This project, funded by the British Academy, explored whether EAL children differ from their monolingual peers in how they learn the meanings of new words that they encounter during reading. We used an eye tracker to monitor how long children spend reading a new word (like confabulated) when they encounter it for the first, second, and subsequent times as they’re reading texts. Our results show that EAL children are more efficient word learners: in other words, their reading times on the new words reduce more dramatically over time (see graph below). When we tested children on how well they could spell and understand the meaning of the new words however, EAL and monolingual English speaking children did not differ.
Our findings are important because they suggest that although EAL children tend to have poorer vocabulary knowledge and reading comprehension skills in English than monolingual English speakers, they are very efficient at increasing their vocabularies through reading. Of course this shouldn’t replace explicit vocabulary instruction but learning new words incidentally through reading can complement and support explicit instruction in EAL pupils.