The Problem with ESOL

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?

A Solution?

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.



    1. Not had chance to watch whole video yet, but it looks like it might chime in nicely with some things I’ve been thinking about for a paper I’m writing… Will post back later and let you know.

  1. Very nicely put. I get the teacher training / ESOL teaching borderline. This time last year when I was categorically told there was no ESOL class for me, gutted doesn’t quite come close to how I felt. This year having had two people ask ‘do u want an ESOL class this year’ I am working hard to get the CELTA timetable done so I can see how many hours I can offer. But the whole crazy assessment-driven, minimal hours, keep ’em at all costs mentality does freak me out a bit and while I do think a teacher has a role to play in terms of providing motivation to be in class and to support studies out of class the pressure on ESOL tutors at the moment seems unmaintainably high.

    1. There is a line in terms of getting people in and achieving which is tempting to cross almost entirely to financial squeezes from the govt. Some colleges, not ours, have crossed it and taken the game playing too far, not just in ESOL: .

      Definitely the mid-2000s are beginning to feel like the good old days in those regards, where there was a balance between the fluffy middle class hippy “just come in and have a cup of tea” social worker school of ESOL (not all bad, I hasten to add) and the “get a qualification and starting contributing to the economy” approach.

      I am coming to dislike immensely the economic thrust behind ESOL: getting a job / qualification is not the be all and end all of ESOL provision, or indeed of education in general, although it is rather important for many people! But what this leads to is an education system which chases the qualification, not the learning. and there is a difference. I have several qualifications from which I learned nothing but they look pretty on the CV.

      Hmm, that’s a blog post I think….

  2. Wow, this is really interesting. I totally feel like I’ve lost the ability to teach at the moment, it’s all about pressurising the students to pass their exam, just so they can achieve, then they’ll go up to the next level where they won’t really be ready.

    Does anybody just teach ESOL for the students to learn? I.e. without qualifications? Or I guess that’s a problem because no funding?

    There’s definitely quals I’ve done where I haven’t learned… And there’s also things I’ve learned that can’t be quantified. But it is this quantifying that is important, isn’t it? The whole world is filled with “what quals/certs/proof do you have?”. And if we scrap ESOL quals, the students will definitely be at a disadvantage, if they want to go on to further ed/careers etc. So is it the whole system that’s flawed?!

  3. I read a piece, probably by Frank Coffield, where he talks about exam factories, and that people enter education now not to learn, but to achieve a qualification, and that there is a difference between the two. I heard so many people today at a conference talking about achieving qualifications rather than about learning.

    But education is, as a profession, very heavily audited and controlled: you only have to look at the way successive governments treat our colleagues in schools, never mind FE.

    The system is flawed because it assumes you can quantify everything. Everything must be SMART. It’s the business model: you create a product (a course/qualification), sell it to your consumers (the learners), you get results (success rates, etc) and therefore a profit. The consumers want the product, and, like any consumer, for as little investment as possible.

  4. You have fairly well summed up my reasons for retiring, or at least, for leaving my Adult Ed employer. I would add another problem: there is, increasingly, only one tolerated model for teaching, which is in effect set by OFSTED. Too bad if it suits teachers of disaffected teenagers, but not motivated adults.

    I also found that I had to question whether I could still afford to teach, with crazy sessionally-paid hours and increasing petrol prices, never mind the disrespect this showed for me and for my students.

    (I hope the last part is legible, as it is obscured by the details box.)

  5. Deb – as a department I remember the move from the nightmare portfolio-building OCN accredited quals to the exam based Cambridge qual. It was such a change, and I remember how we all felt at the time that we didn’t need to be teaching to the test so much, because the test was appropriate for the students. It allowed for creatively and flexibility in the classroom to be maintained. Having the papers marked by external, cambridge trained assssors was also a huge bonus and meant the teacher’s role was that of facilitator to learning, not as judge of a specific level of learning.
    I haven’t been personal tutor for a group since to change to C & G but I can see what you are talking about in the office. Tutors are under so much pressure to have good results, because the implication on the job is so attached to this, that this final half term (longer?) is one long assessment period. How many teaching hours are lost due to this model? Just to give ss opportunity after opportunity to take an assessment, to tick a box, to go to another level that they are not quite ready for.
    I have over 10 yrs experience but quite frankly it gives me the screaming hereby jeebies.

  6. I want to add a comment here before this post goes cold, but many of the issues at the end of the post, like high levels of backwash, are common across all FE. Most college departments are mainly focussed on getting people through qualifications, rather than getting them to learn (not the same thing) because they are all responding to the same external pressures from OFSTED and the various funding and accreditation bodies. I can add my own reflections here on how a course like CELTA is highly achievement driven (although given the nature of the course it would be pretty hard to learn nothing, even if you only learnt you weren’t cut out to teach). And people doing post PGCE subject specialist courses, not just ESOL, who are doing it because it’s a requirement, or because they need the qual as a ammunition to stave off pending redundancies and not because they would like to for professional development purposes. To use a vocational example, people do a motor vehicle engineering level 2 not because they want to know how to fix cars, but because they want the job the qual will hopefully lead to, and would be more than happy to be given qual then set loose in the workplace. When you hear stories of unscrupulous providers getting people through qualifications, you never hear about the learners complaining they haven’t learnt anything. And “learners” sometimes have few scruples about buying a qualification.

    There’s nothing wrong with wanting qualifications. Really. I have a very pretty Level 3 in the Educational Use of ICT. My Cambridge Cert in FE teaching and matching Level 4 ESOL subject specialism: nice certs, really, Cambridge do really good looking certificates, but learning? Minimal. (Sorry, tutors on that course, one of whom I now work with, I must have been and still am insufferably arrogant sometimes). I have 30 unspent Masters credits, which is nice. But in the first two cases it was basically consolidating what I already knew, and in the latter it was a case of writing an extra thousand words on a research report I had already done. They were both very much quals for the sake of quals. There is a local MA course which would allow me to skip the first year and APEL DELTA. But I’m not a qualifications chaser and the year 2 stuff doesn’t strike me as bringing anything new to my practice, and if I am going to commit a few months/ years I would very much like to learn something, instead of regurgitating stuff I have done already.

    The section on it by Frank Coffield is in “yes, but what has Semmelweis to do with my professional development”

    One last comment: at my daughter’s prospective primary school open evening/ information meeting thingy there was a lot of talk from the head about “success” and “achievement”. I considered throwing my cup of tea at him, but fortunately it was all only for a moment before we all got on with finding out about how the children learn. Which was well. And not because they got good SAT scores either.

  7. So wish I’d read this 3 days ago. My Line Manager forwarded it to me because I was slated on an observed by my Vice Principal (a Gov & Pol teacher) for my questioning technique. I had a 2nd obo this week and showed him what he wanted to see, but it wasn’t entirely what my CAE learners wanted!

  8. Hi Sam! You may not remember me (short term mentoring at Bradford College before you left for a job with more responsibilities) but I remember you, and this blog is exactly you!! the openmindedness, the warmth and the great ideas supported by practice on the chalk face–even if I may want to qualify some of them–. Found your blog by accident, but will be reading it from now on because (relying on past experience) I will learn from you. Hope your little girl is happy at school. Not too late to wish you and family Happy New Year.
    (wanted to keep in touch but got very ill after BrColl. 2 ops etc)

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