We all know that adult learners of English vary enormously - in their motivation, previous learning and personal study skills. The people we work with on the Talk English project are all adults who have settled in the UK for a variety of reasons, from joining family members to escaping war or persecution. Some learners have had a high level of education in their home country, while others may not have attended school. Learners may have an established network of friends and family living close-by or they could be living alone, far away from friends and family. Alongside other things such as health, age, cultural expectations and so on, these differences can influence how quickly adults learn English.
However, another thing which can hinder the progress of many adult learners is a lack of opportunity, or even reluctance, to speak English in real-life situations. Many English teachers will agree that the progress of some of their learners is slower because they rarely speak English outside the classroom. Despite living in the UK, some learners can get by in everyday life without needing to leave their language community or they rely on friends or family members to help them.
How can we promote English use outside of the classroom?
Nasreen had previously relied on her children to help her to communicate with the doctor, the neighbours and at various appointments throughout her adult life, however since taking part in the Talk English project, she now feels a lot more confident to do things for herself. She often talks to her elderly neighbour in English.
The Talk English project has been designed to actively encourage learners to use English outside of the classroom, by offering a blend of learning opportunities. One-to-one mentoring and activities, including visits to museums and galleries, art and craft sessions, community walks and coffee mornings, complement informal English courses delivered by volunteers, and provide additional, authentic opportunities for learners to speak English outside of the classroom.
These enrichment activities provide learners with the chance to meet other people and learn or do something different. As English is the common language, learners, staff and volunteers communicate in English throughout the activity, with volunteers providing the necessary support and guidance needed. The focus is on doing the activity together and learners are motivated to have a go at using their English for real communicative purposes, with less fear of making mistakes or feeling that they have to speak accurately.
Nasreen really enjoyed a 'Walk and Talk English' activity through which she explored the local area with other learners, supported by Talk English volunteers. She said that she could now name different places and types of buildings and she will not forget these words. She has also registered with her local library and borrowed some recipe books, recently baking some flapjack after reading the recipe in English with the help of her daughter. Nasreen has also thoroughly enjoyed a 'Talk English and Crochet' session during which the group chatted in English while crocheting.
Volunteer mentors or as we call them on Talk English, ‘Friends’, provide some learners with much needed one-to-one support and practice, which is focussed on increasing the learner’s independence in their everyday life. This intervention is intended to be a short, sharp burst of support, in order to avoid learners becoming dependent on their volunteer Friend.
Involving the wider community
In addition, the project also offers training to help front-line staff in local businesses and services communicate more effectively in English and be ‘sympathetic listeners’. Alongside the volunteers who teach and support learners on courses and in activities, staff trained as ‘sympathetic listeners’ contribute to making the local environment more welcoming and supportive to people learning English. This encourages learners to use English in their daily lives, developing their confidence and fluency. Additionally, this whole community approach to English language learning builds cohesion and understanding among residents, and reduces the need for interpretation.
‘Through becoming a volunteer with this project, I am more aware of those struggling to speak English and integrate generally and I’m more aware of the differences in peoples' circumstances.’
Talk English Volunteer
Learning English here, there and everywhere
This blend of learning opportunities challenges learners’ preconceptions about how and where learning should and can take place, placing importance on functional English and other skills that learners need for their everyday lives, as well as promoting learners’ confidence and independence, making them more active in their language learning.
Written by Michaela Salmon and Nuala Trace from Manchester City Council. 'Talk English' was the winner of the 2015 ELTons Award for Local Innovation in English language teaching.