Ready to send and receive? Improving Adult ESOL Learners’ English Through Email

Hull College

This project aimed to explore strategies designed to improve ESOL learners’ skills in reading and writing emails in order to pass their ESOL writing exams and enable them to take part more fully in both their ESOL courses and as learners of the college. We learnt that from optimising learning opportunities in multi-task activities and opening up channels of communication in pre and post class activities, learners were encouraged to use their English more and were more likely to achieve.

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


Hull College is a large further education provider which offers ESOL courses from Pre-Entry to Level 2. It currently has over 600 ESOL learners. Many ESOL learners go on to access mainstream provision. The project named ‘Ready to Send and Receive’ attempted to improve ESOL learners’ skills in writing and reading emails. Initially, the skills would be used to enable learners to pass ESOL exams as one of the writing tasks includes an email. However, we also introduced a wide range of practical, interactive opportunities, to encourage the use of email in and around class time. These practise sessions were important, to improve learners’ overall engagement in their ESOL courses as learning moved from face-to-face to blended (face-to-face and online) learning where use of electronic formats was important. The project brought together adult and teenage ESOL learners of all nationalities and levels. Learners and teachers from the ESOL departments and Employment Services at Hull College worked collaboratively in sharing experiences of how they were communicating via electronic mail during lockdown. The materials were primarily delivered to Entry Level 2 learners but could easily be adapted to suit higher or lower levels. The project has helped drive a new induction programme for the future of our ESOL learners and now recognises that digital skills are essential for our ESOL learners.


From our experience of the first lockdown, it became apparent that learners were not completely happy with communicating via email or learning online and that they were much more comfortable with face-to-face delivery. A teacher would receive emails with only a message in the subject line, a minimal message from a learner whose name was unknown to the teacher (see Appendix 2), or an unsigned message from an unknown email address which gave no clue as to the sender. However, it became apparent that learners wanted to get on board and use email despite the challenges of trying to do this as a second language learner. Our project was designed to tackle some of the challenges that our ESOL learners face by teaching them the conventions of email writing, e.g. what to put in the subject line, how to start and finish appropriately, whilst still practising reading comprehension and improving their writing skills.


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

Working on this project has encouraged us to reflect more systematically on what works best for our learners and their language needs. It has also required us to be innovative in order to meet new demands of electronic communication and develop creative and inspiring language materials that would support learners to continue to learn whilst also gaining confidence in digital skills.

A lot of this professional learning has focused on acquiring new digital skills both for teachers and learners. Attendance at training events, positive collaboration, and sharing of new digital forms between colleagues allowed this advancement in learning. This in turn supported the development of the questionnaires from paper to digital format, ensuring a greater yield of responses and providing a truer reflection of our learners. In the paper version we had 30 responses whilst in the electronic format we had over 130.

This new digital learning benefitted the project in two ways. Firstly, it inspired and motivated colleagues to share the questionnaire with their learners and learn more about the project. Staff did not have to set aside an activity in their class to complete the paper-based version. Secondly, far more learners responded as they were able to open the form quickly and easily access the form on their phone wherever they were.

In addition, the creation of screencasts (see Appendix 13) to help ESOL learners access email on mobile phones was a later advancement of the project, the full potential of which will come into play from September. This would not have been possible without other members of the department becoming interested and learning how to produce a screencast. As a result, we now have materials to reach those learners who find it difficult to access email on a mobile phone.

The project team were able to continually evaluate and challenge existing practices in ESOL. Suitable email-linked activities were embedded into the scheme of work for ESOL; for example, working within the topic of health, we included a task which tested reading comprehension and then asked learners to respond to the email giving advice to their friend. This allowed them to practise both the target functional language, encourage appropriate use of register and checked their email writing conventions.

Furthermore, this ongoing evaluation and challenge enabled teachers to widen the scope of their classes by incorporating both a pre-class and a post-class activity. This in turn, motivated learners to attend and achieve more of what their course offered. Attending more often meant after lockdown, they were more likely to return to college and take part in the sessions.

Evidence of improved collaboration and changes in organisation practices

Image of the action plan for the department

Action plan for the department

Improved collaboration and changes in organisational practice can be seen in the alignment of plans for the future induction programme for ESOL learners. There was recognition that our ESOL learners need a more diverse and more inclusive induction programme and different support model before they start their courses. This was achieved by working alongside the new Director of English and Maths and supporting plans to develop adult ESOL provision at the college. This is evidenced in the action plan for the department.

Furthermore, the project encouraged liaison between colleagues from both Hull College and Employability Services. This resulted in a more successful outcome
Ready to send and receive? Improving Adult ESOL Learners’ English Through Emailfrom the second questionnaire. The Employability ESOL team were keen to roll out the questionnaire and became interested in how the project could assist their own delivery. This has resulted in positive comparison of materials and discussion. The project also provided us with an opportunity for professional sharing of strategies and methods of teaching and it is hoped that the two departments will work more closely together on the new induction programme (see Appendix 11).

Evidence of improvement in learners’ achievements, retention and progression

The project data supports the improvement in language used for writing an email at Entry Level 2 (Appendix 4). The majority of the specified learners at this level, who followed the lessons, succeeded in improving one or more of the assessed areas which can be found in Appendix 7.

We used a progress tracker to monitor progress against the Ascentis assessment criteria. These criteria not only included the format and conventions of writing emails but also the ability to follow task instructions as well as the accuracy and quality of the written content. Of the 15 specific learners whose initial starting points were analysed in terms of the above criteria, 12 made progress in at least one of these areas. 8 learners made progress in 3 or more areas which resulted in most of the learners being entered for their ESOL writing exams in May and June 2021. The learners who had engaged in the email activities were also more likely to be retained by the college and return to studies at college after lockdown ended.

One example of this progression was Learner F who, in the early stages of the year, tried to write an email using only the subject line. After some teacher support, they were able to write a longer message in the main part of the email.

Improvement in the quality and length of written content can also be seen in non-email tasks. For example, a learner who was asked to describe a new colleague at work adopted the same format in paragraphing and organisation of content that was promoted in the email session.

The scaffolding of tasks supported learners to adopt the format of an email structure and content. For example, the colour coding email template above was always shown to learners before they had to write their own email. It was found previously that learners would often write ‘Hi’ and ‘How are you?’ on the same line. Also learners missed off any close and most often did not sign off with their name. The colour coding activity and exercises asking learners what goes in the first box and second box and final shorter line helped learners to achieve this.

Other learners show part progression of one skill such as the use of complex sentences.

Finally, learners themselves expressed that they now feel more confident in communicating via email. Their increased confidence is also evidenced by the fact that some now send emails on a very regular basis and there has been an increase in apologies for absence via email instead of phone calls.

This learner commented on the sessions being difficult but feels progress is being made.:

‘I still have diffculties but I am suceeding’

Another learner commented on the sessions being difficult but worthwhile. They also appreciated more individual contact with their teacher:

‘I stil have difficulties but I am suceeding. This experience is helping me in writin and reading… to have communication with the teacher when reviewing and correcting the practices outside of class’.

Email produced in the early stages of the year

Email produced after a couple of months

Improvement in the quality and length of written content

Scaffolding of Tasks

Learning from this project

Throughout the project, our aim has been to promote and support diversity whilst ensuring that all learners can fully take part in their courses. Before the first lockdown many of our ESOL learners were disadvantaged by not having the digital skills or language needed to communicate via email.

Scaffolding activities and perseverance over time has resulted in more confident email users as highlighted below. Equipping learners with these language and basic email skills has also resulted in more confidence to engage with their ESOL sessions via email. One learner suggested that it got him to think more in English utilising more language skills more of the time and not only in class time.

Another learner spoke about how they utilised help from others and used Google translate to help them achieve the tasks. This shows how the learners have become determined to succeed in a task and feel able to independently achieve.

Learner utilising more language skills

Learner utilising more language skills

We have learnt that by equipping learners with these language and basic email skills, they gain the confidence needed to engage with their ESOL sessions via email. By integrating email communication into the class time and using it as a springboard into the session, learners are encouraged to refer to the email in class. This allows teachers to rectify any technical or language issues there and then, and learners agree that this allows more thinking time in English. Learners also feel valued and are more able to adopt the new language form or technical skill (see Appendix 4.3).

Similarly, strategies to optimise the use of class time, e.g. using email to flip learning and creating materials which maximise learning, have proved invaluable. For example, we used a colour coding strategy to reinforce the structure of emails, impacting learners’ ability to develop their writing in the distinct topic-based paragraphs mentioned in previous section.

Communicating with the teacher via email was seen to be a very positive channel sought by many learners and feedback from the questionnaire showed over 80% felt happy or excited to just receive an email from their teacher. This channel has also motivated many to work harder to improve. In Appendix 4.4, we have an example of a string of emails written

Screenshot of the learner journey video

Screenshot of the learner journey video

between the learner and teacher, which kept going until the work was correct. This also highlights how using email can be useful in building collaborative relationships with learners so that they see the teacher as supporting both their learning and independence in learning not just in class time.

The timing of this project and coming through a second lockdown has highlighted the fact that the college system relies on learners being able to use email to communicate no matter what they are studying. In order to equip our future learners with these skills the need for a new type of induction programme which allows ESOL learners to fully take part in college has now been recognised. Departmental action plans for next year include the introduction of a short IT course to be delivered to all ESOL learners prior to the courses commencing, so that learners have these skills before they start on their course.