Laura Phelps, Head of ESOL, Oasis
What’s the best way to teach language to newcomers in Wales? And how can teachers best be supported to work with refugees and asylum seekers, who may be learning a language while suffering from trauma and navigating the hostile environment created by the UK government? These are the questions we wanted to investigate with our Citizens’ Curriculum project, a partnership between Oasis, the University of South Wales, and Adult Learning Wales.
Oasis is the largest centre in Wales supporting refugees and asylum seekers and we aim to provide a ‘Warm Welsh Welcome’ to all those seeking sanctuary. One of the ways we do this is by offering free ESOL (English for Speakers of Other Languages) classes five days a week. Classes are delivered by a team of around 50 volunteer teachers and teaching assistants, some with a professional background in education and others without. Even those with language teaching qualifications often find it challenging to work with learners seeking sanctuary, as their needs are so immediate and complex; as well as dealing with post-traumatic stress, learners may struggle to carry out even basic tasks like seeing a doctor due to language barriers, and a significant proportion have literacy needs due to disrupted schooling. So we worked with the University of South Wales to design a teacher training course focusing on classroom approaches that may be particularly effective for refugees and asylum seekers.
For many refugees and asylum seekers, ESOL classes are their foremost social space, providing a sense of structure to their lives and offering both linguistic and psychological support. Teachers are often seen as a vital, human bridge to the new society, and they are uniquely placed to support successful integration. For these reasons, many educators now advocate for a participatory approach in the ESOL classroom, one in which space is created for learners to discuss and address issues most relevant to them such as culture shock, money worries, or finding suitable accommodation. ESOL is not just another academic subject, and an externally imposed syllabus does not always allow learners to acquire the language they need for their real lives. Unconstrained by syllabi or assessment regimes, third sector organisations like Oasis are able to offer more participatory classes – as long as teachers are supported to deliver them.
We delivered our teacher training course, called Creative and Participatory Approaches to Language Education, over ten weeks between February and May. Ten participants – five volunteer teachers from Oasis and five paid teachers from Adult Learning Wales – attended for three hours a week, and carried out action research in their classrooms between sessions. Participants had extensive opportunity to discuss their individual research and learn from their peers, as well as receiving more traditional input from experienced ESOL practitioners. This seemed to be an effective approach, as their feedback shows:
“To feel part of a community [of teachers], I really liked that.”
“It felt like a genuine sudden turn, you’re doing stuff that I can directly integrate and apply to my teaching.”
“My lessons are more enjoyable, fun and useful. I’m connecting with learners authentically, tapping into language most valuable to them.”
“The course has made me much, sort of, braver – it’s permissive in a sense. I don’t know why I thought I needed permission, but I was feeling very unconfident when I started.”
“It made me look at ESOL in a whole new way.”
“The course has been nothing short of a revelation.”
Though the course was due to have just one iteration during the Citizens’ Curriculum project, feedback was so positive we have decided to offer it to another group of Oasis volunteers later this year. Our aim is to compare the experiences of the first cohort, who had teaching qualifications and/or experience, with a second cohort who have come to Oasis with entirely different professional backgrounds. And our hope is that by helping all volunteers to feel more comfortable in a participatory classroom, with learners’ real-life needs and interests at the heart of every lesson, newcomers to Wales can more quickly feel part of our community and rebuild their lives.