Can ESOL pedagogy be applied to GCSE and Functional Skills delivery to develop responsive teaching and learning?

Buckinghamshire College Group

This project aimed to utilise ESOL teaching methodologies, learning techniques and strategies to develop and enhance Functional Skills and GCSE English delivery to Study Programme and Apprenticeship students.

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


The original remit of the project aimed to develop effectiveness of delivery of Functional Skills English to Apprentices who had English as a second language and develop Functional Skills delivery to ESOL students. However, at our first meeting, we discussed how teachers with a CELTA qualification or ESOL background tended to approach teaching from a student centred, learning by task, or discovery standpoint, whereas GCSE English teachers expressed that they sometimes felt constrained by the GCSE syllabus and compelled to deliver exam style content. Therefore, we hoped that exploring ESOL pedagogy would enable more active and discovery-led learning to meet individual needs.

Other Contextual Information

ESOL teachers developed and delivered the sessions then Functional Skills teachers attended the sessions and reflected on the approaches then both the ESOL teachers and FS/GCSE teachers adapted their classroom practice

Our action research was part of The Education and Training Foundation’s OTLA 8 Programme and involved the English and ESOL departments within our FE college. Our project was a planned collaboration between two departments to share teaching methodologies and expertise. The project had a layered approach in terms of the ‘students’ within the plan, act, observe and reflect model of research. Firstly, the project team comprised of the manager and two ESOL teachers who developed an in-house training programme. Secondly, this was delivered to six Functional Skills/GCSE teachers, who reflected on their learning in these sessions. Thirdly, the ESOL teachers and the Functional Skills/GCSE teachers adapted their practice based on their reflections on sessions to trial new approaches with their students, meaning twenty groups of students were involved in the research.


Our project focused on the development of an in-house training course based on the key pedagogical teaching and learning principles of ESOL delivery. We developed a structure for our course, which originally focused on nine key aspects of language teaching:

  • Foreign language lesson
  • Lesson planning
  • ESOL lesson formats, (please see The British Council website for further information e.g., Presentation, Production and Practice (PPP), discovery approach, Test, Teach, Test (TTT)).
  • Grammar and vocabulary lessons
  • Clarifying and checking meaning
  • Classroom interaction patterns
  • Elicitation
  • Feedback
  • Effective reinforcement for motivation.

Through collaborative discussion and reflection, we refined and combined key techniques to develop our final course structure of five key sessions (see Appendix 3 for further details):

  • Project launch/Foreign Language lesson
  • Planning/lesson format and context setting
  • Teaching grammar
  • Teaching vocabulary
  • Elicitation, feedback, and motivational techniques.

Originally, we planned for our delivery to be over ten weeks with a week of implementation and reflection between each session. We had also planned for all sessions to be face to face although this changed as the project evolved and some sessions were delivered via zoom.

Teacher reflection was a key factor in our research model and was incorporated into taught sessions and implementation weeks. We decided not to be prescriptive on the method of reflection that teachers should take and as a result we had greater participation in reflection.

Outcomes and Impact

To an extent we met our objectives but not necessarily in the way that we had identified at the beginning of the project. As an organisation we had clearly identified what we wanted to develop, how we planned to do it and the impact we expected as a result. However, the very nature of action research meant it was not as straightforward as this and we ended up learning even more than we expected, as much from what did not work as well as from what did.

Teaching, Learning and Assessment

Teachers engaged with the language lesson (Appendix 4) and enjoyed it much more than we could have thought possible when planning the sessions. They all identified feelings of uneasiness, vulnerability, being engaged but uncomfortable, feeling confused but also interested during the twenty-minute language lesson. Teachers fed back that they valued this insight as some had forgotten what it could be like for students when learning. They all said they would consider this when planning. In terms of strategies used to engage and understand the language lesson, teachers stated asking questions/valuing repetition, mentally repeating sentences and teacher body language and gestures. They all reflected on the importance of these, and that the activity served as a reminder when planning to think about the smaller things and how these support students. In terms of changes to teaching the following was identified: activities to support repetition for students; strategies to support student perseverance as well as valuing and praising student perseverance; scaffolding activities; greater use of sentence starters; increasing feedback and positive reinforcement within lessons; linking first language to English for vocabulary; sentence structure and adding more images to help students visualise what they are reading.

Organisational Development

Organisationally, we had identified what we felt could support key improvements and wanted to support teachers to explore this aspect. As a management team, we wanted teachers to lead the project but, for various reasons outside of our control, the lead role kept coming back to managers. As an organisation, we felt that this may hinder exploration and engagement with the project, but that was not the case. The project provided managers with a clearer understanding of the internal battle some teachers have in terms of their ideas on how teaching and learning should be, and that changing or developing teaching from teacher centred to student centred is not always straightforward. Understanding this and supporting teachers to unpick this aspect is important to them being able to reflect on and implement changes. This was one of the key learning aspects of the project and has influenced next steps.

Learning from this project

The concept of delivering a course to teachers to enable exploration and implementation into lessons was overall an effective concept. However, the approach for the course was not as effective as we had first planned. Timing of the project and staffing shortages due to Covid-19 impacted our original plan of a ten-week delivery. We planned to deliver the whole course face to face. However, because we wanted all staff to participate across all sites, some sessions ended up being delivered online. The language lesson was delivered face to face whereas the sessions on lesson format and grammar were remote online sessions Therefore, we need to consider whether the language session went well because it was face to face or a more neutral lesson that all teachers could engage with. We realised that in order for teachers to fully embrace an approach they had to experience the modelling of it. Remote delivery at times hindered TTT or discovery model and made it feel more PPP, thus reinforcing the delivery we were trying to move away from.

We also realised that changing approaches to delivery is not always straightforward and teachers need time to unpick their views of the way they think teaching and learning should happen as well as have more time to reflect and implement methods. We had an expectation the teachers in the group would embrace, implement, and develop teaching learning and assessment activities at the same rate as a result of the course, which was unrealistic. Some teachers thrived within the sessions; they had ‘lightbulb moments’, were open to implementing and trialling new approaches and were not put off if they did not work first time. However other teachers struggled to see how the concepts could be applied and needed more scaffolding of activities to identify changes. Some teachers also had reservations around the timing of the course with exams looming and struggled with balancing experimentation with supporting students to cover what was needed for exams.

Moving forward, we plan to complement these structured language sessions with a lesson study approach (EEF 2020 and see also Appendix 6). Encouraging further collaboration through the joint planning, delivery, and observation. Our next steps are to revisit the sessions and use the Lesson Study model within the summer term as we can then link this to adapting schemes of work.

Professional Development

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

  • 2. Evaluate and challenge your practice, values and beliefs.

    We had always planned to facilitate a collaboration and sharing of expertise between ESOL, and GCSE/FS teachers and the action research project provided dedicated time to explore key language pedagogy. The project enabled teachers from different departments and with differing lengths of service and experience to build positive relationships with peers, have professional discussions and explore key ideas and approaches to improve teaching and learning. This aspect we felt was a key success of the project and something we plan to continue to support teachers to do (see Appendix 5 for further details).

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

    For the teacher who delivered the Korean language lesson, the experience of delivering to peers enabled them to reflect on the reading aspect of GCSE delivery and the value of pre-teaching vocabulary for ESOL or EHCP students. The teacher decided to implement a Quizizz task initially midway through a session, but this was not so effective as students were then distracted by their phones. The teacher tried it again but as a starter prior to the reading task and this worked well. The lesson was much smoother, and they felt it added more diversity to the classroom and teaching environment. Students enjoyed the classes and liked being able to use their phones to do the quiz, and one student said they liked competing against the class. Others valued finding a definition or an image to help visualise the word.

  • 9. Apply theoretical understanding of effective practice in teaching, learning and assessment drawing on research and other evidence.

    Some teachers initially had reservations about the concept and felt their experiences as an ESOL and/or GCSE English teacher highlighted pedagogical challenges. Some teachers also felt that they needed to consider and evaluate their view that a teacher had a responsibility to teach. Therefore, they felt that in their own reflection and implementation they needed to bridge the divide between responsive teaching, learning and assessment and their current practices in the post-16 GCSE delivery and explore how to balance the two to optimise students’ learning.

    Following the language session, these teachers applied more pair work and small group activities into lessons. Following implementation, teachers could see the benefits with activities less teacher-centred and more student focused. These changes to delivery allowed more time to check the students’ work. This in turn seemed to increase the students’ levels of self-confidence as they had already received one to one feedback prior to whole class feedback (see Appendix 5 for further details).


Appendix 2: Learner Case Studies

Appendix 3: Language Course Structure

Appendix 4: Language Lesson

Appendix 5: Teacher Reflections

Appendix 6: The Lesson Study Model

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.


The British Council (no date). ‘Guided Discovery’. Available at: [accessed 8.6.22].

The British Council (no date). ‘PPP’. Available at: [accessed 8.6.22].

The British Council (no date). ‘Teach, Teach, Test’. Available at: [accessed 8.6.22].

The Department for Education and Skills (2005). ‘Department for Education and Skills
Departmental Report 2005’. Available at: [Accessed 23.3.22].

The Education Endowment Foundation (2022). ‘Lesson Study’. Available at: [Accessed 23.3.22].

The Teacher Development Trust. 2022. ‘What is Lesson Study?’ Available at: [Accessed 23.3.22].