Professional Development

Watching (and) Learning in an ESOL classroom

Richard Gallen

Earlier this month we sponsored the Hands Up Project Conference 2019. The project uses online storytelling and other remote learning activities to teach English to Palestinian and Syrian children in Gaza, the West Bank and Jordan. The theme of this year’s conference was Resilience and Language Learning.

In this post, based on his conference presentation, Richard Gallen discusses watching and learning in the classroom.

Young ESOL students arrive in the UK apprehensive about the life changes they will face in their new country. It is not always easy for these young people, some live in overcrowded accommodation and many are split from their families back home. Within their first few months in the UK, they are often placed in large Further Education colleges with other 14 – 18 year olds.

However, there are cultural and language barriers that make it difficult for them for interact with their British born peers. The ESOL class becomes their community and the lessons can become a forum for them to share their experiences, voice their opinions, which in turn become the contexts in which they learn the language.

Student stories

I was a teacher of an ESOL Entry 2 (elementary) class of 16 – 18 year olds in the Tower Hamlets borough of east London. Many of these classes were constructed around the students’ stories, which became the conduit through which they could comment on the world around them. These stories were often just accounts of the everyday lives of young immigrants in east London but sometimes a lesson topic would prompt them to tell more dramatic stories about things they have seen or that have happened to them or their family members.

At the end of the 2017/18 academic year, I audio recorded one of these storytelling classes.  I wanted a deeper understanding of how language development takes place as students prepare, tell and respond to each other’s narratives. For example, how were the students’ stories different when told in the relative privacy of pair work and then told again in the more public plenary parts of the class?  Through listening back to the recordings, I discovered an unexpected fluency and intensity from one quieter student as she told her story to her classmate and good friend. The language of her story then became more accurate and complex as it was re-told to the class but at the expense of the rhythm and drama of the initial telling.

It was also interesting to hear how the social bonds these students had forged over the academic year, influenced how they used English, provided peer support and learnt from each other.

What is the teacher’s role?

Contexts such as personal stories, which are very meaningful for students, can be fertile grounds for teaching. I have always seen the teacher’s role here as a sort of language guide; reformulating, prompting and providing words as well as highlighting successful language use. However, there is a fine balance to be struck between intervening while also allowing the communication to flow.  I hoped that by listening back to the recordings, I could pick apart what aspects of this approach were helpful for these learners and modify it so that my teaching did not impede the communication but enhanced it.

In removing myself from the hurly burly of these classes, I was able to clearly hear what aspects of my own interaction, that I thought were helpful for learners , were perhaps less so. However, the students’ engagement with each other’s stories meant that their contexts came effortlessly back into the collective focus of the class after my intervention.

I have learnt through my career that students who are being ‘helped’ with language by teachers or classmates in the midst of a communicative activity may not have the attentional resources to take on this assistance, especially at lower proficiency levels. However, there was evidence from the recordings that other students, witnesses rather than participants, were sometimes more able to incorporate this help into their own output at a later stage in the class.

It was this last observation that prompted me to call my talk at this year’s Hands Up conference, ‘Watching (and) Learning’.  Students are watching and learning about their classmates and about the English language, as they listen to each other’s stories and observe the classroom exchanges. So too are teachers, when as researchers, we take a closer look at the interaction in our own classes and are able to watch learning take place.


To learn more about the work of Hands Up Project volunteers, read how they engage children’s imagination in the classroom and create safe classroom environments.

To be the first to hear about the 2020 conference, follow @HandsUpProject on Twitter.

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