10 principles of ESOL teaching

I’m delighted to now be included on the prestigious site for teachers teaching teachers, EFL Talks, alongside the likes of Dorothy Zemach, Pete Sharma, Julie Pratten, Andrew Walkley, Sue Leather, Russell Stannard and Anne Margaret-Smith!  You can access my talk  about the 10 principles of ESOL teaching here.  To complement the talk, I figured I should blog about it too.

While you read, why not see if you can spot the differences between my blog and my EFLTalk?

A principle is a basic theory or belief that influences how we do things.  Over my years as an ESOL lecturer, I’ve developed my own principles which influence how I teach.  Everyone is different and these are my own personal principles suited to my own teaching context.  I’d like to share them with you so that you can reflect on your own principles related to your own teaching context.

1. Be learner centred

ESOL learners must be at the heart of every lesson.  The social practices approach puts learners at the centre of all learning.  If a learner has a broken shower, for example, the teacher may deliver a lesson on how to arrange for a building repair.

EFL Talks screenshot
This is the Scottish adult ESOL curriculum wheel.  It places learners at the centre of all learning. 

2.  Keep it appropriate

With learners are at the heart of all learning, it is crucial that lessons are appropriate to their needs.  Traditional EFL coursebooks are not tailored to the needs of ESOL learners so teachers must adapt them or find materials that are appropriate.  Although I do use a coursebook with my classes for the essential grammar input, I like to adapt it for my learners.  For example, common nationalities in coursebooks are German, Japanese and Brazilian.  I don’t have any of these nationalities in my classes, so I tend to focus on the nationalities in the class – in my context, Eritrean, Syrian, Iranian and Chinese.

In general, I’ll skip over any lessons in the coursebook that I think don’t relate to my students.  More often than not, these are the ones with famous people (mostly white English speaking celebrities unfamiliar to my students).  I’ve found that students are much more interested in people who they are familiar with or who inspire them in their lives.  With that in mind, I’ve made classroom materials for my classes about people that my students have told me that they love.  To name but a few: Adnan Karim (Kurdish singer), Tayeb Salih (Sudanese writer), Malala Yousafzai (Pakistani activist) and Tsegai Tewelde, (British Olympic marathon runner).  Tsegai is originally from Eritrea and I had the pleasure of teaching him briefly many moons ago before he decided professional running was more exciting than my lessons!

3. Keep it real

The social practices approach focuses on equipping learners with the functional skills they need for their daily lives.  They may need to know how to read a school report or what to do in an emergency situation.  I’ve had students that told me they phoned an ambulance because they had a bad headache, or that the fire services visited them when they used a disposable barbeque on the balcony of their high rise flat.  It goes without saying that I thought it important to create a lesson on the emergency services for my book, the A-Z of ESOL.  The lesson helps students assess  which service they should call,  which number to dial and whether they even need to call.

4. Include literacy

Many ESOL students have ‘jagged profiles’.  They may be confident with speaking and listening but have minimal literacy skills.  Even at higher levels, I find myself reminding students to write in sentences, use paragaphs and not to forget their capital letters.  At lower levels, I spend a lot of time on reading, writing, phonics and spelling.

5. Include ICT

We are living in a digital world yet many of my students lack confidence with computers.  In some cases, they struggle to use ‘shift’ to add a capital letter or use a mouse.  I’ve lost count of how many times I’ve reset the Virtual Learning Environment passwords for my beginner students, but we’ll get there.  We always do. Never give up, no matter how frustrating it may be is my mantra!  If I’m in a classroom without computers, I’ll ask students to use their smartphones.  This gives them the confidence to access the VLE from home.  I also encourage them to find IT classes in the local community (often in the local library).

6. Encourage employability

To me, employability is the 5th skill.  Finding a job in an English speaking country is challenging not only because of the language barrier, but also because it can be a whole new process.  In some countries, if you want to find a job you may just ask your family and friends, or go to a local roundabout where recruiters will ask around for the skills they are looking for. The idea of selling yourself on paper, identifying skills and qualities and dressing appropriately for an interview can be very alien concepts.

I had one student who went to an interview wearing their winter coat and trainers while another learner said ‘no’ when asked if she was ‘trustworthy’ simply because she didn’t understand the word.  Now I teach important personality adjectives to my beginners using images and antonyms.  ‘Punctual’ is a pretty simple to teach to a class full of latecomers on ‘ESOL time’.  I also teach more practical jobs vocabulary; forklift driver, warehouse operative and cleaner are more useful to ESOL learners than ‘pilot’ and ‘journalist’!

7. Study skills

I often find that the students that progress quickly are the ones that have completed high school or further education in their own country.  They have the study skills to know that they are responsible for their own learning, they do their homework and they study at home.

I teach my learners how to copy notes from the whiteboard (the same as they are laid out on the board), which worksheets to keep for further reference and which ones they can use once for practice and chuck in the bin later. I encourage them to use vocabulary notebooks and encourage them to take graded readers out of the library.  I also teach them the look, say, cover, write, check method to practise their spelling at home and give them homework every lesson.

student notebook
I like to take photos of my students’ notebooks. I now have a collection that I can use in class to show students examples of how to (and how not to) take notes.

8. Intercultural communication

ESOL classes are multicultural. I can have ten or more nationalities in a room at one time so it’s essential that they understand and respect each other.  I often find that students who speak the same language or are from the same country sit together.  At the start of each lesson, I take a minute to try to split up any cliques and encourage students to sit with someone different every day.  I also get them chatting about their cultures and beliefs and take them on class trips to places of worship of religions that they may not be familiar to them.

9. Embrace taboos

Whilst coursebooks shy away from taboo subjects such as politics, religion, sex, sexual orientation, abuse and discrimination, I think it’s extremely important to include these in the ESOL classroom.  Learners need to know about the politics of the area they live in, the religious beliefs of their classmates, LGBT rights and what to do if they experience abuse or discrimination.  You may want to arrange a guest speaker to discuss these topics.  For more ideas, you can read my blog on including LGBT issues in the ESOL classroom.

10.  Create Opportunities for Language Acquisition

I’ve also blogged about this before, but ESOL students are very lucky that their local area can be their classroom.  The students that progress the most quickly are the ones that are out and about volunteering, working or attending a local club or community group. I like to use the K for Knowing local people and places lesson from my book, the A-Z of ESOL, when encouraging my learners to get involved.  Students read some examples of activities in a local area before discussing what they might like to do and what opportunities are available in their local area.

In conclusion…

These are my ten principles of ESOL teaching.  They influence how I teach and they inspired the lessons in my A-Z of ESOL. What are your principles?  I’d love to hear from you, or chat to you in person.

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