Revising ESOL: Students’ Perspectives

3 October 2012
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The best way to discover the pros and cons of ESOL classes is to talk directly to the students. I have interviewed seven adult ESOL students between the ages of 25 and 37 with the aim of identifying the biggest barriers encountered by adult ESOL learners and what strategies they use to overcome those barriers.

Barriers to Learning

When asked what they do not like about English courses, the students gave the following answers:

    • Too many different levels in the classroom

Listen to a student talk about the different levels in his class:

  • Not enough hours

“The amount of hours is not enough. I would like to attend a full time course. I do not like to change place. I would like to stay in one place and learn full time.”

  • Non-qualified teachers

“One time one teacher wasn’t qualified to teach English… Some people can’t teach but because they can speak English they become teachers.”

  • Content not suitable for the learner’s needs

-Most students asked for more speaking training
“Talking more in school is better… Speaking makes you feel more relaxed. You can listen everywhere, speaking is heavy.”

-Other students complained about the exaggerated focus on the practical everyday use of the language and asked for a stronger focus on grammar and writing skills

Listen to a student’s opinion:

-Some students would like to have more material to study and practice at home

Listen to what a student would like to have as study material:

Different Students, Different Needs

It is useful to focus on the differences existing among ESOL students in order to identify what can be improved. Among my interviewees I heard a notable difference between people who did not attend secondary school in their country and those who got into higher education. Each group had a different point of view on the quality and effectiveness of ESOL courses.

The people who attended university complained about the content of the classes because the level was not high enough and the preparation they got was not complete.

“Sometimes the level of people is not right, they need to be tested. It is good for who doesn’t know but it is bad for who knows.”

“Courses do not go specific… They just teach business English. They should be more differentiated. I would like to have more proper conversation, more grammar.”

On the contrary, people who did not attend secondary education in their home country did not show a critical approach to the content of the courses. They were keen to study and if asked if they would like some aspects of the classes to change, they replied that everything was fine for them.

“I would not change anything in the course… I just want to learn.”

“If I can study, I don’t mind anything. I don’t have any complaints.”

Learning Strategies Outside the Classroom

ESOL classes are not enough to learn English. Students face all these difficulties, both in and outside of the classroom. One stand out barrier was the limited hours of course instruction, especially at NGOs where courses are generally held once a week. For these reasons, learning outside the classroom becomes essential to reach a good level of English. Students who are interested in extra practice have to be creative. As most of my interviewees confirmed, NGOs cannot afford to give a lot of learning material to their students and the materials given by colleges is not always useful. As one of the students said:

“At colleges, they teach us standard English not slang.”

For this reason, students have to find alternative learning resources. There are useful resources for ESOL students especially on the Internet:

Free ESOL courses online
-Free online dictionaries –  Many of these dictionaries (like Wordreference and Dictionary.com ) let you listen to the pronunciation of words, which is a big concern for students
YouTube – as some of my interviewees confirmed YouTube is useful to watch videos, movies, TV programmes and to listen to music. Some videos

For example, Adam goes on YouTube to listen to songs while reading the lyrics, because, “Once you can understand music, you can understand everyone speaking English”

Unfortunately, the Internet and other resources are not accessible to many ESOL adult learners for two reasons:

-Many migrants and asylum seekers cannot afford an Internet connection at home or afford to buy ESOL books, which are generally very expensive.
-Often migrants cannot check out books from public libraries because they do not have proof of their address. Sometimes the library is far away and they cannot afford to take public transport to go there often.

It follows that the panorama of resources available to migrants for studying at home is quite limited. It is for this reason that they have to be creative and motivated.

Masood’s Personalized Alternative English Course

Listen to Masood’s advice:

This is the recipe developed by O. to reach quickly a good proficiency in English. He is an asylum seeker and cannot access the library. Therefore, he goes to the street, to the pub, and to parks to listen to people. He tries to learn words and guess the different accents. At the beginning he just listened and he was shy to talk to people but now, with no shame, he speaks to strangers and starts conversations.

Listen to Masood’s experience:

Moreover, he chose his own personal selection of TV programmes that are useful to learn English:

“I watched a lot of BBC for kids, it helped me a lot. They speak very slow and very clear. In three months, I learnt more than 400 words. And BBC news is very good as well. If you want to learn slang you can watch Chef Ramsey. He says many bad words!”

The amazingly positive results of Masood’s method are evident. Not only does he have good fluency during our interview, but he is also aware of his results:

“I think I can manage myself here 80 percent, more than 80 percent.”

Conclusions

The difficulties students meet at ESOL courses are hard to overcome. The lack of learning resources makes the effort for extra practice extremely difficult. Nonetheless, Masood’s story makes us understand that human resilience is sometimes stronger than the difficulties. While ESOL courses should be made more accessible for migrants, Masood’s creativity shows that the world can be your classroom as well.

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