Experiences of an English Language Teacher

Teaching in ESOL: Encouraging Talk

ESOL Curriculum Framework © 2012

Reading Carol Goodey’s blog post, “Encouraging talk, encouraging learning“, resonated similarities with my personal experiences of teaching ESOL as well as organising and delivering teacher training workshops for ESOL volunteer teachers.  Essentially, the training that was delivered for the ESOL Charity focused on Dogme ELT and was held in two locations: one in Eastbourne and one in St Leonards.  During my first year of teaching ESOL for the charity, I found myself stripping back all the materials, removing the coursebook and reacting to the learners during the course of the lesson.  It was much a learning curve for me as well as for the learners.  The learners were used to popping into class, being ‘spoon-fed‘ lexical and grammatical chunks (as much in a way as a ‘coffee-fix‘ is important for budding coffee drinkers), tested and being expected to complete various activities from the workbook.  I must mention that I have no qualms with coursebooks per se, they are invaluable and provide newly qualified teachers the structure and direction that both learners and educators expect.  However, if decisions based upon language teaching are directed by the coursebook then perhaps teachers have their priorities askew.  From practical experience, as well as supporting research, I have come to the assertion that language teaching should arise from learner aims and expectations rather than coursebook aims and expectations.  This is the basis of the ESOL Curriculum Framework and the image to the left (which was also included in Carol Goodey’s blog post) is a wonderful example of decisions arising from the learners rather than from teachers.

Nonetheless, I remember fondly coming into class one Saturday afternoon and asking the learners (the majority whom were absolute beginners) how they were.  They just sat there unable to respond, staring and at that point I literally threw the coursebook out of the room and we looked at various responses to this question.  I separated the board into two halves: one for positive responses the other for negative responses.  We boarded various ideas and put these phrases up on the board.  With various responses boarded, we recast and recycle the language within the classroom with various drills that even Jeremy Harmer would be proud of.  The language was immediate to the learners’ needs and provided support to the much requested answer to the “How are you?” question.  The small group of learners were enthusiastic and keen to practice asking and answering each other so they were paired up and got some language practice.  The pace of the class was very slow but it was incredibly rewarding to see learners walk out of the classroom with a smile on their faces and returning the following week able to answer a familiar question.  It motivated the learners and demonstrated that they were able to achieve.  I should mention that some of the ESOL learners are immigrants and asylum seekers with little to no previous educational experience with very minimal knowledge of English.  Some of the learners are unable to write their name and teachers have to be very very patient.  There is one phrase that comes to mind when teaching absolute beginners in an ESOL setting: “Quality not quantity”.

I have taught in various settings and the natural response to teaching in a new environment is to return to the familiar: use materials, CDs, worksheets, etc and teach the book rather than the learners.  I will hold my hand up and say that I have returned to the familiar when teaching learners for the first time.  However, some of the best lessons that I have delivered have been developed from more reactive lessons with that ‘magic moment‘.  Furthermore, the majority of quality lessons have focused less on the materials and more on the learner with the teacher bringing language learning to life for learners present.  I have seen some teachers in various organisations walk into a classroom and deliver a lesson with huge amounts of worksheets and handouts.  It is fascinating to see that some teachers may feel a sense of awkwardness by walking into the class without any materials and are essentially returning to the familiar and delivering lessons which are monitored by the quantity of materials, handouts and worksheets rather than the delivery of quality lessons.  It is awkward changing the boundaries of familiarity and pushing towards more eclectic forms of teaching, with change being challenged inside or outside the classroom by any stakeholder.

Finally, I love some of the suggestions by Carol in her blog post and I would also recommend teachers (who are willing to experiment in an unplugged way) to use pictures, objects as well as various props to prompt natural learner speaking.  It is always difficult to encourage natural learner interaction and I have noticed that (as with teachers unwilling to change or return to the familiar) learners have difficulty or are unwilling to develop their language production in a natural and supportive manner.  The language produced is commendable but natural language is really regarded as the aims of language teaching.  I love to bring in Post-It © notes to class so learners are able to write down a word they have learnt recently or stick them on articles that they are reading to indicate preference.  You can get different colours and get learners into teams by the use of differing colours of Post-It © notes.  Obviously, with the teaching ESOL it is always important to bring in objects (as Luke Meddings refers to some material) which are important to learner aims and objectives.  For example, the teacher could bring in a train timetable, a voucher or poster about the library with a special event.  Not only does it make the language learner more aware of language around their town but it also provides some opportunity for teachers to use authentic objects/materials from around town.


  1. Hi Martin

    Thanks for this post. As I said in my comment on my blog, I enjoyed reading about your experiences and 'magic moments'.


  2. Thank you for your comment Carol. I enjoy reading your blog posts and it was so nice to experience some similarities with your teaching career so far. The ESOL Curriculum Framework is wonderful and I will introduce this website to the charity that I work with later next week. Without your blog, I would not have been able to learn more about the ESOL Framework and some example case studies.

  3. cgoodey

    That's really good to hear, Martin! Thanks.

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