Just recently, I was reading an otherwise generally excellent blog post by a college leader about what happens in FE, enjoying the ride, so to speak, when I was tripped up by this particular sentence:
“We teach adults who can’t speak English through to adults who want to train to be doctors.”
Now, I would like to say that I am very aware that the writer in question is merely using a neat rhetorical device. Indeed, I pretty much liked everything else he said, but this sentence, really, summed up everything that non-ESOL people don’t understand.(Again, I’m not saying that he doesn’t understand ESOL….oh, look, you get that, right?).
Back in what is, depressingly, beginning to be thought of as the good old days, there was a programme called Skills for Life. It is now coming up to 15 years since the Moser Report, and the subsequent publication of Breaking the Language Barriers.
Under Skills for Life, ESOL was, owing to its nature of being at least partly about reading and writing, linked to the literacy curriculum and then bundled up in the same overall package as literacy and numeracy. Teacher training followed suit, with qualifications for teachers of literacy, numeracy and of ESOL.
This connection with literacy was, and still is, problematic. For one, ESOL is not literacy. Literacy is not ESOL. There may be some similarities in subject and on methodology, and things both fields can learn from each other, but the overlap is pretty small. What an ESOL learner has to learn about grammar is far far more profound than what a literacy learner needs to learn. Word order, tense structure, a good working vocabulary of a few thousand words( things like that, things which are, for the majority of adult literacy learners, already developed. Learning a language is not the same as learning to read and write in a language you already know.
The basic skills/literacy connection had, I think, an even more damaging consequence: it marked ESOL in the UK as special, and therefore categorically not the same as the single field with which it has the most in common: EFL. A field which has long had a good grounding in theory, a research base in applied linguistics, and an international community of practitioners. In a single stroke of a civil servant’s pen, a false dichotomy was quickly created and through quite intense snobbery on both sides, opportunities for sharing of practice abolished. Instead, trainee ESOL teachers had to sit through PGCE sessions of little or no relevance to the reality of their classrooms in order to fit in with FE. Even now, literacy and ESOL remain intertwined, with overarching standards of teacher knowledge linked to both, as if they were somehow identical.
Anyway, I digress, and I rant. Sorry. Back to my main point: the slight short sightedness of the quote. You see, in an ESOL class, there are indeed adults learning English as a second language. But, and this is important, some of them may want to be doctors. Some of them may actually be doctors. ESOL students are not at the opposite end of a continuum of academic ability to a doctor, but rather they represent the full range of that continuum. In my current evening class I have a lawyer, a teacher and two social workers, as well as a nurse who wants, that’s right, to retrain as a doctor. Add to that the list of civil servants, doctors, lawyers, joiners, electricians, plumbers, housewives, househusbands, cleaners, dentists, opticians, PHD students who have had to abandon their studies, factory workers, farmers, pilots and goodness knows how many other professions and skills who I have come across in my time as an ESOL teacher.
This diversity, even superdiversity of learner backgrounds, demands and needs makes for a complex and challenging subject area. It’s not like mainstream vocational education, it’s not like literacy, it’s not like modern foreign languages in schools, although it’s a lot like EFL, if only everyone could just shut up about them being different. The learners are tricky to pin down, impossible to pigeonhole, wildy diverse, even superdiverse: neither learners nor subject fit neatly into the dominant model of post compulsory education for 16-19 year olds. The teaching methods are idiosyncratic, the timetables awkward, the teachers demanding and the teaching environments vary from the modern college classroom to a factory canteen to prefab huts in a community centre.
And all of these are why I love doing it so very very much.