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So what do you expect?

September 14, 2013

If you google the question “How long does it take to learn English?”, you’re likely to get a range of answers, which is understandable. The general opinion seems to be that it takes about 120 hours to complete a level, whatever that is (I posted about this the other week, but let’s not go there today – I use “level” for want of a better word), so about 360 hours to get from beginner to B1. This would certainly tie in with my experience in Central and Eastern Europe in the 1990s, where it was quite normal for a student to study part-time and go from being a beginner to passing FCE in the space of 2 years. There was very little access to English texts or recordings in those days (the Internet had only just started to exist) and for most students the only exposure they got to English was two or three times a week in the classroom, often after a hard day at work.

Now I work in the UK, and most of my students are settled immigrants – asylum-seekers, refugees or migrant workers. They either have jobs or are looking for work, many of them have children in local schools, they can access English simply by stepping outside of their homes or switching on their TVs. And yet, if a student studies English at a Scottish college, the expectation is that it would take over 2000 hours to progress from A1 to B2 level. That’s four times as long as the students I used to teach in Central and Eastern Europe.


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Why should it be that students living, working and actively participating in an English speaking society should take so much longer to make progress than students with very little exposure and few opportunities to practice the language? This question has puzzled me since I started working in the UK. There are many possible reasons, which I’ll summarise briefly here before exploring one idea in greater depth.

Maybe they’re just not very good at learning.

It’s true that asylum seekers and refugees have often had limited or disrupted access to education. Lack of L1 literacy and lack of prior experience in the classroom can have a big impact on learners’ abilities to learn. However, this is something that we have addressed at my workplace; there are special courses and accredited qualifications for ESOL literacy learners, and we have previously made study skills and academic guidance a major component in our courses. This seems to have had a limited effect. Besides, students with limited learning backgrounds are in the minority these days; the majority of our students completed high school, and it’s difficult to see how the educational background of Polish students in Glasgow would impact on learning differently to that of Polish students in Poland.

Maybe we’re just not very good at teaching

There’s a fair amount of snobbery and misunderstanding about EFL and ESOL, which I’ve written about before. Teachers on both “sides” seem to think they have very different approaches to teaching. However, most English teachers I know in further education also have experience teaching abroad or in the private sector, and have the knowledge and skills to take the best from both approaches. In my workplace, all of us are DELTA/DipTESOL qualified, most of us also have a generic teaching qualification for the state sector, and we all have a minimum of 12 years’ experience. It’s difficult to accept that we could be worse at teaching than teachers in private language schools, who frequently employ people straight off the CELTA.

Motivational Issues

You would think that people living in the UK would be highly motivated to learn English, and it’s true that our students tend to be very aware of the value it can add to their lives. However, the fact is that it is possible to live in the UK and function within a limited range of circles without having much English at all. Although the possibility exists to do more, arrivals to this country often work and socialise within their own language groups; actual integration, which improved English would allow them to achieve, requires them to move out of their L1/limited English comfort zone. Many of our students are already quite settled within this comfort zone by the time they come to us, and seem to face some sort of motivational conflict as a result; the easy option is to just stay bad at English and live within their existing limited circles.

Scott Thornbury is currently blogging about fossilization (or stabilization, if you want a nicer word) – the phenomenon of learners achieving a certain level of linguistic (in)competence and then not making any further progress. I feel that motivation must be a key factor in this, and I expect Thornbury will cover this area at some point soon, much better than I could.

Anyway, if we return to the FE context, I think there is another factor that can help to explain the slow progress of English students in the college sector, and it’s this:

Low expectations

Full-time further education courses usually last a year, and are set at a specific level on the SCQF, or NQF in England and Wales. I don’t know if it’s similar in the rest of the UK, but in order to receive funding, a full-time course in Scotland needs to consist of a minimum of 540 hours of class contact plus a notional 180 hours of self-study.

So, in order to fit within the existing FE construct, full-time ESOL courses consist of 540-hours taught at one level over the course of an academic year. It is therefore presented as “normal” for students to take 540 hours to complete a level – over 2000 hours and 4 years to get close to achieving any kind of useful IELTS score.

Now, I don’t know about you, but if I went to live in Korea, for example, and was told that if I studied full-time for a whole year, the best I could expect my Korean to be would be elementary, I’d find this rather hard to accept. I’d find it particularly hard if my kids became more or less fluent in Korean after just a few months in school and with only a small amount of additional support. Eventually though, after being told this by every Korean language provider I went to, I might come to accept this prognosis about my language learning capacity. I’d probably get really depressed and it would inevitably impact on my motivation and, consequently, my ability to learn.

Yet this is exactly what FE colleges tell their learners all the time. We present them with a curriculum which suggests that we don’t expect them to progress much and, as a result, they end up having low expectations of themselves.

It’s well documented that high motivation can lead to success, and that success increases motivation. This is a cycle that all education providers need to tap into; if we have high expectations, we’ll allow students more opportunities to progress, which can increase motivation, leading to further success, which then allows expectations to rise further.

I’m concerned, however, that full-time FE ESOL courses in Scotland could in fact lead to a downward cycle; if we have low expectations of our students, we don’t allow them opportunities to achieve  as much as they could. Lack of progress progress leads to demotivation, which in turn leads to a lack of success, and this lack of success leads us to have low expectations of the learners, and so it goes on.

I know my description is more depressing than the reality. I know that some wonderful teaching goes on in FE colleges and that on a daily basis teachers help students overcome all sorts of barriers to become successful. However, the system we are working within doesn’t facilitate this. The length of time students are kept at a level doesn’t match their potential for progress and achievement.

So what can we do about this? One obvious answer would be to reduce the length of each level to allow students to progress faster. However, this would have funding implications, as each course would then be defined as part-time.

Another approach would be to ensure that mechanisms exist for students to transfer into higher levels if they are making good progress. But then this still gives the message that students who make quicker progress are abnormal in some way. Besides, with all the pressure on colleges these days to have good key performance indicators, how would ESOL managers feel about the strongest students moving into more challenging courses? The safer option is to keep them where they are so the results look good. Please note I’m criticising the system here, not the managers.

Another approach, which we have adopted at my workplace this year, is to increase the number of outcomes that students can achieve on a course. They’re still operating linguistically at the same “level” (whatever that means), but the achievement of units in other areas allows them to use the language in a broader range of contexts, makes the course content more valid, and provides learners with a greater sense of achievement, leading to higher motivation and, as a result, success.

Apart from the above ideas, which can only really be addressed at management or sector level, there is still plenty that teachers can do to ensure their students progress at the fastest rate possible. Perhaps the most important thing is to remain mindful of the fact that if we raise our expectations of our students, we allow them to have higher expectations of themselves and, as a result, we create the possibility for them to be more successful.

Never mind Demand-High ELT. Expect High is what I’m going for this year.

(For more on connections between motivation, expectations and success, try Dornyei, Z. and Ushioda, E. (2011): Teaching and Researching Motivation, Pearson.)

  1. Hi Steve,

    It sounds like a nice problem to have, frankly! Yes, I think you’re right that you need to differentiate instruction to provide meaningful challenge to those who progress quickly, and you are left with the luxury of time to assist the slow learners. There will always be some of these — I’ve seen enough variation in learning speed that I can’t account for in terms of motivation, access, study skills, etc. that I do believe some people simply have better hardware for language learning than others (on a bell curve, presumably, but to a pretty extreme degree in some cases). A traditional course makes it very hard to accommodate a range of learning speeds.

    Your suggestion about exposing students to other “areas” is telling, I believe. The notion of a “level” is an altitude metaphor, rather like marble saints standing on pinnacles on gothic cathedrals to symbolise their moral superiority. The accompanying image of climbing a mountain to represent the language learning project tells us to expect a hard slog akin to physical exercise, in which we will experience the accompanying side-effects of fatigue and flagging stamina, but hopefully also leaner and fitter muscles and a sense of elation when we look down to see how far we’ve come. It also implies the existence of an attainable summit. I suspect many problems are exacerbated by the poor fit of this pervasive metaphor.

    By using the word “area” above, I think you shifted to a metaphor of learning as attaining familiarity with places. I think of this as a far better metaphor all round. Suppose you go to an unfamiliar place and you meet a local — they don’t stand any taller than you but they can efficiently achieve things in their environment that you, the outsider, can only accomplish laboriously, if at all. So far so easy, but this metaphor can take us a bit further. Our hypothetical local could be a person with lively curiosity who likes her own town and knows it really well. She will have a narrow but thorough knowledge, and be well-practised and accurate in performance, though she can’t stray far from her own town without being clueless. Another local is a wide traveller in his country, and knows lots of places but comparatively superficially. A third person simply isn’t very curious, and just doesn’t gather as much knowledge as either of the previous people. I think the parallel with language knowledge is obvious.

    Moreover, this metaphor shows that knowledge of language, and of the linguistic causeways into knowledge areas that make use of language, are limitless. Proficiency has to be measured by the efficiency with which a person can achieve aims, and their performance is likely to be diverse, since the range of conceivable aims is diverse. From this perspective the problem of “levelling” students who have an imbalance of skills looks patently absurd. Some are better at one thing, such as writing essays, than they are at another, such as speaking. Do these students have one leg a mile further up the mountainside than the other? You can only place specific performances on a scale, not internally diverse, multifaceted people.

    So I suggest guiding the students around lots of fascinating “areas” with your abundance of time, and leave it to those who will to worry about altitude.

    • Hi Max,
      Thanks for raising the opposite problem, where teachers are expected to work miracles in a very short space of time. I think this exists a lot more in the private sector, where managers are pressured by the often unrealistic expectations of learners (elementary students needing 6.0 in IELTS by next Tuesday) into providing courses that push students up the “levels” when they actually need longer to explore and get to grips with the language they’ve been taught. This problem is exacerbated by the whole notion of “levels”, as your mountain/area metaphors describe very well.
      I don’t know if you saw my post about levels the other week:-
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      A lot of what you’re saying ties in very much with what I was trying to say there.
      Back to this post, despite our shared concern that in many contexts teachers are expected to push their students beyond their abilities, I feel that my current context doesn’t push them enough. There seems to be a prevailing culture that learners in FE ESOL classes can’t learn English very quickly. I’m very well aware of the many barriers to learning they face, but both teachers and learners seem to be very quick to use these barriers as reasons for slow progress, rather than working on how to remove them.
      Thanks again for your useful comment.

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