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Discourses We Live By

Hazel R. Wright
Marianne Høyen

V. Discourses that explore or reveal diversity : facing choice and change

18. The Needs of Low-Literate Migrants When Learning the English Language

Monica Mascarenhas


Monica Mascarenhas considers language-teaching provision for migrants to Britain, its instrumentality, its universality and its oblivion to their backgrounds, concerns, losses, and aspirations. A former language lecturer, she collected the life stories of students with low-level or no literacy in their home languages in order to seek ways to better motivate them to learn. She finds that fundamental changes are needed if such teaching is to be effective.

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‘Inside I want to scream, but I can only whisper; I am too weak… I want everyone to hear me. I want to give my scars a voice!’

‘When I can read and write all the letters, I will be a lawyer! I will go back and help all the people in my country.’

‘I was enslaved, but my children will be free! ’

‘I cannot help my children with their homework; they already know more than I do, so I pretend I am busy… ’

‘I was an ‘untouchable’. Now I am invisible! ’

‘My parents constantly told me I was not clever, so I had to work hard from the age of five to help pay for my brothers and sisters’ education.’

‘I was brought up in a brothel. They always told me that pretty girls don’t need to go to school.’

1And this is how this chapter begins — but not how the story ends. This is a never-ending story. Here is a glimpse of what is happening in the background, when some migrants want to access education and make a living in the UK.

  • 1 English for Speakers of Other Languages.
  • 2 Within the UK and Ireland, FE colleges provide courses for post-compulsory learners other than the (...)

2Successive UK governments have funded ESOL1 courses because they want migrants to integrate into society, but I suggest that these, often utilitarian, courses impose a restricted language that enables low-level employment rather than grasping the needs of immigrants and motivating them to play a full and active role as citizens. As a former Language teacher in an English Further Education2 (FE) College I became increasingly aware that courses constrained rather than enabled students; I was therefore determined to undertake qualitative research to examine why this was the case.

3With twelve students who had enrolled on my courses in the past, I carried out detailed in-depth interviews, sometimes in English, sometimes in their European language of choice, seeking to find out what motivated them to learn English and also what motivated them more generally. Using a life history approach, I asked about their early life experiences, their move to the UK and their life here, engendering open conversations by prefacing each prompt with the simple phrase ‘Tell me about… ’. The participants were keen to talk and brought in pictures, photographs and drawings to support their accounts. I gathered a wealth of material that illuminated the reasons why they decided to immigrate, and what has happened to them since. These I presented as ‘stories’ to allow them an impact that transcends the often hesitant, repetitive, even harrowing, narratives that we pieced together, together. However, I kept true to the emotions expressed and used the participants’ words whenever possible to provide authenticity and give a strong and powerful voice to a group of people whose stories often go unheard.

When Language Teaching Walks Past Language Learning

4In this chapter I focus on aspects of some of the stories from my research, but also on the role of language learning in supporting migrants’ new lives, for I found in the study that those who had not achieved full literacy in their country of origin needed to learn how to learn before they were ready to learn a new language. This is an element that is not currently recognized within ESOL provision, which follows set guidelines intended to make it both efficient and effective. In contrast, the stories I excavated clearly demonstrate a need for ‘artful’ language teaching, teaching that takes into consideration the learners’ cultural and personal experiences and tries to add meaning, relevance, authenticity and purpose to their lives. We need to take the learners’ individual histories, their private dreams, their hopes and fears, their desires and aspirations into account if we are to be able to teach them to express themselves in English and enable them to communicate fully in a new language. Basic vocabulary and phrases intended to enable low-paid work are not enough if migrants are to make meaningful social and economic contributions within their countries of choice.

5The twelve participants (ten women and two men) are adult immigrants to England (aged twenty-five to fifty-plus) who have left a variety of countries and contexts to settle in the UK. To protect their identities, they have been allocated a pseudonym, from a list of precious stones, e.g., Amethyst, Jade, Quartz, etc.

6To contextualize my study, I investigated different aspects of learning. In addition to the formal learning experienced in the classroom, Griff Foley (2004) identified three additional dimensions to be important for adults: non-formal, informal and incidental. Formal education is the most familiar form of learning in Western societies. It is organized by institutions, it follows a set curriculum, is highly regarded and is recognized in the form of certificates or grades. Non-formal education has a temporal element to it, adding another dimension to learning. Foley (2004, p. 4) talks about a ‘one-off or sporadic’ method of instruction, which occurs mostly when people need to learn a skill for a purpose, such as how to operate a whiteboard, a projector or a machine. Indeed, in a study of formal and non-formal learning in language acquisition, Sarah Eaton (2011) explores the skills transferred from a mother to a child as she passes on language knowledge to her young child, prior to school age, without having to explain about grammar structures.

7Informal learning occurs ‘when people consciously try to learn from their experience’ (Foley 2004, p. 4). This can be done, for example, in classroom discussions, meetings, consultations and reviews. Similar ideas were proposed in an article by the Linguistic Integration of Adult Migrants (LIAM) on the Council of Europe Portal, but — in my opinion misguidedly — the ideas were seen as an innovative response to enabling cost-effective learning at a time when large numbers of refugees are moving around the world:

… in the short term it makes much better sense, and is certainly more affordable, to involve volunteers in the organisation of social activities that promote non-formal and informal language learning. If appropriately designed and efficiently implemented, such activities can provide migrant learners with a sound basis for participating in formal language courses at a later stage if that is judged to be desirable or necessary. (LIAM, 2018)

8However well intended, this approach is not equipped to cater for the needs of those who have never been in education, those who do not have a concept of number, those who cannot see the purpose of writing and are not used to attending organized opportunities for learning.

9Informal learning is less valued than formal learning in Western societies because it is unstructured and hard to control, but both are valid forms of learning, and deserve equal recognition. Informal learning can happen anywhere and anytime throughout one’s life, and so it did for the twelve participants in this study. Nevertheless, current emphasis on policies and formal, classroom-based, ESOL practices seldom cater for experiential learning.

10Fourthly, incidental learning, again undervalued, is constant and ongoing throughout our lives. It is not planned; it just happens. We are continually learning from our everyday activities, jobs and family. However, as powerful as this learning is, it may also be disempowering. Foley claims that incidental learning ‘may be constructive or destructive […] if there is learning, there is also non-learning […] people can fail to learn or resist learning’ (Foley, 2004, p. 5). In the current UK education system, some learners resist learning in order to preserve a sense of identity; some fail to see the value of what they are learning. Yet others see the learning journey as a no-win situation, and study participants often voiced this view, reminding me that educators need to be aware of their power to enable or disable learners.

11Pertinently, Morrice (2014) reminds us of the need to explore the ever-expanding socio-cultural environments and learning processes. In terms of learning experiences, the world is no longer fragmented by physical borders or oceans. Travelling is no longer prohibitively expensive. Budget airlines facilitate movement of people and cultural exchanges. Money is also easily transferred around the world, facilitating other experiences, including numeracy and financial literacy skills. In the current climate of international migration, such developments are highly important. Nowadays, migrants engage in transnational communication facilitated by modern technology. Migrants can keep in touch with their relatives in their country of origin and in other countries too. They can exchange learned experiences and information, enabling ‘receivers’ to extend their existing knowledge repertoires. A common example of this is how stories, songs or even recipes are exchanged and disseminated around the world. Migrants who travel a long way to their destination, sometimes on foot and risking their lives, become exposed to a variety of learning episodes. Whether positive or negative events, travel experiences are invaluable learning in one way or another (Alenius, 2016).

12During my conversations/interviews with the twelve participants it became evident that what is missing is not the certification, but the acknowledgement that for migrants to perform life tasks there was substantial learning somewhere along the way. For example, Sapphire mentions knowing how to clean her house, make her own clothes and cook for the family, but does so without having any certificates to confirm her extensive abilities. According to Crystal, her father was a competent professional, functioning at a high level in their country of origin, but he is currently deemed poorly skilled and illiterate in the UK. Quartz tells us that he used to build houses and make furniture and was proud of his manual skills. In the UK he is functioning at a basic level (Pre-Entry I), is currently on probation and looking for work. His low literacy skills disable him from obtaining the certificates necessary to prove that he is an experienced and competent craftsman, so he is unemployed and deskilled by the process of trying to acquire this certification.

13It is crucial to understand that these skilled people, who were able to cope with life in extraordinary circumstances, are being demoted due to the misconception of what it is to be considered skilled. Failing to link experiences to skills may be leading to this limited perception of learning. A participant who travelled to the UK ‘country by country’ for months (Crystal), overcoming many challenges along the way, is now thought to be incompetent due to her lack of literacy skills. This is at best shortsighted. Indeed, Skills for Life courses do not mean that, on completion, the student is skilled for life, possibly even the opposite. Unless existing skills are acknowledged and built upon, newly acquired skills may sit in a vacuum. Informal, non-formal or incidental learning, and skills acquired through a variety of experiences, have a high cognitive value. In a world of multimedia, the more information becomes informal, the more learning can become seamless, almost without borders.

The Meaning(s) of Literacy

14Literacy is a ‘core component of the right to education’ according to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UNESCO, 2013, p. 17), yet although it is clearly of ‘critical importance’ for development, it was not clearly part of the Millennium Development Goals (UNESCO, 2013, p. 19). Globally, literacy privileges those who possess it, and in countries that are highly literate, it stigmatizes those who do not (ibid., p. 20). Illiteracy is still seen as an illness needing to be cured. Being able to read and write and work with numbers is ‘an essential requirement for active participation in society’ (ibid., p. 17). However, a more recent report provides us with a clear message: ‘Investing in the education of those on the move is the difference between laying a path to frustration and unrest, and laying a path to cohesion and peace’ (UNESCO, 2019, p. iii).

15The debate around literacy is by no means new. In 1970, Paulo Freire succinctly conceptualized literacy as reading the world as well as the word. Freire

… saw the power of literacy as a way of reflecting back to learners their own lived experiences, not in a direct and immediate way but systematised and amplified through dialogue, as part of educational process. (Goodman et al., 2003, p. 94)

16Many years on, and the definition of the term literacy is still subject to discussion; still controversial, as opinions differ on what its meaning entails. Indeed, what it means to be literate, and what literacy is, are concepts in constant debate. Definitions of literacy still seem to be based around the ability to read and write ‘appropriately’ or to an acceptable level determined by the current standards. Nonetheless, it is not known what level this requires. Certainly, it is highly subjective (Cambridge Assessment Report, 2013).

17In my conversations with Crystal she told me that she was perceived as a ‘good student’, who knew ‘all the letters of the alphabet’, which was highly regarded in her country of origin and very useful to her family as she could write shopping lists for her mother and help her father with reading his correspondence. However, once she arrived in the UK, those skills were taken for granted and Crystal was expected to access a more comprehensive range of skills to be considered literacy-competent.

18In practice, there has to be a great deal more to literacy than just being able to read and write. Acknowledging multiple literacies and knowing the wider perspectives that offer plausible explanations for the variety of views on ‘illiteracy’ would be a good place to start. Brian Street (1995), for example, offered a perspective on social literacies that bypasses the great divide between literacy and illiteracy. Indeed, Street advocates for the view that literacies are multiple and, consequently, that their uses are situated in multiple social contexts. However, this also means that literacies and their contexts may indisputably be associated with ideology and power. Conceptualizing literacy as an autonomous and universal skill is nothing but a power exercise (Street, 1995).

19Focusing more locally, Foley argued in 2004 that a new learning paradigm is in order, one that ‘links learners to the environment in which learning takes place’ (Foley 2004, p. 19). This makes sense, as learning occurs in many contexts and if such links are overlooked, teachers will miss opportunities to expand and build on those valuable prior learning experiences.

20However, the macro- and micro-levels are inevitably interdependent and Hamilton and Hillier (2006) articulate these connections in their discussions of both the manipulation of social policy by the powerful and the role of agency within and below this level. Stories from the participants in my study make the dissonance between what policy offers and what people need very evident, and the mismatch very visible. The current placing of ESOL under the umbrella of Skills for Life distances ESOL even further from its core purpose and the paucity of provision is exacerbated by poor funding. At the policy level, migrants are being supported to learn English; at the practical level this often fails to happen, and the policymakers are unaware of, or do not choose to recognize this gap. This is where my study sits, as it captures the reality of these courses from an ESOL student’s perspective, giving those accessing English-language teaching a voice to be heard. Despite ample evidence for the support of multiple literacies, literacy is still often perceived and taught as a skill: a subject that can be learned and tested against whatever current literacy strategy is in place at the time.

Literacy Practices

21It becomes apparent that the preference for seeing literacy as literacies, in the plural form, is an approach inclusive of many literacy abilities; literacies as social practices for a variety of social purposes. Literacy cannot be seen as a stand-alone skill and it is indeed closely linked to context. Literacy practices change as one makes sense of them and as one applies informal learning to everyday life (Barton, 2006). It does involve skills, and participants described some that they possess, but these are rarely recognized in cultures that privilege formal schooling. During the interviews, participants assured me that they have some valuable skills. Some are able to recognize icons and identify the purposes of letters coming home from their children’s school, without knowing how to read. Similarly, they go shopping and are able to identify the products they want. Crystal writes shopping lists for her mother, and Jade cooks for her children and neighbours, showing that she can follow basic recipes, using her skills as a social practice. Participants also appear to be able to use their mobile phones without any difficulties. Opal uses the pictures on her mobile phone to keep memories alive; Amethyst uses Skype to speak to her children, knowing what to do when asked to turn ‘on’ and ‘off’, ‘log in’, submit a ‘password’ etc. However, such knowledge seems to be overlooked and disregarded.

22The participants in the study may have no or low literacy skills according to the current standards set in the UK, but they were capable of some truly remarkable achievements along their life-paths. They were able to make difficult journeys to get to the UK in search of better opportunities. They managed to run a household and bring up their children effectively when they functioned in societies where literacy is perceived differently but their practices seen to have little value. In the UK and the developed world generally, it is imperative that these existing literacy skills be recognized and seen as useful to the pursuit of lifelong learning (Hamilton & Barton, 2013).

23It is surprising that illiteracy is viewed so negatively when you consider that a sixth of the world’s population is still unable to read and write, but nevertheless appear to function well (Roser & Ortiz-Ospina, 2018). But as long as literacy is viewed as a skill that must be acquired, the gap between skilled and unskilled people will carry on widening, with ‘ins’ (literate) and ‘outs’ (illiterate), to the detriment of the latter. This negativity creates a sense of isolation, a feeling that was reported by all the twelve participants in my study, and one with serious implications for both social integration and individual self-esteem. Indeed, Emerald, Jade, Opal, Quartz and Sapphire all reported that isolation had led them to become demotivated and depressed.

Known Learning Needs of the Non-Literate

24An important factor in enabling language and literacy acquisition by non-literates is the acknowledgement that the mother tongue is vital as a prerequisite for the acquisition and development of literacy in a second language (Grabe, 2009).

25A UNESCO report (UNESCO, 2014) stresses the importance of multilingual education and promotes mother-tongue instruction as a starting point. The report suggests that it is not about using one language or the other but observing the continuum and bridging the two languages. In addition, developing literacy in the mother tongue needs to be seen as a prerequisite for developing second-language literacy. To achieve this, teachers would need specialist training in other languages but also in multicultural awareness.

26In a study of how illiterate adults learn Swedish as a second language, Elmeroth (2003) points out how difficult it is to learn a target language in isolation. The refugees in her study were living under hostile conditions in a camp, with no access to Swedish-speaking people, and this made it difficult for them to learn the language. To be living a parallel life within the same country, with no contact with its native population, is a marginalizing process and one likely to lead to ill feelings towards the ‘other’ on both sides. But such isolation can occur without internment; some of the participants in my research clearly lacked opportunities for meaningful contact with English people. Language learning is limited by isolation, and, equally importantly, lack of language leads to further isolation, presenting difficulties in integrating into a new community, as was the case in Tshabangu-Soko and Caron’s (2011) study of non-literate adult African refugees. Choi and Ziegler (2015) agree. In a multicultural study of three multilingual countries (Luxemburg, Canada and Belgium) they found being able to speak the language is one of the most important aspects of integration in a host country.

27Social isolation contributes to unemployment, poverty and poor health, too, and the lack of consideration of native-language literacy was one of the elements identified as a barrier to learning by Tshabangu-Soko and Caron (2011), alongside the short length of the programmes. Both these elements were also mentioned during the interviewing process in my study. It is undoubtedly difficult to establish meaningful links when ESOL courses are only ten weeks long, which is currently the case for some ESOL-for-work courses. Furthermore, without bridging one’s own language with the new language, the ten weeks may not even touch the core of the task. To become literate is not a straightforward enterprise in which one smoothly progresses from being illiterate to semi-literate and then, magically, literate. This venture has many different layers, different paths and many players, all pulling from different directions. How to deal with illiteracy is not a new ‘problem’ and there is clearly an established culture of what is to be considered acceptable, useful, or not, on behalf of ESOL learners, that is, at best, faulty. Indeed, I would argue that within the field of ESOL we still live in a hostile environment as literates have a superior status conferred on them; a passport to enter an elite that wields power over those who cannot read or write. This is unfortunate when the literacy acquisition of non-literate immigrants is one of the most challenging tasks currently facing ESOL education (Choi & Ziegler, 2015).

28Becoming literate builds on other knowledge, understanding and skills. Many non-literate learners have never been to school; some are not even aware that the purpose of reading is to extract meaning. They do not know how to begin — text orientation, top or bottom, left or right; or the association between symbols and objects — and lack the basic ‘learning blocks’ that enable reading and writing (Benseman, 2014). They also need to learn to process information differently, requisites for successful learning usually acquired through formal schooling (Bigelow & Schwarz, 2010). In Benseman’s New Zealand study, ESOL classes had both teachers and bilingual tutors, recognizing that the mother tongue plays a role in other language learning. Choi and Ziegler (2015) also see home languages as important, their use empowering for learners. In addition, they recommend the use of modern technology, mobile phones and other ICT devices. Relationships matter, too, and teachers need to be patient, respectful and approachable; ‘human’ (Benseman, 2014, pp. 100–01). Such views are supported by the UNESCO report of 2014.

29Opportunities to radically change the lives of non-literate immigrants are limited. They lack the characteristics and experiences that would enable them to challenge the systems in their new countries. They are unable to change what is available to them in terms of policy and educational systems, no matter how hard they try, and often know it. But for some their lack of knowledge allows aspirations bordering on fantasy. Amber, for example, expressed a wish to become a lawyer in order to help others who are in a similarly disadvantaged position in her country of origin. The thought of helping boosts her self-esteem and gives her learning a noble meaning for her. She values ‘having knowledge’ and all the benefits that education could bring to her life but still lacks the knowledge base to achieve her ambitions. As Freire (1970) proposed in his concept of ‘conscientizacao’, people need to become aware and critical of their situation for any changes to occur; they must understand their own place in the world as well as its external manifestations.

30However, this is not to suggest that aspirations are unimportant. Indeed, Mezirow’s theory of Transformative Learning developed in 1997 (influenced by the liberating ideas of both Freire and Habermas in the 1970s), views hope and education as intrinsically connected for learners to change rather than relying on society to make changes. If a ‘vocabulary for hope’ were embedded in the ESOL curriculum instead of ‘vocabulary for work’, learners might achieve far beyond what is laid down for them. Instead they face unknown situations, maybe hostility and isolation, and often learners fear that they might have to negotiate a way into a different identity; one that they do not know much about (Pilarska, 2014). When the new language is seen as the route to change, learners may block out learning in order to self-protect: another potential problem that educators need to acknowledge. Indeed, my study drew attention to a number of factors that go beyond the general discourses surrounding non-literate learners.

Further Insights into the Needs of Non-Literate Students

31As their former teacher I was surprised to find how limited the students’ articulacy was when discussing everyday situations. On a daily basis, in the classroom, they seemed competent ESOL speakers, but soon I realized that this was a veneer. They were competent at finding effective strategies to convey meaning and this was only apparent on analysis. It became even more evident when I translated interviews carried out in Portuguese into English. Despite using their native language, many participants could not express themselves with the levels of fluency I expected. Topaz, for example, repeatedly used the same phrases in order to convey meaning; and Cromley’s Report for the UK National Institute for Literacy (2000) offers a possible explanation for this, which is important.

Even though adults have been alive longer than children, they may have had ‘one year repeated forty times’ rather than 40 years’ experience. Despite their family, job, and other adult experiences, many adult literacy students have small vocabularies (about 15 % larger than a 5th grader’s vocabulary). Children’s vocabularies after about 5th grade grow mostly from what they read, not from hearing new words, but adult literacy students have never read much. Basically, adult literacy students use the same small spoken vocabulary as when they were 11 or 12. (Cromley, 2000, p. 188)

32There was a remarkable difference between the language used by the literate and non-literate. The semi-literate showed some use of abstract reasoning in their interviews, whereas the non-literate used language soaked only in their practical experiences. For example, Crystal was able to illustrate her experiences by using words that showed her ability to evaluate her experiences: ‘Since I grow up, I am a foreign!’ Whereas Quartz merely settled for giving his children names from fairy tales (Cinderella, Princess Diana, Doctor — as first names), to give them an instant ‘good start in life’.

33Moreover, none of the participants seemed to have an effective learning strategy for acquiring literacy. I suspected that there would be initial difficulties adapting to classroom practices of learning as they had not experienced language learning this way before. For instance, Opal had difficulty in holding a pencil. Nor could she understand why she should have to sit down for two hours rather than get up or go for a drink whenever she felt like doing so. However, the difficulty went far beyond that; the struggle was also within the learning itself. They lacked an understanding of the concept of learning and found it difficult to understand what the processes were, instead finding their own methods and alternative learning objectives. Participants mentioned copying and memorizing random texts out of context. They reported numerous experiences of being taught without learning. As might be expected, these mostly resulted in a loss of faith in education, low self-esteem and frustration.

34In my field notes I captured a number of different conceptualizations of what makes a person literate and noted that for some, who reported functioning quite effectively without literacy, the unrealistic expectations of the current educational system seemed totally unreasonable. As a child, Turquoise did not accept the need for learning in order to write letters, as all of her family lived nearby: she could talk to them. Perhaps this view demonstrates a lack of adequate awareness of the need to learn how to learn at a basic level, and this is not just from the learners’ perspective — her childhood teacher failed to see the inappropriate nature of the task for Turquoise and modify it. Inevitably perhaps, these expectations translate into poor outcomes, making social mobility virtually impossible (Reay, 2012).

35Collectively, the interviews drew attention to other disadvantages that stemmed from a lack of childhood education. Children who attend school learn about the world, seasons, basic geography, science and numbers, and acquire a range of general knowledge. It rapidly became evident that an adult who has never been in education has considerable gaps in all those learning blocks that are usually taken for granted. In turn, this poses a further difficulty in understanding the themes presented in the curriculum as a means of learning the language for day to day matters. It is difficult to learn numbers if you have no concept of numbers or counting. One of the participants (Onyx) is a cook and he measures his ingredients ‘by eye’. He has developed a competent strategy, which enables him to achieve a high level of proficiency in his field without knowing how to count, even in his own language. The concept of counting will have to be introduced prior to teaching him numbers, and even contemplating teaching him how to spell number names at this stage would be pointless. However, and perhaps unwittingly, it is common practice for courses to jump straight to more sophisticated aspects of learning without first ensuring and consolidating students’ understanding of the basics.

36There was a map of the world in the room where participants were interviewed and only two of the twelve participants (Crystal and Ruby) were even roughly aware of the location of their home country. Others (Amber, Emerald, and Opal) said that it was not on that map, and some (Amethyst, Jade, Sapphire, and Topaz) asked to look at the back of the map because they could not find it on the front. Turquoise and Quartz were not even interested in looking at the map, and a couple of the students were surprised to find out what ‘the blue bit’ meant. Onyx did not understand it to represent water, and Topaz was unaware of the portrayal of sea: ‘What a huge river!’ This foundational knowledge is not directly related to literacy, but its absence is significant as it is vital to becoming fully literate in societies where such understandings are taken for granted. Such basic gaps must be recognized and addressed when teaching adults who have never been through any educational system. Simpson claims that in formal educational spaces, representing the world through maps is often equated to a good knowledge of geography (Simpson & Gresswell, 2012). If you have never been to school, this knowledge may not have been acquired.

37Experiences become the lenses through which we see the world (Manen, 2016). Experiences in childhood affect how we feel and behave as an adult. Teachers will play a vital role in facilitating a change from a solely experiential to an educated perspective, so now we consider what the study implies for teachers who seek to support migrants, particularly the low- and non-literate, to learn a strange language in an unfamiliar setting.

Issues for Teachers to Consider

38At the outset, we must remember that students are not tabulae rasae. They arrive in the classroom with an abundance of life and learning experiences. In his exploration of the value of lifelong learning, Field (2006) reminds us of the importance of encouraging learners to apply this to other contexts throughout the life-course. Such experiences provide teachers with a wealth of ‘starting points’ on which to develop and build. To give just one example: this was clearly the case for Opal, whose story, like many others, is shocking when revealed. Opal was seldom parted from her mobile phone and the interview disclosed that it held her pictures of her twelve-year-old daughter, who was killed by a bomb while playing outside their house prior to migration. Opal’s teachers did not even know about this; they omitted to enquire into the reasons for an old and damaged mobile phone being so important to her. They were unaware that Opal was battling with profound grief and unlikely to access English through standard teaching activities. They missed significant opportunities to empathize with Opal but also to develop her literacy skills. She could have been encouraged to make a scrapbook, future-proofing the photos from loss through technological failure and giving her the chance to keep some of her precious memories alive by writing about them: a meaningful learning exercise.

  • 3 Accident & Emergency hospital department.

39Importantly, teachers need to take care to respect their cultural heritage when teaching an alien language to migrants. As we have seen, the migrants’ experiences may extend far beyond those of many of the teachers of English who take on the role of English-as-a-Second-Language educators, often in ways that are inconceivable in a Western cultural context. The committed ESOL teacher may, without even realizing it, be cast in a similar role to that of an A & E3 practitioner, assessing the immediate problem, patching people up and sending them on their way. Unlike the situation for healthcare staff, there are few if any more specialized services to which the ESOL learner can be directed, certainly in terms of educational rather than social support.

40So teachers hold a huge responsibility in their hands. They are the mediators who can build bridges, bringing notions of identity, languages and cultures together. They are tasked with reviving learning, self-esteem, confidence, integration, aspiration and hope. Teachers cannot cure but have the potential to minimize some of the casualties they work with. Yet, frequently their efforts are frustrated by the contexts within which they work.

Conclusions from the Study

41Better practices towards migrant learners need to be established at all levels of influence, in policy, in educational institutions, in the curriculum and by the teachers who work directly with them. Despite the differences among ESOL learners, a 2006 NIACE inquiry found that provision was still generic and may be unlikely to change as a ‘one size fits all’ approach was still prevalent in the compulsory sector in 2016, a decade later, according to Sir Michael Wilshaw, Head of Ofsted and Chief Inspector of Schools (Weale, 2016). Yet, strategies that start from the learners’ perspective would be more likely to reach the low-literacy learner (Pitt, 2005). ESOL is far more than just learning a language (NIACE, 2006): Brookhaven National Laboratory claims the intention of ‘Educating the world, one person at a time’ on their ESOL webpage (BNL, 2019). Indeed, a recent report on the accessibility of provision for ESOL learners, and their progression, states that ‘two of the main barriers were access to suitable childcare arrangements, and the existing literacy levels of potential learners’ (Higton et al., 2019, p. 12).

42There remains a great deal to be done at the policy level, particularly following the migration ‘crisis’ (Henley, 2018) from 2015 to 2018, now declared officially over but leaving a legacy of ‘structural problems’ (Rankin, 2019). Opportunities for learning without pressure to achieve universal targets are required and this would be at odds with the current UK government’s views on educational evaluation. Students’ needs are subsumed within generic expectations, outcomes channelled to support the world of work, turning both teachers and learners into pawns in a game with alien rules — and condemned to failure. But teachers need opportunities to get to know and understand their students and this has time and cost implications at higher levels.

43Many hindrances to learning begin with the barriers that the institution poses to the learners and dissonance between participants’ cultures and Western assumptions. The lack of understanding of the background of the learners restricts the possibilities of reaching them. Failing to acknowledge the value of lifelong learning and/or the value of learners’ previous incidental, informal and non-formal learning experiences creates a bigger gap between learners and their learning trajectory. I had taught, personally, many of the students I later researched, and was keen to help them flourish despite the limitations of contemporary ESOL provision. But I knew very little about them as people until I took the time, later, to interview them individually. Had I possessed this knowledge earlier, there are many ways that my ESOL classes could have embraced their motivations, improved their lives, and enabled them to integrate happily into British society.

44Within colleges, action is necessary to address insensitive and ineffective teaching methods and resources. More positively, measures could be put in place to encourage teaching approaches in tune with the individual learners and their needs, and this may mean a broader curriculum. My research raises the possibility that there is a need to teach a wider range of subjects around the subject of ESOL literacy and numeracy, prior to teaching literacy itself. These include the teaching of strategies for learning, such as thinking and transferring existing skills into new ones. There is also a need to include the prior learning experiences of the learners, be they incidental, non-formal or informal. In missing school, participants have also missed access to a range of knowledge that was not available in their everyday home settings. Recognizing this helped me to understand that we cannot teach a subject out of context. Literacy is best viewed as multiple literacies instead, as it develops within a wide variety of contexts and domains.

45The overall findings of my study show the magnitude of the task to be accomplished. This small-scale project shows how every participant is unique, and so are their needs, experiences, hopes and aspirations. It became clear from the interviews that teaching does not always equate to learning. As teachers, there is a lot that can be done to contribute to the success of low-literate learners. The findings direct educators to find out where the students are coming from rather than simply what stage they are at. Learners come to the classroom with a wealth of knowledge acquired throughout life. New learning needs to add and build on their existing knowledge, social practices and skills, so provision needs to be flexible. Learners must have a voice in curriculum development and delivery, and it should be relevant to them. Accessing learning, even when they are allowed to and do attend classes, has proven to be a difficult task for all the participants. A modicum of understanding about other cultures and their peoples would go a long way to making learning more probable. Learners need to be helped to live in another culture without having to relinquish their existing identities. They should not be ‘schooled’ to become someone they are not. Teachers need to give learners the power to reject what is not in their best interests and the space to decide what not to learn.

46These findings provide a significant record of the experiences of a group of people who are still being affected by discourses that further limit their access to education. These discourses portray a picture of oppression and exclusion. They show little or no sympathy towards aspiration or hope. There is a lack of coherence between the generic aspirations for equality of government policy and the actual provision for low- or no-literacy learners. Learners do not have access to the cultural capital of British society and as a result are doomed to remain at the periphery of the society they are meant to be integrating with. The strong and increasingly negative views on immigration and immigrants subtly infiltrate all areas. For participants in my research, this lack of coherence perpetuates the very cycle that the government espouses to be fighting.

47Yet alternatives are possible. My study makes a methodological contribution to future work with non-literate learners because it reveals that, in addition to their use as a research method, narrative interviews could be a useful teaching method to use with ESOL learners. Storytelling paves the way to learning. It unlocks potential and enables the learner to learn creatively. Telling your own story frees thinking and enables previous experiences to take a positive turn, constructing new paths. Voicing their feelings was very important to all participants. They reported feeling empowered and were unanimous in being grateful for the opportunity to tell their stories. Narrating their stories has helped learners in this study make sense of their experiences and prioritize events as they saw fit, to make learning fit for their own purposes. They reported a sense of relief after telling their story, suggesting that a narrative approach offers an opportunity to engender feelings of wellbeing, and may help learning, talking and living in the UK to become more positive for newcomers.

48Through sharing life stories, the teacher and student would be enabled to focus on the real social and linguistic learning opportunities that might encourage the student to participate and contribute fully to British society with joy and pleasure. Moreover, although this sounds utopian, in maintaining the students’ bonds with the past, we might take a small step towards supporting the achievement of a more integrated global culture.



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1 English for Speakers of Other Languages.

2 Within the UK and Ireland, FE colleges provide courses for post-compulsory learners other than the traditional higher education degree. These often lead to skills-based and/or vocational qualifications.

3 Accident & Emergency hospital department.


Is an ESOL teacher who has worked with refugees and asylum seekers in the UK and Europe. Monica was born in Brazil and lived in several countries, thereby acquiring relevant experiences and languages. When asked for an affiliation she replied, ‘I consider myself a citizen of the world with a little bit of every refugee and/or asylum seeker I have had the privilege to work with’. Strongly committed to supporting a fairer global society, she pursues two research areas: language, communication and literacy; and teaching English to adults who do not have literacy in their own language.


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