ESOL or EFL?

This should be a fairly short post, and has come out of me reflecting on some comments I heard recently about someone being told they were too EFL-y in their class. It reminded of me of an ancient, ancient debate that goes back to the early days of SfL when everyone was keen to stake their claim to a field of knowledge.

The argument ran thus (US & other countries may be interested to read this): EFL in colleges was designed for wealthy overseas students with high levels of literacy in L1, study skills, educational experience, etc etc etc. ESOL, on the other hand, was drawing on learners from a wide range of backgrounds, with a range of literacy skills and needs, and a variety of educational experiences. This was a fair distinction, except for a few niggles.

1. The nastier side of the ESOL argument was that although a range of backgrounds, etc. was claimed, the undertone was that people accessing ESOL had very limited educational experiences, and often basic literacy problems. This is not necessarily true of ESOL learners, by any measure, and the glory of an inner city ESOL class is that you get a Kurdish refugee sitting between a Polish law graduate, an asylum seeker from the Ivory Coast and a former civil servant who worked for the pre-Taliban government of Afghanistan (really true).

2. Surely the problems faced by a beginner learner using any other script than the Roman are largely similar, assuming they know and use that script (and I haven’t met many people who are totally illiterate in any language).  A fee paying, wealthyChinese learner coming to the language for the first time may face the same problems as a Bangladeshi farmer.

3. In an international context (you know, ESOL teachers, that world of the language teaching profession outside our teeny little island) there has been stacks and stacks of research and writing going back decades, all of which could inform and help ESOL teachers. It horrified me when a college I know (not where I work)started to insist on ESOL experience only, as if they were saying 4 years teaching illiterate farmers in Ghana (technically EFL experience) would be unsuitable, and discourage those people from applying. What they really mean is someone who  can make an IWB do magical things and who knows how to lie their way through the process of SMART targets, rather than someone with a stack of enthusiasm who can do exceptional things for pre-literate ESOL learners through technique alone and with minimum resources. They wouldn’t apply for the job in the first place.

4. We can all learn from each other. We are a little education system for a small country on the edge of Europe. Let’s learn from our American, Australian, Kiwi, Canadian, Italian, French, Japanese, Nigerian, Indonesian, etc. colleagues about what they do that works well.

5. Most importantly, the world has moved on. Both ESOL and EFL in the FE sector in the UK are under attack. EFL from a struggling world economy, from reluctance to come to the UK, and from the rise and rise of well qualified ex-pat teachers and equally well trained and qualified non-native speaker teachers working in other countries. So why come to the UK? ESOL is also struggling – it’s a politically unpopular area, after all, and receives less and less money on a year by year basis. It has become exam focussed, target driven, and entrenched with some very odd ideas of what constitutes good practice. There are also some people who wish they could go back to having cups of tea with their ladies in a community centre. Alas, those days are gone, and while I think we may have gone too far the other way, there seems to have once been a tendency to forget that we are after all language teachers. Then again, there is some great, really great practice out there, fabulous work being done by good, innovative, responsive and imaginative teachers, drawing on all the resources they can lay their hands on.

Ultimately, I think it boils down to this: A good language teacher is someone who is aware of and responds to the individual needs of their learners, rather than making sweeping generalisations about them as being an ESOL or EFL learner.

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