EAL Learning – Achieving the right balance

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EAL Learning – Achieving the right balance

Author: Isabelle Bridger, EAL Specialist

As educators, we are naturally reflective creatures, habitually revisiting lessons in our minds to see if we could somehow improve. Could the outcomes have been better? Were the discussions rich and high in quality? Was the balance of activities right to get the best possible language learning progression? Here, we will explore how to get the right balance in lessons, as well as suggesting activities. 

According to Nation:
“The important issue is to achieve a balance between meaning-focussed activities, form-focussed activities and fluency development activities.”
Nation, 1997

Nation discusses the principle of four strands that should feature equally in any well-balanced language learning course. The strands are:

  • meaning-focused input
  • meaning-focused output
  • language-focused learning (form-focused) and
  • fluency development.

What does each strand mean and how could they be applied in a lesson? How does this translate into activities?

Meaning-focused input

Meaning-focused input is when learning takes place through listening and reading. The learner’s whole attention will be focused on understanding what is being listened to or read. Can the learner understand the intended meaning of what they hear or read? The exact or new learning that takes place here will be largely incidental and unplanned, and perhaps hard to track (Nation & Yamamoto, 2012).

Activity idea: Who am I?

The teacher reads a description of someone in the class. For instance: Who am I? I have mid-length brown hair and deep blue eyes. I have a side-fringe and in the summer, pale freckles form on my face. I am 5 foot 6 inches. I am of average weight for my height. I like reading, running and cooking. I like to get up early, although my favourite time of day is the quietness of dusk.

The pupils listen to a description like this of someone in the class. The pupils guess who it is and then explain why, demonstrating what they have understood. The text could be made harder or easier depending on the age and language level of the group.

Additionally, this activity can be extended further by turning the description into a cloze procedure or a word unscrambling activity. The Learning Village has several whole-school differentiation tools that can quickly and easily turn passages into targeted EAL learning activities.

Meaning-focused output

Meaning-focused output is when learning takes place through speaking and writing. Is the learner able to communicate, through speaking or writing, the meaning that he or she intends? This also involves largely incidental learning (Nation & Yamamoto, 2012).

Activity idea: Who am I?

This activity follows on from the introduction in the meaning-focused input section above. Pupils pick another pupil in the class to describe. The pupils will already have a mode to use, given to them by the teacher in the introduction to the activity. Additionally, the class could agree on personal features to comment upon. The amount that pupils can say about their peers will depend on how well they know each other, as well as their own language proficiency. Some groups may stick to physical characteristics, whilst other groups will be able to comment on character, interests, hobbies and so on. Some groups may stick to key vocabulary, whilst others might use whole sentences. Needless to say, the golden tule ‘no put downs’ should be established. Pupils write their descriptions and then read them out for the others to guess. This could be a paired, small-group or whole-class activity.

Some other meaning-focused activities (combining input and output strands) could be to find out facts about each other through questions and answer. Groups may ask about hobbies and interests or compare what they did or are planning to do at the weekend, for instance.

Language-focused learning (form-focused)

This strand is where there is a deliberate focus on language features, such as syntax, grammar, pronunciation and spelling, to name a few. As you can see, this strand focuses on features, as well as meaning and function. In second language learning research, language-focused learning can also be called form-focused instruction (Nation & Yamamoto, 2012). The main focus is on reading, saying, writing and understanding the new forms correctly (Willis, 2017).

Activity idea: Do you like?

By clicking on the button at the top and bottom of the page, you can download a set of flashcards taken from the Learning Village lesson ‘Do you like’. Once the language structure has been taught, pupils can go on to use these scaffolded flashcards to play bingo, snap, memory games and so on.

Additionally, pupils could receive one flashcard, for instance, ‘I like tennis’. The pupil then needs to find a person that is a fan of tennis by repeating the question, ‘Do you like tennis?’ to their classmates. Once they have found a person who likes tennis, they can sit down together.

Fluency development

According to Nation (1997), the fourth strand of a well-balanced course is a fluency development strand. This is where learners can practise the language that they already know. Can learners increase the pace of the language that they are understanding (reading and listening), as well as the pace at which they are speaking? This strand is also meaning-focused.

Activity idea: Complete the sentence

Give pupils the first part of a sentence, which they must complete. Make a list of sentence starters to hand out to the pupils as a model. The Learning Village’s Sentence Analyser is a useful tool to create the sentence starters. The sentences can follow a theme, for example:

Last year, I was …
Last week, I went to …
Last night, I …


At weekends, I usuallly …
At school, I usually …
With my friends, I usually …

Notice that ‘usually’ is repeated here. To differentiate further you could use the Learning VIllage’s Synonym Selector to stretch pupils to use alternative vocabulary.

Activity idea: The Eyewitness

Prepare a set of images of four or five pictures of people. (The Learning Village’s Sentence Visualiser will quickly and easily generate images for this activity). Assign each pupil a partner. Student A is the eyewitness and B is a detective. Show all student As one of the pictures (student Bs must not see it). In pairs, student B must ask the eyewitness to describe the person they saw. Student B can ask questions for specifics, e.g. hair, age, clothes, height, weight. Student B should take notes. Now give the detectives (student Bs) the line-up of the four or five people. Which one did the eyewitness describe?

You can repeat this with each student in the other role.


To achieve a good balance in language learning schooling, it is important to include activities related to the four strands of language learning, as set out by Nation. The four strands consist of three message-focused or communicative strands, and one language-focused strand (Nation & Yamamoto, 2012).

Click here for further information about the Learning Village’s EAL resources and whole-school differentiation tools.

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