My main subject is brilliant. After a few years in a sort of teacher training / ESOL teaching borderland, I find myself increasingly drawn back to my first love, teaching people English. But ESOL is problematic, and a couple of recent events / reflections have made me think about these. They fit almost perfectly into two neat groups.
Language is key. Without a need for language learning, of course, a whole bunch of my favourite people would be without a job, and not very many of them share a language with their learners. But more seriously, without language, what can the teacher communicate with? It is without doubt the main tool in every teacher’s toolbox. Its how you get an idea across, help learners, support demonstrations, and so on.
Go on your average Cert Ed or generic DTLLS and they will talk to you all about Bloom’s Taxonomy, using higher order questioning techniques to get learners to develop learning, giving clear explanations, sharing learning outcomes at the beginning of the class, and so on. This is all supported by a lot of research and study into teaching and learning, and I’m not criticising any of it. In context, it makes an awful lot of sense.
Unfortunately, all these things require the ability to use the language confidently and well. Most of the higher order language used to evaluate, synthesise, etc. or to ask probing, Socratic questions, write learning outcomes, etc. is all pretty much beyond your average Entry level ESOL student, and even for some Level 1 and Level 2 students. If anything, questioning is a much more complex issue for the ESOL teacher, using concept checking questions to check understanding of grammar, or using questions to extract meaning. Very complex to work out (ask a CELTA trainee) as you have to grade the questions at just the right level for the learners: easy enough for them to understand but not actually using the target language. However, in generic FE teaching terms, this kind of questioning is pretty basic, and falls way down at the bottom of Bloom’s taxonomy. Then also consider learning outcomes: if you go into an Entry 2 class and say, for example, “by the end of today you will be able to use present continuous to talk about events occurring in the present” you will have lost the half of the class who have studied this before but still haven’t got it (a lot of ESOL learners equate “study” with “be able to use”) and bamboozled / panicked the rest of the group with the technical term. And you can forget any kind of inductive, discovery approach, because what is there to discover if you’ve just shared that with them? There are ways around this, but then the shared learning outcomes become
With ESOL learners, the rules change. I think the following (reported) statement from a generic teacher trainer to a trainee teacher I once met: “how do you get them to understand you?” indicates part of the problem. Or perhaps we should just remember the quote from the ESOL Effective Practice Project: “Talk is work in the ESOL classroom.”
…for Speakers of Other Languages
The learners are brilliant. Adult ESOL learners are among the most dedicated and motivated learners in an FE college: they actually do want to be there, and can see the benefits almost straightaway. But from another perspective, the learners are also downright awkward. ESOL learners, for all their motivation and interest, are also adults with jobs, families, and the rest, for whom the ESOL class is a short and pretty small part of their week. A part time ESOL learner is at college for approximately 1/34 of their week, along with which they have to balance the rest of their lives, low levels of income, and, basically, being among the most actively disliked members of a society in which the Daily Mail and the Sun are the biggest selling newspapers and in which groups like UKIP and the EDL have increasing memberships. But to summarise the point, here’s something I heard at a recent team meeting, discussing how best to get a learner to come in to complete her assessment: “She really wants to come in but there’s no childcare.”
I’ll admit teenagers are also not terribly popular, but you only have to read the recent stories about ministers saying give preference to the disenfranchised British teen over the motivated and experienced migrant worker to see this kind of prejudice at the highest level. So phoning them up to angrily demand their immediate attendance at college can be pretty futile in the face of an impending divorce, job loss, racist abuse or sick children. Not to mention the very real possibility that some faceless bureaucrat in the Home Office ordered them to go live in Bristol, London, or indeed to leave the country, two weeks previously. Really, would it occur to you to phone the tutor of your part time course as you are about to be sent back to a country you once smuggled yourself out of?
These things are deeply awkward, from a non ESOL perspective, as things like retention are notoriously difficult to keep at an “acceptable” level, and will cause all sorts of game playing which has somehow engineered extraordinarily high national benchmarks for success, and an correspondingly high level of exam backwash. Pop into your local ESOL department during May and see how many classes are about learning the language, and how many are focussing on passing exams (you can call it achieving a qualification, if you prefer). A brief, highly unscientific tally of cross staff room conversation topics last week gave the majority to getting assessments sorted and chasing students to get them in and assessed before they blob. Followed by checking that learners had all got the right paperwork in place. And even if I include assessment preparation ideas, teaching and learning ideas came somewhere near the bottom.
Even more depressingly, I once attended a session at a conference entitled “how to be outstanding”. I assumed, naively, that this would be on excellent teaching and learning. We had an hour of funding mechanisms, national benchmarks and discussion of different assessment and enrolment models. I think teaching and learning came up for about five minutes, then vanished along with the last vestiges of my desire to ever move into management.
I don’t mean that pejoratively: both managers of ESOL provision and ESOL teachers are passionate about their jobs, understand their learners and want them to access language classes, despite immense public and political unpopularity. And the price we pay is a fight against a one size fits all mentality from funding agencies, inspectorates and the rest. If you don’t play the game, you don’t get the funding; you don’t get the funding, your learners lose their courses, and teachers their jobs.