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Revising ESOL: Teachers’ Perspectives

04 October on Revising ESOL   Tags: , , ,

Teachers are the other side of ESOL provision. Not only do they deal directly with the core issues of ESOL provision, but they are also the ones who struggle every day to improve it. I have interviewed three different teachers who are currently teaching ESOL in courses organised by NGOs and each had considerable experience in ESOL.

The Challenges Facing Teachers

All the teachers I have interviewed told me that teaching to adults is a rewarding job because adults “know they need English” and then “they are seriously committed in their studies”. This motivation facilitates the teaching process but they are fighting against a set of difficulties teachers encounter in teaching ESOL to adults.

The main obstacles identified by my interviewees are:

Different levels of English

Low degree of literacy and formal education

“We are working with people who may not had an education, it’s difficult.[…]I am spending hours trying to teach someone how to write their name and they still don’t grasp it."

Lower mental flexibility in adults

"For a mature person, it is more difficult to learn.”

Erratic attendance

Some students come only occasionally or for classes and then they disappear. This makes lesson planning hard for teachers.

Emotional issues related to their migration experience

There are “taboo topics” that cannot be mentioned because they trigger negative memories in people. The topics enumerated by my interviewees are: sexuality, religion, celebrations, holidays, the asylum process, politics, gender issues. Because of these “taboo topics” a teachers’ work is quite limited. “So what do you talk about?” wonders one of the teachers.

Cultural issues

The high degree of cultural difference in the class sometimes creates situations that can be tricky to manage for the teachers:

“We have every nationality in here, their countries have a long history with each other, sometimes there is bias. It is very important for them. […] Last week we had an Iranian person and a Kurdish person and we had some tense moments.”

Gender issues

Gender issues are highly sensitive topics that can provoke embarrassment in the classroom. Teachers told that it happens that male adults feel uncomfortable with some women’s way of dressing or that women are embarrassed about doing activities with men.

Mental Health

The psychological condition of the students affects fundamental aspects of the work done in the class, like the concentration of students.

Read teachers' words

"They have family commitments. If it is an evening class people might work during the day. They are maybe worried about how to pay the mortgage, they are worried because they have to move accommodation. Adults would have possibly more things to think about that a child doesn't have.”

Teachers’ Strategies

Apart from students’ personal initiative, another fundamental help to the success of ESOL are the innovative methods conceived by teachers. To overcome the problems teachers face, many become amazingly creative and invent all sorts of strategies:

Overcome the difference of levels
“Sometimes if I have a class with many able students, I put them in a group by themselves for some activities. I never keep them always mixed. Because I have to make sure everyone is happy.”

Listen to a teacher's method to manage different levels in the class:

Overcome erratic attendance

Listen to a teacher talking about how she manages students' erratic attendance:

Overcome cultural issues
"To get around that I give them the information first… I realized that as long as you explain to people, they tend to accept, it’s when they do not have a clue that it’s a problem.”

Overcome gender issues
"Because I am aware of cultural differences I make sure I work comfortably with them… If I know they haven’t been here long enough I don’t push them to adjust directly, I’ll adjust with them for a while.”

Dealing with taboo topics

Listen to a teacher explaining what her approach to taboo topics is:

Overcome the lack of study material

Many teachers do photocopies at their own expenses and become creative.
“There are some quite interesting materials, the difficulty is that… you need material which is clear but which is not written for children… I adapt them, I make them appropriate.”

At the same time they try to use materials that their students have access to, even the most down-to-earth one:
“I haven’t used internet much… I think students often do not have access to it. Working with materials to which they do have access, like free newspapers, Metro or the Evening Standard, it can be extremely useful.”

Dealing with students' mental health
Teachers respect their silence: “If I see on their face that they have a problem I just leave them alone. I try bringing them in a little bit.”
They try to make the class enjoyable, as a teacher explains:

They are flexible and let the students inspire the lessons with their questions and doubts: “I don’t stick to a lesson plan. I use it as a guide. If someone brings some topic in I would definitely cover that because it is something they want to know.”

In this way students' knowledge increases along with their self-confidence:

Listen to a teacher talking about the results she sees in her class:

The secrets to be a good ESOL teacher:

1) creativity

2) flexibility

3) knowledge of students’ backgrounds and of the differences among them

4) sense of responsibility

5) passion

The last two points are what makes ESOL teachers unique. All the teachers I interviewed are volunteers and are teaching ESOL for free. First, because they enjoy it: ESOL is in fact a nice way to interact with mature students and learn about different cultures. Second, they do it because they consider it a chance to help people and society a whole.

Listen to two teachers talking about their passion and motivations for teaching ESOL:


Anna is a post-graduate student from Italy. She is currently pursuing a MSc in Global Migration at the University College of London. Her research interests are migrants' socio-economic integration and Italian contemporary dynamics of immigration and emigration.

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