Planning – it’s a love/hate thing.

I like planning lessons, that is, I enjoy planning lessons and thinking about what I might do in that lesson, and coming up with interesting ways of teaching something, or practising a skill, or eliciting a language point, or whatever. I like making or finding or developing a resource. I like thinking about how I am going to make sure I can keep everyone engaged and learning. I like planning.

I hate Planning. I hate the boxes, the “have you thought about whichever governmental whim you are supposed to be embedding”, the “we don’t expect extensive planning but we expect you to show us how you will differentiate for the individual needs of your students” double standards. I hate the hair splitting “ooh, your learning outcome isn’t smart enough, and if you reword ‘write 5 sentences using past simple’ as ‘use past simple to write 5 sentences’ you will be fine” (because students couldn’t give a stuff, because all they really understand is that they will be learning about past simple. Although they can’t self assess against that learning outcome until you teach them what it is…). I hate the stupid “assessment” box. Yes, it does look like I copy & paste, because I do, because I use checking in pairs, self assessing against the answers on the whiteboard, teacher marking and all the rest of it most of the time. I hate the tedious, mechanistic “input > output” simplicity a lesson plan form suggests, as if by achieving said learning outcomes, and assessing said learning outcomes means something. It doesn’t. It means the student achieved that once. Whether or not that outcome is now automatically achievable in any setting is highly unlikely.

I hate the way I find it ard to fiddle with a formal lesson plan and make changes at the last minute, even though I will happily chuck the entire lesson out at the last minute for an exciting but semi-formed idea if, and this is important, if the lesson is not being observed.

But actually, of course, what I really hate is that I have an ok set of lessons for the next few days, but they are missing something and I can’t put my finger on it. And there is no form in the world going to help me there.

Victim Blaming: Crash 2

I’ve been off work for part of this week owing to the unexpected appearance of a broken collarbone, courtesy of an equally unexpected driver pulling out of a junction presumably interpreting the words “give way” as merely optional. Naturally this has led to a wonderful set of lovely “get well soon” messages, but also one or two comments meant affectionately, but which raised a whole bunch of questions. “That bike!” said one. “Plonker” said another. (Its worth noting that both comments were followed up with lots of love and concern). What was interesting for me was that these were mild variations of the kind of victim blaming that comes up in these situations: read any article in the news on a road traffic accident involving either a pedestrian or a cyclist, and at some point will be some comment about the cyclist not wearing a helmet or hi vis or the pedestrian not using the crossing correctly, or similar comments: in short, rather than holding the perpetrator of the crime to account, at least some of the blame falls on the victim. It’s a variation of the “she was wearing a short skirt” defence of the rapist. It doesn’t matter, either, that the motorist was driving over the speed limit, or drunk, or not looking properly, there will often be a portion of blame for the accident placed on the person who was most badly affected by it. (A similar phenonomen is the amazing self driving car, as in “a Volkswagen Golf collided with a pedestrian” rather than “a motorist failed to drive responsibly and hit a pedestrian with their VW golf”: a linguistic tool which manages  to remove responsibility from the owner of a large, powerful and potentially lethal machine.) Motorists get terribly defensive about this sort of thing, which is perhaps inevitable when you combine the motorist’s usual arrogant entitlement with guilt.

What needs to be considered here is the degree to which the more vulnerable road user is responsible. Motor vehicles, lets remember, are driven by people, not, yet, by themselves. There is an element of sentience in the user, even a middle aged man in a 4×4, and they’re are not forces of nature or immovable physical objects. Therefore the person in charge of the machine should be held responsible for their actions as default, much as in the Dutch law of strict presumed liability, where anyone wishing to blame the more vulnerable road user for the accident needs to prove it. Certainly the chances of a motorist killing someone with their car (see how that sounds?) are far higher than a cyclist killing a motorist with their bike (but my word have I ever wanted to at times). Proper presumed liability would also, by the way, hold a cyclist responsible if they hit a pedestrian, so really everyone wins. Unfortunately, what we have in the UK is a presumed faith in the ability and inclinations of car drivers, and an elevation of the private motor car to a moronically untouchable state, despite the fact that the infrastructure is creaking as more and more people buy into the myth of freedom peddled by car companies and are simply too lazy to consider alternatives. (I know, you’ve got to drive. Of course you do.)

Whatever. There is a parallel here, as well, when the question of immigrants wanting to learn English gets discussed in the media. You read the online comments on such things, and rather than looking at the systems which have let those individuals down, the focus and the discussion  falls on whether or not the migrant wants to learn (and by association, therefore, wants to integrate) and often to the negative. There’s often a lot of “when I went on my gap year to Italy I made sure I learned Italian” rather than an acknowledgement of the difference between economically comfortable expats and refugees, spouses, and financially strained migrants, most of whom would run, and do run, to any free language classes if they were given half the chance. The insinuation is usually that the migrants are refusing to learn English, and refusing to engage with ESOL classes, when the reality is probably very different. 

In reality while there are certainly some people who won’t engage with ESOL classes, there are a lot of people who simply can’t. This might be because of some cultural or social restraint: family commitments, or, in the sadder cases, family restraints, where spouses are reluctant for their partners to develop independence beyond the immediate family. Far more probable, however, is the simple lack of money: where individuals don’t have the £400 a course, or whatever it is, to pay to learn English. After all, we are often talking about people often at the lower end of the financial ladder. Even the slight adjustment of funding rules to make full funding available to people earning at or below the tax allowance threshold of £11000 (as evidenced by their payslip) would open up classes to a whole range of people who would stand to benefit. 

What lies at the root of criticisms of migrants not learning English is simple prejudice, blaming not the current discriminatory, narrow minded and short termist system, but rather blaming the victims of that system for things beyond their control. It’s prejudicial because the criticisms are usually levelled from a point of majority privilege and power, with little or no knowledge of the situation, and a refusal to engage with or understand that situation. Like the pedestrian being blamed for not checking the road properly before crossing, or the cyclist being blamed for their own death for not wearing a hi vis vest, the immigrant being turned away from ESOL classes is being blamed for their own poverty. 

Comparatives, Superlatives, and “by far the most charismatic teacher in college.”

This week, owing to the arbitrary governmental diktat that one ESOL qualification = 100ish hours, marks the end of our first semester. It’s a weird time, because for students who are not going up a level, it essentially means a week of diagnostics and inductions, then business as normal. It doesn’t feel like the end of a course, even though technically that’s what it is. 

So anyway, I thought it was a good time to teach a lesson which was somehow both a closing off of the course while still maintaining a sense of continuity. Also, after a week or so of exams, target reviews, course evaluations and so on, I thought it might be nice to get the students to learn something. (What’s that you say, targets are part of the learning process? Bless you and your funny ways.) In fairness, myself and the group’s main teacher have both worked hard, I think, to maintain a balance between the more reflective-administrative aspects of the course, and a need for the students to have something to take away from the lessons, but still, a “pure” language lesson, I thought, might be nice.

The lesson, then. I started from an idea around the students making farewell certificates for each other, initially thinking of students simply completing a prewritten certificate. You know the sort of thing: “this is awarded to Julio for being the Hardest Working Student”. Then I worked it through a bit more. What language were they going to need? Superlatives, of course. But this is a Level 1, that is intermediate group, and superlatives alone would be too easy, so I thought we could add in a review of comparatives, and, for good measure, some intensifiers. 

Ok, so next stop, how to get the idea started? Usually when I teach comparatives and superlatives, I like to get students to share personal (ish) information and compare that, but in this instance, I thought it would too similar to the final task, and anyway, a bit easy. So instead I chose to build a context by getting the students to classify a whiteboard full of nouns. Most of these were the traditionally bland items: cities, countries, vegetables, that sort of thing, with a couple of clever dick moments (China, Italy & Hungary to reflect countries of students in the group, plus another 3 countries, Australia, Iceland and Fiji… think about it.) I also allowed my inner imp some playtime and added recent US presidents and UK prime ministers,  including the current incumbents. 


This was quite fun, and I think I judged the complexity of the groupings and and the number of words just right: a quick bit of pair work after working it out individually, before then feeding back to check. These then formed the basis of the practice activities later on. 

Next stop – presentation: I went teacher led, posting example sentences for each structure covering the main points (comparatives and superlatives) around form and spelling, concept questioning in classic CELTA style to draw out and check meanings. After covering each, the students wrote example sentences using the words from the sorting activity. Finally, the students reviewed with me various intensifiers for comparative and superlative phrases: by far, easily, for superlatives, far, much, a great deal, a lot, a bit, a little, a little bit, and a couple more for comparatives. These were then inserted into the previous sentences. 

The final task was the certificates (after a brief tangent into imperial and metric weights and measures – don’t ask). This was simple: students wrote their name at the top, then the “certificate” was passed around the room, and each student wrote a complimentary sentence about the person at the top, with feedback, before the finished certificate being returned to the originator with 8-10 sentences on it, which they could then read. Where students finished early, and to balance things out, I had the students write similar certificates for me and the group’s other teacher, which produced things like this:


It fitted the bill nicely, and was, overall, a good lesson. Like a lot of the lessons I teach now, context was incidental, arising from the classroom and the students, rather than an imposed context. There was a lot of opportunity for language and concepts to arise that I couldn’t necessarily predict, while still having a structure, and an expectation of language production. It was a lesson of ratios: in the first task was the right ratio of nouns and complexity for sorting, and later there was just the right ratio of new to old language, and this created the right level of engagement and focus for the students, with plenty to learn as well as recap. Insofar as it is ever possible to tell, the final sentences suggested, as well, that learning, or consolidation of learning, had happened.

Ob, and one more thing: I didn’t prompt the sentences about me, I promise. 

When the students know it is bad. 

In one of my earliest lessons, whilst doing my initial certificate, I really screwed up. Oh man, did I ever screw up. There are screw ups who can only dream of screwing up that badly. The lesson, a badly judged hour on adjectives for an upper intermediate group, had involved ages of painstaking work on planning and resources (cut out of fluorescent card, for reasons lost to posterity), to result in thirty scraped, desperate minutes at the end of which my trainer stood up and finished off the lesson while I sat in a corner with my day-glo cards and optimism in tatters in the floor. To my credit, I knew it was dying, I knew it was bad, just by the slow, deadly collapse of student interest and the polite, albeit frustrated, sympathy on the students’ faces. Unfortunately, being three hours into teaching, I just didn’t know how to make it stop, short of running from the room and never coming back. I have the expressions on the students faces burned into my memory, and the shame, oh the shame. 

(This wasn’t the only excruciating moment on that course; honourable mention should go to the oh so embarrassing hand out I did which I claimed was about the past tense of “have” but was, in fact, about the past perfect and my furious Wiltshire born insistence that the “r” in “car” was widely pronounced. Yes, I do know these are incredibly geeky things to be embarrassed about.) 

Since then, of course, I have been impeccable as a teacher. Mostly. Sometimes. Or at least occasionally, but always, always, the most affecting, most devastating feedback I have ever been given on a lesson is from students. This feedback, can take many forms, of course, through indirect feedback like the stony expressions as you flog the dead horse of your lesson to death. Students may simply tell you directly that said horse should have been put out of its misery a long time ago; although in my experience of such things, adult ESOL students sometimes find this hard, almost embarrassing, perhaps because they come from a culture of trust and respect for teachers. If anything, however, this makes it even worse: the very fact that for some students it is hard to give negative feedback to a teacher makes it all the more important to respond to that feedback appropriately and with respect. 

Sometimes, of course, a problem is not one of your own practice, as such, but of student belief or expectation: for example where a student thinks there are “too many games” because you use game-like information gap activities for speaking practice, or because they have unrealistic expectations about their abilities, and want to take an advanced exam by next Thursday. But whether it be the cold, stony silence of polite disengagement, or the niggling chatter of a disinterested group, or perhaps a student with an eloquent, genuine comment which is clearly rational, and based on the opinions of their classmates, you can tell if the problem is real, because, deep down, you know full well you have messed up. 

Student feedback, perhaps more than any other, triggers guilt. Guilt, as Yoda never quite said, leads to anger, and anger leads to the Dark Side. In this case, however, rather than donning a scary black mask and throttling people through the power of the force, one merely gets defensive, albeit sometimes aggressively so. It is, after all, genuinely upsetting to be told you’re not doing as good a job as you hoped. And maybe you feed on this, and you respond negatively to the students, all defensive and cagey “it was the lights/the management/the direction of the wind”. Or perhaps you internalise and dwell on it and lie there awake at 4 am wondering what you have done, and whether you are in the right job, and wouldn’t it just be better for everybody if you stopped now. 

Both of these, while human, and understandable, are also deeply unproductive. They are indeed the Dark Side of professional reflection: and as such we should all be good Jedi and move beyond them. Whether the feedback is direct, as in a student complaint, or indirect (my stony faced certificate class), then take it on board, and, crucially, change. Because that is the only thing you can do. If you don’t change then you might as well give up. Getting defensive with the students, or indeed with anyone, is pointless: listen to the complaint, notice what has gone wrong, make sure you understand it, promise to take action then, and this is the important bit, take it. 

Everyone wins. Students are happier with their course, and with you. It helps to rebuild a bit of faith and trust between you and the students, which makes teaching a whole load easier. It also helps you become a better teacher. A much better teacher because you are a better learner. You have received information (feedback), and changed your behaviour based on it. That, I reckon, is a fair definition of professional learning, and any teacher who isn’t learning is either lying or dead. Sure, students need and deserve good teaching, and you can come over all quality control assurance at me if you want, but as a teacher perfection is a rare thing, and learning is what we are all about. As teachers we learn from feedback and reflection, and students are one of the best sources of information on how well we are doing. 

So yes, make mistakes, get it wrong and listen to your class, but, as Samuel Beckett said: No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better. 

Upgrading Tasks

I do a lesson at Entry 1 and Entry 2 on transport vocabulary. I have the students work in groups and brainstorm vocabulary to do with different forms of transport. They then pass it to the next group who check the vocab and the spellings, then add their own ideas. This goes round until every group has had a look before some sort of plenary. I’ve refined the task into people/places/things of late, so that group A do people (driver, passenger, etc.) then B do places, and C do things. At lower levels I dish out picture dictionaries, and it becomes a research task, at Entry 2 it’s more of a revision/expansion task. 

However, in my head, this is very much a low level lesson, restricted to Entry 1/Entry 2 (elementary) students. So when I did it with my Level 1/Level 2 group I very much expected it to fly by, leaving half an hour for a discussion activity. Needless to say, of course, it did quite the opposite. Sure, the obvious stuff was dealt with quite swiftly (ticket, passenger, wheel, that sort of thing) but we did have a lot of interesting things, like what do we call the person who pushes the refreshments trolley down the train, and why the automated tannoy on the train will announce “we will shortly be arriving into…” rather than “we are shortly arriving…”. My answer to the latter was about clarity, and “action in progress at a specific point in future time. Mind you, for the former I was stumped: I couldn’t think of a generic job title, although I’m sure the train company have something like “refreshments operative”. I did tell the group about “trolley-dolly” mainly because it linked into a discussion we had been having about genderised job titles (“air hostess” vs “flight attendant”) and discrimination at work, but also because it’s silly sounding. 

Whatever: this was a good reminder that with this sort of open ended activity, students tend to choose what they will take from it, rather than being reliant on teacher-dictated input, and I’ve moved away from some of those lessons of late, relying more on teacher generated and controlled input. Not that there’s anything wrong with a bit of teacher control, but opening the classroom  through activities is extremely rewarding for both me and the students. 

The Casey Review & the APPG Interim Report on Social Integration

It’s like waiting for a bus – seven years with pretty much no concern for ESOL from government and their advisors, and suddenly we have two. Shortly before Christmas we had the Casey Review, which highlighted the lack of language skills and the barriers to integration this represents for individuals and communities, with the clear recommendation that government should “improv[e] English language provision through funding for community-based classes and appropriate prioritisation of adult skills budgets”. (At the same time, it suggested as well that there be some sort of “integration oath on arrival for immigrants intending to settle in Britain” which is all a bit Lord of the Rings to my mind, but there you go). Then just this week a cross-party group of MPs (an APPG: All Party Parliamentary Group) announced the imminent publication of an interim report on social integration that this time argues that speaking English is a “prerequisite for meaningful engagement with most British people” and therefore “all immigrants should be expected to have either learned English before coming to the UK or be enrolled in compulsory ESOL classes upon arrival.”

Hey ho. Here we go again. I used to be course tutor for a level 5 ESOL teacher training course, and one of the sessions I taught then was on the history of ESOL in the UK, with links to the various reports and recommendations for immigrants when it comes to learning English. So we had the follow up to the Moser Report (1999) called Breaking the Language Barriers in 2000, which observed ” Lack of fluency in English is likely to affect individuals’ ability to secure employment or advancement in the workplace, to gain benefit from further education, to access community and social services and to participate in community life”; we had the report of the team led by Ted Cantle following the race riots in Bradford & Oldham in 2001, recommending that “it will also be essential to agree some common elements of ‘nationhood’. This might revolve around key issues such as language and law.” (my italics); and we had More Than a Language published by what was then NIACE in 2006, which said “ESOL provision has a key role in promoting social inclusion.”

I’ve no doubt missed a few more, but the message for years, decades, even, has been that language is an essential aspect of social integration and should remain as such. It’s an argument which makes sense: language is integral to communication and therefore vital to enable interaction with social, political, cultural and economic systems. A part of me is a little sceptical, mind you: it seems a bit too “common sense”, stating the obvious, and very neat. Certainly language alone is not enough: as the APPG report argues, there is more to integration than simply learning English. And I have to admit to having a vested interest in any argument in favour of ESOL,  as it is what I do for a living, after all. However, I think I’d be prepared to stand by the claim that learning language aids integration, although perhaps less than commentators (and ESOL teachers) would like to think. This is just a hunch, mind you, borne out of a wariness around “common sense” ideas.

It’s not all “same old, same old” however – in the APPG report they do actually make an explicit request for funding: “The APPG would, therefore, urge the government to markedly increase ESOL funding as well as explore innovative policy ideas to increase the availability and take-up of English language classes” although this has been quickly spun in the BBC article claiming that “The government said it was spending £20m on English language provision” – this may be true, but the APPG were arguing for an increase  in this funding. And the APPG appears remarkably uncritical of the cuts to funding made over the last ten years or so. I’m wary of “innovative policy ideas” as in my experience “innovation” is usually a guarded synonym for “cut costs” or at least “do on the cheap” which, in this case, is likely to lead to yet another call for volunteers.

The biggest problem with both the Casey Review and the APPG report is that ultimately they are just reports. Nothing in them is guaranteed to become law, nor even be debated in parliament. Anyone remember “A New Approach to ESOL”, a civil service report from 2007? Admittedly that suffered from being written under one government then rejected under the next, but it’s pretty typical that reports like these get read, if they are lucky, and ignored. They are thousands of words and hundreds of civil service man hours which the government is free to ignore. “We’ve reviewed it,” they can say, “and maybe we might think about acting on them in a couple of years.” That doesn’t mean that they won’t do anything, of course, and it is good that work is being done at government level to support the needs of immigrant communities and their language learning. But still, whether anything comes if this remains to be seen.

 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.