Saturday, 5 March 2011

A Happy Accident

I recently had an incredibly exciting and illuminating teaching / learning experience. I would like to tell the story and I invite you to share your reactions and responses.

One of my current classes is a Pre-Intermediate ESOL group of mixed nationalities - Africa, Middle-East, Eastern Europe, Asia and South America. I have the classroom arranged in small island groups, and usually encourage students to sit next to people of different nationalities, so that they can compare and contrast their experiences. However, recently, due to mis-communication,  I happened to spend 40 minutes with only four students who all came from Africa. There were two students from Somalia, one from Ghana and one from the Democratic Republic of Congo. We were meeting that day to do some Guidance activities, so I had no 'lesson plan' or materials. We talked. I wrote on the board. The students answered questions, told stories and noted new vocabulary as it arose.

In that short time, we covered a range of topics including: (post-)collonialism, corruption, nepotism, meritocracy, political elites, and emergency aid to Africa. Bearing in mind these students are in a Pre-Intermediate class, I was amazed at how much they were able to contribute to and take from the conversation. Afterwards, we agreed that we would collaborate to write an article for the ESOL magazine about some of the topics we covered.

My admiration was tinged with embarassment for two reasons. Firstly, I felt I had previously underestimated the students' abilities to tackle more complex and abstract concepts, and secondly, I realised that I often allow the more verbose students in the class to dominate at the expense of others.

As a result I hope to introduce more complex subject matter with this group such as political systems, human rights, economics etc. This experience has also prompted me to reconsider the way I group students in class. Perhaps grouping commonalities has as much learning potential as seeking differences.

What do you think about teaching heterogeneous groups and tackling complex topics with 'lower' levels?


  1. I've found that you can discuss pretty much anything with ESOL ss - they're adults after all and their own societies have the same range of issues that we face here in the UK, if not more. That said, I have stayed well clear of rape and sexual violence. Also, sometimes they are not too concerned about issues that might seem 'important' to us or that we think are important to everybody, e.g. voting or objecting to council plans. They are grateful to be in the country and they don't think it's their business to have an opinion on such matters!

    I have found that limited vocabulary is the main obstacle, and have usually taught common lexis as we explore the topic. From this we have moved on to sentence construction and grammar, but again restricting the discussion to 1-2 topics (conditionals or modals or clauses or tense usage etc).

  2. Dave
    Although not an ESOL teacher I think that contextualising language learning within a range of topics and concepts is an excellent way for learners to engage with language. Interest in a topic, encourages effort to contribute. All very Curriculum for Excellence!!