The real life experience of an ESOL class

19 Sep 2018 |Written by Emily Redmond


Between October 2017 and March 2018, I observed several English My Way classes at Zest Centre in Sheffield. English My Way is our Pre-entry ESOL programme, delivered in over 130 Online Centres across England, of which Zest is one. Located in the Upperthorpe area of Sheffield, it offers a variety of services to its community, including health and wellbeing, digital skills and ESOL.

Zest Centre in Upperthorpe, Sheffield.

The Classroom Study set out to try and understand what progression looks like at an individual level and if and how this varies within a class. By progression I mean what happens to learners as they move through the course, and what they do during or afterwards,

Over the 5 years we have been running English My Way, we have developed a number of assumptions about what motivates people to learn English, if and how they progress while they attend classes, the challenges they face and what they do and hope to do afterwards.

Having tried different approaches to researching with people from migrant communities, including one to one interviews with interpreters, I thought observing a whole class over a longer period of time was worth trying. I thought it was a good opportunity to observe more learners, and thought it might reveal something about how learners interact with one another. So I went to Zest Centre in Sheffield to see the programme being delivered for real. I observed 10 sessions over the course of 24 weeks, and had the privilege of spending time with Centre Manager Lynsey, English My Way teacher Theresa, and all the women who came to learn each week.

You can read about what I did, what I found out and how I captured what I learnt in sketches, in my study write up.

Observations from my time at Zest

But I wanted to take this opportunity to write about my experience of observing a group of learners over a long period of time and what it meant to me.

The class consisted of women in their 20s up to women in their 70s. Women from all over the world, with different stories and reasons for being in Sheffield. All lived in walking distance of the centre, as did the teacher. Some of the learners knew each other already, but most didn't.

So how did I approach the study? A lot of the time we only have the chance to observe one session, or visit somewhere for one day. You learn a lot, but some of the things you observe can lack context. What comes with observing a group over a longer period of time is you notice the subtleties. The things you see and hear have more meaning, as you get to know people and see where they have come from.

A good example of this is the conversation I overheard between two learners. One said to the other -"Do you have a son?" The other said: "Yes I do". This may seem small but both learners first came to the English My Way class knowing no one. One learner was from Turkey and one was from Syria.

The thing I had noticed up until this point was that learners were sticking with people from the same country as them, leaving some people on their own. I had been observing these learners for a few weeks and noticed they kept themselves to themselves and were a little withdrawn. I worried about them a bit. They were young mothers who lacked the confidence that some of the older women in the group had. But the thing that connected them was they were learning English, and this moment was so big. They were communicating and finding commonalities, making new connections.

The other time was when Theresa, a learner featured in the study, told the teacher, unprompted, that she was going to the shops to get some new shoes. She was another learner who seemed quite isolated as no one else in the room had the same first language as her. A few weeks before, she would never have started a conversation with anyone else in the group. After this moment I noticed she was more confident in class. She met up with some of the other learners between classes, and started a friendship with another learner.

This is where the teacher was brilliant. Joining in discussions, opening up to the learners and linking up learners who she knew lived near each other. She went out of her way to make sure all learners were OK, and were involved in the sessions and getting what they wanted out of them.

And after a few weeks, the learners responded by supporting one another. They started encouraging each other in class, organising get togethers with food in and outside of class and making connections through things like their children and food.

I'm really happy I got the opportunity to join the classes, and am pleased that the study has resulted in the development of a set of community integration outcomes for Good Things Foundation. I'd recommend if you have the time, observing your project in action. You connect with beneficiaries and understand the realities they face. You learn a lot to take back to colleagues, you see the difference your project is making and learn about the gaps and what to do next.

It was a pleasure to spend time with the learners and staff at Zest. Sharing the classroom and social times with them was a real privilege and I learnt so much.

Watch this space as we embark on measuring the outcomes we've identified in the study, with centres, making our surveys accessible to people whose first language isn't English.

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English My Way