the path towards English proficiency.  [Source: J Haynes, Getting started with English language Learners]

Bilingualism in Young Children: Separating Fact from Fiction outlines the benefits of being multilingual, how children learn more than one language and examines the myths about bilingualism.  Being multilingual is aimed at encouraging learners to appreciate being multilingual.

Promoting multilingual approaches in teaching and learning provides a collection of classroom activities that harness the benefits of students’ multilingualism while simultaneously helping them to develop the academic language they need to succeed.   This downloadable resource has been produced by a team of Australia-based education researchers. 



Using dual language story books to foster bi-literacy describes a study that explored the use of dual language books as a tool for learning. It found that dual language books helped children access the English text and encouraged them to value their home language.  Most importantly, the dual language books developed children’s identities as bilinguals and made them aware that their languages are of equal value and importance when it comes to learning.

Additional multilingual resources and stories are available on the Intercultural understanding and well-being page.

What questions or comments might you have about this?

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1 Comment

  1. Sharing the above information about EAL learners (BICS & CALP) can be very eye-opening for staff, especially if they have not encounted EAL learners before. I found that many of our teachers viewed our EAL learners as Inclusive Ed students rather than students who were capable and competent in their own language. When we looked at this at a staff meeting many of them were surprised by how long it can take to acquire a new language. It was very powerful.

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