Rachel Thomas teaches a weekly ESOL (English for Speakers of Other Languages) class in Streatham, South London. She recounts here how she got into voluntary teaching and shares both tips and experiences of teaching English in her local community.
Teaching English in the local community
I began teaching English classes at Sunnyhill Children’s Centre in South London in November 2012. After gaining my CELTA in Poland, I wanted to start using my qualification in my home city. I responded to an online advert placed by an organisation called the Streatham Women’s Sewing Group, who were looking for voluntary English teachers to help teach a group of local adult learners.
Set up in 2009, the Streatham Women’s Sewing Group meets once a week with the aim of making a difference to the lives of women in the local community, particularly those who are often hard-to-reach, refugees and from low-income backgrounds. Streatham has a sizeable Somali community and the weekly sewing group sets out to re-skill many younger Somali women who lost their mothers or who were separated from them. The sewing group allows them the opportunity to learn and practise their traditional needlework skills, which were lost due to many years of war, famine and immigration. Collaborative artworks and embroidery displays made by the sewing group are often shown at public local events.
The women who attend the sewing group also join the English classes I teach. The majority of the women who have attended my class over the last year have been Somali, but the group has a mix of women from Algeria, Gaza, Kosovo, Afghanistan, Eritrea, Ethiopia, Pakistan and Morocco. Arabic is the common language for the majority of the women. The level of English is intermediate with varying levels of confidence and fluency.
Why teaching English to migrants and refugees is important
Not being able to communicate using the English language in the UK is a huge barrier to social inclusion for ESOL learners. Without skills in English to interact outside the home, migrants and refugees struggle to integrate, can feel socially isolated and will find it incredibly hard to find employment. The women in the class I teach come from very different backgrounds; some have high-level academic qualifications gained in their home country and others have never had the opportunity to attend a school. Despite these stark differences, what brings the class together is a genuine motivation to learn a language that is vital to living a more inclusive life in the UK.
Choosing subject matter for an ESOL class
Lessons based on real-life, ordinary events are central to ESOL teaching. Helping the class to master the vocabulary and phrases related to telephoning the plumber to fix a washing machine or writing to the local council authority are fundamental for day-to-day living. While fluent English speakers take such commonplace activities for granted, trying to tackle such everyday matters can be a frustrating and daunting prospect for the ESOL learner. Practising role-plays based on a trip to the GP or visiting a child’s schoolteacher allows opportunities to increase a learner’s confidence in a supportive, non-threatening environment. It also allows the group to exchange their personal experiences with others.
However, I have found that lessons about routine practicalities are just some of the topic areas that are important in ESOL teaching. Some of the most memorable lessons I have taught have been those that have nothing to do with making an appointment at the dentist or going to the supermarket. Creating lesson plans on interesting historical figures such as Elizabeth I, the tradition behind Bonfire Night and even the popular show, The Great British Bake Off, are equally important for an ESOL class and provide a refreshing change of focus. While a lesson about a popular TV programme may seem to offer fewer opportunities to learn essential daily vocabulary, it injects a feeling of light-heartedness into the classroom that often sparks a lively, fun discussion. It is important that an ESOL learner can develop the language and confidence to make conversation about modern-day popular culture in order to get more into the bloodstream of UK life.
Using local events as lesson ideas
One of the many enjoyable things about teaching in your own neighbourhood is being able to research topics to use in the classroom that are close to home for everyone, including myself. Picking out local events or stories on which to base lesson plans means everyone is personally familiar with the subject matter, bringing together not only a shared interest in learning English but also a communal sense of belonging.
Inspiration for such lessons may include creating a speaking lesson plan based on a flyer for an upcoming local kite fair or a writing lesson about the opening of a new giant supermarket. A reading lesson topic that was immediately familiar to many in the group and generated a lot of discussion was centred on an article I had spotted in the local paper that week about a popular and well-known community resident who had lost one of his beloved pet parrots.
English language in the home
Almost all of the women in the ESOL group have childcare responsibilities and most, if not all, have children who were born in the UK. Although the family’s first language is often the primary language spoken in the home with fathers and siblings, some of the women I have taught have teenage children who are fluent English-speakers. Helping the class to become more self-assured in English also means they can converse more confidently with their own children in a language that their sons and daughters have taken in their stride since birth.
What I have learned
Teaching ESOL classes has been hugely eye-opening for me, not only in allowing me to put into practice what I learned on the CELTA course but also in pushing me to research and create lesson plans that will be both stimulating and hugely practical. Not only do I have a greater insight and understanding of the community in which I live, but I have met a wonderful group of women who, realistically, I would not have got to know otherwise - even though we are all neighbours living in the same bustling London community.
Rachel Thomas works full-time for the British Council in a non-teaching capacity.
The CELTA qualification (Certificate in English Language Teaching to Adults) is an introductory course for those who have little or no previous English language teaching experience. Providing a solid foundation for English language teaching, the CELTA opens up opportunities to teach varied groups of learners.