Improving writing for ESOL students stuck at Entry Level 3

New College Durham

This project aimed to help students who were having difficulty progressing from Entry Level 3 (E3) to Level 1 (L1) due to weaker writing skills. We trialled different strategies to develop writing and liaised with Functional Skills (FS) tutors. We learnt having an intense focus on writing skills benefits overall language learning and confidence.

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


Learners and tutors working togetherWe have a number of students who have plateaued at E3, hindering progress with the language they need in daily life. We sought to find ways to break down this barrier and empower them to be better writers, using a focus on writing systems. Initially, we focussed on how feedback informs writing, but after some interesting reading on a project working with children who struggle to read (Walter, Dockrell and Connelly, 2021) we broadened the scope to consider interventions at text, sentence and word level.

Other Contextual Information

working collaboratively during the projectTwo ESOL tutors carried out research with one ESOL group each: the first was a group of students living in the UK for some time with highly effective verbal communication skills but weaker literacy skills and less accurate grammar (the literacy group); the second was a mixed group of ESOL students with a more EFL profile, many of whom hold professional qualifications from their own countries (mainstream ESOL). We liaised with tutors from the FS English team, and a key outcome from this was being able to recruit a mentor for each group: an adult FS student and a sixth form student.


Here you can see the stages of our action research, as we explored how we can develop our practice in supporting Entry Level 3 students with their writing skills. At each stage of our research, the two ESOL tutors worked closely together, as well as with the FS English team. See Appendices 3b-d for examples of changes to our practice, and examples of student work.

a screenshot of a flowchart showing the approach the project team took

The classes followed different approaches which provided us with opportunities for interesting professional discussion, as well as the chance to learn from each other whilst doing our research. The reason for this difference was to look at a range of strategies. Each tutor chose to do what they felt more comfortable with. This diagram shows the divergence of approach.

flowcharts showing the different process of a approaches the literacy and mainstream ESOL classes took

Outcomes and Impact

Teaching, Learning and Assessment

Increased focus on writing has borne fruit in following areas:

  • Better writing skills. We found that writing was better planned and more coherent across both groups. There were noticeable improvements in the grammar and spelling of the students in the literacy group as can be seen by the examples below from early on in the course, and the February test.

Start of the year:

example of student writing at the start of the year


example of student writing in February

  • Better understanding and more accurate use of grammar in both spoken and written work (see Appendix 2 and example above)
  • Increased confidence. Students have reported that they feel more confident since starting the course. This manifests itself in them taking the opportunity to speak to other students across college during college events, and seeking out opportunities to communicate with others.
  • Students achieving goals outside college. Two of the students from the literacy class have found employment during the course. One stated that she would not have had the confidence to fill in the application form before starting the course.
  • Improvements in learner performance. It is interesting that both approaches saw improvements in learner performance, although it is not possible to state categorically that one was more successful than the other.

Organisational Development

Organisational developments included:

  • Increased awareness across student body (mentors) of what ESOL is and who the students are.
  • Increased working across departments (ESOL and FS). Staff and students are now more likely to work together.
  • Future training for FS staff from ESOL staff. The curriculum manager for ESOL has been asked to work with FS tutors in the future to better support those working with non-native speakers and the language difficulties they may have.

Learning from this project

We learnt that there are no quick fixes to an entrenched problem such as poor writing skills. At the mid-way point, following progress tests, we were feeling disheartened that we could not see the big gains we had hoped for. But after speaking to the students, we realised that some of the gains were not visible in their writing as such, but those detailed above (confidence, communication, etc).

Following on from that, we learnt to temper our own expectations, and recognise that even small steps forward can represent big gains. The fact that one student felt able to even fill in an application form, a task she had avoided for some time such was her reluctance to write, represents a huge step forward.

We also realised that teaching one skill in isolation is actually not possible. By focussing on writing, we were bringing in more focus on grammar, spelling, sentence structure, etc, all of which benefit language skills overall.

Finally, language improvement brings all sorts of benefits with it, including in the ‘soft skills’ of confidence and resilience.

We worked with the FS team and feel we all benefited from it. However, it would have been even better had they not been going through structural change at the same time, and therefore not able to devote as much time as hoped for to the project. Similarly, the stress of persistent and prolonged staff absence due to COVID-19 put a huge strain on the project lead who was not able to spend as much time as planned on the project at certain times.

Professional Development

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

  • 3. Inspire, motivate and raise aspirations of learners through enthusiasm and knowledge.

    Our project gave us permission to focus more on writing skills, and by doing so, we were able to break down the barrier of fear that holds so many back from writing regularly. We were able to give students the space they needed to understand what was required of them and to plan thoroughly for the task ahead.

  • 6. Build positive and collaborative relationships with colleagues and learners.

    Our project enabled us to work with colleagues from the FS English team, to draw on their knowledge and share ideas across both teams. It has led to a closer working relationship going forward, where we will be sharing tips on working with non-native speakers.

  • 14. Plan and deliver effective learning programmes for diverse groups or individuals in a safe and inclusive environment.

    We emphasised to students at the start of the year that there were no assumptions about what they knew, and this helped them to go back to the basics of understanding what different parts of speech we have and how they fit together. The students in the literacy class in particular have been so supportive of one another, as they recognise that this is a journey they must all make, even though they have different starting points.


Appendix 2: Learner Case Studies

Appendix 3: Additional Information and resources

Research Poster

This project also produced a poster for display at the NATECLA National Conference 2022. You can view the poster below and access a PDF copy via the curated exhibition Wakelet.


Walter, K., Dockrell, J., Connelly, V. (2021) A sentence-combining intervention for struggling writers: response to intervention Available at: (Accessed 12th December 2021).