Reflections on teaching low level learners

The curse of literacy?

Last Thursday was the fifth of November, notable in the UK as bonfire night, when the British randomly celebrate the execution of a religious terrorist who, in the event, failed in the attempt to blow up the Houses of Parliament in order to kill the King. Hardly a great example of British Values, so instead, with my beginner ESOL learners, we did some work around telling the time, numbers, and verbs of the daily routine. We only touched on the daily routine stuff, but it was a nice class nonetheless.

What was nice about it? It is a small group, by current standards, and this meant that there was time to support individuals properly with feeling like the rest of the class is just waiting for you to come and set them up for something else. One of the things about beginners is that there is often little or no mental downtime for the teacher: in a high level class you can very often set a task up and it simply runs, allowing you to quickly check everyone is on task, then set up the next activity or whatever before heading back out to monitor student activity, give feedback and so on. In a beginner group you have to play it a bit tighter: you have to really carefully make sure everyone is clear about the task (and often there will be one or two students who aren’t, no matter what you try) by which time, really, the students need checking and monitoring. And then you’re straight onto feedback. There are rarely places to hide when teaching beginners.
One of the crucial and, for a beginner class, unusual things about this lesson was that I told the students to not write when we did the vocab work. For many beginner sol learners my writing is often the major issue in their development and their perceived priority. As a result, there is a tendency to copy and write everything. While there’s nothing essentially wrong with this, it can lead to a lack of focus on the systemic features of language: grammar and vocabulary. Of course, to a non-specialist native speaker, and indeed to many language learners, grammar and vocabulary is writing because this is most commonly how this is discussed and analysed in our educational backgrounds. But from a language learning perspective, grammar can be learned without any writing at all: indeed the vast majority of people learn language orally. Writing helps, for sure, but it’s an artificial imposition on the process borne out of social training.
So it came as a bit of a mental shock to the class when I told them not to write and to out their pens down. I’m glad I did too: it created a much more open and cohesive conversation, with high levels of humour and interaction. Rather than the usual beginner literacy panic about letter formation and writing on the line, the learners were able to concentrate on interacting and engaging with the language. There was a real sense of “oh that’s what you call it” which sometimes can get lost in the focus on developing literacy using known language. 
It also levelled the playing field a little. Some of the weaker writers, for example, are stronger speakers, and some of the stronger writers are less strong at speaking and overall it averaged out. More importantly, I think, there was also a greater sense of the group coming together as a whole because there was a greater focus on shared communication and negotiating meaning. There was a much more clearly developed sense of mutual respect, as well as practice in the less measurable skills of turn taking and listening in a conversation.
This may just be me, but there are times when I think that beginner teaching gets a little over obsessed with beginner literacy. I’m not saying that it shouldn’t be addressed, of course, because it is crucially important, and is certainly one of the key restricting factors that stops learners from progressing. This importance, however, does mean that it’s tempting, even necessary, to focus a disproportionate amount of  lesson time on the literacy element, rather than the language learning element. I wonder how a level 1 class would react if you spent half the lesson focussing on reading and writing only familiar words in comfortable contexts. I do wonder if there are times when learners get fed up of the relentless focus on phonics, handwriting, spelling and the rest at the expense of essential spoken communication. I know I would probably reach a point where I would want to shout “enough with spelling my address and bloody CVC words! I want to be able to speak!” 


I have two children, both of whom are working their way through the first few years of primary school. This means, of course, that phonics is a hot topic, from my daughter practically sneering at the phonics test (“why do we have to read these silly words?”) and my son most recently sounding out the names of Star Wars Lego characters with varying degrees of success (most amusingly one character with a major cult following has been renamed “Baby Fat” as a result.)IMG_0028

This exposure to phonics has been illuminating. I’ve been able to see phonics at work in a way that I have never really been able to apply with adults, and get involved a little with the debate about the draconian insistence on synthetic phonics as the primary measure of a child’s reading ability that reduces the joy and complexity of reading to a series of facile “tests”.

So, phonics. Basically this is developing reading skills through identifying words through shape-sound combinations. It comes in two flavours: synthetic and analytic. Synthetic phonics appears to be sounding out the letters with their appropriate phonemes, and then “synthesising” them. This is a fine way to work if you are dealing with simple regular patterns. Thus my son has no major issues with both Batman and Robin, but struggled a little with The Joker. Analytic phonics, on the other hand, appears to recognise that English is a bit weird with spelling (blame the French, the priests and the first printers, basically.) Children look at whole words, analysing patterns and making inferences from there.

As with all such things there are arguments in favour of both sides, usually voiced loudly by a minority who believe that one or the other is best. The rest of the world, meanwhile, acknowledges that the benefits of the one generally offset the shortcomings of the other, and that a bit of both is probably the best approach.

But what about adults, in particular adults whose first language is not English and who have little or no literacy in any language? Synthetic phonics, sounding out the letters, is initially quite tempting. The simplicity of the approach is appealing, and the quick win nature of being able to sound out and read words is very motivating for learners. First language learners of literacy can do especially well, focussing on the various familiar CVC words like pop, did and had. For adult ESOL learners this is, very quickly, where synthetic phonics runs out of steam a little.

Adults come to class with a different set of expectations to children: often the motivation is integrative or at least extrinsic in some form: learning practical English as a tool to achieve some wider, adult, real world goal. They need, or at least definitely want, to be able to use something. Even the most manic adherent to the cult of the ILP will want their learners to come away from a diagnostic / target setting / planning learning type session with something practical. Thus the language they encounter in class needs to be applicable beyond that context, not to the extent of the tediously functional at all times. The language needs to represent a skill transferable out of the classroom.

Put simply, there are not enough adult words that fit into the neat sounds-spelling universe of synthetic phonics. To be fair, there are barely enough words full stop.

Things are further complicated here, of course, by the language of the learners beyond the written form. Writing is an extension of speaking, and both historically and personally, speaking develops first. Children arrive at phonics lessons with their key grammatical structures more or less formed, their vocabulary possibly already in the thousands, and phonological systems more or less established. That is a whole chunk of pre-literate language learning, some three years, possibly more, with little or no direct instruction in literacy. Adults get nothing like that, and the learning processes are very different. Children get to focus purely on learning, for ESOL learners learning is just one, admittedly useful, aspect of the messy business of living. Adult ESOL learners who are beginning to write do not necessarily have access to the vocabulary and the grammar that a native speaker does, adult or child. They are learning to make sense of the whole word: the denotations, the connotations, the collocations, the grammatical functions and parsing, the pronunciation, and, of course, the written form. Suddenly simple CVC words like jug, lip and dog become fairly hefty bits of learning, and a whole bunch of “friendly” onomatopoeia which appear in children’s stories and phonics learning are, well, simply childish. (Incidentally, many children’s picture books actually rely on some fairly tricky grammatical and lexical structures. A mouse took a stroll through the deep, dark wood… for example, involves a past simple verb, a specific verb-noun collocation, a slightly unusual synonym of “walk”, with a tricky prepositional phrase as an adverbial, including a relatively low frequency preposition, and two adjectives in a particular order – never “dark, deep wood” – with the meaning of “deep” being a fairly low frequency use of the word.)

So there are some challenges with a teaching methodology used for small children being applied to the practices of adults. Like any good teacher, of course, we pick and mix from the various things around us. My own approach to beginner reading is very much a blend: I want learners to be able to recognise key words, decode the word from the overall shape, be able to understand the shape of the text, recognise text types and so on. So sometimes I focus on relatively straightforward phonic combinations, for example, working with CVC words, and more complex spelling/pronunciation rules, including invoking the magic ‘e’ idea of my own childhood. The magic e rule, incidentally, also provides us with one of the more challenging elements of these kinds of rules. Typical beginner sentences in an ESOL class is “I come from ….” and “I have…”which immediately run counter to the magic e rule, or at least demands a modification of the rule. At other times a more analytic approach is more useful, building up whole word recognition skills from context, spotting patterns and so on. Indeed, this, for many adults, is likely to be a more useful skill in general, with support from the synthetic approach to sounding out words. Adults are exposed to the written word all the time, and may need to have the skills to hand to make quick sense of fairly tricky words like “post code”, “date of birth” and “arrival in the UK”.

Indeed, guessing from context and spotting patterns is something which is useful for adult ESOL learners as a general cognitive skill as well: it’s how they can best make use of their day to day exposure to English to develop grammar skills in all contexts, for example. (I don’t need to tell you that grammar isn’t purely a writing skill, do I?)

Ultimately, that whole synthetic/analytic phonics debate is something which really doesn’t affect adult ESOL learners, and indeed probably wouldn’t affect children if there hadn’t been a clear policy driven suggestion that the practice of synthetic phonics was best practice, a concept which would appear to exclude the use of analytic phonics. This is, of course, the problem with labelling anything officially as “best practice”. In real life ESOL learners, first language literacy learning adults and children all benefit from developing a range of skills with which to tackle a text, and this should, and does, inform what happens in the classroom.

Just don’t ask my daughter to read stupid non-words.

Sarah’s Questions

I have a very kind and sharing colleague, Sarah, who asked me some questions this week. I ended up writing some quite extensive answers and thought it would be interesting to share. Sarah has allowed me to use her questions, which is fabulous of her!

The questions concerned a beginner ESOL for Employment class which has long, four hour sessions as standard.

How to break up a long (4 hour) lesson

  • Get students to sit in different places at different times in the lesson
  • Plan the session as four one hour lessons with a clear change in focus each hour, finishing each hour with a less focussed activity.
  • Include routines: 15 minutes at the beginning of the class for register, individual work, homework checking, or just a bit of a game. 10 minutes in the middle of the class to relax a little. 15-20 minutes at the end of the class for ILPs, learner diaries, etc.
  • You do give them a break, right?
  • Allow “loose” time: opportunities for learners to just talk (including a little in L1 if need be) and chill. They are beginners, so for them studying and working in English for 4 hours is really really hard work for them too.

How to incorporate individual self-study practice and stop learners talking to their friend as soon as I’m working with another learner.

  • If it is genuinely disruptive, do address it directly with that learner.
  • You could not rely on individual activities and instead use activities which both learners could do together.
  • I’d also ask to what extent the learner knows what they are doing, and whether they are capable of engaging in unsupported independent activity.  Are you pushing that learner too hard? (I only say this because I have over high expectations of some of my beginners.)

 How to reduce the amount of planning time and resources I take in.

  • Focus planning time on activities not resources. Resources are the secondary consideration, after you have decided what you would like learners to do. Then, instead of casting around for pre-printed resources, pretend the photocopier is broken and see what ideas develop (I know it’s easier said than done, but worth a try).
  • Basic classroom toolkit for beginners: sheets of lined paper, coloured paper cut into A6 postcard sized sheets, post it notes, pens. Classroom objects, you and the learners. Mini-whiteboards as a bonus.  I know it sounds trite but again, think about how you could make more use of those things rather than rely on printed handouts. (activity over resource)
  • Differentiate by expectation rather than by resource. Learner X can barely write her name – so she simply copies words you or she chooses: learner Z is virtually E1 so she writes the words in longer sentences. You assess them on relative terms: learner X gets lots of feedback on how she has formed the lower case ‘e’, learner Z for full stops and capital letters. Both practice same language but in different ways, and you assess them on different scales.
  • For beginners, don’t dismiss speaking practice, either. I did an activity yesterday to practise telling the time and developing into daily routine where ss had times which I wrote on coloured bits of paper, drilled the question and they had to walk around asking “What do you do at..?” took a good 15 minutes, maybe more, got the learners moving around and was easy to differentiate –  early finishers get another time to practise further and in more ways. I wrote the resoue in the class as the learners were finishing another task (not recommended, mind you!)
  • For absolute beginners, especially if you have some almost E1s, you could get them into good habits, like practising their alphabet if they have a spare few minutes, for example while you are with another learner.

so, readers, what would you recommend? Any ideas gratefully l received!

Your First Six Lessons Next Term

A short post, and I’ll resist too much commentary, but this, more or less, is my outline plan for the first two weeks of a 3 session per week course starting September.


I wrote this in about five minutes to demonstrate to someone precisely how little one could realistically plan for the start of next year for an adult ESOL class, then looked at it and thought “actually, that’s not bad.” I will be prettying it up on the proper form, and adding a bit of detail, but that, in essence, is it until I’ve met and got to know the students.


Wagging the Dog: The Last (Beginner) Post

So, we had out final class this week, and I would like to report an exciting and thrilling close to the lesson with lots of teaching and learning.

Unfortunately I can’t.

The learners have completed portfolios, signed off their final ILP targets, and have a clear idea of where they are going next year (most to entry 1 I’m pleased to report).

I’ve talked about the impact of final assessment activities on teaching and learning before, and I don’t want to rattle on. Read this post and you’ll see what I mean. But it meant two and a half hours of admin, essentially. One to one “tutorials” and student file raiding to satisfy the requirements of funding agencies. So learning score there = big fat zero.

There are other issues here, of course. I took the class over late in the year after they had had a number of different teachers. No-one is at fault for this: these things happen, and it can be hard for everyone involved. But it means that I didn’t have the control over the evidence gathering and therefore didn’t have the opportunity to spread this kind of paper exercise across the year. I do this with teacher training courses, which are also portfolio assessed, and for which I consciously plan in time for portfolio review and tutorial activity. Teacher training portfolios, however, are much more focussed on clearly and explicitly meeting externally set assessment criteria.

If I am brutally honest, here, using RARPA to draw down funding, I suspect I would highly tempted to be  less principled in my target setting than I am with trainee teachers (see here for why) and set targets I felt confident that the learners could achieve. The other place where the comparison is less appropriate is the nature of the evidence required:  for an ESOL group in this context I would be inclined towards setting targets which I could “evidence” easily.

This is my concern with the drive for evidence – it promotes and encourages the kind of practice where the focus is not on the learning but the evidence of learning – two very different things. Hence “learning outcomes” over ” learning objectives”. The explicit setting of learning outcomes, for example, makes it very easy for a non-specialist observer (i.e. one who doesn’t teach the same subject as you) to make judgements on the effectiveness of the teaching in developing learning. As a practice for learning it may work for some, it may not.

That said, I’m not criticising the need for evidence, I understand the role of evidence in supporting the development and assessment of achievement, particularly when it comes to funding. The Skills Funding Agency in the UK is run mainly by accountants & business people, after all, not teachers.

My criticism is that this need can overwhelm the teaching and learning. Teaching and learning becomes directed towards the creation of evidence, rather than the evidence coming out of the teaching and learning. The evidence tail wagging the teaching and learning dog.

But, you know, if it means those individuals get to access language support they might otherwise miss out on, then who am I to comment on “best practice”?