Language & the ESOL image problem

Three things this week came together quite serendipitously. First was walking past a British Sign Language class, and seeing the tutor not only teaching BSL, but also using BSL to communicate ideas. The second was a conversation with two non-ESOL teaching colleagues about the SOLO taxonomy and the notion of using “higher order” questions. The third was a tweet from Scott Thornbury, “The problem with EFL/ESL teaching is that, unlike maths, history etc, there is no subject. So the language itself becomes the subject.”

So this set me thinking. You see I think ESOL in further education setting has a bit of an image problem. There’s a perception in some corners that we should fit in to everything else, that something which applies to sixteen year old joinery apprentices can be applied without modification to a group of beginner ESOL students, and that our reluctance to do so, or questions asked about it in order to make sense of it in ESOL terms is seen as ESOL teachers and departments being awkward, stroppy, and obstructive. Don’t get me wrong, mind, because like any teacher, ESOL teachers can indeed be stroppy and obstructive, and I get that. However, there is a serious point here: there is a single and profound difference between ESOL and, with the exception, perhaps, of my colleague teaching BSL, every single other subject teacher in a college can communicate directly and unambiguously with their students.

Let’s take questioning as a good example of this. When teaching a subject through a shared language, one quick, effective way of challenging students is to ask questions which probe deeper into the subject, moving from straightforward knowledge of details (“Name three types of…”) to more complex, evaluative and critical questions (“what might happen if…”). This is generally seen as good practice, and, I think, quite right too. When I think of CELTA, for example, I might ask students initially to identify how to use the past simple, and then challenge them to analyse the problems faced by second language learners in using it, or what the barriers might be, or to compare how the past simple is used as a simple,e past reference ce and how it used to describe a narrative. This sort of range of questioning or task-challenge works to push students into thinking beyond just knowing a fact. (For the record, however, you do need to know the fact before you can start to go beyond this. What is commonly referred to as “lower” order questioning is not necessarily worse or less important – if anything it is the most important type of learning without which all the rest is impossible.)

Trouble is, all of this, every element of this, is entirely language dependant. It assumes on the part of the speaker and the listener a shared language with a fair degree of linguistic complexity. Don’t let snobbery get in your way here: my fictional joinery apprentices have access to an astonishing array of linguistic talents, even those ones who failed GCSEs. The fact that they can understand a question like “what might happen if you used an alternative timber for this?” is a demonstration of a fair amount of language skill.

So we have to consider carefully the value of time spent in training or reading about this when you remove that language skill. I simply cannot reliably ask my students “how would you change the verb if it is irregular?” Instead I have to get there a different way. The primary way I use questioning is not to expand in this way, but to apply successive “lower order” questions to build complex knowledge. “Read this sentence: I visited my sister. Am I visiting my sister now? Tomorrow? Before now? Good.” Then the next day I come back and start up irregular verbs, checking and eliciting concepts again using simple questions.

None of this means that ESOL students are incapable of thinking in those terms. Remember these are diverse classrooms on a scale incomparable in FE, with teachers, doctors, university lecturers and civil servants sharing a room with hitherto uneducated housewives, farmers and factory workers, none of which can be used to make assumptions about language learning aptitude. To use terms associated with higher order thinking, synthesis, creativity, evaluation and hypothesising are required of ESOL students from the get go when they are challenged to use language in new and unique situations. It’s just that we, as teachers, can’t use the language as a means to get there.

So we have to critically evaluate everything that a generic trainer says. Teachers are pragmatic people, after all, and would like something useful that we can use in our day to day classrooms, and an interesting curio like the SOLO taxonomy has limited, if any applicability. Ditto Bloom, although it could be used for task design, perhaps. Ditto Socratic questioning, flipped learning,  negotiating learning targets, sharing and self assessing SMART lesson outcomes. These are language dependent concepts, and this is the key to everything.

Until you’ve taught an ESOL class, none of this will make sense to you. I’ve seen it in CELTA teaching practice where a qualified teacher in another subject tries over-complex questions to a low level class and suddenly realises that they might as well have just whistled and farted for all the good it’s done. The good trainees are the ones who realise that they do have to change their paradigm, and alter their classroom behaviours accordingly. Because that is what we are talking about: for a generically trained teacher of a vocational subject, the nature of the ESOL classroom in a UK setting is radically different.

And this can indeed make ESOL teachers seem obstructive when it comes to implementing college-wide initiatives or training opportunities, but they are simply trying to make sense of it all, to take those initiatives and challenges and make them work in their context. And that context is different, profoundly and radically. It’s also what makes ESOL such fun to teach.

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One comment

  1. Great read. I recognize it so clearly from my personal experience teaching ESOL in the US. Also, I learned the word ‘stroppy’.

    The ‘radical’ character of the ESOL/language classroom is so apparent to some, and so invisible to others. It usually seems not so much an issue of acceptance or what not, but actual perception. Hell, it even takes teachers years to ‘see’ the subtle yet fundamental matrix of ‘nontent’ that constitutes the subject of the class.

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