By Frances Carbines

06 October 2014 - 14:35

Migrant and refugee low-level learners of English will bring to the classroom vastly different worlds of experience’ Photo: iStock ©

Photo: iStock

English My Way is a new education programme to support migrants in some of the UK’s most isolated communities. Project officer Frances Carbines shares tips here on how teachers and volunteers can help build confidence among low-level learners.

Language barriers and how to overcome them

While early language barriers and experiences of migration will certainly have a harmful effect on learner confidence, using one or several of the following tried and tested approaches can offer learners a sense of identity, place and hope.

Understand your learners and their backgrounds

Migrant and refugee low-level learners of English will bring to the classroom vastly different worlds of experience. Some will have no formal schooling while others will have academic qualifications. Some may have arrived in the UK to join a spouse or to seek work opportunities, while others may have fled war, torture and persecution. Many teachers of ESOL (English for speakers of other languages) and EAL (English as an additional language) work with learners who have been through traumatic experiences before arriving in the UK, which are only exacerbated upon arrival, when adjusting to the new role of migrant. Clearly, a one-size-fits-all approach will not suffice in meeting the various needs of these learners.

When teaching, be aware of the various barriers to learning many learners face. The barriers may arise from social isolation, delayed entry to learning, the constraints of family life, and trauma. Let your teaching materials reflect your awareness, tailoring your own input with the learners’ lives in mind.

Personalise lesson activities and use real-life (authentic) materials

For migrant and refugee low-level learners who have little or no experience of formal education, the traditional classroom setting may feel alien. To counteract this, talk about issues which spring directly from their experiences in the outside world. Use images and words of local places that the learners will recognise, rather than textbook examples. As Genevieve White, one of our resource specialists, says:

‘When working with ESOL learners I find it is much more motivating to discuss images of familiar places in the community than it is to discuss generic pictures of a library or a park. It generates more language, as learners are able to relate the pictures directly to their own experience and it also helps to prepare learners for language they will hear outside the classroom.’

Use participants’ feedback about their interests and language needs to decide on a creative syllabus for the term. Find out where the learners are from, and their dreams and aspirations. Transform the learning process into a conversation using English to talk about things relevant to them.

Blend the divide between teacher and learner

Using free resources such as BBC Learning Circles, you can create a learning environment where everyone is an equal member of the group. Encourage all participants to feel that their experience and expertise as adults are recognised and used as something of worth. In Learning Circles, a group leader informally guides the discussion but there’s no strict hierarchy or formula. The resources are designed to enhance but not dictate the flow of conversation, which can take its own course depending on the whim of the group. Video resources feature the challenges of day-to-day life, and learners can use flashcards and each other’s ideas to find solutions.

Use drama to look at and talk about real issues

Drama activities in the style of Applied Theatre (the use of drama for personal or social change) can complement traditional ESOL lessons in hugely beneficial ways. Drama activities can encourage extremely inhibited learners to develop their confidence through creative expression. English My Way learners at the Migrants Resource Centre recently directed and performed in an Applied Theatre production, in which participants acted out themes central to their lives, including family issues and workplace exploitation. Helped by Implicated Theatre, the production was born of the real-life experiences of the migrants. While at first some participants appeared anxious, by the end of the first session the confidence and determination to communicate from even the quietest members of the group showed that the activity had been an empowering one.

Through the medium of drama, learners can find themselves totally immersed in language learning without even realising it, as they are freed from the tension of being monitored and assessed. Talking about real issues brings emotional involvement, and the desire to communicate overcomes inhibition.

Eleanor Cocks and Thea Dix give an account of the power of participatory arts in language acquisition:

‘When creating characters, participants can explore and experiment with aspects of their own identity through a fictional persona […] The creative framework provides participants with a safe, fictional world in which to work through their feelings about their new lives.’

Get students to tell their own story using video

Participatory video is a form of participatory media in which a group or community tells their story through the creation of their own film. The medium can give ESOL learners the opportunity to document, reflect upon and be encouraged by their progress.

When InsightShare assisted ESOL learners with a video session, the stories, discussions and themes that emerged demonstrated what the learners valued in their own words. Participatory video exercises broke the ice between participants, helped build basic skills to record and speak on camera, and provided confidence to work together as a team. One of the learners had a dramatic shift in her confidence to speak out, as a direct result of the participatory video project. This in turn increased the overall confidence of the group.

Recognise and celebrate all achievement, however small

Finally, ensure that all achievement is recognised and celebrated. As Phil Bird, ESOL lecturer and English My Way co-ordinator attests, praising contributions from learners, however small, builds confidence over time. Equally, encouraging learners to accept and even welcome mistakes is an integral part of learning a language.

Sara Asadullah of InsightShare says: ‘If people can expect to make mistakes as part of the learning process, accept them and celebrate them with others. They will feel more comfortable to try new things, take risks and reap the reward of new confidence.’

English My Way learners and volunteers will share their stories at our event on 6 October, taking place at BBC Broadcasting House. The day will also feature screenings of BBC Learning English films and the participatory videos made by English My Way learners. We’ll be live-tweeting from @EnglishMyWayUK and using #EnglishMyWay – follow the event from 11.00 GMT. Share any other tips with @EnglishMyWayUK

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