A Post About ESOL for Non-ESOL People

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.


  1. So, first of all, thanks for your response to my blog, and thanks also for the positive introduction to it.

    In terms of the offending sentence, you’re right, it was a rhetorical device, and in a sense I didn’t want to let the truth (or rather the whole truth) get in the way of a good story (or rhetoric). In my penultimate draft, there was even a sentence which followed this one that went “We also teach adults who can’t speak English and want to train to be doctors”. (I’m not making this up!) I removed the sentence because I thought it disrupted the rhythm of the paragraph. (Style over substance again, typical senior leader!)

    But enough of self-defence. I’m sorry to say that I do actually agree with everything you wrote in the comment. I am in no way an expert in ESOL, nor for that matter literacy, though in the past few years I have usually line-managed the people in this college who are. From that experience I can recognise your description of both ESOL practitioners and ESOL student cohorts.

    Now, here’s a puzzle. At our college, we have a very large ESOL provision that has recently been judged to be outstanding with a capital ‘O’. We also have a substantial Functional Skills English provision which has not yet reached those giddy heights. Over the summer I have been trying to tease out with managers and teachers the origin of this differential. As a non-expert, I am putting forward a working hypothesis.

    Firstly, I would suggest that there are two learner cohorts with very different kinds and levels of motivation to learn English. One needs to learn or master English to progress their new life in this country, while the other are more focussed on their vocational specialism and regard English either as something that they fail exams in, or as something they believe they function adequately in already without the need for further study.

    Secondly, it seems to me that we teach these two subjects in very different ways. For ESOL, we seem to build up from a grounding in grammar and introduce functionality from there. In English, we are applying contextualised sticking plasters onto the competences of people who have probably never knowingly been taught the grammar of their native language thoroughly, if at all.

    Thirdly, no, I’d better stop there. I’m in danger of betraying my bias and ignorance and inviting even more, less constructive comments from bloggers in these two disciplines. Perhaps if you or your colleagues have an insight into this, you could share it?

    Anyway, thanks again for the comment and let’s hope that in 15 years’ time people are not calling these the good old days, for then things will have got very bad indeed!

    1. I don’t think that anything you’ve said here is terribly controversial or likely to upset people from either a literacy or an ESOL background, and I think you have described the distinction neatly.

      I would say that I think your first point is the main one: the difference, I think, is around motivation and around power. Adult, indeed probably all post-16 literacy is coloured by the fact that for many people, limited literacy, or a lack of it, is a source of shame (although people are rarely shy about being “bad at maths” which is a whole other debate!). Therefore, for some people actually coming to start a class is a massive, challenging step.

      In a college, those learners doing Functional Skills qualifications are from a pretty diverse range of backgrounds: apprentices, vocational trainees, adult learners of all stripes, and probably a small cohort of ESOL students. This gives a much bigger range of motivations, or lack thereof. If a young person hated English at school and struggled with it, I imagine they are unlikely to want to engage with it again.

      Perhaps the one thing which does unite many ESOL learners is motivation. The origin of the motivation is as diverse as the learners, but the motivation is often there, without being held back by shame at being unable to speak English. It’s not as simple as that, of course, but even if a learner were embarrassed by their language skills, it’s hard to hide that (although this does happen, often through complex social and family relationships converging to support someone who never quite gets round to learning, like the woman I taught a couple of years back who had been in the UK 10 years and could barely speak a word, let alone write.)

      A lack of language can be disempowering on a huge level, more profoundly and much more blatantly than an adult literacy learner, where the disempowerment can be much more subtle, and therefore can be hidden or played down. A first language literacy learner can speak and therefore manage in other contexts away from the written, sometimes very successfully indeed. By analogy, I’m reminded of a friend who was a gifted guitarist since childhood but who never learned to read music until he was in his twenties.

      Remove the ability to speak and an individual is left to rely on others for almost everything.

      There are layers to this, and it’s not just about adults. I’m thinking of the 16 year old ESOL learner who will quite likely end up a year or two behind their UK born counterparts, despite any talent, knowledge or skills they may have: 17 year olds who are excellent with computers and score highly at maths, literate in their first language, but whose English is developing and so they are unable to access mainstream education. Add to this the fact that they may have to act as a kind of “language broker” for their family, translating at important interviews, even at medical appointments where they may have to translate for their parents deeply personal and intimate information which creates all sorts of issues for all involved.

      This comment almost became a full post, so I think I’ll leave it there. But thank you, again, for a thoughtful and interesting comment, and I’m going to mull over your second point for a while…

  2. Gosh, it took me a while to find how to leave you a message. But I know it’ll be worth it. I first read your article about authentic materials on Teaching English, British Council. I felt your articles are quite interesting.

    I’d love to communicate with you more about authentic materials if you are still interested in this topic.


Leave a Reply to Dave Cancel reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s