Understanding and using the English proficiency codes for EAL learners

The legacy proficiency in English codes are still a valuable tool for classroom teachers, even if the information is no longer collected by the DfE. Diane Leedham explains what they mean, how to use them and where to access further resources

Author details

Diane Leedham is an education consultant, trainer and writer. She has worked as a teacher, head of English, whole school literacy lead, local authority advisor for English, literacy and EAL and a specialism project lead.

In September 2016, every state school in England was required to start providing an English proficiency code for their EAL learners in the January school census return

That decision has now been rescinded by the DfE, but that’s no reason for schools to abandon a crucial focus on monitoring the development of EAL proficiency in English.

The DfE’s ‘best fit’ coding system (see below), which encompasses proficiency in listening, speaking, reading and writing in English, provides effective ‘snapshots’ for non specialists. It is also aligned with a number of more detailed assessment and tracking systems. 

The proficiency in English codes

  • New to English [Code A]: May use first language for learning and other purposes. May remain completely silent in the classroom. May be copying/repeating some words or phrases. May understand some everyday expressions in English but may have minimal or no literacy in English. Needs a considerable amount of EAL support.
  • Early acquisition [Code B]: May follow day-to-day social communication in English and participate in learning activities with support. Beginning to use spoken English for social purposes. May understand simple instructions and can follow narrative/accounts with visual support. May have developed some skills in reading and writing. May have become familiar with some subject specific vocabulary. Still needs a significant amount of EAL support to access the curriculum.                
  • Developing competence [Code C]: May participate in learning activities with increasing independence. Able to express self orally in English, but structural inaccuracies are still apparent. Literacy will require ongoing support, particularly for understanding text and writing. May be able to follow abstract concepts and more complex written English. Requires ongoing EAL support to access the curriculum fully.                                                                                                            
  • Competent [Code D]: Oral English will be developing well, enabling successful engagement in activities across the curriculum. Can read and understand a wide variety of texts. Written English may lack complexity and contain occasional evidence of errors in structure. Needs some support to access subtle nuances of meaning, to refine English usage, and to develop abstract vocabulary. Needs some/occasional EAL support to access complex curriculum material and tasks.
  • Fluent [Code E]: Can operate across the curriculum to a level of competence equivalent to that of a pupil who uses English as his/her first language. Operates without EAL support across the curriculum.

Most new arrivals acquire spoken English fairly quickly and progress is usually most rapid through codes A and B. However, teachers need to be alert for progress slowing when learners reach code C and/or D proficiency, and may need an intensive focus on the development of subject specific academic English to avoid this progress stalling.

So, why are the proficiency codes useful for you and your EAL learners if the DfE is no longer interested?

There are currently wide variations between individual schools in terms of their professional knowledge base regarding EAL provision, their staffing and their capacity both to capture accurate EAL data and offer EAL support. Some schools had still not submitted any EAL proficiency data to the DfE at the time the decision to drop the data collection was announced, almost two years after it was introduced.

Proficiency in English is the biggest risk factor for EAL learner outcomes

So, it’s quite possible some schools will heave a sigh of relief and abandon any attempt to carry out further EAL proficiency assessment while others will remain in blissful ignorance that there was ever an issue.

That would be an error of judgement and not in the best interests of teachers or pupils. Proficiency in English is the biggest risk factor for EAL learner outcomes1 and, despite the challenges, the legacy DfE proficiency codes offer teachers a positive opportunity to:

  • review phase and/or subject provision for EAL learners
  • make links with other colleagues and contexts to enhance EAL provision
  • develop a deeper understanding of EAL learners and their varied needs.

1. An opportunity to review phase and/or subject provision for EAL

Each phase or subject area needs to consider its internal assessment and tracking of EAL proficiency and how collegiate EAL expertise may be developed and shared. Schools are strongly advised to evaluate English proficiency for the annual census update via a performance portfolio in different subject contexts.

Inevitably, how this is to be done will depend on the individual institutional context, but class/subject teachers should ideally be aware of the language development criteria and actively involved in the process.

There is no requirement for subject teachers to share or discuss a learner’s proficiency code with parents/carers. Nevertheless, all teachers need a basic familiarity with the descriptors and an awareness that the attitudes to multilingualism and second language acquisition which they convey to parents may have considerable impact.

2. An opportunity to make links with other colleagues and schools

Consistent use of the EAL proficiency codes can quickly facilitate discussion about EAL learners and their progress, but they make no distinction between the ages and stages of the pupils – the same descriptors are in place for EAL learners in EYFS and KS4. Teachers will need to use their professional judgement in applying the descriptors in their own context and cross phase conversations may help considerably.

There is also considerable benefit for class teachers and subject specialists using the existing EAL codes as an explicit point of reference and discussion in subject meetings, CPD and wider networking.

3. An opportunity to develop a deeper understanding of EAL learners and their varied needs

The codes are a useful addition to pupil details and class lists, helping class or subject teachers make reasonable adjustments in their expectations and judicious choices about seating plans. For example:

  • an EAL learner still acquiring basic conversational English (Code A) will not be able to write independently
  • a group of early stages (Code A/B) language learners sitting together are unlikely to get the best next steps English language models from their peers – although they may sometimes benefit from working in a shared first language.

Selecting strategies and resources

It’s important to be aware that the legacy DfE descriptors alone are not sufficiently detailed to help teachers choose the most appropriate strategies and resources for their EAL learners on a day to day basis, according to their varied needs at different stages of proficiency.

Fortunately, there are a range of user friendly EAL assessment frameworks readily available. For example, the Bell Foundation’s EAL Assessment Framework for Schools is available for free. It is aligned with the five DfE proficiency bands but with more detailed descriptors, as well as practical advice to help set language targets and ensure a systematic approach to second language development in your phase or department – and hopefully across the school, aided by the oversight and leadership of a qualified EAL lead.

With this more detailed knowledge and understanding of the stages of second language acquisition, it becomes much easier to differentiate appropriately for your EAL learners.

It’s also important to remember that the EAL proficiency code does not contextualise proficiency in English with the student’s other languages and literacies; these should be celebrated and developed whenever possible, not made invisible. For more on this, see EAL teaching: using pupils’ first language in the mainstream classroom

Increasingly, online resources for EAL learners such as those available via the EAL Nexus site provide a suggested EAL proficiency code. With the accompanying teaching notes and links to an EAL assessment framework, the EAL Nexus resources provide an easy access, self-starter CPD package for teachers and departments new to EAL learners, particularly helpful if it’s difficult to access in-school support or wider CPD.

Further reading and resources

EAL Assessment Framework

EAL for Classroom Teachers: training course


‘Guiding principles of English as an Additional Language assessment’

NALDIC (the national subject association for English as an additional language)

‘NALDIC Working Paper 5: The Distinctiveness of EAL’

School census: guide for schools and LAs (see pages 63 – 69)


  1. From presentation by Steve Strand at Lambeth Raising Achievement Conferences – see EAL 2017 keynote Steve Strand.
Last Updated: 
20 Sep 2018