Effective EAL differentiation in Science

A day or two ago, following a few hours of lesson planning for my EAL class, I sent the following to Twitter (under this first paragraph). It was to show other teachers, particularly Science teachers, how one can quickly differentiate an activity for different EAL students, who might be at varying levels of SLA (second language acquisition) whilst always keeping in mind the fact that effective differentiation for EAL has to be built around a focus language aspect. In this post, I expand on this tweet, and explain what processes went into designing this 3-level resource (adapted from an EAL Nexus resource) and what distinct EAL principles belied it. 

Before, I delve into the specifics of my differentiation process, I feel I need to remind the reader of a rather important fact: literacy is not language, and shouldn’t be confused with it. Language is developed first and is primarily spoken – indeed, the field of linguistics considers the written word as secondary to speech. The Economist has written before (see this article) about the pervading myth which claims that unwritten language is not really a language. Language is not the same as writing. Ethnologue, which tracks the number of languages in the world, says that out of the 7,099 languages currently listen, barely 3,866 have a developed writing system. Literacy is one of those terms that gets used on a daily basis, but what often escapes scrutiny is the fact that we’re quite far from agreeing on what “being literate” actually means. Some believe that it refers only to the ability to read, some that it’s about reading and writing, and some include the ability to listen and speak in it, too (Cambridge Assessment, 2013). And that’s just in Britain! If you read the OECD’s 2006 Education for All Global Monitoring Report, it turns out that literacy can be seen in a completely different light!

  • the ability to read a newspaper easily or with difficulty – Angola, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Kenya
  • the ability to read and write simply sentences – the Russian Federation, Bulgaria, Egypt (no mention of language), Argentina, Sri Lanka, Turkey (in a specified language), Croatia, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia (in any language)
  • based on school attainment – Estonia (where completing a corresponding level of primary education is required for being considered to be literate), Greece (never been to school – organic illiterate, hasn’t finished primary school – functional illiterate), Israel (have to complete at least primary school)

Clearly, in any of these countries, you would not state that a child who has not completed primary school or might not be able to read or write (at all or to a state-acceptable level) possesses no language. Clearly, then, language is an integral part of, but not the same as, literacy skills. Yet, in England, “literacy” is commonly mistaken for “language”. Perhaps because many teachers did not experience explicit teaching of their own language during their own school days. But definitely because “literacy” is such a strong feature of the government policies and “teacher speak” is infused with it.

For EAL learners, however, in particular for those who are new to Britain, their second language skills are precisely what disallows them from becoming fully literate in English. You might’ve noticed in the paragraph above that countries such as Croatia ad Pakistan seem to consider people to be literate in any language – how many times have you heard that an EAL child is not literate whilst them being perfectly literate in Russian, Arabic or Tamil is completely ignored?

Long story short. We need to focus on the language – and make it explicit. By which we mean not generalised punctuation or adjectives, but specific English language grammar – think about specific tenses, for instance Present Perfect Simple vs Present Perfect Progressive, articles/determiners, the rules governing suffixes (e.g. why we write daisies in the plural, changing -y to -ies, but when it comes to day, it becomes days, but not daies). 

This is what teachers need to think about when they differentiate for EAL learners. The barrier is the English language. It’s actually quite simple: some learners with dyslexia suffer from visual stress, for instance. This being their barrier, you might get them paper that is not white, which could relieve the stress – this would be removing the barrier. For EAL learners, the barrier is the English language – this means its grammar, form and function – in the context of their school activities. Why wouldn’t you then address the barrier? Why do so many teachers continue focusing on their content rather than focus on the barrier so that their content can be accessed?

No idea.



First of all, we need to recognise that different learners of EAL will be at different stages of English language acquisition. This means what is presented by the simple image below:

If a student is relatively new to Britain and new to the English language (red/orange colour towards the left), you are going to need to focus your differentiation more on their English language skills than on your content. You are going to ask more questions about the English language than about your content whilst doing your content. As your EAL learners become more and more English language proficient (moving towards the green side of the arrow), you will focus more on the content and, to a lesser extent, on the English language: NOTE: This does not mean that should completely stop focusing on the English language at this point! The reason for this is that at the beginning of this journey your students’ English language skills are preventing them from becoming literate in English; by the end of it, they are largely literate, but it’s the more advanced English language skills (think nominalisation, passive voice, inversion) are what’s stopping them from expressing themselves fully. The volume of differentiation and its nature (more basic English language skills are required in the red, but more academic language is required in the green) are different. Whilst you are pushing your learners towards the use of the academic language at all times, you cannot expect new to English learners to express themselves in English on a par with their advanced EAL learners. Cognitive Academic Language Proficiency takes, at minimum, 5 years to develop. 



Let us examine the resource below. This has been adapted from EAL Nexus (https://eal.britishcouncil.org/resources/plant-and-animal-cells). This lesson follows from 2 previous lessons where the structure/elements of both the plant cells and animal cells have been explained to them and graphic organisers, kinesthetic activities and the first language were used. 

The adaptation is very simple – it’s a gap fill that I’ve added here. 

It is very easy to notice quickly that it’s not the Science words/keywords that I have removed here. Indeed, genetic, cell, chemical reactions, chlorophyll all remain. What I want to practice – this is my grammatical focus – with this group/level of learners – is the use of Present Simple. Indeed, the missing words are is, contains, controls, takesI am interested in the learner’s ability to use a Present Simple verb that agrees with the subject preceding it, i.e. do they use the -s suffix in 3rd person singular?

We still talk about the content of the Science lesson, but these learners need to practice their Present Simple tense – which, indeed, is one of the main grammatical tenses used in the subject of Science as Science is all about facts.



These guys here are considerably better at basic structures such as the Present Simple tense, but where they get mixed up is the word order in sentences, particularly when it comes to longer, more complex or compound sentences. Hah! Let’s give them jumbled up sentences and see how they deal with these. This will require of them to remember the subject-verb-object order of English affirmative sentences (SVO), which might be different to their language (it will be, for instance, if they are Arabic or Chinese speakers) as well as the fact that, in relative/subordinate clauses, the subject might actually disappear as it’s replaced/referred to by a relative pronoun. This is exemplified by the following set of sentences:

These contain chlorophyll. Chlorophyll is green. (“these” = “chloroplasts”)

These contain chlorophyll which chlorophyll is green.


The task for the advanced EAL learners, who are going to be working in a group, has been inspired by the work of Pauline Gibbons. Here, it’s not so much a gap fill anymore, but a cloze. As you can see, most of the words in the activity has to be completed, with only the first letter of these provided. Other elements left are the punctuation and articles (a/the) and determiners (e.g. the possessive adjective “its”). (I actually took Gibbons’s idea a notch down – hers suggested leaving just the title and the punctuation.) The length of the gap indicates the length of the word, which is pointed out to students. 

The focus here is on determiners/articles preceding nouns themselves or adjectival/noun phrases for one, but also on control of the SVO structure throughout the text. It is different for this group to the middle in group in that the words are not provided for them here, so they have to keep focusing on SVO throughout this task rather than only within individual sentences as in the middle level task. They will also need to insert relative pronouns themselves. Obviously, if they finish a sentence but miss out one word, they will have to figure out what that word is. They will need to think of both the content obligatory vocabulary (Science keywords) and content compatible vocabulary (the English language / grammatical vocabulary used to introduce these keywords). For more about content-compatible vs content-obligatory vocabulary, please read one of my previous blog articles here.



We have now seen how one activity can be differentiated for three different levels of English language acquisition. We have also seen how the lower level’s task was entirely focused on the English language whilst the top level focused on both the content and the English language; the last task comes with higher English language requirements when compared to the previous levels. We also have an English language focus for each stage. We have thought of what these learners can do, what level of the English language they currently operate at and we challenge them to move outside of that zone. This is Vygotsky’s ZPD in action: you are helping (if you weren’t a more knowledgeable adult/peer, you wouldn’t be able to differentiate at all) and engineering a situation where next time they’ll be able to do it by themselves (fingers crossed!) In a sense, it also correlates with what Stephen Krashen’s Comprehensible Input “i+1” theory says: if you wish to improve your learners’ English language acquisition, provide them with input that is comprehensible, but challenge them to move out just slightly beyond that frontier. They can understand the message, but now they need to accommodate that additional “unknown” into their pre-existing schema.

I sum it all up in the table below:


This is the EAL pedagogy in action. 

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