Levelling the Playing Field: Helping ESOL Learners to Access Remote Learning Opportunities

Wakefield College

Our project is an exploration into overcoming language, digital skills and socio-economic barriers to increase engagement and success for ESOL learners in online and blended learning models, preparing learners to be successful and thrive in their lives in the UK.

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


Wakefield College is a large Further Education college offering a range of courses from Pre-Entry Level through to higher education and professional qualifications. The region has a high demand for ESOL provision and the college has a strong ESOL department which delivers qualifications from Pre-Entry to Level 1 to both full time 16 to18 year old and part-time adult learners. Our research project aimed to address the issues that ESOL learners were having with remote learning and explore how our teaching could be adapted to help learners successfully participate in a blended learning model. We discovered that all levels of learners are able to engage with online learning if it is approached in the right way. It has opened up a whole new world of possibilities, not just for learners but also for staff who have had to adapt and upskill to meet the needs of learners when remote or blended learning is required. Additionally, we have learnt the importance of accurately assessing both the digital skills of the learners, and the key vocabulary and language for digital skills, and that these are so intertwined they are almost impossible to separate.


The movement to remote learning in response to the COVID-19 pandemic was the impetus for staff and students to

IA Finding

IA Finding

develop skills and knowledge around technology at a rapid pace. For many students, this has created a new set of opportunities to study an agile, individualised and industry-

informed curriculum that accelerates progress towards their chosen destination. This ‘new normal’ is an exciting approach for those working in the sector. However, we as a team have recognised that there is perhaps an inequality in accessing this approach for ESOL students.

Many of our ESOL students have found engaging with remote learning to be problematic due to language barriers affecting their ability to access unfamiliar technology and online platforms. Many of these have complicated set up processes which require an understanding of key terminology to proceed. This has hindered many ESOL students in fully engaging with the developed blended learning available. Our aim is to ‘level the playing field’.


Initial Assessment (IA)

  • To reflect the wide variety of abilities in our classes we developed an IA based on the ETF digital skills assessment
  • Identified processes and language needed to access the digital tools
  • Trialled different versions, methods of delivery to ensure that it was fit for purpose across all levels. (Appendix 9 for evaluations)
  • The team then trialled different approaches to respond the IA results

    Image of Approach

    Image of Approach

  • A log was kept, allowing staff to share ideas, ask for suggestions etc

Approach 1: Virtual classroom

  • To engage younger learners in remote learning we trialled the use of avatars in a virtual classroom.
  • The approach tried to replicate the classroom learning environment as closely as possible ( Appendix 10 & 11)

Approach 2: Interactive PowerPoints

  • Used interactive PowerPoints with different levels and age groups.
  • Trialled as indepedent study modules and within online classes.
  • Reviewed results , reflected on how they work best e.g. work well as a continuation of the virtual classroom to support asychronous learning.
  • Led to development of Language for Online Learning tool. (Appendix 12)

Other approaches: in response to IA results

  • Team members explored the use of different approaches (Appendices 5 & 10)
  • Embedding digital skills & vocabulary in each lesson
  • Use of Teams & class notebook
  • Interactive games/worksheets/websites (Appendix 15)

Evaluation of progress

  • The team reflected upon and evaluated the usefulness of the resources and different approaches feeding back through out.
  • Adaptions were made e.g. IA redesigned on a number of occasions to effectively target the skills we needed to track.
  • Decided on next steps

Next steps

  • Use the lastest IA version at the beginning and end of the courses.
  • Embed digital skills throughout course to revisit previous learning.
  • Include digital induction in staff handbook.
  • Offer Digital Skills Introduction course to new learners

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

This research has had an impact on almost every part of the department’s professional practice (see Appendix 2). The digital skills initial assessment (IA) can be used not only as an initial assessment tool but also as a way of measuring progress on the course. This will then inform further teaching, learning and assessment. The digital skills IA will be an important tool going forward as IT is embedded further within the provision. This will result in improved progression opportunities for our learners, both within college and into employment, and has already improved retention rates due to learners being able to continue studying with us even when they have moved out of the area.

Perhaps one of the biggest impacts that the research has had on the teaching staff is an increased awareness of the importance of continually challenging their own assumptions of the learners’ capabilities. Angela commented:

“I made certain assumptions about how the students would be able to use these [interactive PowerPoints] not taking into account difficulties such as following links and navigating away from them, then not being able to get back in”.

This was a recurring theme throughout discussions and led to the re-evaluation of the IA and the creation of different formats.

Additionally, it was recognised that Pre-Entry students are equally as capable of learning online as Level 1 students when given the support required (see appendix 14 for further examples). AJ, a temporary agency staff member, said of the Language for Online Learning resource:

“[I] was so grateful to have it available as a resource at the time… I think even the Pre-Entry learners grasped most of it.”

Also, when a student is confident in using one type of technology, they often do not realise that these skills are transferable and are reluctant to try other platforms (see Appendix 3). This led to the creation of the ‘how to’ guides in the Language for Online Learning presentation, which can be used as both a pre-learning activity and as reference material throughout the course.

Evidence of improved collaboration and changes in organisation practices

Collaboration has been important to the project from the beginning, as the whole teaching team were involved from the start. The staffroom, our usual area for collaboration, was out of use due to social distancing. Creating a shared document (Appendix 5) to interact with each other and discuss ideas, in addition to monthly meetings, was beneficial to collaboration and gave all members of the team a clear focus. Team members were able to record any issues they came across to be discussed and reviewed with the team. We were also able to interact with each other via the comments section to give advice/ideas. The shared document and meetings also enabled temporary members of staff and new members of the team to have input into the project and collaborate effectively. We also noted that shared documents encouraged informal interaction, characteristic of being together in a staffroom, in a digital setting. The example shown is a screenshot taken from one of our collaborative documents, illustrating how the team were able to interact with one another as the project progressed.

Screenshot taken from a collaborative document

Screenshot taken from a collaborative document

Prior to monthly meetings, the shared document was updated with actions to be completed before the meeting to ensure that time was spent productively. Having a member of the teaching team as the Project Coordinator also proved to be an asset, keeping up communication and driving the project forward. The need for this role was not initially anticipated and not part of the original proposal; however, it is clear that the team valued a member of the team stepping up and resulted in the whole team taking active roles in the project.

A video is being developed to showcase what has been learnt during the project. The intention is to share the video with other curriculum areas across college to support their students who may be struggling with similar issues. The project has also been shared with the Senior Leadership Team who are keen to replicate the successes of the ESOL team throughout college.

It has been decided that the blended learning model will continue within the department when social distancing is over. Enabling our learners to improve their digital skills has an incredible impact both on their learning and personal development and it is important to continue building on this success. The blended model combines online lessons with face-to-face sessions and self-directed study to create a programme of learning tailored to the individual and harnessing the best of both approaches. The team are enthusiastic and excited about this opportunity to update their teaching practice to a model which is suitable for the 21st Century, a prospect that would have seemed unfeasible just 12 months ago.

Evidence of improvement in learners’ achievements, retention and progression

All staff undertaking the project have noticed the impact that this style of working has had on the individual learners (see Appendix 7). In particular, MB, a Pre-Entry student, illiterate in his first language, contacted his tutor at the start of the term asking for access to a computer to complete his studies. Receiving a college device and learning to use it has been life-changing for this learner. For example, according to his online maths teacher, in the first few lessons, he wasn’t able to mute/turn on the camera/end the call or use the chat function. His maths teacher spoke to his ESOL teacher about this, and they agreed to do a video call so that she was able to demonstrate the features step by step. The result was:

“twelve beaming faces on the screen, desperate to learn, and thrilled they were getting a chance”.

After this intervention, MB was a regular attender at his online maths class, and gradually became more and more confident with his digital skills. His teacher noticed that he was often on the phone a lot at the beginning and end of sessions and when asked about it he told him that,

“he was helping other students to log on and take part”.

His tutor went on to say:

“his confidence has not only grown in his digital skills, but it seems to have really given him the boost that he needed, …. He is able to use, and explain to others how to use, a range of features in Teams, which enabled us to have some really productive lessons during lockdown 3”.

Utilising personalised learning has enabled MB to progress so much, in his own learning, and as a supporter of his peers too. As Wozniac (2020) states:

“Personalized learning can give each learner the opportunity to learn effectively and efficiently based on his or her own assets of skills, knowledge, and abilities, supporting a student-centered pedagogy.”

Image of the use of avatars in PowerPoints

Using avatars in PowerPoint

Another example of the power of personalised learning came from the use of the virtual classroom, in which avatars seemed to capture the interest and imagination of the younger learners, leading to increased engagement in activities, particularly when learners were given the opportunity to use their own avatars. One student, MK, started to create her own PowerPoints in the same style as the interactive PowerPoints but using her own avatars to give the answers to the tasks set. (As shown)

Appendix 3 shows a comparison of the IA results from the beginning to the end of the course and highlights increased confidence in digital skills for most learners. However, we also noticed a significant drop in the use of certain keys such as shift and ampersand. We realised that perhaps some of the questions on the IA were not testing the skills as efficiently as we had hoped. This led to redesigning the IA to include specific questions to address these issues and increased the amount of vocabulary we wanted to check the comprehension of. Feedback from teachers

Image showing comprehension of key terms being checked

Comprehension of key terms

was that we needed to check comprehension of key terms and how to use them. As evidenced by the question below, we wanted to ensure that this tested their digital skills knowledge, and not just their English language skills or ability to use a translator.

Next year, we will be using this version at the beginning of the course and again at the end of the course, after the skills and vocabulary have been embedded throughout.

Learning from this project

Being able to provide some students with devices to learn online was a massive benefit, although the college does not have enough equipment for all learners at the present time. All students had access to a smartphone, and therefore resources needed to be accessible from a smartphone. Although not ideal, many students managed to continue their studies in this way. Additionally, if students gain confidence with embedded digital skills now, they will be able to access the IT facilities in the college library with increased ease in the future. Students will become more and more used to the processes until they become proficient.

Mostly, learners have responded well to being given more autonomy and independence in their learning. However, there still exists a mindset (especially with the young learners) that learning can only occur in a classroom where the teacher is delivering the lesson face to face. When asked for feedback on how to improve online lessons, one student, LK, expressed, “They can’t be. Online lessons are impractical in my opinion.” The same learner didn’t value asynchronous online learning in the same way as synchronous online learning (see Appendix 4). Going forward, it may take some time for the blended learning approach to become the norm and for learners to meet the challenges of independence and autonomy that it requires. This has also challenged our assumptions that younger learners might adapt more naturally to online learning than adult learners.

Using a Microsoft Forms initial assessment gives a good indication of the digital skills a student already possesses, as well as checking comprehension of the key vocabulary needed for successful online learning. It also identifies any gaps in knowledge which need to be addressed before language learning can take place. It is quick and easy for teachers to administer and evaluate and straightforward for students, even at Pre-Entry Level. The IA has been designed to test whether a learner can use the relevant skills, providing a more accurate result than the student’s self-assessment of what they think they can do.

The Language for Online Learning resource includes information which often needs revisiting, allowing learners to access the guidance whenever it is needed. It includes keywords, linked to a glossary, as well as how-to guides for accessing all platforms the learners need to be able to use to successfully engage in remote learning. As the resource is a large file, it cannot be sent to external email addresses easily. The resource can be broken down into smaller sections, to make it more accessible to the learner or kept whole and put in Teams as a reference material. There is flexibility for teachers to adapt it to meet the individual requirements of their learners.

One of the biggest take-aways from this project is a renewed passion for innovative and creative approaches to teaching and learning. We were not expecting this; however, having the freedom of the project to explore created a safety net against the perceived risks of creativity in our pedagogy. As busy teaching practitioners with conflicting demands, sometimes it is convenient to rely on tried and trusted methods. The project has forced us out of our comfort zone, and into our ‘learning zone’. (Senninger; 2000) We are excited for the journey ahead, where we will continue with a blended learning model, not because we are forced to by the constraints of a pandemic, but because we want to and it is what is in the best interests of our students.