by Jess Elmore
The start of a new academic year seems a good time to reflect on our recent project ‘New to ESOL’ and the resources we developed. I was really happy to be involved with this project and its focus on developing much needed resources to support ESOL managers, practitioners, volunteers and their colleagues who work with ‘pre-Entry’ ESOL learners.
My colleague Alex wrote in January about the highly specialised skills needed to teach learners who are new to ESOL and new to literacy (our preferred term for pre-Entry). His message about the challenges of teaching learners new to ESOL came across loud and clear from the teachers involved in our research. I was impressed by the wealth of skills and experience they brought to their work and by how keen they were for further development opportunities. This was demonstrated by their eagerness to participate in our research; we had a high number of survey responses, excellent attendance at our focus groups and an overwhelming response from teachers wanting to attend our two dissemination days.
The most memorable part of the project, as it is with any ESOL project, was the opportunity to speak to learners. This is particularly the case when I can work with interpreters and talk to learners who are otherwise excluded by my monolingualism. These interviews brought home to me just how hard it is to be a new-to-ESOL learner as well as a new-to-ESOL teacher. From the interviews, we wrote learner profiles as part of a screening tool for use by non specialists. The profiles will come as no surprise to ESOL teachers but I hope they can inform a wider audience of the diversity of new-to-ESOL learners and the complexity of their needs.
Two learners stood out for me: Abdul* a young refugee from Sudan, and Asma*, a woman in her fifties from Pakistan. Abdul had taught himself how to speak English by watching videos and talking to friends but having only been to school for two years found learning to read and write very difficult. Asma hadn’t been allowed to go to school as a child, but she was determined to learn English now her own children had grown up and was passionate about the right of girls to have an education.
Both these learners had clear ambitions. Asma wanted to work as a carer while Abdul wanted to study mechanical engineering at university. However, the barriers they faced were considerable and both shared their frustrations with us about their slow progress as well as the pleasures of learning and their appreciation of their teachers.
After these interviews I too felt frustrated. Their drive and determination and the skills of their teachers did not seem enough for them to be successful. They needed a comprehensive package of support from not only their ESOL teachers but from a wider range services such as health, housing and employment.
Our new teaching and learning materials will help teachers improve the support they offer new to ESOL learners. The screening tool and learner profiles could also help to raise understanding of new-to-ESOL learners in wider support services. But more than that, I hope the context of this project; coming out of the Integrated Communities Action Plan and delivered at the same time as consultation on a national strategy for the English language in England is an indication that further support to help learners like Asma and Abdul achieve their ambitions is on its way.