Groups, Needs & Personality: I think you’ll find it’s more complicated than that

I’m currently teaching two Entry 1 classes. They both attend three days a week, are broadly similar in terms of nationality mix, gender and indeed language learning needs: both groups have members who are working above Entry 1 in some respects, working towards various different qualifications and one or two members with comparatively limited literacy. In each group there are students with similar social and economic backgrounds and situations: parents, recent arrivals, former refugees, workers, and so on. You jammy git, you may be thinking, easy scheme of work planning!

And in terms of scheme and course content, you’d be right. There’s a degree of overlap, especially as one group started a week or so after the other, and the focus of the lessons is broadly similar, and from an external perspective it’s pretty straightforward. Unfortunately, this is the trouble with the cold computational model of course planning common in FE: identify required input, deliver required input, assess required input, input successful: there is much much more to it than that.

In reality, the two groups are deeply, profoundly different, and I’ll tell you now, it’s nothing to do with the students’ individual learning needs and motivations, and it is everything to do with personality. Personality, to paraphrase Samuel L Jackson in Pulp Fiction, goes a long way in the ESOL classroom. It influences all sorts of things. Group H, as I will call them, has many many extrovert, confident personalities, while Group D (and why not D?) has confident people, for sure, but far fewer extrovert personalities. Group H has a core of students who have been studying together for a year already, Group D is newly formed this academic year. In group H this core acts as a kind of glue, even when spread out around the room according to learning needs, they still interact well with each other. The core also gives a sense of cohesion for the other students to connect to. At the moment this is lacking with group D, but you can see it beginning to form amongst the students – the terms and conditions of group interactions, and the settings of the friendships and relationships being established. It’s interesting to observe, and the only disappointing thing is the way it will change when both courses finishes in January.

Personality, while perhaps not a fixed concept, is something which is hard to consciously change, and depends on a range of innate and learned factors. Certainly it is beyond the abilities and, arguably, the remit of the ESOL teacher to change personality, linguistic relativity notwithstanding. But the individual personality mix in a group has an impact on a number of things. Take, for example, the types of activities you choose, and their relative effectiveness: in my tentative micro-study of these two classes, group H responds well and confidently to free flowing, dogme-influenced lesson activities, group D is more tentative, and responds better to slightly tighter control over pace and activity, preferring a more “traditional” structure. That’s not say that group D can’t or won’t respond, but that they are, perhaps, developing their confidence as learners, and need at times greater guidance. And that’s absolutely fine. No single technique or activity, no strategy, no policy, works for all students all the time: I’ve spent years criticising the imposition of SMART target setting based pretty much entirely on that notion. But at least on activities, methods and resources my professional judgement is trusted enough that I have freedom to adapt things to those students. It’s not just activities, but also the nature of feedback: group D have, so far, responded really well to guided feedback: where I’ve suggested changes to writing, for example, they have a go and make the changes without prompting, experimenting as they go. Group H, despite their apparent confidence, generally prefer a lot more guidance, and like to have a longer explanation before making changes, although, and again, this is because of the god intoersonal relationships they have, there is a lot more natural peer teaching going on: stronger students will support weaker without being asked by the teacher.

I’ve blogged before, I think, about the essential falseness of the classroom setting: the language of the classroom has its own authenticity separate from the “real” English of the outside world, and any attempts to integrate this realism are undermined by this disconnected classroom microcosm. It’s impossible in a language classroom to ever fully replicate the complexity of genuine interaction, and neither should this be the aim of the language lesson. Indeed, we should perhaps be looking not at developing authentic language but rather the authentic ability to cope with the unknown, to handle the unexpected and the complex. This “separate universe” view applies to personality too. When students come to class they assume a status, a role in class that is different from their role in their “real” lives: not necessarily introvert to extrovert, but perhaps a discovery of added confidence when they realise that they are by far the strongest student in the class, or a deference borne out of a realisation that despite their verbal fluency and confidence, they need significant support for even the simplest writing task. Perhaps some students, when they arrive, see that they have the chance now to change where they were, and consciously decide, for a few hours each week at least, to have a go at being a slightly different person.

All of which makes for interesting teaching, and is one of the reasons, perhaps the main reason, that this job is as interesting as it is. It’s a constant challenging creative process, making that present simple lesson work for that group of students, or re-modelling the lesson on the fly because the activities are just not engaging the students (and again, that’s not just about stretch and challenge). Indeed, it’s the days when you repeat a lesson and it goes more or less exactly as it did the last time that you get almost this sense of disappointment, a feeling, almost, that you have in some way let the students down. Without this variety, teaching could so easily become as tedious a job as working on a packing line, just with added stress.

Nailing It

I’ve got a bit of a confession to make. For all my woo, do it without paper, learner centred stuff, I actually really love resources. In particular, I really enjoy making my own. A lot of people might say that I make a rod for my own back, in terms of time and energy spent, when, because of our tendency to share resources and schemes of work in a shared drive, I could access loads of suitable resources, and yet I still make or design a lot of my own resources. I have to have the resources to fit the lesson I have in mind, rather than alter the lesson to fit the resources. This means a lot of published material is sometimes almost there, but not quite enough, and the same for shared resources from colleagues: they are good, but they don’t do exactly the job for the lesson I have in mind;I am, in short, a picky bastard.

There are several drawbacks to this: not least the quantity of time and effort, (although very often I can create a worksheet on a given subject in more or less the same time as it might take to find one). These aside, however, and challenges still remain. Lesson and materials design is essentially a form of writing (hands up ELT professionals who would give it all up to be a novelist/poet/playwright) and like any writing, is something of a process of trial and error: version 1 is ok, but lacks a proper follow up, version 2 has a better follow up, but needs tweaking at the start, version 3… well, you know what I mean. Eventually it all comes together: half lessons, mini lessons, and so on eventually gather all the bits to become proper, meaty lessons.

There have been a few of these these “coming together” moments in the last two weeks: my Halfords lorry – reading/review of definite and indefinite articles lesson, my ICT sessions on keyboard shortcuts and on online safety, and my “make a poster describing people / revising present simple third person singular” lesson. It’s very satisfying when you finally crack that elusive final practice activity, then watch all the component parts link together properly, tweakable to take into account the various needs of the class, nicely bookended with clear opening and closing activities: very satisfying indeed.

This is probably the main reason I stick with it. Sometimes, indeed quite often, you nail it from the off, and the materials and the lesson idea come together beautifully. Sometimes it takes a bit of trial and error, a bit of bodging and persuasion, but it does come together. Sometimes, of course, you try it, it bombs, and you simply don’t bother going back to it. But you end up with materials and lesson ideas that not only suit you but also the lesson, the students and the context: they just work. Sometimes I think this does make for lessons which are too personalised to me and the way I teach, but hey, I’m paid to teach, not to design universally applicable teaching materials. If you can’t make the resources work for you, well, you know what my answer is to that… 

Nobody Expects Dimples

This week I taught two lessons which reminded me of the richness that letting the students lead on the content can create. The first lesson was on Tuesday night – a Level 1/Level 2 group on the theme, broadly, of “life stages”. It was meant as a build up to a listening activity based around this recording from the BBC’s excellent Listening project, but took on a bit of a life of its own.

The activity was a variation on the game of consequences. At the top of the page I had printed “Be born”. Students worked in pairs and added the next thing that thought would happen. They then passed it to the next pair along who added another idea, and so on. I mixed things up a little, taking a lead from a chapter in 52 by Lindsay Clandfield and Luke Meddings and every now and again asked the students to put something bad as the next event.

Some of the language generated was fairly predictable: go to school, get a job, retire, etc. But once the class warmed up to the task, the list almost became small, occasionally tragic biographies: have a breakdown, have an affair, get expelled, drop out, recover, get kicked out, bring up children, and, my personal favourite, have a mid-life crisis prompted by a pair of students talking about men of a certain age. The students were trying to express an idea, lacked the necessary language to do so, and my job was simply to fill that gap.

Something similar occurred with another class, this time Entry 1. Like the life stages task, this was intended as a precursor to something else, but also grew beyond the bounds of the planned activity.This time, students were brainstorming / researching in dictionaries vocabulary to do with physical appearance. Each group had a sheet of A3 paper – one group used this to brainstorm words to do with hair, one with body, one with face and one with skin. I was a little nervous about the last one, what with the potential for racist overtones, but in fact this provoked arguably the most useful chunks of language: greasy skin, oily skindry skin, and sensitive skin. The face list also took me by surprise – one student pointed at her cheeks –

“What are these?”


“No.” Irritated by her stupid teacher. “These.”

I looked more carefully, a little nervous about staring, and the penny dropped:


In both cases, the new vocabulary arose from the students needing specific sets of language to express a concept. The task gave a setting for the vocabulary, and linked it all together, but ultimately the words were the students’ own words. It would never have occurred to me to teach words like sensitive skin or dimples despite the students in question having both – sensitive skin in particular is useful for a student who is resident in the UK. Having a breakdown, an affair or a mid-life crisis is unlikely to make it into most teacher-selected syllabuses, but nevertheless arose because the students had a need to talk about them. And again, these are not unusual or unlikely phrases – you could find them in most newspapers, magazines or online with a fairly high degree of frequency. Both groups, took great delight in exploring the new language, playing with it, using it.  “I read about a man in Poland, he had a mid life crisis and…” “Can you have just one dimples?” “Do you know good [indicates rubbing cream into skin] for sensitive skin?” 

There is an element of luck to this, for sure: with another group on another day we might have just the expected language. This isn’t some form of “best practice” that can be packaged up and rolled out at a training event. There is an element of skill as well. This wasn’t dogme, unplugged teaching per se: the activities limited the range of emergent language into a reasonably predictable collection of terms. We weren’t about to start talking about finding a job or how to make chapati, after all. A little control, a little setting of boundaries, if judged carefully, can make for a surprisingly productive lesson. You need to judge, as well, if the language is going down a dead end, explain well, and, arguably most importantly of all, capture what has come out. In this case I had the A3 sheets, and the lists of vocabulary (many of which were copied or photographed). For the level 1 group we had key terms on the interactive whiteboard which I have turned into PDF handouts and sent out. I’m in the habit of recording new words and concepts on a regular whiteboard next to the interactive one, then taking a photo with my phone. The A3 sheets were photographed, uploaded to google drive, and on display on the interactive whiteboard in slightly less than a minute, with virtually no impact on the flow of the lesson. The emergent language was captured and shared. 

The language was practised as well. For the level 1 group I closed with a speaking task – asking have you ever..? in pairs using the consequences sheet. For the Entry 1 group, one  I had the photos on the board, I elicited the relevant structures (“I have got…” and “I am…”) and had the students tell each other about themselves before reporting back to the whole class using “he’s/she’s got” and “he/she is…”. I also think I missed an opportunity or two: the level 1 class could have written short fictional biographies, for example. The entry 1 class will be following it up properly: putting the descriptive language together with the work we did last week on daily routines, and creating a profile of an individual based on photographs and other images. 

There is, I think, always a place for teacher led decisions on language content in some lessons, and students like to have a little direction. They are, after all, not stupid, and can smell an unplanned, undirected lesson a mile away. But you can create an activity and the conditions for language to emerge within the lesson, while still giving the lesson a sense of structure and purpose. Sometimes, as well, specific forms are unlikely to ever simply “emerge” in this way, so a bit of teacher-led is necessary: while we are under pressure to get students to pass exams and achieve external curriculum aims, then there has to be a fair portion of teacher selected content. 

But there is still a lot of freedom there, of course, which means there is plenty of room for dimples. 

Sick of angry posts

I’m fed up. I’m fed up of posting these grumpy blog posts about the way that things are for migrants in this country. Really fed up. Except I’m going to keep posting them, in much the same way that the British press keep printing front pages like this one:

Or perhaps this one: 

Or this? 

These came through at the same time as I was completing a letter to my local school opting out of the pupil nationality census: the DfE are asking schools to gather data about not only children’s first languages at home (which is at least pedagogically useful), but also their nationality and their date of birth. 

I’m sorry, but hang on. One government department is demanding unnecessary immigration information from parents, while another is proposing that employers gather and pass on the same information about their employees, all of which is supported by the “British jobs for British people” rhetoric quoted above. Except it’s not. The country has some financial challenges, I get that, and a whole load of social problems, but as ever in this little Englander island, people are too lazy and selfish to investigate the origin of those problems, and just pin them on the nearest face that doesn’t quite fit into their narrow view of the world. And the government, not to mention their lapdogs at the Mail and the Express, are merrily riding this wave of anti-migrant feeling, pinning blame on migrants in order that nobody question their austerity plans, or the practices of them and their wealthy mates in the top 1%. 

And at the same time as the DfE is inappropriately gathering immigration information, and employers are perhaps to start acting as immigration enforcers, I am supposed to be promoting British Values and equality and diversity? I increasingly feels that I live in a country which no longer shares my values. Certainly when I talk about tolerance and respect as part of British Values to an ESOL class it sounds increasingly hollow. It never felt particularly meaningful, to be fair, but now it’s genuinely just a pretence, a show. I find it hard to believe that this is a country capable of tolerance and respect, and the notion of democracy of a country with an unelected Prime Minister is simply ludicrous. Sure, I’ll do British Values, but only because if I don’t, then I’ll get it in the neck from observers and inspectors. 

I am tired of posting this sort of thing, but I can’t promise it’ll stop, not for some time to come. 

Déformation professionelle

This is a fun phrase that I first heard the other day when posting on Facebook. It was a picture of a poster, and on the poster we had something like “teas, coffees, and frappucino’s”. I am, for my sins, a bit of an apostrophe fascist, and my comment was less than complimentary. A French speaking friend told me then of this phrase, deformation professionelle, which means, roughly, that one tends to view the world through the eyes of your own profession, to the exclusion of all others. Wikipedia suggested that “distortion” might be a possible translation of deformation in this sense, and I rather think that is what we are dealing with. We spend so much of our waking lives engrossed in the discourses and attitudes of our profession that we filter everything through this. 

Take, for example, a thank you note that my wife received over the summer from a grateful client whose first language isn’t English. It was a very sweet message, full of praise and very complimentary about my wife’s skills. So she showed it to me, and I looked, and the first thing that popped into my head? “Entry 3, I reckon…” Naturally, I kept this to myself, but it goes to show how ingrained we are into our work, sometimes. 

I do it all the time. I have a folder on my computer full of links to articles that might make great reading activities, because I’ll be reading something on a Sunday morning and find myself thinking “this will fit in just great with the lessons I’m doing the week after next.” Or I’ll get a new £5 note and think “ooh, this would make a good stimulus for a lesson” (and it did, thanks for asking). 

On the one hand, this is generally a good thing. I have a finely tuned radar for resources, and can spot a potential worksheet a mile away. On the other hand, it’s not. For one, the incident with the lovely letter was pretty mean of me, even if it was only internal. This judging of the language of others, native and non-native speakers is, let’s face it, really quite annoying. Annoying not just for those who are judged, but also for me: two minutes on Facebook and I’m desperate to get my red pen out. 

Another drawback is when you have another area of interest which doesn’t always sit well with the first. So I once wrote a question on the end of a worksheet for maths which said something like this: “Anna rides a bike to work, it takes her 25 minutes to get there. Her brother drives an expensive Mercedes, and it takes him an hour to drive in the trafffic. Which person is the idiot?” (So the last question wasn’t quite that, but that was the overall thrust.) Or I’ll find an article on cycling in Poland which will get added as a possible text, even though no students are interested in cycling. Even an interest in language and language learning can be dangerous: I have a whole bank of activities around the hardest langauges to learn, the history of English, how people learn, lives of students, words from other languages and so on, but which are not necessarily interesting in and of themselves. I realise that for an English teaching professional this is hard to imagine (seriously, how is etymology not interesting?) but there you go. 

It’s not a serious condition, to be fair, except perhaps when it manifests itself as arrogance towards those in our institutions who do not teach. Sure teaching and learning is the primary business of a college, but without all those other people the whole place would be empty, dirty, and would, in time, quite literally fall apart. And sometimes, you know, it would be good to switch it off, and just get on with other stuff. From a mental well being perspective, it sure can’t be good to be continually flagging good articles, assessing writing, or proof reading texts for punctuation mistakes. 

Or indeed writing extensive blog posts on the subject.


Just recently I found myself looking up synonyms for “stooge”. So I found lackey, servant, vassal, and, my personal favourite: myrmidon. I liked it so much I almost named this post after it.  A stooge, or lackey, or myrmidon, for the record, is an unthinking, perhaps powerful, follower of a person or regime, often, but not always, “just doing their job” as in “the OFSTED inspector/immigration officer/storm trooper/concentration camp guard was just doing their job.” I wonder, sometimes, to what extent we could be considered government stooges: it’s hard not to think this when you reflect on things like the link between ESOL and terrorism through the Prevent strategy, for example, or the notion of British Values as a thing to be enforced (or embedded, exemplified, whatever. You say tomato…). Safeguarding aside, however, one perennially heartbreaking aspect of my work comes around this time of year when we are enrolling new students onto courses and the question of fees comes up.

I met two students this week, for example, really keen to fill places on two currently undersubscribed courses. They were, however, asylum seekers, and as such would have had to pay fees for their courses. And as asylum seekers from a less than wealthy background, the fees they would have had to pay was simply impossible.

I explained that they would have to pay fees, and managed to get the notion across to them. Naturally, their response was roughly “But why?”

Good question. Because let’s face it, I’d have happily let them join the course. I knew one of the students as a hard working, dedicated student, who had enjoyed funding in the previous year as a 16-18 student, and had really progressed.  Now, betrayed by age and a fairly arbitrary governmental line, no funding was available to support them.

So how to funnel this into post-beginner English? “You have to pay because the government won’t give us the money for your course.” Credit where credit is due, right? It’s still a crappy answer, mind you, because in many ways, when I’m interviewing and enrolling students, I am the government. When we interview students, screen them for suitability on the course, discuss the issue of whether or not they can or will have to pay, then we are another one of those faces, sympathetic or otherwise, that our learners must confront, along with the council clerk, police officer, solicitor, job centre adviser, and immigration officer. It’s a little stark, perhaps, to compare what we refer to as Information, Advice and Guidance to the mental brutality of the Home Office asylum interviews (not to mention the physical brutality of the police) but these contexts do sit on a continuum of official information exchange, of power and of control.

Indeed, it would be easy to think that I’m being a bit melodramatic, drawing a connection there. Perhaps I am. After all, the consequences of not being granted asylum are easily more severe than not getting onto an ESOL course, at least in the short term. Nevertheless, both processes involve a person wanting to achieve something that could have a profound impact on their futures, and sacrificing time and personal information in order to do so. And in this particular interaction, and as far as the other person is concerned, I am the one with the power over their future. Even where a person can access funding in some way to join a course, there is still a power play during initial assessment. However accurate and benign my intention, if I declare a student to be Entry 1, then I could be seen as restricting that student from progressing as quickly as they might want onto a vocational course, or from having a chance at passing the SELT for their imminent citizenship claim. I could be the one who stops that student from getting that job, from accurately filling in that benefits claim, or from understanding that court summons. Inability to access something as apparently minor as a part time English language course for adults could potentially be as damaging in the long term as a failed asylum claim. 

All of which goes some way to explain why, in these situations, it’s hard. At best you are merely the bearer of the message, at worst, and you believe the official lines you are fed, you are the lackey, the stooge, the seneschal at the gate, whose job is to filter out the unsuitables which your government, by setting limitations, has taken the decision to exclude.  

Because we have to

It’s that induction time again, meaning icebreakers, getting to know you activities, tours of college, diagnostic assessments, various cross college missives that need to be translated from edu-managementese into something that your entry 1 ESOL students can understand (any document with the word “inclusive” in it is likely to be anything but). This latter includes various policy statements: IT usage policy, behaviour standards, equality and diversity, and, of course, British Values.

I know I’ve blogged before about this topic, and my apologies for any repetition: but to summarise, basically, the notion of British Values comes from the Prevent strategy, a somewhat politically suspect attempt to cut off extremism and its consequences at the root. Of course Prevent by its very nature is unlikely to ever prove conclusively that it’s working: there is no way at all of knowing that a person identified under the Prevent strategy as being at risk would have gone on to become a terrorist, for example, because either the strategy worked and they didn’t, or the strategy didn’t work and they did. Or perhaps an individual wasn’t identified, was briefly drawn into something but then realised what they were doing and decided not to. Seriously, has nobody seen Minority Report?

Anyway, the fabled British Values are: democracy, the rule of law, mutual respect and tolerance for those of other faiths and those of no faith, and individual liberty/freedom of speech. Said values are to be not only promoted but “exemplified” (tricky that one, as I fairly regularly break one or two laws). There are also issues with the “British” bit: it’s a word and a concept I find increasingly repellent, particularly with the post-Brexit rise in racially motivated attacks, and the claim that any of these values are peculiarly British, or that they should have precedence over any other general values, is frankly bizarre. So what if the French have the (admittedly euphonious) liberte, fraternite, egalite or the Americans “liberty, equality and self government”? Lucky them. These are all spurious nationalistic claims on a bunch of relatively accepted western values. They’re also so broad as to be pretty meaningless, not to mention totalitarian in their impetus (“to be a citizen, these are things you MUST believe…”)But that’s not the point.

No, what I’m really thinking about is how, given this kind of dislike, at best apathy towards the whole thing, these things are ever going to be effectively embedded into teaching practice. For something like this to really work, you’ve really got to believe in it. I believe, for example, in the notion of equality and the legal framework around the equality act, and that the 9 protected characteristics should absolutely be protected by law. I believe that embedding English and maths into teaching and learning is a good thing, and developing those skills in FE is important. So it’s easy to get behind these things: I’ll berate students for random sexism or racism, or I’ll try and explain “square kilometre” to an entry 1 ESOL student. But whenever I try to embed British Values, and refer to them explicitly (so that students can duly parrot them back to OFSTED at the appropriate time), I’m doing so with my fingers crossed behind my back. I just don’t believe. 

Belief is important. Teacher belief in an interventions worth or effectiveness (or not) is a powerful thing, to the extent that I sometimes wonder if it could even function as a kind of placebo to render ineffective practices effective. By the same measure, if you don’t believe that something is of value, then you are never going to convincingly put it across, regardless of how effective or valuable it is. So this is the challenge faced by promoting British Values. Unlike similarly top down initiatives like health and safety, safeguarding, and equality and diversity, British Values is starkly political in its origins and its purpose, and therefore is a much harder buy in: and if a teacher can’t buy in, then how can their students?

Another part of the problem, especially for me, is that I can’t help but want there to be a “proper” language learning aim. Teaching British Values, and to a lesser extent equality and diversity, is really just going to be a lesson on vocabulary, or reading, or speaking. Any British Values stuff is going to be a subordinate consideration: a happy accident. Students will read for gist and detail, focus on vocabulary in the text, develop speaking and listening skills, participate in a discussion. In the process, they might also learn about British Values, but that bit probably won’t go on my internal lesson plan. 

I guess, ultimately, this is about ownership. To what extent do teachers feel that they own British Values, and have had a say in developing them? Not a lot, I suspect. Like my official citizenship status, they are nominally “British” but I don’t recall anyone asking me about this. British values, more than anything else, are a top down imposition, and for that reason, more than anything else, I wonder whether they will ever move from “doing it because we have to” to “doing it because I believe it’s important”.