Meeting the challenge of teaching English to speakers of other languages

The International House Trust has been supporting the Hackney Migrant Centre by providing an English teacher to run lessons at the Centre. The Centre is a charity which provides a weekly drop in session for refugees and other migrants offering legal aid and health advice, a free meal and an inclusive, sociable meeting place.

Ben Darby, a teacher from IH London who runs these classes, has been blogging about some of the differences between his teaching at IH London and at the Hackney Migrant Centre.

Since Ben's last post at the beginning of the year, a further class on Friday afternoons has been established and he's been discovering just how different teaching ESOL can be to his other work.

"At IH London I teach English as a Foreign Language (TEFL). These classes are for paying, well-educated students and there are many course books available. At the Migrant Centre I teach English as a Second or Other Language (ESOL). These classes are for migrants who are trying to settle in Britain. The students are often poor and under-educated. Some have problems reading and writing in their own languages. But these aren’t the only differences between classes at IH and Hackney. As I’ve been discovering, there are far fewer teaching materials available for ESOL. I’ve been using a course designed by the government calledSkills for Life. It is very different to EFL course books. For example, there isn’t so much text on each page so it isn’t overwhelming for students with low levels of literacy. The focus is on practical everyday English more than on grammar and the topics covered are more appropriate to the students and avoid the emphasis on Western, middle class lifestyles which is so common in EFL course books.

We’ve covered the first level of Skills for Life. But the students at the Migrant Centre aren’t ready for Level 2 yet. So I needed to find out more about developing ESOL teaching materials. Last month I visited Crisis, another charity which IH is supporting, and spoke to some of their ESOL teachers. They showed me ways of adapting EFL course books and of reformulatingSkills for Life resources and they stressed the importance of responding to the students in a flexible and improvisational way. I have also been using a revamped version of a Skills for Lifeunit, which my colleague Jacqueline McKewan produced as part of her MA in Linguistics. I have also had help from classroom assistants, volunteers from the centre, who give weaker students extra support, particularly with literacy issues.

So, teaching ESOL in Hackney is very different to EFL classes at IH. Sometimes it feels a bit like having to re-invent the wheel each time I prepare a lesson, but it is an interesting challenge and one which has made me rethink the way I teach lower levels at IH. Do EFL students benefit from such text-heavy course books, for example?

The students continue to be keen and supportive of one another and it is a pleasure working with them. At a time when ESOL classes are under threat from government cuts it is good that the HMC and IH are able to continue to provide these lessons. The next objective is to try to increase the class size, particularly the new Friday lesson which tends to have lower attendance. I’ll keep you informed of our progress."

Get resources about English for speakers of other languages and Skills for Life and find out how you can access ESOL services near you.

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