Targeting support for ESOL learners on
vocational programmes

Boston College

This project was set up to evaluate the impact of a small-scale intervention designed to support non-native English speakers who were struggling to take full advantage of their vocational courses. We set up extra classes to focus on helping learners to develop the reading and writing skills needed to tackle their English, maths and vocational courses with more confidence. We intend to disseminate the most effective strategies to all curriculum areas to improve cross-college teaching of non-native English speakers.

You can download a PDF of this report on the Excellence Gateway (link pending).


Boston has a large Eastern European population which is reflected in the number of non-native speakers attending Boston College. Almost 25% of our 16–19-year-olds are ESOL learners which contributes to the richness and diversity of college life, but also provides us with significant challenges when trying to ensure that all learners are able to access our full provision and enjoy the same quality of experience as other learners.

The transition from ESOL classes to Level 2 and 3 vocational courses has proved particularly difficult with learners struggling to access the programmes due to the level of their English and academic skills. Even learners progressing from ESOL to Level 1 Business, for example, have difficulty largely due to the fact that they have not mastered the English reading and writing skills needed for their vocational course. Feedback from learners as well as Functional Skills English results for non-native 16–19-year-olds confirms this. Despite extensive pastoral support, attendance and retention on vocational courses like the Business Level 1 is also impacted, with success and progression onto further study significantly affected.

We considered a range of different strategies to support the development of our learners’ English and academic skills and help them integrate into their vocational classes more readily. Having completed an assessment of learners’ language needs in the Level 1 IT/Business group, to identify the specific barriers learners often face, we decided to focus on setting up extra individual and small group support classes, the impact of which might be evaluated within the time frame of the project. We felt that the extra classes would enable us to utilise a range of resources to target individual support. Originally, our intention was also to work closely with vocational staff on the development of vocabulary resources to prepare learners to take full advantage of vocational programmes. After developing the use of MS Teams Reader and vocabulary resources in the spring term, these have now been disseminated to some vocational areas e.g., Foundation, Pathways to Progress to support improvement across college teaching non-native and low-level English learners.

Other Contextual Information

The college’s action research was part of the Education and Training Foundation’s OTLA 8 Programme and took place mainly in the English department of our FE college. We worked with two different English groups of Level 1 and Level 2 learners who were also enrolled on either IT (Digital Skills) or Business vocational areas, which are very popular with our non-native English speakers.


The flow chart below outlines how we approached the project and indicates how we intend to continue with our work once the project has finished.

  • Initial fact finding
  • Intervention classes
  • Evaluating the impact
  • Next steps
  • Sharing what we found out
  • •Met with key staff to identify the issues that second language learners were having in
    their classes and suggest possible ways to address them (Appendix 3d).
    •Met with second language learners, Computing Level 1, to discuss the challenges many
    of them face in this class and what support they think they would benefit from.
    •Identified specific support needs using the Starting Point Assessment on Century Tech
    and observation of learners in both FS English and maths classes (Appendix 2).
  • •Based on our findings we timetabled in 2 extra hours of voluntary support classes
    tagged on to their study programmes.
    •A range of different resources and strategies were selected to support their language
    •Staff development in use of MS Teams reading tool / Immersive Reader put in place.
  • •A contemporaneous log of activities was used to record the aims of the activities and
    encourage reflection on how useful they had been (Appendix 3a).
    •Project meetings reviewed the log and session content adjusted as the sessions
    •Learner feedback was collected using an interview and questionnaire (Appendix 3b).
    •The progress of 2 learners in their English, maths and vocational classes resulted in 2
    case studies (Appendix 2).
    •Observations of the sessions were carried out by QA staff (Appendix 3c).
  • •Vocational vocabulary development in class and supplementary aids e.g. glossary,
    language posters etc.
    •ESOL champions.
    •Develop assessment/interview techniques for vocational staff at IAG stage to identify if
    learners have the current language skills to succeed within a 34 week the time frame,
    alternative routes and support options included.
  • •Team will create CPD sessions for staff focussing on strategies that worked well and
    encouraging ways to embed their use in different vocational classes.
    •Glossaries will be shared with each vocational area.
    •Learners will create posters/ leaflets for new students e.g. Quotes , advice etc.

Outcomes and Impact

Teaching, Learning and Assessment

The intervention classes were set up in November and are scheduled to continue until the end of May. We chose to focus on the impact that these classes have had on the development of two learners, Learner M and Learner N. The classes were popular with learners; their attendance is sitting at 90%, which is much better than the college average for this time of year.

Although the initial sessions were planned using in-class assessment and observations, the content remained fluid allowing teachers to support the individual development of the two learners, often reacting to information identified in their other lessons (Appendix 3a). The individual support was also commented on in observation feedback (Appendix 3c):

Bespoke delivery clearly supporting the individual learning needs of the two learners

English, maths and IT teachers and support staff worked together and have been keen to comment on the progress that learners have made since attending the extra sessions (Appendix 2).

Learner N, for example, had difficulties understanding maths examination questions as well as interacting with the rest of the class. Concerted work on developing his vocabulary in the intervention sessions, extensive Learning Support Assistant (LSA) help, as well as the learner’s engagement in online resources such as Learning by Questions has proved useful, and resulted in a score of 60% at Entry 3 in his formal assessment in February. In his English classes, this same learner had problems with the reading paper, difficulties with writing conventions, capital letters and full stops, as well as letter formation. His English teacher (Appendix 2) believes that:

[the focused work] done around understanding a text, questions about a text and understanding question words had enabled him to make substantial progress in his understanding

The table below documents the reading progress that learner N made:

  • First reading assessment
  • 11/24 (45%)
  • Second reading assessment
  • 12/24 (50%)
  • December reading exam
  • 21/24 (87.5%)

Learner M has also made progress, with his initial diagnostic reading score moving from 75% in October to 86% in March 2022 at Entry 2 (Appendix 2). Both learners have also made a marked improvement in spelling, grammar and organisation of their writing.

There is LSA evidence to suggest that the learners’ participation in their vocational classes has also improved. Learner N, for example, found it challenging to interact with peers in team activities, and would not answer questions when asked, despite knowing the answers. The help he has received from his support worker, coupled with changes in the class set-up, as well as the confidence from extra sessions have had a significant impact upon his relationship with the class. His support worker has noted that that he has joined the Computing 1 group chat and is now prepared to communicate via Teams:

If his peers see or hear him struggling, they will message him asking if he needs help
– Learner N’s LSA

He goes on to say that Learner N now seems to be far more integrated into the class and:

[Learner N] will now fool around with his peers whilst waiting for lessons and at times had been seen teasing other peers with little pranks.’
– Learner N’s LSA

Please see Appendix 2, LSA comments for further examples.

Learners’ own perceptions of their progress, when questioned during a small group support session, seemed to echo the tutors’ observations, saying that they felt that the sessions had improved their confidence in all aspects of English. However, the learner feedback survey was not so generous in its findings. We believe the variance may be down to the fact that Learner N completed this at home without tutor support, so there was possibly a misunderstanding within the questions being asked. We will revisit this with the learner at the end of the programme. Feedback from tutors, as well as assessments, continues to support our belief that there has been significant improvement in both learners’ academic work and social interaction at college. N is now more confident in speaking in front of others, can order the alphabet and read in English more fluently as can be seen in the tracker records. M has also shown great improvement in his English ability, particularly in grammar and writing skills. These are all small interventions that could not be facilitated in a larger group in lesson and required the intensity of a small group of two learners.

Organisational Development

1. Improved communication between vocational, English and maths teams.

Professional standard 20 – Contribute to organisational development and quality improvement through collaboration with others

The project has required us to work more collaboratively to identify the specific issues that individuals were struggling with and monitor their progress. Meeting across the three areas has often been logistically difficult but using the log to record what has been done in each session has helped and we anticipate that this will impact on organisational development and the way we work next year. We have identified the following developments so far.

2. Potential development of the internal quality process.

Professional standard 20 – Contribute to organisational development and quality improvement through collaboration with others.

In order to identify the kinds of problems that second language learners were having in their classes we interviewed the learners and set up observations of the classes. The observations helped identify what needed to be worked on in their extra classes but also highlighted where different strategies might be used to support NNEs and lower-level learners. We are keen to consider how the observation process might be enhanced further to capture this detail and identify if college wide development is required.

3. Change of future starting point assessment and IAG to ensure that the specific language needs on vocational courses are considered.

Professional standard 1 – Reflect on what works best in your teaching and learning to meet the diverse needs of learners.

Learning from this project

At the beginning of the project, we had planned to do significantly more. However, we quickly realised that many of our intentions were overzealous and more suitable over a longer period of time, so we changed our focus to align ourselves with the immediate needs of the learners within this project.

The implementation of intervention groups has had very positive results and we have also identified a number of factors which will influence how we continue to support our learners next year.

Triangulation of support has had significant benefits over a very short period of time.

Bringing all the staff involved in the progress of the learner together has allowed us to share ideas on different teaching strategies and their effectiveness as well as utilise the expertise of learning support staff. We will try to explore this ‘joined up’ approach further next year. We also need to increase awareness of the significant role LSAs take within the group, and how they can continue to carry on the work that has been developed in the small support groups. The importance of the additional learner support process in the sharing of planning across a learner’s study programme needs to be recognised.

Targeting areas which could have the most impact and that was within our power to supply was important.

We recognise that this is an expensive way of supporting individuals and that this may not have been possible without the funding from EHCP; however, some of the resources and strategies found to be effective can now be shared with both LSAs and class tutors. This targeted small class approach has also been found to be particularly effective when deploying teaching assistants in schools (EEF, 2021).

Strategies which can be used across all classes offer a consistency of approach and may preclude the need to reinvent the wheel for each individual case.

We identified that in many ways we continue to work in silos rather than using a more ‘joined up’ approach. To support this, the development of Microsoft Teams and how it can be implemented to support small group/learner support is to be extensively researched over the coming months in preparation for the new academic year. This will allow us to update all lecturers/support staff on the learners’ study programme with up-to-date strategies as well as significant progress information.

Professional Development

Using the ETF’s Professional Standards for teachers and trainers. Please note, this report refers to the 2014-2022 standards.

  • 1. Reflect on what works best in your teaching and learning to meet the diverse needs of learners.

    The project has encouraged us to step outside ‘normal’ modes of delivery and identify how we can best support new learners to the college, both non-native English speakers (NNESs) and learners with a relatively low English assessment score. Being able to nurture learners in a small group has allowed us to target specific language difficulties which were hindering progress and has also impacted upon their confidence and mindset to improve. As a result, we are also looking at how to develop a more robust Information Advice and Guidance (IAG) process which will inform how we support these learners next year.

  • 4. Be creative and innovative in selecting and adapting strategies to help learners to learn.

    As part of the project there has been considerable time dedicated to identifying resources and teaching strategies and reflecting on how learners have responded to these. Although not every session was successful, we have identified that, to date, the two learners within this project have made better than anticipated progress. Another point to note is that the learners that took part in this research are on Education Health Care Plans (EHCPs) and in studying the report and identifying their individual needs we feel that at the time of the review we will have fully met, if not exceeded their needs.

  • 16. Address the mathematics and English needs of learners and work creatively to overcome individual barriers to learning.

    Throughout this process we have considered strategies that support learners’ English development and how best to support these, not only in English and maths, but equally in their main study programme. Although maths was not initially considered, it is clear to see through our research where significant improvements have been made in this area too (see diagnostic comparisons). This is particularly pleasing as it was not something that was expected and another reason why we intend to invest in this process with an increased number of learners next year. Moving forward we will be adopting more techniques to support a positive mindset with learners in both English and maths though small group interventions using techniques adopted in this research, such as the alphabet tasks and MS Teams reader.

  • 20. Contribute to organisational development and quality improvement through collaboration with others.

    We have also begun to offer staff development sessions based on some of the new technology we have used as part of the project. The first was offered in January, and was well received by different curriculum areas, one of which has booked further training April so they can use MS Teams reader as part of their everyday delivery. During our CPD days in June 2022 we will disseminate our findings to curriculum staff and work together to develop bespoke embedded support materials for their areas, which will also include vocabulary books, walls, techniques to encourage verbal participation class.


Appendix 1

Appendix 2

Appendix 3


EEF (2021) Teaching Assistant Interventions Moderate impact for moderate cost based on moderate evidence. Available at: (Accessed: 20 March 2022).