The things students say

Or, as in this case, write. When you teach high level ESOL classes you get used to a certain type of discourse. Students can express profound and challenging concepts with confidence, they can argue and hold their own with you in a conversation, and you can argue subtleties that might be lost on a goup of students whose language is far less developed.

There’s a danger to this, however, particularly when talking to lower level students, and that is the easy temptation not so much to consciously assume that students are somehow childlike, or innocent, perhaps, but to unconsciously react as if they are. So you keep things simple and straightforward, reduce the linguistic complexity, of course, but also sometimes also the cognitive and emotional complexity: it’s almost a kind of linguistic relativity in that you can’t express those complex or “adult” concepts, therefore you can’t think them. Of course, not all students want to express such things, or are able to do so emotionally or psychologically, and neither should we force them, but for whatever reason there is a tendency to step lightly round more profound issues, knowing that you are going to struggle to communicate, as are the students. 

All of which may explain why you feel a sense of surprise when a student writes a sentence like “they are protesting to change the government” in an otherwise apolitical lesson on present continuous, or “all humans have to have ethics, because ethics is everything” for a homework task on conjunctions. Even a statement as initially innocuous as “I love my home because it is my first home in U.K.” takes on a whole new meaning when you think about the turbulent background of the student who wrote it. 

The reality for ESOL learners is that they can, of course, feel and express these adult realities of religion and war and sex and death and love and politics, just not in the same language that I speak. And whichever way I want to play it, however uncomfortable I may feel with talking about some of those things, there is still a space for these things to be made. Why not teach present continuous in the context of political protest? Sure, it might not have the bland universality of describing an image of models from a magazine, but what otherwise untapped depths are we missing? Contrary to the mainstream political rhetoric of ESOL, my job is not just enabling neat economic integration, but a much more careful task of unpicking what people want to say, and giving them the tools to say it.



  1. I enjoyed this Sam. It made me think of the chat we had on Twitter about the topic of ‘The Town’. After focusing on vocabulary etc it was much more interesting and challenging asking the students to talk about which places they thought were most important and why. The level of language didn’t need to be higher but the amount of thought put in was far greater and reflected their experiences and opinions much more.

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