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Five ways to boost learner confidence in Esol and beyond

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With learners from diverse backgrounds, ongoing funding cuts and constantly changing qualifications, teachers of Esol (English for speakers of other languages) face great challenges. Another is how to boost students’ confidence. Often learners are acutely aware of what they find difficult in English and how this affects their chances in further study or employment. This can knock their self-assurance, especially because they don’t always get a sympathetic ear from native English speakers.

Here are a few ways to build learners’ confidence. Most are transferable to any subject area, or might help if you work with students who have progressed from Esol classes.


1. Celebrate what learners can do

It’s easy to focus on what students can’t do when they come to us: aspects of grammar or particular skills they need to develop in order to gain their qualifications. But learners have so many skills we can celebrate that will actually help to develop their English. They will all speak at least one other language fluently and, in a country that is notoriously bad at developing language skills, this should be celebrated.

In the past there has been an “English-only” tendency in class, but this ignores the benefits of making links with learners’ first or other languages. Students often have other skills or interests, such as music or sport, and sharing these can boost their confidence and engagement. It may be a way to encourage them to learn relevant vocabulary, or simply a way to help them feel good about themselves, which is something we all need sometimes.


2. Use role models to inspire

However confident an individual may be, the jump from an entry-level Esol course to a level 2 programme or a place at university can feel like a huge one. Sometimes the time required can demoralise learners. Using peers who have already made progress and achieved their goals as role models is a real confidence booster. It can make students’ ambitions seem more tangible and focus them on what they need to do to succeed.


3. Give regular, meaningful feedback

Most of us are familiar with Smart (specific, measurable, achievable, relevant, timely) targets. Like many Esol teachers, I’m not their greatest fan. Language learning doesn’t fit a formula and there is a big difference between knowing how to do something (such as forming the past-simple tense) and doing it consistently. Feedback that highlights learners’ strengths and gives them realistic ways to improve is invaluable.


4. Encourage peer- and self-assessment

Most students want confirmation that they have completed a task; “I’ve finished” is one of the first phrases many teenage learners perfect. Working in small groups or pairs to assess their work helps students to develop proofreading skills and identify mistakes. This process of discussion is part of language learning. It also takes the pressure off individuals who may be less confident orally and need time to listen to others.


5. Know your students

Although much of the content we deliver to our learners focuses on personal information, it can often be formulaic. If we hand more control to students and let them choose what they want to share, we may get to know them better. At the same time, allowing them to take the lead can develop confidence that they can build on outside the classroom.

Diana Tremayne is an Esol teacher at an FE college in West Yorkshire. She is currently co-chair of the National Association for Teaching English and other Community Languages to Adults (NATECLA). @dianatremayne

This is an edited version of an article in the 9 October 2015 edition of TES. To read the full article, subscribe to TES

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