11b. The Oldham College

Supporting second language learners in vocational courses

Oldham College

This project brought vocational and ESOL tutors together to collaborate on embedding language learning in vocational programmes. Through regular consultation with learners, we developed responsive strategies and helped learners use vocational vocabulary more confidently. We have identified digital and spoken skills as our next areas for development.

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


ESOL and vocational tutors often have few opportunities to learn from each other and plan collaboratively. At Oldham College we have run ESOL vocational programmes for several years, but the vocational and ESOL elements have been planned and delivered separately by the respective specialist tutors.

Vocabulary and self-expression can be major barriers to progression for both ESOL learners and other learners on vocational programmes. Research shows that embedding language into vocational teaching can boost motivation, retention and achievement (Casey et al, 2006). This project aimed to bring vocational and ESOL tutors together to identify teaching and learning approaches that could help to bridge the gap between ESOL and vocational courses.

Other Contextual Information

This research took place at The Oldham College, a general FE college. We offer a wide range of vocational programmes of study, as well as ESOL classes from Starter level up to Level 2. ESOL learners who are working towards Level 1 have the option of choosing a vocational pathway to study alongside their language classes.

For this project we worked with a 16-19 ESOL business group, and two adult ESOL vocational groups, one studying Health and Social Care and the other Beauty. Both ESOL and vocational tutors were involved in developing and trialling teaching strategies.


Teachers were recruited via an internal college bulletin email and by direct invitation to those teaching on ESOL vocational programmes. Participants had an initial conversation with the project lead to discuss the aims and methods of the research.

Both ESOL and vocational tutors used observation and class discussion to identify where learners felt they required support with language for vocational learning. Learners identified work-specific vocabulary and understanding the spoken language of vocational tutors as areas for development. The Beauty tutor also noted that lack of digital skills was a barrier for adult learners who had very low engagement in online coursework activities.

Tutors subsequently met to discuss possible interventions from a range of ESOL and vocabulary teaching strategies. Frayer models and similar vocabulary recording methods (Appendix 3) were chosen as a simple and time-effective way of teaching and recording vocational terms. One ESOL tutor decided to use authentic vocational texts to reinforce vocabulary in ESOL lessons (Appendix 5).

From December, tutors began using a range of vocabulary activities in classes and recorded reflections, observations and learner comments on a visual template (Appendix 6). Examples of learner work were also collected as evidence of engagement and understanding (Appendix 4). Teachers met regularly with the project lead to discuss progress and further areas for development.

In order to address the digital skills gap identified with the Beauty group, the ESOL tutor planned an induction to Google Classroom. Learners took part in a group discussion about access to digital resources and it emerged that mobile compatibility was a key issue. The ESOL tutor planned a three-week programme of ESOL work on Google classroom to build digital skills and confidence. Learners were shown how to access and submit work on mobile phones. This strand of the work was then linked to vocabulary building through the use of Wordwall matching activities (Appendix 8). Engagement with resources was monitored, and learners were interviewed at the end of the programme to evaluate impact.

Throughout the project, visual templates were used to aid communication between teachers, students and researchers. In January, interviews were conducted with learners using a visual capture sheet. The template used the metaphor of a hot air balloon and a mountain to promote reflection about what supported their learning goals and what barriers still existed (Appendix 7). Several themes emerged from these interviews. One commonly mentioned issue was a lack of confidence in spoken English and the desire for more opportunities to practise speaking. This will inform future discussions with vocational tutors to identify opportunities to embed oracy into lessons.

Outcomes and Impact

Teaching, Learning and Assessment

The biggest impact of this project is that it has increased collaboration betweenLearner reflections using a visual template on their skills, challenges and capabilities. ESOL and vocational tutors, raising awareness of the specific needs of ESOL learners. Vocational tutors have tried a range of vocabulary strategies and reflected on their impact. This has led to further development of resources such as a vocabulary dictionary and matching activities (Appendix 9). Learners have engaged with the activities and demonstrated a better understanding of vocational terminology. In Business classes, learners have used technical language more accurately and frequently. Observations and discussions with learners in Beauty demonstrate that learners feel more confident in their understanding of subject-specific vocabulary. Learners commented on the value of using pictures and having support from the tutor with spelling. Learners have also been able to make links between their vocational and ESOL learning, commenting on the value of repeating learning across the different strands of their programme.

On the Beauty programme, engagement with online learning has increased. Learners have submitted online assignments and used uploaded slides to prepare for vocational lessons. They have also learned to create their own slides to make presentations. In interviews learners have said that they particularly value online quizzes due to their ease of access, instant feedback and repeatability. Consequently the project lead is now working with vocational tutors to plan further online vocabulary activities to support the work done in classrooms.

As a result of the research, there has been increased dialogue with learners leading to a better understanding of what they value in their learning and the barriers they perceive. One finding has been that many learners find that Level 1 vocational learning doesn’t meet their expectations. For example, learners on the Beauty course wanted to learn a range of techniques for make-up and hair and found that the content was too generic. In the early stages of the project a Beauty tutor queried why learners were limited to Level 1 when they were capable of a Level 2 qualification. This raises issues about entry requirements and perceptions of ESOL learners’ capabilities, providing valuable data to inform planning for next year’s programmes, including discussions about which qualifications should be offered.

Organisational Development

The project has enhanced cross-departmental relationships and communication. This has led to a more coherent study programme for learners on ESOL vocational courses. Feedback from learners and conversations between different subject specialists have identified areas where programme design could be improved to meet learner needs and expectations. The project has highlighted the importance of taking time to consult all stakeholders when planning a programme of study and ensuring that tutors working with the same group of learners are allocated time to meet, plan and problem-solve collaboratively.

The college is now planning a further piece of work looking at embedding maths and English into vocational courses. Learning from this project will help to inform next steps, which will include creating opportunities to bring vocational tutors together with English and maths specialists.

One of the outcomes of the project was the creation of a short digital induction for adult ESOL learners, providing an introduction to the college’s main learning platform. The Quality Department are now in the process of creating a digital strategy document and considering the introduction of a learner entitlement around access to digital skills and resources. Resources created for this project and feedback from learners will help us plan a digital induction programme.

Learning from this project

Some of the most useful learning from the project came from the process of conducting action research. Taking an exploratory approach has helped us to work more responsively, adapting and refining strategies to meet learner needs. While vocational tutors initially chose the Frayer model (Appendix 3) to teach vocabulary, they quickly found that different activities were better suited to their learners and vocational areas. In Business, the written glossary (Appendix 9) was a jumping off point for encouraging learners to use subject-specific language in their spoken and written work. The glossary allowed the tutor to set expectations about use of language in class. In Beauty, a different approach was needed due to the high number of technical terms. Pictures and repetition were important to help learners acquire and retain the unfamiliar vocabulary.

Vocational tutors were already confident about teaching vocabulary as this was seen as a key part of vocational learning for all learners. However, the project has prompted a renewed focus on providing different ways for learners to practise. Increased consultation with learners has led us to explore different avenues such as planning speaking activities with a vocabulary focus. Learners have said that they appreciate regular practice and consistency of approaches between vocational and ESOL tutors. One vocational tutor introduced regular spelling tests as a result of the project and found that it motivated the group and helped them to retain knowledge: “I wish I’d done it from the start”.

The success of visual templates to guide learner discussion and tutor reflections was another learning outcome from the project. One group of learners was given a picture of a mountain and a hot-air balloon (Appendix 9), representing challenges they face and what supports them to progress. In the absence of specific questions that might be asked in a focus group or survey, learners were free to have wide-ranging conversations which identified many issues beyond the scope of the project. These included pastoral issues and expectations about their programme as well as concerns about language proficiency. For tutors, a visual template provided a focus for reflective practice (Appendix 6) without over-burdening participants with paperwork. Tutors made short notes which efficiently captured key learning points and next steps.

Next Steps

One area for further work is the practicalities of releasing tutor time for collaborative work. Although funding was available, the constraints of timetabling and staffing difficulties meant that we have so far been unable to organise peer observations as initially hoped. There are ongoing conversations between Quality and Heads of Faculty about how to enable staff to collaborate more effectively, and where there could be more flexibility in timetabling. The college is considering ring-fencing more time for continuous professional development (CPD), which may create more opportunities for this kind of work.

While learners did express concerns about vocational vocabulary at the beginning of their programme, more in-depth interviews in January revealed that spoken English was now their primary concern. It has been relatively easy to address vocabulary learning through resource development, whereas it may be more complex to agree on interventions to address oracy. Developing speaking requires time, teaching expertise and changes to the way lessons are planned and delivered.

Our next steps will be to arrange peer observations and further discussions between ESOL and vocational tutors to shape strategies for developing speaking in vocational classes. As we begin to plan next year’s programmes, we intend to undertake a language audit with vocational tutors to analyse the functions and lexis needed for specific subject specialisms (Colquhoun & Delaney, 2009). Both ESOL and vocational tutors will then be better equipped to embed bespoke language learning in vocational programmes.

Professional Development

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

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

    The most important outcome of the project has been the improved communication between teachers from different areas and learners. Vocational and ESOL tutors have met regularly, leading to a better understanding of each other’s subject areas and collaborative problem solving. For example, in Beauty we were able to identify digital skills as a barrier to progression in the vocational course and work together to improve learner access to their online coursework.

    Learners have been consulted regularly about their perspective, leading to a greater understanding of their needs. While the project initially focussed on vocabulary learning, open conversations with learners generated a more nuanced view of the challenges of studying a vocational subject as an ESOL learner. This is leading to further work around the embedding of oracy in vocational learning.

  • 10. Evaluate your practice with others and assess its impact on learning.

    The use of a visual template to record reflections has allowed teachers to quickly note the impact of new teaching strategies. Teachers have identified the most helpful resources for vocabulary building and refined their approaches based on learner responses and their own reflections. There have also been opportunities to meet with other tutors and share techniques. Tutors have invited learners to try a range of templates for recording vocabulary and choose which ones they find most useful. Impact has been assessed through observation of learners in class and through learner evaluations.

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

    The project has focused on the English needs of learners. By consulting learners from the early stages of the project, we identified a range of barriers. Working collaboratively has brought a range of perspectives to the task of addressing learning needs. Tutors have shared and adapted templates and experimented with new ways to teach and practice vocational vocabulary. Methods have been adapted to suit different subject specialisms. For example, in Beauty there is a lot of technical vocabulary which can be explained through pictures and diagrams. We therefore used online matching activities to help learners understand and practise the terminology.


Appendix 2: Learner Case Studies

Appendix 3: Vocabulary Recording Templates

Appendix 4: Examples of Student Work

Appendix 5: Vocational Authentic Texts

Appendix 6: Tutor Reflections on Visual Template

Appendix 7: Student Reflections on Balloon Visual Template

Appendix 8: Online Resources: Wordwall

Appendix 9: Additional Resources Developed for ESOL Vocational Classes

Research Poster

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


Casey, H., Cara, O., Eldred, J., Grief, S., & Hodge, R. (2006). ‘You wouldn’t expect a maths teacher to teach plastering…’ Embedding literacy, language and numeracy in post-16 vocational programmes – the impact on learning and achievement. London: NRDC. Accessible at:

Colquhoun, S., & Delaney, J.A. (2009), ESOL issues for teachers in the lifelong learning sector. In A. Paton, & M. Wilkins, Teaching Adult ESOL, (pp.253-264). Maidenhead: McGraw-Hill Education.

Rahman, Z., et al., (no date) To explore ESOL/EAL specific teaching and learning interventions of key words and phrases in the GCSE maths classroom and how they impact on learners’ progress, Education and Training Foundation, Available at: