Developing writing with entry level ESOL learners

Newcastle College

In this project we worked collaboratively with ESOL learners and staff to trial and evaluate strategies to improve writing. We wanted to engage learners in purposeful writing tasks that drew on their wealth of existing literacy practices outside the classroom, including digital practices.

You can download a PDF of this report on the Excellence Gateway.


We trialled a series of email exchanges between learners and the use of Padlet with Entry Level 1 students. With large ESOL provision and experienced staff, we were also keen to involve more staff and develop “a community of practice”. Staff roles in the ESOL Department include tutors who deliver taught classes, and instructors who deliver and prepare workshops and computer lab sessions.

These less formal lessons enabled instructors to gain a more detailed understanding of learners’ written skills and of the barriers students faced in accessing material. The instructors acted as “go-betweens” bridging the gap between the more formal setting of taught classes and the everyday experiences of each learner. The instructors increasingly played a key role in evaluating and in some cases re-working materials in this project.


Our ESOL learners have varying levels of literacy, spoken English, and a wide diversity in previous level and experience of education. A significant number have ‘spiky profiles’ regarding reading, writing and speaking. This gap between skills, often between spoken and written language, can widen as learners move through levels, culminating in lower achievement in writing exams at higher levels. In a climate where funding is increasingly dependent on exam success, with restricted opportunities to resit, it is essential to build written skills at an early stage. Beyond exam success, difficulties with writing impact learners as they progress onto Functional Skills, GCSE, vocational courses and higher education.

ESOL staff at the College often develop their own approaches, for example: personalised spellings, use of writing booklets, weekly dictations, or the whole text approach of Language Experience. Practitioners are creative and responsive in the ESOL classroom but there is little sharing and dissemination of strategies on a wider scale between colleagues. We wanted to use this project to share the practices we were developing
A final issue to explore was the gap between learners’ existing literacy practices and assigned classroom tasks often dictated by exam content. We wanted to experiment by starting with learners’ everyday literacy practices.

A significant number of our learners use social media to contact friends and family abroad, navigate job websites and use language apps. We wanted to explore how tutors could balance exam requirements with learners’ existing literacy practices and needs.



We held a tutor focus group in the initial stages of the project to capture existing practice. Tutors’ comments ranged from the specific, such as work on ‘upgrading’ sentences from ‘I went to Leeds’ to ‘I went to Leeds last Saturday to…’, to broader approaches such as a topic-based local approach:

“learners ask for language when they can see the purpose…I couldn’t stop them when I asked them to complain about the No. 10 bus!”

There were varied views on the use of technology to improve writing and to motivate learners:

“…students need to improve their handwriting…IT skills become a separate issue for some of our students…it’s difficult to predict their level of IT.”

Tutors also acknowledged that the use of technology ‘mirrors a lot of real-life use’.

We then held three focus groups with ESOL learners: one with entry level 1, two with entry level 2 and one with level 1 learners. Entry level learners echoed tutors’ views on the need to improve handwriting and the value of having time to copy in class. The depth of learners’ analysis of the sub-skills of writing was evident with learners identifying specific phoneme/grapheme relationships they found difficult. The common themes were ‘more time’, ‘more practice’ and ‘more use of models to support their writing’.

“to write a text in a short time doesn’t help because it makes us stressed, so lots of mistakes! … we want two hours on writing” (Level 1 learner), echoed by a tutor, “I wished I had started on writing earlier”.

Learners at all levels identified emails and forms as text types they need, whilst existing literacy practices ranged from social media use, text message and emails to helping children with homework. Several entry level learners valued “computer writing … I want this more over paper writing”. We therefore decided to focus on email but to support this with paper-based work to include a focus on punctuation, use of clear models and opportunities to copy words and improve handwriting.

Classroom activities: September – January
• Three email exchanges between two entry level 1 groups
• Follow-up workshops on how to structure an email and how to read and respond to an email
• Review and tweaking of email support materials by instructors
• Evaluation of email activities by learners
• Trial Padlet with an entry level 1 group to encourage learners to post opinions of their house/flat and respond to others’ comments (Figure 11a-2)
• Use of a writing booklet task pre-computer lab to provide a structured approach to writing an absence email to a tutor. This was marked by instructors.
• A final email session in the computer lab with students emailing the tutor to say why they cannot attend class (Figure 11a-3).

Professional Learning: Evidence of changes in teaching, learning and assessment practices

Meaningful changes from this small-scale action research project include a greater recognition of staff’s expertise and having space and time to discuss and develop professional practice. This did not always happen in the more formal, focused space of a meeting, but in snatched conversations before and after class. These increased as new strategies were trialled and evaluated, leading to a richer working environment.

A second change related to this was risk-taking, going beyond what we normally do in entry level 1 classes. Written communication between two entry level groups using email was something we had not trialled before. The logistics of setting this up, the use of the college email system and the need to emphasise to learners the importance of not sharing any personal information with another student presented challenges.

Learners’ difficulties in reading and responding to content were also brought to the fore in this activity. However, learners with varying levels of IT skills and written English gained in confidence and wrote communicative texts; they used the activity to express what they wanted to say; see student N for example in the Padlet post, ‘my flat is dangerous’ (Figure 11a-4). This led to a classroom discussion on high rises and cladding.

Finally, the value of learner feedback and evaluation of classroom activities were key to this project. We experienced the challenge of having to grade language in focus groups to ensure learners could answer questions whilst not leading them to a certain answer. Learners began to really reflect on how they learn and develop the language they need to express this.

Evidence of improved collaboration and changes in organisation practices

Increased collaboration between tutors and instructors was the most significant change. Email exchanges happened in computer lab sessions run by instructors; we discussed activities with instructors who had input into tweaking and improving resources and approaches. Instructors also run and plan workshop sessions with learners; these involve consolidating work done in class. Instructor J fed back on some of the project materials, adapted them and used them in workshops. An honest dialogue developed between staff. In the final lab sessions, a tutor covered an instructor’s role and fed back on and responded to challenges that arose in the session.

Communication between ESOL groups was also something new; classes tend to be self-contained with little sharing of information. For learner D, it was a chance to “talk to somebody [from] a different culture I don’t know” and practise questions she had learnt in class; “email helps me with speaking.” This enthusiasm also came across in an email she wrote to a tutor, “I send an email to M. It was nice. I was happy.”

Learners’ writing had a clear communicative purpose and audience and language practised in class was put to immediate use. This is not something we are always able to manage in an ESOL classroom with some learners seeing a disconnect between the classroom and real-life language needs.

Evidence of improvement in learners’ achievements, retention and progression

A final change was the involvement of learners in evaluating classroom practices and in reflecting on how they learn. Students had a voice and became active participants in the research process. In focus groups, entry level 1 students explained which spellings they found difficult and told tutors and instructors that more time was needed to copy and write in classes. This was echoed in their evaluation of the email exchange in early December when they ask for more time to prepare for emailing.

Written language and personalisation
Learners increasingly began to use the email exchange to say what they wanted to say and to push themselves beyond simple sentences required at entry level 1. The task did not limit their language and seemed to motivate learners to challenge themselves. This can be seen from learner S’s exchange (Figure 11a-5) where he manages to use the natural and persuasive, “you have to try dolma” to encourage and convince his email partner of the merits of Turkish food. In his first email he writes about the “ottoman and rome empire”; learners are not restricted to writing about ‘simple’ topics.

Accuracy and length of emails
As can be seen from learner M’s three emails (Figure 11a-3), learners began both to write more and improve in accuracy. Language accuracy here is linked to IT skills, for example knowing how to capitalise letters on the keyboard. In the first email, there is sporadic capitalisation of I but the final email to a tutor, after work on punctuation and paper-based tasks, is accurate. Focusing on typing seemed to focus students more on punctuation; in the final computer lab sessions, learners were asking specific questions about punctuation before connectives, for example.

IT skills and format of emails
Learners with emerging IT skills became confident in logging on and familiar with the structure and format of an email. Learner M was unable to remember her log-in and struggled initially with the concept of receiving an email from someone else. By the third session, she had logged on independently and written an accurate email to a tutor.

Learning from this project

What went well
• Learners engaged in purposeful written communication and wrote texts above the constraints of their level (exam tasks and the curriculum can limit learners) to a real audience.
• Increased collaboration between tutors and instructors and closer links between content of lab/workshop sessions and class work. Instructors played a key role in developing materials and making the activities accessible to learners and developed a greater voice.
• Learners developed keyboard skills to support them with accurate punctuation. Learners ‘noticed’ punctuation more and ask more questions about this during computer work.
• Learners were able to structure an email accurately and use appropriate language after structured input in class and workshop sessions.
• Learners developed the ability to read and respond to messages. This was a key challenge but was evidenced in the posts on Padlet.
• There was greater engagement with writing, particularly during the Padlet task.

Even better if…
• Begin with written messages or paper-based email exchange in class to introduce the concept of reading and responding to an email.
• Spend longer on the set up / concept of an email exchange. Some students new to email struggled both to understand the immediacy of an email and the fact they had to read and respond. Live emailing between a tutor and an instructor in the first session would help with this. Introducing an email exchange with another class was too much too soon.
• Students should have emailed the tutor to start with; student email addresses are complicated to type, unlike staff addresses. This would also have ensured that everyone received an answer immediately.
• Students should have set up their own Gmail accounts for College; the student email interface is not user friendly and addresses are difficult to type.
• More practice and teaching during the initial stages on the format of an email, for example the function of the subject line and the importance of an opening and closing greeting. Several learners were still writing the whole content of the email in the subject line.

Future areas of research and recommendations
• Greater alignment between exam/class content and communicative writing tasks that reflect learners’ current needs and existing literacy practices. With certain exam boards, a focus on an audience and a clear purposeful task is often the content of higher level ESOL exams and not lower levels.
• Digital literacy built into an ESOL curriculum. Learners need to be able to write online. ESOL learners, particularly those with literacy needs, need to practise handwriting and letter formation and to develop the sub-skills of spelling and punctuation on paper, but they also need to be able to use a keyboard and a mouse, or increasingly, a touch screen.
• Greater liaison between IT, employability tutors and ESOL staff. Tutors and instructors could develop a bank of resources to support learners to develop both their literacy and their digital literacy
• Exploiting communicative opportunities in the ESOL classroom with a focus on writing and online writing. The ESOL classroom is a very rich space for sharing opinions and experiences, and staff and students are used to exploiting this to develop language learning and build relationships. We think that widening this to share experiences between classes and perhaps between institutes in an online space would increase language learning opportunities as well as helping to create an online ESOL community.