I started using this hashtag on twitter a while ago as a bit of fun. You’d be discussing something with someone from outside ESOL and they’d ask why. And, this being Twitter, you’d have no short explanation, except a virtual shrug and “because ESOL.”
So this is the long explanation, for which I apologise, as I’ve been here before, but it never hurts to remind people.
ESOL generally occurs in an English language environment, unlike, say, international EFL which can occur in all sorts of contexts.
This means that ESOL is judged on the same terms as, say, hairdressing, or Access to HE, despite being profoundly different in one crucial regard: the students and the teacher don’t share a common first language. Some of them might, but not all of them. So you can forget your learning outcomes, differentiated according to Bloom’s (entirely language dependent, and balls to cognition) taxonomy or engagement with negotiated targets because the students don’t always understand fully what it means. Your native speaker questioning differentiation is so much literal hot air. Because of language, ESOL is a completely different ball game.
This language changes the way you interact with people – it has to. Not in a patronising HEL-LO. HOW ARE YOU TO-DAY? way, but in the clarity of what you say. All that pointless fluff of “I was wondering if you would….” is so much wasted breath when compared to “Could you…”. There is a tendency now to elevate the role of carefully managed explicit instruction (“The defining feature is that canonical methods are fully explained and modelled to students before they attempt to put them into practice themselves” – Greg Ashman here) except that while this is not impossible, it is extremely difficult, especially at lower levels because you don’t share a fluent language with the people listening to you. The students may understand you, but it’s very hard to check, (hello, CCQs, CELTA fans) and even if you check, the nature of what we are dealing with, second language acquisition, means that the chances are fairly high that it won’t be evident in the next lesson. Just trust me, it’s different, OK. And I’ve taught English language speakers, and it’s so nice just to be able to tell people stuff, so so nice.
Students are students, right? Well yes, and no. On one level, there is a lot of parity between an ESOL student and an adult literacy student, or indeed any adult student – there is a greater sense of need, with sometimes higher stakes, “one last shot” type opportunities. However, there are distinct differences here which come from the background of the students. For one, there is almost always going to be a sense of upheaval, of change, and a siginficant one at that. By a technical measure, I am a migrant in my adopted home in Yorkshire, and this has created a number of challenges, but in any real measure, these challenges are relatively insignificant, and mostly to do with vowel sounds and knowing what a ginnel is. For a migrant from outside the UK, however, the challenges are quite profound, and not entirely linked to language either. And this upheaval, be it voluntary or otherwise, is going to have an impact on how you behave both in the classroom and out of it. Indeed, a classroom for many ESOL students is a safe space, a place where they can relax and set aside some of those concerns.
The students are also diverse in a very striking way, and one which has an impact on the way they approach language and learning. As many people have commented before, including me, the backgrounds of the students in an ESOL class are wildly variable and gloriously unpredictable: a single parent of two with no experience of education might be sitting in a class next to a graduate former teacher. This makes for not only a diversity of experience and interests, but also of rates of learning – the highly educated graduate may have the study skills, and if they have no children, more time to use to study, and as a result may improve more quickly. Or they may be complacent, and have an unrealistic view of their language and learning skills, compared to the single parent who is also trying to hold down a part time job, but is much more aware of what they have to gain from doing the course.
And the students are also the centre of why ESOL is different to EFL. Literally nothing else distinguishes what we might call good practice in ESOL and EFL teaching, except the diverse personal, social and educational backgrounds of the students, and their motivations for learning English.
I’ve worked for all of my ESOL life in a general FE college. There’s a lot to be said for this: you’re generally well resourced, have support for CPD, and an opportunity to collaborate with a team of like minded teachers not only in ESOL but in other things too. It has its own challenges, of course, mostly to do with the systems, processes and policies of the general FE college not always being aligned to the needs of ESOL learning. Indeed, that’s most often the cause for a #becauseESOL reaction.
Yet the general FE college is not the only context for ESOL teaching. A huge proportion of ESOL teaching takes place in voluntary organisations, private training providers, and all sorts of other variations on that theme. So ESOL doesn’t always happen in nice classrooms with lovely interactive whiteboards and easy access to photocopiers, libraries, laptops and all the other paraphernalia that makes college based teaching so much easier. It happens in musty meeting rooms and dingy halls, back rooms of libraries and front rooms of families. It even happens on tables in hallways outside a factory changing room. ESOL pretends to be homogenous and standardisable, but in reality it is a complex, mutating creature: the phrase Entry 2 ESOL lesson can mean any number of things, and rarely are they tidily categorisable.
Oh my, politics. Tell you what, when I hear vocational tutors grousing about the way funding for FE is being squeezed, I have to be very good and nod, smile, and be sympathetic (and I am, actually, because that is a shockingly poor way to treat young people.) But there is a part of me which finds itself reflecting on the fact that the current ESOL squeeze is coming at the end of a long, drawn out suppression of education for migrants. It may well be about to change, and I truly hope it does, but it doesn’t make the last 8 years or more go away.
And the politics of immigration remains a nasty, nasty business. There has been a change in rhetoric, but not much, with the government keeping one eye on it’s more right wing elements, and as a result, very little has resulted. Yet. I’ll grant them that “yet” – things could change, and change for the better. But I’ll wait and see.
Because ESOL is fun. Seriously fun to teach. The constraints of language and context force you to be far more creative in your approaches than the comfortably appointed FE lecturer with their nice IWB and rooms full of computers, and students who understand every word. Whether those college students do or not is another reason why ESOL is fun. The students for the most part, want to be there. Even the stroppiest of ESOL 16-18 year olds is less challenging than trying to make sure a group of vocational students get a 4 or above in GCSE maths. This motivation, however, brings other challenges – adult learners come with expectations and demands, both in ESOL and in other subjects. A group of full time students would probably thank you for giving them the afternoon off because a teacher is sick, but a group of adults doing one class a week would feel far less pleased.
Because ESOL is rewarding. Yes, progression might appear slow – but then students are only coming for 2-6 hours a week, and they have lots of other concerns too. And sure it can be wearying with the focus on employability or the endless, oh so endless forms (including the form you fill in to say that the first two forms have been filled in, with the same information on each and every sheet. It’s more rigorous and robust if you write it out three times, apparently). But then you administer an Entry 2 speaking exam to a student two years after they first turned up in your beginner class barely able or confident enough to speak. Or your former level 1 student becomes student union president before heading off to do a degree. Or your student tells you how they managed to talk to their child’s teacher about their concerns, and be understood. Our lives as ESOL teachers are full of stories like this.
And then there are all those brilliant, thrilling, glorious times a lesson throws up a surprise insight, a passionate response or a poignant moment of understanding. These moments are are reminders that what we do is special: not just language learning, but also an exercise in shared humanity.