What impact does high quality adult interaction have on the attainment of EAL children in a nursery setting?



Research and study conducted and implemented by Jessica Sharkey.



This study aims to highlight the impact that high quality communication and language strategies have on the attainment of EAL nursery children. It is based on the idea that second language acquisition depends heavily on exposure to a range of approaches that explicitly support talking, verbal expression and reasoning in very young children whose exposure to English is limited in the home environment.

Baseline data has highlighted that year upon year, the number of EAL children enrolling in our nursery has increased so much so, that during the academic year 2015/2016, 69% of children on register arrived with little or no spoken English. In our afternoon session, 100% of our children came from homes where English was not spoken. The attainment gap between EAL children and children who spoke English at home, was increasing.

Context of the School

This school is much larger than most primary schools with 620 children on register. The largest groups of pupils are of White British, Asian Indian and Pakistani heritages. The proportion of pupils who are from minority ethnic backgrounds is over three times that found nationally. The proportion of pupils known to be pupil premium is twice the national average. 74.9% of the pupils, an above average percentage, speak English as an additional language.


Ethnographic Research

“Ethnography literally means ‘a portrait of a people’. Ethnography is a written description of a particular culture – the customs, beliefs, and behaviour – based on information collected through fieldwork.” –Marvin Harris and Orna Johnson, 2000.

Ethnography is a qualitative research method often used in social sciences, particularly in anthropology and in sociology. It is often employed for gathering empirical data on human societies/cultures. Data collection is often done through participant observation in which the researcher becomes a part of the community on which research has to be done. Data can also be collected through interviews, questionnaires, etc. Ethnography aims to describe the nature of those who are studied (i.e. to describe a people, an ethnos) through writing. It can also be called a “case report”. Ethnography can be widely used in education. It helps in addressing the educational problems of particular groups, in this case, children learning English as a second language.

Action Research

Action Research is taking action to improve teaching and learning plus systematic study of the action and its consequences. it is typically designed and conducted by practitioners who analyse data from their workplace to improve their own practice. Every teaching situation is unique in terms of content, level, student skills and learning styles, teacher skills and teaching styles, and many other factors. To maximize student learning, a teacher must find out what works best in a particular situation. (http://josotl.indiana.edu/article/viewFile/1589/1588)

A review of research which informed this study

The acquisition of a new language generally tends to follow a pattern of three stages. There may be a period of time when children continue to use their home languages in the second-language situation. When they discover that their home language does not work in this situation, children enter a non-verbal period as they collect information about the new language as well as the cultural, social and environmental differences. Eventually, children begin to go public, using individual words and phrases in the new language. Finally, children begin to develop productive use of the second language.(Tabors, 1997 p.39)

When conducting an ethnographic study of the setting prior to introducing the language strategies, it became evident that children in the first or second phase of English acquisition experienced interaction with adults almost exclusively on a classroom management basis rather than in an inclusive capacity.  Having said that, when the children began to enter stage three (repetition and language play, use of formulae, routines and single words) the adults became more inclined to include them in certain small groups, activities and general day to day conversations during play. When the children entered stage four, they were seen to be on a par with their English speaking counterparts and often placed in low ability groups for particular focussed activities. The needs of the EAL children were not adequately being met, particularly during the first two stages of SLA.

The relationship between practitioner and child in an early years setting is a particularly delicate one. This not only applies to EAL children, but all young children who are learning through play. The importance of the quality and timing of adult interaction is highlighted by Sylva et al (2004) having identified “shared, sustained thinking” as a vitally important aspect of practitioner-child interaction. In their influential, large-scale EPPE project, Sylva et al noted that the quality of adult-child interactions varied between different settings. High quality interaction – which they termed as ‘shared-sustained thinking’ – was the defining characteristic that singled out successful teachers from others. This is a particularly important finding for bilingual children who may have fewer opportunities to engage with others, both peers and adults in the setting, and who may initially find the overall context of learning baffling.  The moment of interaction between adult and child is critical. Children’s play is often characterised by sudden changes of direction, both conceptual and physical, and the appropriate moment is easily missed. But catching the moment has the potential for moving children on, and for learning. The adult must balance on a knife edge here. On the one hand children need space to be on their own, and with their peers, in order to remain in control of their play so that they can initiate and follow their own interests; on the other hand the teacher will need to be close, listening and tuning into their play, and joining in as appropriate in order to influence their learning. Leaning a new language will depend on social interaction with others, and opportunities for conceptual development need to be accompanied by the use of language, which is particularly important for our EAL children. (National Association of Language Development in the Curriculum 2015)


An Overview of Actions

It became evident through ethnographic studies and data analysis, that the stages of second language acquisition were not adequately being supported within the nursery. Staff appeared to assume that because the EAL children were in the early stages of language acquisition, they were not yet ready to participate in small group activities and were better off left to their own devices, only being spoken to in an instructional manner. This did support children in their understanding and cooperation of classroom routines and expectations, but did not have a significant impact on narrowing the attainment gap between these children and their peers when it came to areas of learning such as communication and language, literacy and understanding the world. It was clear that the first step was going to be professional development of support staff within the nursery.

Continued Professional Development sessions were held for support staff across the Early Years Phase to discuss the information gathered during the ethnographic study, the impact that this was having on the EAL children and what could be done to narrow the attainment gap. The training sessions consisted of a variety of strategies and approaches aimed at helping children throughout the first two phases of SLA as well as supporting those who were entering the third and forth stages without simply streaming them with low ability English speakers. The research of Pricilla Clarke (1992) suggests specific yet simple strategies to support children’s language development during the silent phase: continuing to talk to the children even if they can’t/don’t respond, persistently inclusion in small groups with other children, varying questioning techniques, including other children as the focus in conversation, use of the first language, accepting non verbal communication, praising of minimal effort, expectations to respond with repeated words/numbers, structuring of programme to encourage child to child interaction and providing activities to reinforce language practice through role play.  (Clarke, 1992 p. 17-18)

The staff were trained to use Blatchford’s questioning techniques during their interactions with children.

  • Asking open ended questions
  • Sharing and sustaining thinking
  • Tuning into the child’s learning by listening, watching and observing
  • Showing genuine interest
  • Respecting decisions made by the child
  • Inviting children to elaborate
  • Re-capping
  • Offering out your own experience
  • Clarifying ideas
  • Suggesting alternatives
  • Reminding
  • Encouraging
  • Speculating
  • Modelling thinking through spoken internal dialogue

As well as monitoring, assessing and evaluating the interactions between the children and adults to reflect the above strategies, the structure of the daily routine was changed to include a daily talking group. These groups (Chatty Time) allowed the key workers to sit with a group of up to thirteen mixed ability children every day to allow not only language development and acquisition, but also relationship building activities to support EAL children in forming and maintaining friendships. These sessions enabled children to engage in a range of activities from acquiring and using story language, using a variety of tenses, naming objects, playing word games and critical thinking activities. These activities were predominately unplanned, or planned retrospectively to ensure that what was happening was exclusively informed by the interests, needs and even whims of the children.


The study was supported by regular network events providing practitioners with critical relationships with nine other practitioners across five schools to ensure that the quality and validity of the study was upheld over the academic year. This also gave the practitioners in insight into other settings which had a large percentage of EAL children on register.


During the academic year of 2015/2016, Autumn data showed that 39.6% of children were working at or above nursery entry expectations in Communication and Language on arrival. By the Summer Term, 81.1% of the children were working at or above age related expectation. The intervention not only had a massive impact on the EAL children but had a significant and positive impact on all of the children within the nursery.

nur finish rec final

The above graphs highlight the impact of the study during academic year 2015/2016. See table below:



During this study it became evident that EAL children in the first and second stages of second language acquisition were not being specifically catered for, this was observed not only in the school where the study took place, but in a range of schools and settings across the network. It is simply not enough to leave EAL learners to their own devices in the hopes that they will simply “pick up” language with little or no intervention. While this may be true, there are many ways to accelerate the learning of these children which not only helps to narrow the attainment gap, but also helps them to understand social and cultural differences, build relationships with adults in the setting and form and maintain friendships with their peers.

Early Years providers should seriously consider the training of support staff when it comes to supporting increasing numbers of EAL children. CPD needs to reflect the individual cohorts that exist from setting to setting. As we become a more and more diverse community, it is evidently not enough to assume that Early Years Practitioners do not require CPD in second language acquisition simply because the children are very young and are learning through play.


Are you part of a network that can offer support, guidance and critical friendship?

Are you open to changing aspects in your setting that will not only have a huge impact on your EAL children but on every child? Remember that this is to give children the capacity to communicate. This will empower small people and give them a voice, which is surely the precedent to all other areas of learning.

Do you have the support of senior leaders to implement the changes required in planning, structure and learning focus in your setting?

Can you motivate and justify your study to support staff ensuring that they are on board when it comes to change?