Mrs Khan Goes to the Post Office

It’s generally assumed, it’s safe to say, that ESOL courses should be “relevant to students’ day to day lives”, perhaps more so than any other area of ELT. The ostensible intention of any kind of language education for immigrant population is enabling interaction with the target language society and culture, which leads to a functional/situational model of course design, built around lessons on practical, “everyday” contexts: going to the shops, interacting with the doctor, that sort of thing: what I call the “Mrs Khan goes to the post office” school of course planning. 

The challenge however, is around the definition of “relevance”, which is an entirely subjective concept: what does it mean to say that something is relevant to learners lives, exactly? My interpretation, based on what I know of my students, may be different to that of someone reviewing my scheme of work, who may have some knowledge, but not necessarily as much as me, and certainly will have a slightly different interpretation of “relevant”. An inspector, or other outside observer, may have another interpretation of what is relevant to learners lives, particularly if they are an OFSTED inspector with a focus on governmental priorities and how these are relevant to the learners: basically being a) (more) economically active and b) good little non-critical citizens, grateful for their lot.

A lot of the time, Mrs Khan going to the post office, Kasia talking to the doctor, Mr Wu complaining about his new shoes, or Alessandro talking to his daughter’s teacher are entirely relevant and useful things to cover. I’d love to find or develop some good low level resources for the last one, in fact, as it often comes up when I talk to students about what they want to cover on a course. The trouble with these things, as with any situational syllabus, is twofold. Firstly they are inaccurate representations of real interactions, and second, they are potentially limiting as course design constructs, particularly as students’ language gets more advanced.

The inaccuracy issue is obvious, when you think about it. Go into any service situation, for example, and the interactions are rarely as they appear in published materials. In Ronald Carter and Michael McCarthy’s book, Exploring Spoken English they record a series of actual dialogues in real settings, and show that instead of being purely transactional, as in the mind of most teachers and materials writers, service conversations are a mix of transaction (getting things done) and interaction (exchanging pleasantries about the weather, that sort of thing. Even when operating in a second language, or even operating multilingually, this blend of interactional and transactional intention is possible: consider how quickly and naturally our own students drift from task focussed, controlled practice of target language to social focussed conversation, switching between languages as necessary. This isn’t to say that we shouldn’t necessarily use these simplified, unnatural transactional dialogues, often because we need the authentic context to engage students, and set up a lesson for a specific language point: ask for the location of something in a supermarket, and you’re more likely to be given an aisle number or even shown directly where it is, than be given tidy directions or prepostitions, but you’re just setting up a lesson on prepositions of place, not making a real claim to be teaching “authentic” language in a real context. This isn’t making it relevant, or meaningful, it’s just taking away the uncertainty of the unfamiliar. 

Even if we do include these fake “real life” conversations, as we should, we can’t restrict course content to them. Anyone who has tried teaching ESOL for employment will recognise the limitations of tying everything to a limited context. The imposed restricted context of these courses leads either to particular language areas not being taught because they don’t fit, or awful shoehorning of contexts which are, if anything, less meaningful to students: adjectives to describe people for example, could be covered in a work setting (“you are looking for a new colleague. Describe her to your partner.”) but good grief is it ever strained, as compared to talking about family or people we know. This applies to any “real life” setting, good to a point, but sometimes, often perhaps, you need to go off the wall a little, and cover something outside of students’ experiences. As they get better and better, you end up needing to cover things outside the immediate reality simply because the language demands it: try limiting second conditional to “real life” and you’re pretty much onto a loser. The negative impact of these limitations is not necessarily reason to avoid these functional settings. Far from it, but we must acknowledge the inauthenticity, indeed, accept that there is nothing terribly “real” about a language teaching dialogue. 

I wonder if sometimes teachers just assume that the learners want language to be set in “real life” contexts: perhaps something of a hangover from ESOL’s association with adult literacy programmes where making it relevant may have been partly to offset reluctance or nervousness around literacy learning for adults. I think that while ESOL learners recognise the pragmatism of such an approach, I think they often lack this kind of motivational barrier: it’s probably pretty safe to say that the motivation of many, perhaps most ESOL learners is pretty high, and they quickly acquire and come to expect an explicit focus on grammar. There’s also the influence from our training, focussed on communicative language teaching, language learning should be about making meaningful communication; and which encourages us to set lessons into a context. Having “real life” as our consistent context is an easy way to satisfy both of these learned responses. Context does not have to be linked to students’ reality, mind you, and actually contexts can arise out of the language, rather than the the language out of the context: teaching discrete, decontextualised sentences to illustrate a grammar point, for example and then getting students to suggest the context after the fact can be an interesting and engaging way to work with language. 

I’ll admit, gladly, that I’m as guilty as the next person of this sort of thing. I like to use topics as an organising principle, and tend to pick these topics from “real life” whatever that actually is, usually in conjunction with the students. What happens within those topics, mind you, is anybody’s guess: I tend to select listening or reading texts based around those contexts, vocabulary arising in them, and on the opportunities for grammar teaching that the context suggests. But then I also see a scheme of work as not so much a moveable feast, but rather a rough guide to be adapted and revised as appropriate, even ignored and abandoned, and so while Mrs Khan may get involved in a discussion about good shops and bad shops, experiences with the doctor, read about money, listen to a text about someone’s life history, learn about present continuous by describing a video, or practice present simple in the context of “a day in the life of a toaster”, she is unlikely to go to the post office.



  1. A lot of interesting points made! There is also the issue that if you have a class of parents then the context is much easier to choose, whereas if there is a mix of ages and backgrounds, it’s much harder, especially if there are teenagers in it. The problem with topic based syllabuses is that grammar has to be fitted into topics, and this can often cause a mismatch, which means it is not focused on as much as it should. I really like your point about finding the context from the grammar, and I agree that high motivation means context is not always essential. The issue for me is that the highly restricted time in the classroom means making decisions about what to look at, with situational language being considered more useful. In the long term I think this is pretty harmful. There is a space for more language aware ESOL materials needed to be filled.

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