Meeting Individual Learners’ Needs: The Promotion and Development of Strategies for Individualised Learning

The Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea

Active learning strategies are encouraged in FE, but how can practitioners determine whether the strategies they employ are helpful for pre-entry and ESOL learners? This project used learner feedback to select, pilot and reflect upon the effectiveness of different active learning techniques for pre-entry level and ESOL learners.

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


RBKC currently subcontracts adult learning with eleven organisations. Practitioners from four organisations – Kensington and Chelsea College (FE College), Clement James, Westway and Nova New Opportunities (third sector organisations) conducted mini-action research projects with learners within their own settings. It was important to collect and ask learners for feedback about what they would like more of in class, what they wanted less of and what they wanted to continue. The feedback was organised and collected by tutors in a range of different ways. This participatory approach informed the active learning strategies and skills to be tested by the tutors.


In-house and external observations and a recent Ofsted report indicated that some opportunities for involving learners in lessons were missed. In these lessons, opportunities to make use of learners’ prior knowledge and life experiences (their schematic knowledge) needed exploration. This is especially important for English teaching and learning, where ‘every act of comprehension involves one’s knowledge of the world as well’ (Stott, 2007).

Work was also required to reduce teacher talk time and develop opportunities for personalised and active learning.

Tutors need encouragement and support to embed opportunities for independent learning, so learners can develop skills that help maintain a joy of learning whilst also continually improving their prospects. This was particularly important for RBKC, as tutors often work off-site in community centres, away from managers and colleagues.

The aim of this project was to use action research to explore how the challenges highlighted above could be met. In order to do this, we set the following objectives:
• To develop a community of practice, where positive and trusting relationships are built between organisations, managers and tutors.
• To create opportunities for tutors to develop their skills through peer-to-peer working and reflection.
• To enable tutors to access and generate a range of strategies and active learning techniques to meet learner’s individual needs, helping build confidence and independent learning skills.


The Project Leader selected a team of seven tutors and four managers to promote and develop strategies for individualised learning. The team engaged with regular project and tutor meetings, and completed a programme of professional development, including action research training and training in various active learning strategies (e.g. phonetic approaches, flipped learning; assessment for/as learning; active reading techniques).

Managers and tutors alike were encouraged to undertake research, with the experiential learning cycle (Kolb, 1984) explored as a potential model of reflection. A tutor from a previous ETF peer exchange project shared active learning strategies she had already trialled, helping tutors decide which strategies they wanted to explore with learners.

A learner feedback tool was then disseminated for learners to complete called ‘Stop, Start, Continue’. This was designed as a quick exercise, often undertaken with the tutor away from the classroom so as not to influence the learners. Data was also collected from questionnaires, practice observations, videos of learner feedback, learner evaluations and tutor reflections.

The Tutors decided and chose from learner feedback which techniques for active learning they would like to try. They gathered evidence from their sessions as to how effective the techniques were regarding learner engagement and confidence.

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

Sue Davidoff and Owen van den Berg (1990) suggest four steps for action research: plan, teach/ act, observe and reflect. The project used this as a basis to develop tutors’ own action research, helping them take responsibility for their own development, CPD needs and planning. Critical friendships and peer observations were also encouraged; valuable opportunities for tutors to analyse and learn from one another’s practice.

Tutors used learner feedback to assess what learners would like more of, using this feedback to select active learning techniques. Challenges around gathering learner feedback included: difficulties accessing online questionnaires; time constraints; learners having the confidence and analytical skills to communicate what they wanted. Such challenges demanded contextualised approaches so learners could fully participate.

For example, one tutor used translation to overcome low levels of English with their pre-entry class. Learner feedback was often not what was expected too. For instance, some learners, when asked how they liked to learn, stated they would like more input from the tutor. At times, tutors also observed learners feeling uncomfortable providing feedback about teaching strategies:

“Student’s didn’t want to fill in anything from ‘Stop’ part of activity. Found it uncomfortable.”
ESOL Tutor

The examples above illuminate important cultural considerations, for participatory research and regarding learner reception to active learning strategies.

Nevertheless, the results from engaging with what learners want more of and trialling the active learning strategies were overwhelmingly positive. Tutors used a range of active learning strategies and developed a series of innovative resources, including: a chant for spelling based on phonics, discussion storyboards, spelling strategy PowerPoints, learner question and answer review sessions, peer assessment tools).

Feedback from tutors included:

On using a chant for spelling based on phonics:

“This exercise helps students to be much more independent when studying a new word. They learn how to practise, to check and correct the word by themselves, and not with the help of the teacher as usual. This is a huge step, especially for pre-entry ESOL students.”

On using grammar self-access material to accelerate learner progress:

“I started it a bit late into term. Starting from the beginning of the term would have given me more time to plan and the learners more time to practise the skill.”

On using a spelling strategy game:

“In this short game learners really had to work with their memory and find techniques to ‘fix’ the spelling in their minds – and put the strategies we had talked about into practice. There was a noticeable improvement after just three attempts – you could see learners really trying to look for clues in each word. Before this they would rely on writing the word down and assuming that by writing it, they would remember it. This game helped train them into thinking about the spellings, which is a crucial stage in remembering them for the next time they need to use them. The learners also enjoyed it – especially as the formula began to feel ‘familiar.’

Towards the end of the project, team participants described, summarised and evaluated their participation and identified changes in their teaching, learning and assessment practices. Tutors recognised the value of using more active learning techniques with their learners and developing their own skills. Learners felt more engaged and had a role in steering sessions, often becoming the tutor. Pre-entry learners worked on their own to practise their spelling without being dependent on the tutor.

Tutors recognised that using active learning techniques leads to a role of facilitator rather than knowledge giver. This correlates with the theory of participatory ESOL (Reflect ESOL, 2012) that stems from the work of Paulo Freire (Freire Institute, 2020), a need to move away from a fixed ‘knowledge giving’ model to one which empowers learners.

Tutors need to see themselves as part of the learning process, and as learners themselves; learning becomes an active dialogue between tutor and learner. Freire advocated a critical pedagogy, where learners were transformed and empowered by the learning, they were involved in.

Evidence of improved collaboration and changes in organisation practices

Monthly team meetings, especially those held off-site, offered opportunity for practitioners to meet, collaborate and share their findings. Bespoke in-house and external CPD opportunities for managers and tutors during the project also offered an excellent basis for development.

The sharing of knowledge and experience by tutors has resulted in a more open and collaborative way of working. They have recognised the value of action research and using different techniques in their classes as well as how much more progress learners can make when they are more independent.

A tutor’s reflections on using a peer assessment spelling gap resource:

“The learners commented that this was very useful – especially seeing all the sentences typed up in the correct form. It’s satisfying for them to get their own efforts offered back as learning texts.”

A tutor’s reflections on using a spelling chant strategy:

“90% of learners at stage 2 can remember and write words 85% correctly, huge improvement. The sound really helps them remember their spelling.”

A tutor’s reflections on getting learners to write their own Trip Advisor review:

“Students were very enthusiastic about this style of activity so from their point of view I think it worked well. Given their equal enthusiasm for practising spelling I might ask them to make a list of spellings from the text and devise a test for another student – or incorporate these into a Kahoot quiz, which are also very popular with this group of students.”

This is especially important for Community Adult learners who are often on the first steps of their learning journey and been identified as hard to reach. Developing independent learning skills and techniques and reducing learners’ dependency on the tutor can build resilience which can help them in their daily lives. This will also give them the skills to access information about other courses, employment and voluntary opportunities. The success of implementing active learning techniques in a pre-entry ESOL class proves that it is never too early or indeed challenging to build independent learning skills.

The active learning strategies trialled, developed and refined through reflection, have generated a bank of resources, shared across the service at tutor meetings and through peer observations. Resources will also be piloted in other subjects (e.g. in maths and ICT as embedded English). A tutor’s toolkit of collaboratively designed resources will also be developed. This will be the foundation for an online bank of resources for adult community learning tutors.

The action research experiences will be shared with other tutors, hopefully encouraging them to also share techniques, challenges and strategies.

Evidence of improvement in learners’ achievements, retention and progression

The strategies and resources developed within the project have enabled learners to engage in active learning techniques and activities. This has led to increased confidence and greater engagement with learning, especially when activities reflected real-life situations and schematic knowledge could be elicited:

“The learners felt they had contributed to steering the classes. The mini teach before each class taught the learners new skills, which they were able to put into practice straight away. Learners agreed the different themes were an interesting way to build on their conversational skills”
Entry Level 3 ESOL teacher.

A pre-entry ESOL tutor reported using a phonics-based spelling chant resulted in correct spellings from one letter correct to three or four. Most of the learners can remember and write the word at an earlier stage than previously. This significantly improves the speed at which learners make progress.

An Entry Level 3 literacy tutor reflected that a peer spelling gap fill activity gave some unexpected results:

“It turned out to be useful in all sorts of (some unexpected!) ways – throwing up interesting examples of grammar mistakes and making the learners contextualise spellings to show they had understood the meaning. I did the feedback by typing up all the examples (anonymously) and encouraging learners to try and spot the errors and then handing them out a sheet of the correct versions. For ESOL learners in particular this highlighted common area of difficulty and helped them see what they needed to work on.”

An Entry Level 3 ESOL tutor used and adapted grammar resources to practise speaking and compare the past simple and present perfect with a roleplay. This made the learners more active participants. The tutor fed back that learners responded positively and planned to use ‘Stop, Start, Continue’ to engage learners in co-constructing lesson objectives and planning schemes of work.

“Do as a group activity and vote on which ones they want more of. Students respond positively to this.”

An Entry Level 2 ESOL tutor used regular self-access grammar quizzes as an active learning strategy. The tutor reported learners’ increased engagement and progression.

“Doing this project allowed me to focus part of the lesson on improving a skill that learners wanted to excel or get extra practice on. Learners were engaged and looking forward to this part of the lesson and undertook extra practise away from class.”

A Level 1 Functional Skills tutor reflected that her use of a PowerPoint to provide strategies for learning spellings showed ESOL learners do not find mnemonics useful as they find them too hard to decode. They were more interested in rules, root words and etymology to support them with their spelling.

“I discovered that ESOL origin students really aren’t interested in mnemonics (or rather, they find them too hard to decode) and as this group is almost entirely ESOL based I would probably not use mnemonics. Given their interest in rules and groups I am wondering about doing more on root words and etymology to explain how some spellings in English have come about.”

An Entry Level 2 ESOL tutor discovered learners wanted to speak better English for work. Learners were asked to research their home countries’ festivals and produce a presentation for their class. The tutor found this approach very rewarding; learners became the teacher and enjoyed sharing information about their homelands with the rest of the class.

Figure 5c-3 shows learner work produced after a session on which suffix to use? – tion, -sion, -ssion or -cian. The learners came up with sentences on the whiteboard using words ending in ‘shun’ sounds such as –tion. The tutor noticed that this active approach to learning spelling yielded greater progression than more passive approaches.

Learning from this project

Active learning techniques can be used with pre-entry and ESOL learners, improving resilience as learners develop and practise independent skills. As well as accelerating learner progress, active learning develops skills for outside the classroom; for employment, accessing healthcare and further education. Our project revealed how learners built their confidence through active learning techniques, for example through role-play to practise speaking and listening.

Tutors value action research as a way of addressing issues in their sessions; the process of reflection helps refine and develop teaching and learning.

Tutors like to work, reflect and develop their skills using a range of different strategies. A prescribed approach does not always work. This was evident from the different methods used to collect learner feedback. An online questionnaire would have provided easier data to analyse but most tutors chose less technical methods. This was also evident from tutors attending CPD and adapting resources, ‘pinching and personalising’ for learners.

Collecting reliable feedback from learners is often challenging and learners in a community environment can be new at finding their learner voice – they need support with this. Feedback from learners was at times at odds with the project focus of developing independent learner strategies. In two classes, learners stated they wanted more tutor talk and listening to the tutor. This raised important questions regarding cultural factors e.g. learners’ need to please the tutor; language barriers affecting communicating opinions and conveying critical thinking; differences in ‘accepted’ teaching and learning practices.

Some of the challenges of collecting learner feedback were overcome by our community learning tutors, who used translation to support learners to engage. This improved the reliability of the learner feedback, particularly in the pre-entry ESOL classes.