Action in the ESOL classroom

8 Feb

What does it mean to take action with students? How can we make sure actions are led by learners not by teachers? How can we discuss and plan action in the ESOL classroom without imposing on students who just want to learn English? This January, English for Action staff and volunteers met up to explore these questions and share our skills, tools and ideas.

Action has always been key to English for Action’s teaching approach. This relates to how the organisation started. In 2006, low paid migrant workers at London’s Hilton hotel were trying to secure a living wage but lacked the English language skills to negotiate with managers. We started an action-orientated English lessons where workers could learn the English to speak their minds and practice difficult conversations with those in power. The first English for Action class was born.

As well as improving learners’ English, we want to build their capacity to take action for themselves, to improve their own lives. Sometimes this is about learners gaining the confidence and know-how to sort things out for themselves, by themselves. But sometimes, bigger changes can be achieved through collective action. And a class community is a great space to discuss problems, plan responses and carry them out, whilst learning English at the same time.

So what is action, and does it work?

At the training, teachers and volunteers shared their experiences of action that’s got results.

We talked about Elena, a student in Southwark. Her classmates supported her when she got rehoused by the council two hours from her children’s school. They were so outraged, in fact, that they’d joined her and housing rights support group Housing Action Southwark and Lambeth (HASL) in an occupation of Southwark Town Hall. Within an hour of their arrival, Ruth was re-housed within the borough. All of this was facilitated by conversations in class where students shared their experiences of housing and had the time and space to plan how they could effect change.

As well as celebrating Elena’s victory, we also discussed actions with less tangible outcomes including lobbies of parliament with students and visits to class from external speakers which we feel had an impact on students’ thinking. So how should we define action within our context?

It turns out it’s hard to pin down a definition off the cuff through group discussion. What we came up with instead were a few different definitions which moved us closer:

Action (in the ESOL classroom) is…
“anything we or our students do outside language learning that effects positive change.”
“Doing something that contributes towards positive cultural or structural change”
“An intervention beyond English language learning which contributes towards social justice as we define it”

We also discussed action as the culmination of an ‘action process’. Thinking about action in this way gives value to the activities which may not have direct, tangible outcomes but contribute to students’ skills and critical understanding – that move us, in other words, towards change.


At English for Action, we want to focus on action that builds students’ capacity to create change – that is lead by, and comes from, the students themselves.


We therefore want to prioritise the following kind of action in the ESOL classroom:

  • Actions must be based on a problem or need that students have ownership over and shared interest in (essential)
  • Actions which develop students’ capacity over actions where you act for students and they don’t learn much
  • Actions where students act collectively over action where students act as individuals
  • Actions which are winnable: hyper-local or linked up to bigger campaigns

Action learning process at EFA London

Action begins with identifying problems or things we want to change. This happens in the ESOL classroom in two main ways: Through ‘hot topics’ or through a learning process initiated by the teacher that we call ‘making meaning, going deeper and broadening out’.

Hot topic:

A student brings into the classroom which is such a pressing topic that you think it is best to focus the lesson on exploring that issue and thinking about what action to take.

This works best if you have a ‘culture of action’ in the classroom already.

Case study: Bangladeshi factory disaster (see our facebook post about the lesson here)

Check in: A Bengali student brought up this disaster in the check in. She was really upset about it. A few other students were also upset.

Pair work: Dermot asked everyone to speak to their neighbour about the news. What happened? What did they know?

This ensured that everyone had a shared understanding of the problem.

Problem tree: Students analysed the causes, consequences and possible responses / solutions to the problem at the centre of the tree (X hundred people were killed in a factory disaster in Bangladesh)

Students then weighed up different responses and solutions.

Making meaning – going deeper – broadening out

Making meaning

Students explore generative themes proposed by the teacher (e.g. jobs, health, Brexit) very broadly and openly, in terms of experience and feeling.

Tools: Word flower, card cluster, picture pack, group discussions, problem tree, spectrum line

Possible emerging language: Language around anecodotes, narrative or tenses; new vocabulary around the topic

Going deeper

From the initial discussions during ‘making meaning’, the teacher identifies sub topics – the key areas, questions or problems which are of particular interest to the students e.g. Racism after Brexit, GP waiting times.

Don’t overload students with info about that topic – use activities which allow them to explore the topic critically for themselves.

Tools: Problem tree, problem posing, forum theatre, iceburg

Possible emerging language: Narrative, casuality and discursive language

Broadening out

Identify changes we want to make, plan action, take action and evaluate

Tools: Forum theatre, action matrix, power analysis, towel activity, participatory evaluation, umbrellas-suns-rainbows, 1-2-1s, Impact and Ease tactic axis.


Really important to recap, at the beginning of each lesson, what we’ve been discussing. This helps create a sense of continuity and embed the learning of new vocabulary.



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