Case Study: A Functional Skills Enrichment Toolkit for ESOL Learners

Hounslow Adult and Community Education and Learn Harrow

Background and Intent

At Hounslow Adult and Community Education and Learn Harrow we had a shared issue in that our ESOL students progressing to Functional Skills English and maths struggled to achieve was because their language experience is too narrow.

Our learners found the assessment language challenging and lacked the range of vocabulary and the level of syntax required to express themselves with sufficient clarity. Our achievement rates within ESOL are very high, but once our learners move to the English Pathway (at Entry 3), these rates fall significantly.

We identified one possible contributing factor in that within ESOL the themes and contexts are familiar and practised, whereas within Functional Skills the themes and contexts are diverse and unknown requiring a wider language experience base.

Therefore, we decided to develop an Enrichment Toolkit of key activities that would help ESOL learners with their wider cultural and situational understanding, broadening their language experience with the aim of improving achievement.

Our Approach

Our teachers and managers knew from experience that ESOL learners, who are ‘immersed’ in an English language environment, are more successful in achieving both their English and maths Functional Skills qualifications. However, a significant number of our learners’ exposure to English is limited to the confines of the classroom, as their first language is understandably and predominantly used within the home, with children and within their social and cultural environment.

Consequently, the difficulties regularly encountered within Functional Skills assessment tasks are rooted in the inaccurate assumptions that all learners will be familiar with certain activities and issues. These include, entertaining guests, family outings or leisure activities (such as gardening and orienteering), attending music festivals and even paragliding which have featured in both the English and maths exams. One maths exam question for example, referred to parking on the hard shoulder on a motorway, which was the source of much hilarity with our ESOL students .

We therefore, decided to create an Enrichment Toolkit, designed to be used both in and outside of the classroom, which would provide an enhanced learning experience, enabling learners from non-English speaking backgrounds to acquire a range of knowledge, language and insights into issues and themes which are idiomatic, local, national and global.

Our specialists worked in pairs within workshops to develop their ideas using freely available resources such as learning sites, apps, the news (both print and electronic) and podcasts, which would form the basis of the toolkit. They then presented their findings back to the whole group and once agreed, trialled the resources with their learners.

In addition, the creation of learning journals was introduced as a means of getting learners to evidence the work they had done outside of class. Each learner provided their own folder or notebook and was either tasked by their tutor to research certain topics or was left to discover and investigate pre-agreed themes on their own. Themes and topics ranged from news, politics, vocational experiences and social and popular media. Leaners were then asked to feedback and reflect on their learning with useful vocabulary identified, expanded and woven into different contexts.

Successes and Incremental Gains

Our success is that we managed to evidence, deepen and progress our learners’ English language experiences by creating resources and setting tasks that motivated learners to double the time spent outside of the classroom environment, speaking, reading, writing and listening to English.

There were of course a few learners across both organisations that did not want to engage with the resources or tasks due to work or family commitments and were too busy or simply too tired. However, these learners were in the minority and even so they benefited indirectly through the regular ‘Show and Tell’ and ‘Market Stall’ activities, where the other learners presented their learning journals or discussed the use of a particular app and what they had discovered.

The apps were self-explanatory and could be accessed on a range of devices and in short stretches of time, on buses while travelling, for example, or at home during a few spare moments once children were in bed.

The introduction of the learning journals was a huge success, providing a colourful, personal record of discovery, learning and development, where tutors could feedback, focus on particular aspects and get learners to expand by using their own source material within new constructs.

The pride learners felt in the compilation of these journals was evident by the care taken with layouts, the researching of materials and cutting and pasting of newspaper and magazine articles and the enthusiasm in which they related and demonstrated their widening vocabulary. The range of sources used was also staggering from Mariah Carey lyrics to Harry Potter to more serious current affairs and even FGM (female genital mutilation), but gave an indication as to the personalisation and effort put into these journals. They valued their work and recognised their own linguistic developments and in turn their confidence grew.

The staff also enjoyed the experience and confirmed the positive impact the Enrichment Toolkit  was having on their learners. Improvements in communication, clarity of expression, informed opinions, better verb endings and sentence construction were all recognised to have strengthened over course of project. With the effect that 83% of the tutors surveyed felt that their learners were better placed to pass their Functional Skills exams, whilst 80% of learners said that they really enjoyed using the toolkit and compiling their journals and felt better prepared.

Conclusion and Next Steps

Our intention is that the creation of learner-led learning journals becomes embedded into Functional Skills delivery and accompanies the learner through each level, providing an invaluable rich resource for reflection and development. We will also continue to research and work with apps and other distance learning tools, adding to our Enrichment Toolkit, enabling learners to expand their English language horizon beyond their immediate learning environment

This case study was part of our project Practitioner Learning for Functional Skills which was commissioned and funded by the Education and Training Foundation.