Qualifexaminations

A couple of weeks ago one of my Level 1 students explained to me that “I don’t really mind about qualifications, I just want to learn some more English.” Now, I know you may be thinking you’re reading something written on GeoCities back in 2004, but I promise you, this was a genuine statement: the first time I’ve heard that sentiment openly expressed in literally years. Because dress it up how you want with talk of progression and achievement (themselves usually euphemisms for “getting a qualification”) or whatever, but qualifications have become more and more important in ESOL since the first ESOL-specific qualifications back in 2004, to the point where it is almost impossible to talk ESOL without mentioning exams.

This can be a bit of a problem.

For one, the exams themselves have an effect on course content. In my own experience of ESOL this tends not so much to be around content (although I’m not sure I’d spend more than half a lesson on type or purpose of text if it wasn’t included so much in the exams) but more around the kinds of tasks students are expected to do in the exams, many of which are necessarily unrealistic and unnatural. I say necessarily because it’s very hard to test, for example, discrete grammar items in a “natural” way, but a speaking or writing task may not demonstrate that a student has learned specific structures. The flip side of this, however, is the consideration of  which language items to test: sometimes it’s hard to see the logic behind which phrasal verbs or adverbs are chosen to test, although I hope (perhaps optimisitically) that they are based on a specific list of high frequency language. Even setting this to one side, the selection of specific items in this way has the knock on effect of elevating such items to an arguably far higher importance than they deserve. Exams are also fake in the sense that the contexts are often neutral and contrived, and may or may not give students opportunity to engage with subjects which are within their field of interest or experiences. But these are criticisms that can be levelled at all English language exams, and some exams are worse than others, and there is not room or time to go much further into it here. Testing language is hard hard work, and two, at least, of the more well known ESOL exam boards have a long history of delivering language testing and of researching it, which should at least inspire some faith in the processes.

A more contentious issue, for ESOL in the UK at least, is that qualifications have become the focus, not the learning; students lose their sense of need for language and how it can and does improve their lives in and of itself, and instead focus on achieving the qualification, and of marking off a level. They may not even want to learn English, per se, but rather they want a qualification in English. It’s a subtle distinction, perhaps, but it means that students (and teachers, institutions and policies) feed into a system which runs the risk of becoming more exam factory than learning experience. Perhaps a better image would be the souk or the trading halls of the stock market. After all, qualifications have a value,  means that achieving a level can be seen as something to be bartered for, or negotiated. This then creates a tension where it is only the narrow-minded teachers who are cruelly holding the student back, rather than being seen as professionals making accurate judgements on ability. It is hard, very hard, for students to accurately self assess their overall language performance and ability. It’s damn hard for them to do this even for single language items, which is one of the reasons that target setting in ESOL is so unrealistic. Students can only really relate their own learning to the feedback given to them by teachers, and if that feedback says “you have passed Entry 3 in all modes” then, understandably they assume that they are now fully working at that level.

SO often, of course, no matter the quality of the test design and the rigorousness of the marking process, students are not yet working at that level, not really. Yet if students have achieved said qualification, then they might quite reasonably assume that they now no longer need to work on language at that level. As one might expect this can lead to all sorts of tensions between student and teacher. At best, it might only be “I no need study present simple negative” or “I study present perfect many times.” More damagingly, it might lead to frustration, particularly as students might whizz through a couple of Entry Level courses only to find themselves crawling slowly across the intermediate plateau at Level 1, and the frustration leads to conflict between student and teacher, who is usually the person tasked with funnelling this horrible mess down to the students.

The causes for this push towards qualifications lie not only with students but also at a policy, institutional and teacher level. The post-16 sector is often driven by students achieving qualifications, especially in a vocational setting where a qualification can lead directly to employment. The linking of ESOL to this system means that qualification achievement contributes to measures of success of a department or institution and the subsequent assessment of its effectiveness. The same data is used as an assessment of the effectiveness of the teachers as well. How many exams have your students passed? What are your personal success rates? Why have only X% of your students have achieved this year, compared to the national benchmark of Y%? Well done, your class has achieved above the benchmark! This focus on exam passes does affect how teachers respond to exams and achievement, and it would be hopelessly naive to suggest otherwise: at best we simply want our students to do their very best, and succeed, at worst we game the system of input and practice to make sure we look good, or coldly quantify student achievement in terms of how much money they bring in.

However, and that’s one big contrastive adverb,  to resist this, reminiscing about some golden age of ESOL, is even more naïve. The context of ESOL has changed, socially and politically, and the drive for achievement through qualification has been integral to ensuring that ESOL fits into this, integral, perhaps, to the survival of the subject which would have drifted into ignominious obscurity without being able to show quickly and easily the impact on students’ lives.

The impact on students is not necessarily bad, either. After all, esol qualifications do, after many years of being seen as second rate exams, have some currency, particularly as they can springboard into Functional Skills and into GCSE. This does depend, of course, on whether you are lucky enough, like me, to have GCSE tutors and managers who can see that former ESOL students are likely to be a genuine assets. Gaining these qualifications means a wider recognition in terms that everyone understands: with an ESOL qualification, employers and course tutors can quietly exclude ESOL learners by arguing that their qualifications are not enough: even a field as broad and catholic as FE  contains racists, although perhaps of the small c conservative, “I’m not racist, but…” variety. There is no distinction between a Functional Skills Level 1 and an ESOL Level 1, or at least there shouldn’t be, and yet this is still a bone of contention.

And gaining a qualification can be motivating. It is, I would be the first to admit, a long and hard struggle it is from Entry level 1 to a GCSE English, and how few students want or need to go this kind of distance, or indeed have the personal, financial or mental resources to do so. A qualification is recognition of achievement: “it’s not just me, look, I have a certificate that proves it”. A qualification marks more than just a waypoint on a longer journey but is an achievement in itself, especially in a context where individuals may not have had the opportunity to gain any kind of qualification before, or even to have experienced formal education. Sure, in the grand scheme of things, an ESOL Entry 1 qualification in speaking and listening is perhaps not the grandest of qualifications, but for some students that may be the result of hard graft against a backdrop of poverty, prejudice and political chaos.

Gaining a qualification is a genuine achievement. It is a result of learning and work, and as long as it remains the result, not just the purpose of learning, then it is something to be celebrated not only by students but by everyone.

Advertisements

Adults

Thercycle-sticker1e are, in this world, many things which annoy me. Things that irk me. Things that get my goat, wind me up, rattle my cage and downright piss me off. Things like muttonheads in cars speeding and/or playing crap music loudly (on no level cool); things like people who just have  to check Whatsapp in the middle of a film; things like driving 4x4s in an urban setting; things like the stupid excuses people have for driving a 4×4 in an urban setting; things like the phrase “I’m not a racist but…”; things like close passes and left hooks; or things like the “Cyclists Stay back” sticker (and not just because of the random approach to capital letters).

However, this is not just me letting off steam about the things that annoy me, although I could really go on about these for some (probably quite cathartic and therapeutic time). Even if I just focussed on professional level things, it would be a long and depressing list, headed up by the disastrous acronym SMART, but really, what is particularly niggling me today is the question of adults. You see, I teach mostly adults, and I love teaching adults. This is not just because I am categorically useless at authority and dread the prospect of serious behaviour management. Well, a little bit. But really, I love teaching adults because adults are so much more interesting and curious than young people. With the obvious exception of my own children, I have only limited patience for other people’s: they are OK, in small doses, when considered individually, and if they have had a shower. But adults returning to, or engaging with education, whether it’s for the first time, or because it’s a second chance, are without doubt some of the most interesting people I have met, so often with worlds of experience far beyond my own.

This is why, then, I get really narked when the discourse around FE completely ignores this huge chunk of the FE learning population, often by those who know better. Sure, it’s a lot less sexy than it was a few years ago, and as the adult skills budget gets more and more squeezed, it’s less attractive a consideration than the more financially dynamic cohort of 16-19 year olds and apprentices. And this group also forms the majority group in any FE college, which again is fair enough. But lets not forget, shall we, that an FE college has a responsibility to its community through its adults as well. 

Adults are important; not just the ones that I teach in my adult esol classroom but also the adults that I watched last week sweat through their GCSE English exam, or the ones who sign up to basic literacy and numeracy, or the ones who pay for evening classes in flower arranging, or the ones who pay for themselves to achieve a vocational qualification, or do an Access course to get to university. They are important because they are important learners themselves, even if they are a minority, and because they will have children, nieces, nephews, siblings, friends or neighbours, and maybe these younger people have become a bit lost, and who might see Dad, or grandma, or uncle, or big sister having a go at learning something, maybe just for the sake of it, or maybe to get their lives back on track and into focus, picking up on opportunities that they missed, or even actively avoided as teenagers. 

The austerity mentality has sunk in deeply now. There’s not enough money to go round, apparently, even if we can afford to spunk off millions on a vain political gamble of an election, or on negotiations for an EU agreement which will probably end up being not that different to what full membership offers, or on dropping bombs on people. And maybe the cost of these things is cumulatively a lot less than the adult skills budget, but the gap is narrowing: the adult skills budget is now about half of what it was in 2010. I’d be interested to know if the country now has half as much money for everything, or if it is simply prejudice and discrimination against adult learning at the highest level in government and the recently merged Education and Skills Funding Agency? Certainly adult learning is way off the list of priorities at that level, but it’s profoundly disappointing (and that is something of a euphemism) that it so easily gets disregarded. It is perhaps indicative that much of the discourse in FE is run and managed by those who are no longer in real contact with students, if they ever were. 

Envy

I envy my colleagues who teach vocational and academic subjects, sometimes, I really do. I envy the way FE standards and processes are based around the way those courses are run (oh to be a dominant majority) and the fact that their subjects are widely recognised and valued across most of society. Particularly, however, I envy the way they get to plan a whole year of course content in advance, and then use it again the following year with another group of broadly similar students. And then, probably, use it again the year after that. Even if the content changes, as well it might, or the subject needs a little updating, there is likely to be a whole load of content which can be recycled before being reused once again. They are, essentially, jammy bastards. 

Because this kind of forward planning is simply not a possibility in ESOL, not really. Sure there might be elements of content which can be recycled and rehashed in a different order, but there are also significant chunks of single use lessons which may never see the light of day again. Topical lessons, for example: I have a brilliant brilliant set of resources I designed for a level 1/2 class on Brexit, which are now entirely useless, and some election resources from the 2015 election which I couldn’t re-use because the gao between elections was so stupidly short I was still teaching a number of the same students. But then there is the rolling nature of an esol class, presenting diverse, spiky profiles and being, by and large, a different ball game every time. Even two classes at the same level in the same year may well diverge, meaning that any promise of reduced workload across the course quickly disappears. And students stay on as well, sometimes taking more than a year to progress a level. This is particularly applicable at the upper end of the esol scale, where students could easily take two years to complete all the qualifications in a given level, due at least in part to the intermediate plateau. And for a teacher this means that one resource or lesson idea may have to wait a full two years before being reusable. Sure students may not remember, but they often do, and anyway, a little professional pride..?

One of the effects of this is a kind of creative weariness. How many ways can you teach articles, for example, or conditionals, or even present simple? We all of us have a preferred lesson or lessons, a bunch of ideas which we go back to time and time again, but even when I have new students in a new class, I sometimes find it hard simply to grab something off the shelf, even if it is my own privately built and assembled shelf. I freely admit that this is self imposed: I know plenty of teachers who will happily grab something off the shelf, and absolutely why not? But then part of the pleasure I get from teaching is the thinking up of ways to do things, even, perversely, enjoying the frustrating challenge of finding a resource that doesn’t quite fit the lesson you had in mind. I have known many teachers who have taught the same level for years, and somehow find this relaxing. 

Planning for ESOL is, arguably, a more complex planning process than teaching a fixed vocational qualification. Planning is a continuous, evolving and mobile process considering both content and method, not the fixed delivery of particular content that must be covered for the unit specifications to be met. The payoff for this is the lack of marking and formal assessment: as a wise colleague of mine once observed, ESOL courses are front loaded: all the effort each year goes into the course planning and development, rather than into the summative assessment. In comparison to many vocational and academic subjects, summative assessment is almost negligible. As a result, while my colleagues in vocational areas are madly gearing students up for their final bits of coursework, final exams, not to mention marking huge heaps of coursework, and so on, I’ve had to mark a single exam for each of my students, stick them into coloured folders (even if this does involve the mind-crushing task of writing the same piece of information on three pieces of paper in the same folder), and hand them over. In fact, I’m almost finished. There are two weeks left to go, I have a couple of bits of exam for students to resit and that’s about it. 

It’s a nice enough payoff, but it does still mean that teaching the same level year on year can be somewhat draining, and one gets curious to experiment at other levels. There’s also a danger of becoming lazy and complacent: oh I’ll just use that lesson on that thing that I’ve taught every year since the year dot. Sure it may be a cracking lesson but, and this probably says more about me than about anything else, could there be an even better one out there? And this is the challenge: as a teacher you can get stuck between complacency and a need for change, which doesn’t really bode well for anyone. 

Off

It is the day before I go back to work for the new academic year. It’s always a mental and physical challenge to re-persuade yourself to get up and start being a “worker” again, no matter how much you enjoy your work, because, well, you are no longer off. And I really have been off, as well.

This notion of being off is an absolute one: I’m not sure I can pinpoint when it happened, but at some point in the last few years I made an integral change to the whole notion of work-life balance, and to being off. Obviously when I am at work, work is the big thing, and certainly I’ve not become less interested in or passionate about the job, but rather, at some point, I just reached a point where it became clear that if I’m not supposed to be working, them I’m not working.

Being a parent is probably the single biggest reason for this change. I am, joyfully, wonderfully, parent to two primary age children, and as a result when I get home from work, there simply isn’t time to set aside for a bit of marking or planning. My children are sociable, and generally enjoy talking and spending time with their parents, so I have every intention of enjoying that in case (or before) they become teenagers I barely see. I like being involved in their lives, and quite frankly when it comes to balancing up family and the job, well, the job can do one. There might be some time later for planning and whatnot, but once I’ve finished I find it extremely hard to get back into the swing of things. I’ve tried, and I usually end up raging with frustration at my brain not working, when I’d be much better off going to bed and having a go first thing. I’m a (very early) morning person these days, anyway, and can get more planning and whatnot done in a coffee-fuelled morning flurry than I can in two hours of staring at a computer screen at 8 in the evening. Ditto marking, although being an ESOL teacher does mean that marking (if you’re smart) is nowhere near the silly volumes of, say, a secondary school teacher.

It’s a mind shift, I think. When you do a job which as demanding of your attention and time as much as teaching, it can become consuming. You wake up at 5am and send an email about that thing that’s been plaguing you all night, or while away an hour or so making awesome resources for a lesson, but the job eats at you.It’s easy to let this happen, particularly as lots of the things which are meant to make life easier while at work continue that insidious creep home. It’s not just taking marking home with you: although again, as an ESOL teacher, this is less of an issue (and as a cycle commuter, it’s nigh on impossible without either ravaging the work or breaking your back). It’s things like having email on your phone, for example, using cloud services to access schemes of work and lesson plans remotely (isn’t that great, part-time hourly paid teachers: now, through the power of Technology, you can be exploited at home too!). These things bring work more and more into your home life, making it all the more important to say “no”.

Another aspect of it has been a shift for me at least which distinguishes not only between the personal and the professional, but which divides the professional into the job and the work. Sure, I’m committed to my employer: after all, they pay me to do my job (although I rarely engage with any sort of corporate woohooing and flag waving, I’m afraid, as I do have a little personal decorum) but outside of the paid time I still blog, tweet, go to conferences, deliver workshops and so on. Mentally this exists in a separate category from the paid job that uses up most of my waking day. This “work” also exists independently of my employer in the sense that I would be willing to do the work of ESOL teaching for any employer. Again, this isn’t a dig at my employer, nor a criticism of how I am treated (which is very well, since you ask): perhaps a clearer distinction is between myself as an employee, and myself as a professional. The two overlap, indeed, they must, but in terms of time, there are aspects of the latter which exist independently of the former. I tend not to acknowledge my employer when writing, have consciously tried to distance myself from both my employer and colleagues on publicly accessible aspects of social media – although it’s almost impossible to do so completely. It’s one of the reasons I gave up on LinkedIn.

This summer, like so many in the last few years, I planned to read a couple of improving books, and perhaps an article or two; and this summer, like so many others, I almost completely failed to do it. I managed about a third of one work-related text, but otherwise my summer reading has consisted of re-reading a bunch of old favourites (Dune, The Bone People, the Long Earth novels, The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay, this last I strongly urge you to read) and watching movies and TV shows (including my first full box set binge-watching session of the Defenders).  And what of it? I find it hard to read work stuff anyway unless I can link it to actual teaching, or actual work, and when, like now, I have no students and no real idea of who my new students will be and what I will teach with them, then I simply find it hard to engage.

I used to care if I “wasted” time like this, and perhaps on some level I still feel I should, (because otherwise why write a long blog post about it?) but generally I will go back to work tomorrow quite pleased with myself at switching off. I’ll also go back to work feeling a darn sight better about it than I did in, say, June. Refreshing yourself over the holidays may be, in part, about taking on new ideas from reading or whatever, but it’s more about resetting your brain. Teaching is a creative, generative job, which is as much about thinking of your own ideas as it is about copying those of others, and, for me at least, switching that side off for a bit makes it far easier to do it again later.

Anyway, it’s sunny outside, and I have some difficult conversations and challenging stuff to do from pretty much the moment I walk in the door tomorrow, so if you want me I’m either mowing the lawn, giving my bike a once over, or fitting shelves. Later I may be watching a film, or perhaps just reading a bit of trashy SF. Whatever, for a little bit longer, I am still off.

News

“I don’t like the news. It is always bad” Entry 1 ESOL learner

The news is a wonderful resource for the ESOL classroom – newspaper and magazine websites, the BBC, blogs and so on can all be joyfully and usefully exploited by teachers for a whole range of purposes. Recently, for example, the UK has introduced a new £1 coin and a £5 note, both stories which lent themselves well to an ESOL reading and listening lesson, as well as being useful generally. Then there are articles make good use of specific language items which can be exploited, using the news element to promote interest in the text and therefore the language.

But not all news is good news.

Sometimes there are articles of news which are relevant to the students, that they may benefit from knowing about – cuts to funding in the public sector, for example, changes to health or education systems, or local issues like hospital closures, all of which link to the students lives, and those of their families. Again, handled sensitively, these things can be genuinely useful from both a personal/social perspective as well as from a linguistic one.

But more often, however, the news is not something you would voluntarily bring into the classroom. Into this category I would firmly classify the bombing in Manchester on Monday evening.

With none of my classes did I plan to bring these events into the classroom, nor would I. The sense of sorrow and outrage is not something which lends itself to a classroom in any context, and as such I would never knowingly force students to comment or discuss it. Everyone has their own reactions to such news, and for some the news is too close to their own experiences in Syria, in Iraq, and elsewhere – it’s not my place to pick at wounds that are, I hope, slowly healing.

That’s not to say that the subject is banned, nor that it is limited to higher level students: indeed, with my Level 1 class, who are linguistically more likely to be aware of what has happened through the media, the word Manchester was mentioned once and that by me. Instead, it was with my Entry 1 group earlier in the day, when I sat down with a small group of 3 students to discuss something else at the end of the lesson, and instead we ended up talking about what had happened, and the students’ reactions. There was no structure, no analysis, no language outcome, just four people talking about something terrible that had happened less than 30 miles away.

What is important with this, and indeed with any selection of current affairs stories, is that it does not revolve around the teacher choosing what the students should feel outraged about, nor some kind of “sharing” of a difficult or challenging subject, with teachers as some kind of therapist. That is not who we are, nor who we should be. Neither can we always be “just English teachers” – the language we are teaching to students is also one of their keys to the wider world, however dark and unpleasant it can be, and the consequences of that wider world will inevitably filter back to the classroom. When it does come back to the classroom, then we should make space for it, be aware of it, welcome it, even. A classroom is a sanctuary, sometimes, and as such should be a safe place for students whose lives and experiences may be as terrible as those affected by what happened in Manchester. However, as in any kind of sanctuary, the purpose is not to exclude the world, or deny it, but rather to come to terms with it, and make peace.

***

There is a more practical, and very effective, description of a class doing just this in London with the amazing people at English For Action: https://efalondon.wordpress.com/2017/05/23/in-solidarity-with-manchester/ 

 

 

Forgetting pronunciation.

There is rarely a passionate debate about pronunciation. I mean, the whole explicit/implicit grammar teaching gets all ESOL and EFL teachers into a bit of a tizzy, and nobody every sidelines vocabulary teaching, but rarely do we, particularly in an ESOL uk setting, dare to venture into it. to be fair, it cold be just me, and perhaps lots of people in FE colleges and charities up and down the country are openly and explicitly teaching pron all the time, but my feeling is not. Certainly my own reflections are that I don’t, and I do wonder why. Here are my reasons/excuses

It’s embedded.

This is true, to an extent, particularly at a word level. We drill words for pron, for example, or at least I do, and to a lesser extent with grammar, but it’s there. But there are some aspects which sit outside the embeddable, like intonation, sentence stress as a general principle, that sort of thing, or at least which are too easily neglected when covering, for example, question forms. Indeed, this excuse too easily leads to glossing over pronunciation, and not really getting into it.

It’s not in the curriculum.

Ok, this is a bit of a straw man, but it’s a point: the esol core curriculum was always wary of breaking language down into its traditional component parts, preferring the glossing of the literacy curriculum, which had little need to consider fundamental issues of tense and word order at both sentence and phrase level, nor the subtleties of modal verbs and future forms, let alone things like “words” and “how to say them”. This mandated, or perhaps was a result of, a historical reluctance amongst a certain type of ESOL teacher that systemic elements like grammar and pronunciation shouldn’t be explicitly taught, lest the poor students start to worry about it. (For the record, they should worry about grammar and pronunciation, and they do, regardless of how much you try to wrap them up in your nice woolly cardigan). 

It’s got the phonemic chart. 
There is a kernel of truth to this: too often in an ESOL setting, learners have an issue with basic literacy, which the addition of what is effectively 44 new letters would only serve to exacerbate. But once there’s a grasp of the basic letters and their sound meanings, I’ve been known to chuck in a schwa at Entry 1, use the symbols for sh and th and break down x into /k/ and /s/. But then the other day I showed the phonemic chart to my level 1s and frankly blew their minds. (20 vowels? But we’ve learned the literacy way and there are only 5??????? Argh!) but this wasn’t necessarily a bad thing: the phonemic script is an excellent teaching tool to guide pronunciation, and is used almost universally in dictionaries for learners, including those marketed directly at beginners and ESOL students. I chose to move quickly past it, which I regret now, because I had the feeling of unearthing something new and different for the group, and which would potentially be a big help.

But which pronunciation to use?

Yes, sorry another rhetorically applied straw man. I have an accent with origins in Swindon and later the further reaches of the Thames and Cherwell valleys, but now live amongst the formerly dark satanic mills of Yorkshire. So this creates much amusement: according to most of my students I speak “properly” although to colleagues and in-laws it’s either “posh” or (more often) “stop muttering”. But which is reet / right / roight? I can’t make a judgement call, and can only best guess with my own usual accent, which is sort of RP-ish. But how do I deal with arguments about “bus/boos” etc.? Worse, am I doing a disservice to my students if I teach them a southern “bus” over a northern one? After all they have to go and live and work in that speech community. However, this is just fluff. Because in reality most ESOL students have enough problems with fairly universal pronunciations and being generally understood, so worrying about the “right” pronunciation is pretty pointless. Mind you, it still doesn’t stop me gritting my teeth at the very London-centric accents of many (most) widely produced ESOL materials, including the exam recordings. 

***

There are other reasons that it gets avoided too: teachers, usually. Teachers are too often literacy focussed at the expense of speaking, and of pronunciation. Some of the blame for that lies at the double doors of accountability: the target and the learning outcome. It’s easy to produce externally accountable evidence of learning in the form of a written text, but much harder when it comes to pronunciation and speaking. Given that general faith in these accountability measures is (rightly) limited, it’s no surprise that for many teachers choose the path of least resistance. That’s not all, however. I think teachers  can be nervous of explicitly teaching pronunciation, even only as part of a lesson, and will avoid it as a result. The  metalanguage of grammar is widely understood and applied, the metalanguage of phonology less so. (This also applies, I think, for vocabulary: apart from phrasal verbs, for example, the notion of collocation is rarely noted on schemes of work that I’ve seen, and connotation was a complete shock for one level 1 group I once taught.). Part of this falls at the door of trainers and training courses, but also at the materials and resources available to teachers, and, as mentioned above the core curriculum. Exam boards are complicit in this as well, with a punitive and arguably unnecessary focus on dross like purpose of text which I teach solely because it comes up in exams, despite grave reservations over its general usefulness. 

It is this skills driven element, that causes the problem, and in many ways the lack of focus on pronunciation is a symptom of a downplaying in ESOL of structural elements of language in favour of the global skills. Everything is driven around the skills, both the qualifications and the curriculum, with systems being bolted onto the side, rather than recognised for the integral part they play. 

“Another piece of paper?”

At the later end of last week, the unthinkable happened. At the end of a level lesson this week, I was beginning to gather together my spare copies of the various handouts from the lesson, as there is a fairly quick turnaround to the next class, and one of the students said: “is that another worksheet?” I had to smile, but for those of you who know me will realise that underneath I was aghast. My goodness, I thought, even the students have noticed that there have been a lot of handouts this lesson. Truth be told: there were a lot of handouts: more than I usually use, but it’s hard to cover something like a range of text types with a large group of students without killing some significant volumes of tree. There will be some tech bore thinking I could have scanned it all and had students look at it on their phones, but really, I can’t be bothered to explain how barriers to doing things this way would render any benefit negligible. 

The lesson needed a lot of handouts, and despite beliefs to the contrary, regular readers will recognise that I’m not opposed to using handouts per se, but to using handouts when you don’t need them, or indeed using any resource that you don’t need.

Earlier in the week, I’d taught two contrasting lessons. The first was a two hour lesson on adjectives and comparatives, with some speaking and writing, based on a single handout of images and an interactive whiteboard which allowed me to show said images on  a large screen and write on them. The following lesson was listening,  drawn more or less verbatim from the splendid ESOL Nexus site. This lesson depended very much on most students having 2-3 sheets of paper, plus another one between two. The lesson worked based on the printouts and while I did slim it down a bit, the resources were the source text for many of the activities, and therefore needed to be there.

All three lessons worked out well. Personally, I liked the one-handout lesson more, because the lesson provided a reassuring element of structure (generate adjectives – elicit/present form – check understanding of form – provide practice of the form) but at the same time left lots of room for student personalisation – the adjectives were student driven, and the open nature of the later practice meant that I could slip in a little bit of extra stretch in terms of language complexity (how to say when things are the same – as ….. as, and not the same not as ….. as). But this is just me, nothing else. The lessons generated similar amounts of language and skills development, and neither was better innately because of the presence or absence of resources, but were better or worse because of the lesson structure and design.

Resource selection, design and development take up huge amounts of time, for all teachers. Technology is sometimes a help (my page of house photos, for example, would have taken several hours or even weeks of collecting photographs, or the text types, in an actrivity downloaded from the internet, meaning I didn’t have to source and design an appropriate text. Indeed, this ease of access to, and ability to create resources is probably the single biggest benefit of technology in education, at least in terms of the actual job of making people learn.

But the best resources in the world are useless without a decent lesson. You can toss off hours designing or finding resources, be they paper or digital, but if the lesson doesn’t work then you might as well have spent the time on Facebook. Whether resources work or fail is too easily the fault of the teacher using them badly, not the materials themselves. There’s no “right” quantity of materials: the learning in the lesson is what counts and the resources you make or choose must benefit that.