ESOL & EFL: Round 3.

I shall start this with an apology, then a confession.

First the apology. This is by way of a tribute/sequel/rip off of Steve Brown’s two excellent pieces on this theme, which you can read here. I just thought I might add my say here, rather than clog Steve’s blog with a huge comment.

So, the confession.

I didn’t get into teaching out of a desire to improve the world. I didn’t get into teaching because I wanted to help people. I didn’t get into teaching because of a social commitment. Not even a little bit.

No, I got into teaching because I like language, and my 23 year old self wanted to be paid to do stuff with language whilst at the same time continue to nurture various literary fantasies. As my career progressed, the novel stalled, and my interest in learning grew, but still my interest was in language, and increasingly, in language learning.

And this is where the differences between ESOL and EFL come into play. First up definitions, for the sake of clarity and to avoid tedious explanations later. If I refer to ESOL then I mean English for communities of migrants living and working in an English speaking country, in my case, the UK. EFL on the other hand is English for private, fee paying learners who are less likely to be using English in an English speaking country and more likely to be using it as a lingua Franca abroad. Feel free to dispute, but that’s enough to be going on with, and saves any messing about with tedious discussions of academic ability, first language literacy and the rest.

The overriding focus in EFL, in my perception of it, is language and how it is learned. In this context we are primarily interested in is cognitive aspects, the what of the language and the how of the learning, as it were. The social contexts of how it will be used by the learners are less of a consideration, although these are not excluded. Even more “humanistic” approaches still highlight the language learning over the contexts in which it will be used.

ESOL comes from a background of socially situated literacy, of community, adult, and family learning, with the primary focus on what the language is going to be for and where it is going to be used. This certainly accounts for some of the more bonkers elements of ESOL which patently have nothing to do with how languages are learned (yes, SMART targets, I mean you) and for the mock-therapeutic, deficit model of lack of language as if the learners’ language abilities are a social problem which can be solved. I’ve blogged before about the language we sometimes use to talk about ESOL as having more to do with curing an illness than it does with learning a language, and the patronising “poor things” mentality.

Correspondingly, then the linguistic-cognitive aspects of language learning are of secondary consideration. This is what has given rise to things like experienced ESOL teachers saying “I’m scared of teaching grammar.” It brings out my darkest and least sympathetic streak, and I want to shout, after the manner of Malcolm Tucker, “You’re a fucking language teacher. What are you doing if you’re not teaching fucking grammar?” Seriously, anyone afraid of grammar or who dislikes teaching it needs to really think hard about being an ESOL teacher.

I sound mean, and perhaps I am being a little mean to my more socially focused colleagues. Absolutely the social and the political elements of ESOL are important, of course they are. Indeed, as I became increasingly tired of teaching IELTS preparation to increasingly arrogant and consumerised young people (“I IELTS 7. six weeks. You give me: I customer.”) I started to think about retraining to teach adult literacy, and upon my return to England in the mid 2000s I slipped slowly, albeit with some initial reservations, into ESOL teaching, and from thence to where you find me now, much more socially committed than I was. I am very much an ESOL teacher and have now been one for longer than I was ever a teacher of EFL.

But my practice is rooted in an EFL context, by which I mean my classroom practice is informed if not primarily by the cognitive but in tandem with the social. This is the teacher I am. I am not primarily a social worker, a carer, a counsellor (although I have been and will happily continue to be those things to my learners): primarily I am an English teacher. Anything which is not about the learning and teaching of the English language is simply not relevant.

Except, and I’ll say this before you do, here is where it gets a bit grey, for ESOL learners’ language is in all those social and personal issues. They aren’t embarking on a purely academic exercise, but rather are learning something they need to learn. And so I can’t plan lessons and courses without thinking about the learners’ wider lives. I don’t plan lessons and courses based on random, unconnected bits and pieces. Even teaching ICT to 16-18 year olds has got me trying to personalise and link the learning to the learners’ lives (which, I have to say, is getting a little strained, even after a few weeks). Language teaching, indeed, any teaching, has to have a hook, a link to the learners’ existences, even if that hook is escape from the crap parts of it. For me, as an ESOL teacher, this social context of language is the frame on which I hang the cognitive elements. After all, this social context of language use, if we go back to our communicative language teaching roots (come on, nobody really does anything else), is what brings learners into the classroom and it is one of the things which keeps them there.

So yes. There is a difference, but I don’t think it boils down to well worn and fraudulent distinctions around first language literacy (how would you define teaching English to non-literate workers in the third world?) or to educational background (In both contexts I have taught doctors, housewives, dentists, factory workers, lawyers, farmers and civil servants, not to mention the occasional pop star). The difference is around the language, around what is being done with that language, and how this has an influence on classroom practice.
3

I shall start this with an apology, then a confession.

First the apology. This is by way of a tribute/sequel/rip off of Steve Brown’s two excellent pieces on this theme, which you can read here and here. I just thought I might add my say here, rather than clog Steve’s blog with a huge comment.

So, the confession.

I didn’t get into teaching out of a desire to improve the world. I didn’t get into teaching because I wanted to help people. I didn’t get into teaching because of a social commitment. Not even a little bit.

No, I got into teaching because I like language, and my 23 year old self wanted to be paid to do stuff with language whilst at the same time continue to nurture various literary fantasies. As my career progressed the novel stalled, and my interest in learning grew, but still my interest was in language, and increasingly, in language learning.

And this is where the divide between ESOL and EFL comes into play. First up definitions. My working definition is that ESOL is English for communities of migrants living and working in an English speaking country, in my case, the UK. EFL on the other hand is English for private, fee paying learners who are less likely to be using English in an English speaking country and more likely to be using it as a lingua Franca abroad. Feel free to dispute, but that’s enough to be going on with, and saves any tedious messing about with discussions of academic ability, first language literacy and the rest.

The overriding focus in EFL, and this is where I steal from Steve’s post, is language and how it is learned: the focus is on the cognitive aspects, the how of the learning, as it were. The social contexts of how it will be used by the learners are less of a consideration, with the cognitive elements of language and language learning being foremost. Even more “humanistic” approaches still highlight the language learning over the contexts in which it will be used.

ESOL has its origins in a more socially situated stance, with the primary focus on what the language is going to be used for, with cognitive elements coming secondary in the considerations. This certainly accounts for some of the more bonkers elements of ESOL which patently have nothing to do with how languages are learned (yes, SMART targets, I mean you) and for the mock-therapeutic, deficit model of lack of language as a social problem which can be solved. I’ve blogged before about the language we sometimes use to talk about ESOL as having more to do with curing an illness than it does with learning a language. ESOL comes from a background of socially situated literacy, of community, adult, and family learning. The linguistic-cognitive aspects come second to the extent that I have heard more than one experienced ESOL teacher say “I’m scared of teaching grammar.” It brings out my least sympathetic streak, and I want to shout, after the manner of Malcolm Tucker, “You’re a fucking language teacher. What are you doing if you’re not teaching fucking grammar?” Seriously, anyone afraid of grammar or who dislikes teaching it needs to really think hard about being an ESOL teacher.

I sound mean, and perhaps I am being a little mean to my more socially focused colleagues. Absolutely the social and the political elements of ESOL are important, of course they are. Indeed, as I grew weary of teaching IELTS preparation to increasingly arrogant and consumerised young people (“I IELTS 7. six weeks. I customer.”) I started to think about retraining to teach adult literacy, and upon my return to England in the mid 2000s I slipped slowly, with some initial reservations, into ESOL teaching, and thence to where you find me now, much more socially committed than I was.

But my practice is rooted in an EFL context, by which I mean my classroom practice is informed if not primarily by the cognitive but in tandem with the social. This is the teacher I am. I am not primarily a social worker, a carer, a counsellor (although I have been and will happily continue to be those things to my learners): primarily I am an English teacher. Anything which is not about the learning and teaching of the English language is simply not relevant.

Except, and I’ll say this before you do, here is where it gets a bit grey, for ESOL learners’ language is in all those things. They aren’t embarking on a purely academic exercise, but rather are learning something they need to learn. And so I can’t plan lessons and courses without thinking about the learners’ wider lives. I don’t plan lessons and courses based on random, unconnected bits and pieces. Even teaching ICT to 16-18 year olds has got me trying to personalise and link the learning to the learners’ lives (which, I have to say, is getting a little strained, even after a few weeks). Language teaching, indeed, any teaching, has to have a hook, a link to the learners’ existences, even if that hook is escape from the crap parts of it. For me, as an ESOL teacher, this social context of language is the frame on which I hang the cognitive elements. After all, this social context of language use, if we go back to our communicative language teaching roots (come on, nobody really does anything else), is what brings learners into the classroom and it is one of the things which keeps them there.

So yes. There is a difference, but I don’t think it boils down to well worn and fraudulent distinctions around first language literacy (how would you define teaching English to non-literate workers in the third world?) or to educational background (In both contexts I have taught doctors, housewives, dentists, factory workers, lawyers, farmers and civil servants, not to mention the occasional pop star). The difference is around the language, around what is being done with that language, and how this has an influence on classroom practice.

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One comment

  1. Hi Sam,
    If I’ve understood correctly, I think you’re saying the distinction lies between teaching language as an academic subject, like maths, or teaching it as a practical skill, like technical drawing. Maths is all about formulas, calculations, rules and patterns, and language can be viewed like this too. Technical drawing, on the other hand, is about producing something that is meaningful enough to serve a practical purpose – again, you can look at language in this way as well.
    Of course, knowing lots of stuff about maths is completely useless unless you are able to apply it somehow to real life. It’s also impossible to do technical drawing well without having and then applying some mathematical knowledge.
    So, if we take this into the EFL/ESOL debate, we can maybe say that EFL practice tends to view language as being a bit like maths – learn about the rules and systems and then apply them, while ESOL classroom practice is more like technical drawing – this is what you have to produce so let’s get on with it.
    I suppose my argument in all of this is that we shouldn’t have two separate approaches at all – a single approach can be applied to both contexts equally effectively. Teaching maths without showing students how to apply it makes the subject seem meaningless; I maintain that this is why I did badly in maths at school. But attempting to develop technical drawing skills without spending some time one theory (principles of geometry, angles, I don’t know I’m rubbish at maths) is equally bad practice.
    I feel that ESOL and EFL have an awful lot to learn from each other. Like you, I started out in an EFL context but the learning curve for me steepened when I came back to the UK and realised that I’d been neglecting the meaningful practical application of language in favour of the ability to demonstrate awareness of theory e.g. complete gap-fill exercises at sentence level. Like you, I was also encountering ESOL practitioners who either confessed a fear of teaching grammar or presented a deficit model of their students as an excuse for not teaching it. Increasing crossover between the two is changing this for the better, though.
    Sorry for clogging your blog with a huge comment. I’ll go back to my own one now to reflect further on this…

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