The learners that publishers forgot

This month Kathryn Aldridge-Morris outlines the specific language-learning needs of refugees and asylum seekers. The MaWSIG blog features guest posts by members – please get in touch if you would like to write for us. 

Kathryn Aldridge-Morris pic

Around June, online ESOL forums start buzzing with requests for advice about teaching materials for September, and the same frustrations come to the surface year after year – while there are a handful of dedicated ESOL resources, most coursebooks are for EFL, and there’s nothing that really hits the spot. Around 4.2 million people in the UK live in households where English is not the main language, according to the 2011 Census, and nearly 1 million speak either poor English or none at all. Thousands of migrants are learning English in the UK and in English-speaking countries, and thousands more are learning in refugee camps across Europe. ELT volunteers working there need materials to help people learn an international language with which to communicate basic needs.

Some publishers have spotted the UK market and have mapped their EFL content to the ESOL Core Curriculum, not just to the CEFR. This is a good move. FE teachers are required to produce reams of paperwork with schemes of work mapped to this curriculum and they are looking for mapped coursebooks. In some FE colleges the distinction between ESOL and EFL has also become more blurred, now that classes typically include students from Europe and that funding cuts have squeezed out pre-entry levels.

However, since 2009 funding for ESOL classes has been cut by 55 percent. This has meant that while most provision still takes place in formal settings such as FE colleges, more and more classes are being delivered in the community. Increasing numbers of learners are taking English classes in informal settings that are low-tech and not designed as teaching spaces: community centres, church halls, women’s refuges and even learners’ homes.

So we see that there is a huge range of ESOL provision, and there are many ESOL settings where teachers may struggle to use published materials wholesale because the needs of some ESOL learners – refugees and asylum seekers – are significantly different from those of EFL learners. These are the learners that slip through the net; they may not be eligible for classes, or ironically, their level of English may not be high enough to enrol on a course.

The following short vignette of a local ESOL teaching setting provides an insight into the complex needs of refugees and asylum seekers learning English in the UK. Once you’ve read it, consider the ways in which EFL materials that you use or write might not always be appropriate for such a context. How might you adapt them? What lifestyle do the photographs illustrating your materials depict? Are refugees still ‘the other’ in your materials? How might this raise problems with mixed classes in community settings?

I provide voluntary teacher training and occasional cover to a couple of charities working with refugees and asylum seekers. Charities that offer English language support do so in tandem with other support services, such as trauma tapping, acupuncture, chiropody (the learners here often spend the whole day walking), the Red Cross and food banks.

Half of the learners are pre-entry/Entry Level 1 (A1 and below). Typically, there will be learners in the beginner groups who are not literate in their first language or who are not familiar with the Roman script. The scope of topics in EFL course books is fairly standard at this level: myself, my home, hobbies, daily routine, travelling, family and jobs.

Some people come to voluntary English classes in the community because they may not be ready for college, they don’t feel comfortable going or they may have serious mental health issues; others are asylum seekers, so they’re not eligible for college places. Many live in homeless hostels or temporary accommodation, or they sleep on friends’ sofas. They also come to get a cup of tea, to get shelter, to meet friends, to have a hug. If you want to practise talking about ‘daily routines’ the answer is nearly always the same; as one man said, ‘I walk. Every day I walk. I get up at 6 o’clock because the other people in my room make noise. Then I walk until night time.’

If you live in a hostel, you are often not allowed in during certain hours of the day. Asylum seekers and refugees have no money. Asylum seekers are not allowed to work. It is not uncommon to meet asylum seekers who have lived this transient existence for six or seven years while their applications have been in the system. The Home Office requires evidence, but when you are fleeing for your life you don’t have time to gather this evidence. Unlike the criminal justice system, the burden is on asylum seekers to prove their innocence – that’s why the process can take so long. You can only appeal if you get fresh evidence – that’s why teaching digital literacy is so important, to help asylum seekers to gather this evidence.

One Iraqi that I sometimes teach one-to-one shows me his Home Office ID card; written across the bottom is FORBIDDEN TO TAKE UP WORK. It’s shocking to see it there in black and white, this impersonal, bureaucratic decree that is putting the lives of midwives, engineers, welders, teachers, you name it, on hold. It’s important to never forget that even though these learners are beginners in English, many have already mastered professions in their home countries. So when I’m looking for materials to help them with the Roman alphabet, I’m absolutely not going to use kids’ books or infantile phonics resources, or a box of toy letters on the top shelf of the resources cupboard.

The higher-level classes take place in the back of an adjoining hall and the beginners classes are held in the dining hall. The volunteer chefs clatter around in the kitchen and the smell of dhal fills the air by 10. Students get a free cup of tea and slice of cake and bring them over to where I’m sitting. We sit around a plastic-coated table and I hand out pencils and old folders that I’ve found at the back of my loft. There’s no Wi-Fi and one small A4-sized whiteboard. So it’s low-tech, and I’m looking round the resources cupboard for print-based activities I can use. There’s a basic vocab-matching worksheet for beginners – but this is making the assumption that everyone begins learning in a formal classroom and that classroom vocab is the priority: whiteboard, exercise book, rubber. It’s just not relevant here.

In the beginners group (pre-entry level/A1 and below) everyone has lost family members in the past two years; some have family members missing and are using the drop-in Red Cross family tracing service that day, and others are part of divided families. One Yazidi man is reeling from the news that his wife and four children, currently in a refugee camp in Jordan, have just been refused asylum in the UK. Some of the women have been trafficked.

The classes are very disrupted in nature, with learners arriving late or leaving early for appointments. Others can’t sit for long periods of time because of chronic pain. One man has to leave class early to get to the optician. It occurs to me that he doesn’t know the names of the letters of the alphabet. When I see him the next week wearing a new pair of glasses, I wonder if they’re the correct strength.

On the hoof, I make a pelmanism game with some cardboard from a cereal packet in the kitchen. A Syrian asylum seeker smiles weakly and joins in. In his delicate, bony hand he holds a card with a verb in the past tense. It’s an irregular past, and somewhere, under a sea of cards spread across a donated plastic table, he realises he has to find the present.

Kathryn Aldridge-Morris is a writer, editor and teacher trainer and the co-chair of the NATECLA South West branch. She’s published in the field of MFL, EFL and ESOL. She was a project coordinator for the British Council’s ESOL Nexus website and is the author of How to Write ESOL Materials (2015, ELT T2W).

13 thoughts on “The learners that publishers forgot

  1. Thank you for writing this Kathryn. It’s a powerful post and has really moved me. I wonder if there is anything we can do together to help. I knew about the differences between ESOL and EFL but your first hand experience has really brought home the dire situation in which some people are learning (and teaching). Maybe we could form a volunteer group and write some materials/lesson plans that could be downloaded as a pdf … I’d be more than happy to join in. I’m sure lots of colleagues would too, after reading this.

    1. Thanks for this post, it’s a very realistic portrayal of many contexts in the UK. It’s particularly relevant for learners at beginner levels of literacy, English and general ‘living in the UK’.

      It’s definitely true that there’s very little in terms of resources for learners at this level. It’s the context that we had in mind when we were producing materials for English My Way (they are free and you can get them here:, but there’s obviously a massive range of needs. I’d be great to have more resources.

      For people interested in the area I’d really recommend looking at stuff from Action for ESOL ( English for Action ( and Reflect ESOL from Action Aid (

    2. Thank you for your warm response Katherine. If this post has inspired ELT writers like yourself to start considering ESOL materials writing, then it’s achieved something 🙂

  2. Great article, Kathryn! I’m an Oxford-based ELT Editor, but run a voluntary teaching organisation in my spare time. We encounter many of the issues you describe! We have five classes per week, often fifty learners per class, but only one room (a church hall) in which to teach. Leading two classes simultaneously in one small room is quite a challenge!

    We have a dedicated team of volunteers (many authors and editors, but also a few non-ELTers) but adapting materials for our unusual classroom situation (not to mention the specific needs of some of our learners) is always a challenge.

    Maybe the wider ELT community can help?

    1. Thanks for the comment Caroline! I think it’s fantastic that those learners have got such expert volunteers. Your class sizes are indicative of the great demand for ESOL out there and yes, it’s incredibly challenging to teach large groups in a shared learning space.

      As you say, it’s difficult to have to be constantly creating materials for such an unusual set up and for the huge range of linguistic contexts (often quite unique) that asylum seekers and refugees need to deal with. Moreover, volunteers like yourself are giving up your time, as well as working. Wouldn’t it be great to have a much wider range of materials, at all levels to allow for progression, and specifically produced for ESOL, that you could simply pick off the shelf and walk into class with?

      In answer to your question, my hope is that the wider ELT *publishing* community will start to find some way to meet the needs of these learners; whether it’s big publishing houses, or finding a way for ESOL writers to share their resources or some ed tech company that creates an app for English language learning in refugee camps … so many possibilities…

  3. Really interesting article. Reminds me of when I first started out as a volunteer in London working with Bangladeshi women who rarely left the house and if they did it was with their husband or a male relative.

    I started teaching in a community hall, but we had to leave after a month and ended up teaching in the living room of a student’s flat – 10 of us all perched on sofas.

    I had no material and little experience and would have loved to have had some materials to use.

    It would be great if there were materials available that were cheap to download/print. Or even ideas for activities and materials that teachers could produce themselves would be helpful.

    1. Thank you for your comment Sarah. Your anecdote is inspiring me to collate the experiences of ESOL teachers into an anthology!

      There are indeed hundreds of non-ELT professionals volunteering with ESOL learners, who perhaps don’t have the confidence to adapt or create materials. They may also struggle with inappropriate resources that could fall flat and then they are left with no back- up for the rest of the class.

      So yes, another good argument for ESOL resources!

  4. Great article, Kathryn, it really chimed with me as I teach (with Caroline, above) at FELLOW in Oxford. I tend to use materials from books I’ve written and adapt them for the situation of my students, but your post has made me realise that there are NO decent materials available to teachers of ESOL students who are refugees and asylum seekers. And there really should be! Katherine B’s suggestion is great but … where to start? You really have made me put on my thinking cap on now …

  5. Very moving – and a timely reminder of how simple effective lessons can be, given the emphasis on flipped classrooms & blended learning in our institution. Thanks for the beautiful poetic image of your student looking for the present…

  6. This is a really good post, and a lot of what you are describing is familiar to me as an ESOL teacher in Scotland. However, I’m surprised that asylum seekers in England are not able to access ESOL courses in FE colleges. In Scotland, asylum seekers are able to study on part-time or full-time ESOL FE programmes, allowing them to attain nationally accredited qualifications. They are also able to study for other FE qualifications at colleges, though only on a part-time basis.
    Education in Scotland is a devolved matter and, while there are many aspects of Scottish FE that I would criticise, the fact that asylum seekers can access ESOL and other FE programmes is one thing that we can be thankful for.

    1. Thanks for your reply Steve – the Scots always seem to be more progressive than the English! We’re following your lead though and NATECLA have recently been working on a national ESOL strategy for England (there is one for Scotland and Wales). Hopefully policy makers and funders will take note and provision will made for those falling through the net.

  7. Hi Kathryn,I have just read your article on adapting resources for ESOL classes. I teach in Melbourne Australia and with a colleague have recently published 3 cds/ workbooks for our ESOL refugee/asylum seeker students… Sing With Me. We are finding teachers and students really enjoy this approach as language activities are built in. Our songs are based on student experiences so are quite relevant. I will be in London next week (nov30th) and would love to meet up with teachers or visit a language centre if you know of one.You can check out our website http://www.urbanlyrebirds and youtube channel with some clips of our songs. We also do workshops on using song in the language classroom. Thanks! Carmel

    1. Hi Carmel
      I’m sorry, I’ve not been getting notifications of new posts so I’ve only just seen your message and I’m afraid I may have missed your visit. Thank you for the information about your resources – they look fun for the classroom. I’m in the process of updating my ebook ‘How to Write ESOL Resources’ for the print version out in mid-December and have included them in my recommended ESOL resources section.
      Best wishes,

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