Sarah’s Questions

I have a very kind and sharing colleague, Sarah, who asked me some questions this week. I ended up writing some quite extensive answers and thought it would be interesting to share. Sarah has allowed me to use her questions, which is fabulous of her!

The questions concerned a beginner ESOL for Employment class which has long, four hour sessions as standard.

How to break up a long (4 hour) lesson

  • Get students to sit in different places at different times in the lesson
  • Plan the session as four one hour lessons with a clear change in focus each hour, finishing each hour with a less focussed activity.
  • Include routines: 15 minutes at the beginning of the class for register, individual work, homework checking, or just a bit of a game. 10 minutes in the middle of the class to relax a little. 15-20 minutes at the end of the class for ILPs, learner diaries, etc.
  • You do give them a break, right?
  • Allow “loose” time: opportunities for learners to just talk (including a little in L1 if need be) and chill. They are beginners, so for them studying and working in English for 4 hours is really really hard work for them too.

How to incorporate individual self-study practice and stop learners talking to their friend as soon as I’m working with another learner.

  • If it is genuinely disruptive, do address it directly with that learner.
  • You could not rely on individual activities and instead use activities which both learners could do together.
  • I’d also ask to what extent the learner knows what they are doing, and whether they are capable of engaging in unsupported independent activity.  Are you pushing that learner too hard? (I only say this because I have over high expectations of some of my beginners.)

 How to reduce the amount of planning time and resources I take in.

  • Focus planning time on activities not resources. Resources are the secondary consideration, after you have decided what you would like learners to do. Then, instead of casting around for pre-printed resources, pretend the photocopier is broken and see what ideas develop (I know it’s easier said than done, but worth a try).
  • Basic classroom toolkit for beginners: sheets of lined paper, coloured paper cut into A6 postcard sized sheets, post it notes, pens. Classroom objects, you and the learners. Mini-whiteboards as a bonus.  I know it sounds trite but again, think about how you could make more use of those things rather than rely on printed handouts. (activity over resource)
  • Differentiate by expectation rather than by resource. Learner X can barely write her name – so she simply copies words you or she chooses: learner Z is virtually E1 so she writes the words in longer sentences. You assess them on relative terms: learner X gets lots of feedback on how she has formed the lower case ‘e’, learner Z for full stops and capital letters. Both practice same language but in different ways, and you assess them on different scales.
  • For beginners, don’t dismiss speaking practice, either. I did an activity yesterday to practise telling the time and developing into daily routine where ss had times which I wrote on coloured bits of paper, drilled the question and they had to walk around asking “What do you do at..?” took a good 15 minutes, maybe more, got the learners moving around and was easy to differentiate –  early finishers get another time to practise further and in more ways. I wrote the resoue in the class as the learners were finishing another task (not recommended, mind you!)
  • For absolute beginners, especially if you have some almost E1s, you could get them into good habits, like practising their alphabet if they have a spare few minutes, for example while you are with another learner.

so, readers, what would you recommend? Any ideas gratefully l received!



  1. High yield resources, when you do take them in: for example, tourism or local area maps, possibly from the area where learners study or come from; menus from take away food places; shopping lists, check out (you will need to be selective); short sentences for dictation (eg one has told you where they’re from – dictate this for others); if you have a smart device, take in some pics from (again be selective).

    If possible, get out of the classroom for a bit – learning food items? Go to a local shop, if there is one. Get them to name different types of building in the local area.

    Good luck!

  2. Thanks for this Sam, I’ve just signed up with WordPress so I can like and comment on your posts from time to time. When the whirlwind of my fittest year of teaching has settled down a bit I may even find time to blog myself! I your comments about getting away from the worksheets and developing resources from within the classroom – I’m slowly getting better at it. Last Friday we spent a whole lesson creating an ‘celebration’ board for the teen beginners – they can’t wait to get their fluorescent, starred names on it!

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