Supporting English language learners – the role of informal learning

By Alex Stevenson


01 07 2020


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There is a real risk that coronavirus highlights inequalities of language, in the same way that health inequalities have been thrown into sharp relief.  Poor English language skills can affect people’s ability to understand public health messages, and access help when needed. The unemployment crisis is likely to have disproportionate impact on those without good essential skills, including English languageas well as basic literacy, numeracy and digital skills.  ESOL providers are currently making great efforts to offer learning online, and supporting those who are digitally excluded – but online or in the classroom, access to high-quality English language learning remains essential.

Around 850,000 people in England report not speaking English well or at all.  Formal English for Speakers of Other Languages (ESOL) provision, via the Adult Education Budget (AEB), helps around 100,000 learners per year.  But as most learners need more than a one-year course to develop their skills, learners often re-enrol each year as they progress – so it’s likely that the available provision is barely scratching the surface of demand.

L&W’s research suggests that informal and non-formal provision for English language learners can play a valuable role alongside formal AEB ESOL, as part of a wider ‘ecosystem’ of English language learning opportunities.  Even significant additional investment in AEB ESOL – which is certainly needed – wouldn’t guarantee that demand would be satisfied.  That’s simply because formal ESOL can’t always meet the needs of everyone who wishes to improve their English.

For instance, some learners may benefit from building confidence in a local, relaxed setting before taking a formal course.  Learners who are working irregular shifts, or are unable to demonstrate eligibility for certain kinds of funded provision, may also need to access different kinds of opportunities. And the greater flexibility of informal learning, freed from the requirements of formal qualifications, allows it to be led by what’s relevant and interesting to the participants. This can help to engage different kinds of learners.  Heart and Parcel, for example, brings together women from different communities through opportunities to share cooking skills and practise speaking English.

This doesn’t mean that informal, volunteer-led provision can or should replace AEB ESOL: a strong, high-quality and well-resourced formal ESOL offer is a vital and central part of the English language ‘ecosystem’.  L&W’s research on local ESOL partnerships found there are benefits when providers of different kinds of ESOL learning co-ordinate their offers.  Effective local partnerships – whether innovative ESOL ‘hubs’ now seen in Yorkshire or Manchester, or simple, regular network meetings of providers – help ensure that the diverse needs of learners in local communities are effectively met. Partnerships create progression routes between different institutions and organisations, and support sharing of practice between providers and practitioners.

The Government’s Integrated Communities Action Plan commits to working with the sector to identify how the needs of learners and volunteers in community-based conversation clubs can best be met.  This reflects the contribution made by boosting informal English language provision, for example through the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government (MHCLG) Integrated Communities English Language programme.  But it also reflects concern that informal provision may be of inconsistent quality, and that volunteers deployed to support English language conversation practice need appropriate support and training to carry out their role effectively.

Commissioned by MHCLG, L&W worked with our partners Learning Unlimited to develop Volunteers, English language learners and conversation clubs –  new resources to support organisations and volunteers to deliver high quality, informal conversation-led opportunities to practise English. The conversation club resources weren’t designed for online learning, but with some clubs now taking place online we hope they are useful there too.  We also hope they help support informal provision as it returns post-lockdown, as part of enhancing the wider ESOL infrastructure to give more people an opportunity to learn English.

Alex Stevenson, head of English, maths and ESOL, Learning and Work Institute

Volunteers, English language learners and conversation clubs