Introducing participatory ESOL approaches into volunteer-led, informal ESOL settings


This project aimed to combine an understanding of adult learning theory with the use of participatory tools and techniques in community based English conversation groups run by SAVTE Language Volunteers. The project aimed to identify an effective approach for the introduction of participatory approaches in informal, volunteer-led ESOL settings.

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


The project aimed to enable volunteer ESOL teachers to facilitate participatory, localised ESOL speaking and listening activities in SAVTE conversation groups. The aim of introducing participatory approaches was to both change the role of a volunteer from that of ‘teacher’ who may sit apart from learning being experienced in the room, and to expand the experience of conversation groups for learners, into a more collaborative and experiential experience with direct relevance to issues and changes in their own lives. For further information on the relationship between adult learning theories and participatory ESOL, please see Appendix 3: Participatory ESOL and links to Adult Learning Theories.

The action research focused on the activities of SAVTE ESOL conversation group volunteers in Sheffield. Sixteen volunteers were involved in the initial stages of the project, representing ten different community-based conversation groups (many of which were running online at the time).

SAVTE conversation groups are volunteer led, meaning that trained volunteers, often working in pairs, plan and facilitate sessions to meet the interests and needs of adult learners in their groups. Volunteers are trained in informal methods for identifying language topics to explore in groups, how to exploit the opportunities for speaking and listening skills development within sessions and how to balance participation within groups as well as maintaining a safe, accessible learning environment.

Participatory ESOL approaches would not necessarily be a new idea or facilitation method to all volunteers, but this project aimed to introduce a session methodology and toolkit that could be used by all volunteers whether experienced educationalists or new to teaching.

Expected outcomes included:

  1. use of participatory approaches by volunteers to guide their groups of learners through the exploration of local issues, relevant to the lives of learners in the group
  2. increased ‘ownership’ of conversation group activities, focus and outcomes by learners within the group through their participation in the selection of topics for discussion and direction of focus, progression and outcomes, with volunteers stepping back to a more limited role of guide for activities
  3. increased community-engagement of learners in locally relevant issues through the collaborative analysis of issues and development of plans for collective action.


The screenshot below shows an overview of each stage of our action research project:

a flowchart illustrating the stages of the project

The initial stages of the project followed expectations; however, following feedback it became apparent that implementation of participatory approaches by volunteers would need to be supported in more depth than originally anticipated. In addition, it was decided to focus on a smaller selection of conversation groups. It became apparent that two groups in particular would provide an interesting research focus.

These two groups were chosen for a couple of reasons:

  • Both groups are running in an area in Sheffield subject to redevelopment and several learners were in the process of discovering how that would impact their homes and neighbourhood, in particular whether their houses were due to be demolished.
  • Both groups are run by volunteers who were keen to engage with this local situation and to support the groups’ participants to both understand the impact of the planned changes and have their views represented in the local council consultation.

Volunteers were supported by members of the research team to deliver participatory sessions, which followed a similar format to methods described by Bryers (2015) and The Learning and Work Institute (2017).

The table below describes the process we followed during our action research project. Some images that were generated during the participatory sessions are also shared:

  • Input
  • Visual inputs to the session as conversation starters and visual prompts to generate prior-known vocabulary, in this case, relating to the local neighbourhood – photos of housing (old & new), green spaces, roads, public transport, litter. Shops. Facilities and local Councillors (Image A).
  • Facilitated discussion
  • To capture the range of views and experiences and identify a specific subject familiar to all, that participants want to explore further as a group.
  • Problem analysis
  • A problem tree diagram (Image B) was used in both sessions to analyse an issue in greater depth. Identifying a problem or issue specifically, identifying the impact of this issue (Image C) for participants in the group, the possible causes (Image D) and then moving discussion onto exploring solutions or action that is needed.
  • Outputs
  • Recording ideas and identifying next steps that the group can either take themselves or plan to put in place to make improvements, either directly or by raising awareness and making their voices heard and their views represented.

images showing the local neighbourhood and a problem tree diagram in use (with post its)

Image A: Our neighbourhood and Image B: Problem tree diagram

close ups of the problem tree including causes at the roots and impacts in the canopy

Image C: impacts and Image D: causes

Outcomes and Impact

Teaching, Learning and Assessment

Evaluation discussions with volunteers who participated in the sessions focused on two areas of the activity:

Supported volunteering – Several volunteers raised the need for additional support to carry out participatory sessions with their group. Suggestions included watching a session in full being ‘modelled’ by a staff member, having access to pre-prepared materials, for example, picture packs of visual prompts, pre-prepared flip charts for problem analysis and a simple session plan. These comments gave useful suggestions for the next stages of this project.

Topic relevance – All volunteers described the importance of ‘knowing what is familiar to everyone’ and finding a topic that is ‘relevant to all’ that ‘gives everyone an equal voice’ and acknowledges ‘everyone is starting in the same place’. These are valuable comments that give weight to the importance of careful planning to ensure familiar and universally relevant visual prompts for participants in a specific group are used. It highlights the important role of volunteers in building rapport with participants in their group. Being familiar with the lives and experiences of everyone is vital to achieve a genuinely participatory session.

Observations of the group sessions identified other important aspects of the research focus.

Language levels – Conversation groups use speaking and listening skills primarily in all their activities. Participatory approaches can be wholly speaking and listening based, but giving learners the opportunity to make their contributions and see these reflected visually on a flip chart or diagram requires them to be able to write comments or be comfortable with other participants scribing for them in a way that evidences their input accurately.

Observations of two different groups with differing levels of language (see group profiles, Appendix 4) evidenced that speaking and listening skills from Entry Level 3 and above provided a strong basis for topics to be explored in depth in English. Observations also highlighted the importance of this minimum level being common throughout the group, especially if there is no shared language within the group that can be used to support the understanding of participants with lower levels of speaking and listening skill.

Role of volunteers – Observing volunteers with their group highlighted the invaluable range of experience and expertise they bring to the sessions. In both sessions, the volunteers contributed their own experiences and knowledge to the discussions. This was a major contributing factor to the ‘success’ of each session – i.e. enabling the participants to reach a conclusion where they identified their next steps and agreed a plan of action to take the subject forward. As such, volunteers that bring a shared lived experience to the group can be viewed equally as participants in a group alongside the ESOL learners (Appendix 6). For example, volunteers who live in the same local area as learners will have a similar lived experience of local transport, facilities and services, schools and in some cases housing.

The impact of everyone participating in the session being an equal ‘expert by lived experience’ was observed as a key success factor to effectiveness of the session. In terms of the depth of discussion, the genuine relevance and importance of the content influenced the action planning that resulted.

In addition to learners supporting each other with suggestions to resolve particular issues, locally based volunteers were able to share locally relevant information about the changes to housing being proposed, how to contact local councillors, what a Tenants and Residents Association (TARA) is for, how it can be contacted and how local tenants can get involved in influencing improvements. In group 1, there were learners who became aware that their homes were planned to be demolished and who then planned how they would input to the consultation on this. In group 2, all learners were previously unaware of their TARA and as a result of the session planned to invite the TARA representative to their group.

Organisational Development

This OTLA 8 action research project has highlighted the important role that Language Volunteers, with a degree of lived experience shared with the ESOL learners they support, play.

As an organisation, this emphasises the importance of reaching and engaging potential volunteers within the same communities as the ESOL learners who participate in SAVTE activities. These communities may be a local area or neighbourhood, or similarly a shared lived experience of migration, asylum or resettlement in the UK (see Appendix 5, Locally based steps into language volunteering).

This finding gives direction to SAVTE’s organisational aim of widening participation in volunteering and overcoming any barriers to volunteering that individuals may face, particularly those from under-represented communities in terms of locality or experiences of migration.

Learning from this project

There were several features relating to the groups and participants involved in this project that were critical to its success.

Firstly, the identification of groups where there was a ‘hot topic’ immediately relevant to participants’ lives, both learners and volunteers, and that was equally important to them. This provided motivation in both groups to engage with different activities and approaches as the subject was significant for everyone involved.

Secondly, the willingness and enthusiasm of volunteers to be involved and try something new. This engagement was, again, aided by the fact that they themselves were connected to and interested in the subject of the sessions.

More time is needed to trial this approach with a wider number of groups, in different localities and looking at a wider range of issues. Future research activities should also aim to evaluate the impact of the experience for learners in conversation groups.

Identifying methods to achieve equitable involvement in sessions amongst participants with differing levels of literacy would also be a useful contribution.

To date, published participatory learning guides and articles focus on use of participatory approaches by experienced, often qualified teachers in ESOL classes where reading and writing skills are also being developed. This research activity offers a new insight into the use of these approaches by trained volunteers in informal, community based, conversation group ESOL settings and, as such, provides a new contribution to the field of ESOL volunteer recruitment, training and support, which can be built on to introduce improvements to the sector and new experiences for all participants.

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.

    This project has used collaborative learning methods, which meet the needs of learners with ‘spiky profiles’ – those with lower literacy levels are still able to fully participate.

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

    This project activity has demonstrated the ‘bridging’ role of a participatory activity where everyone in the room is a genuine participant with shared experience of the topic being explored. As such it offers an approach to overcome traditional perceptions of where ‘power’ lies in a classroom, as all participants can contribute and collaborate equally.

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

    This project builds on theories of adult learning which highlight the importance of using immediately relevant subject matter which is of importance to the adult participants to maximise engagement and reflection.


Appendix 2: Learner Case Studies

Appendix 3: Participatory ESOL and links to Adult Learning Theories

Appendix 4: Group Profiles

Appendix 5: Locally Based Steps into Language Volunteering


Bryers, D., (2015). ‘Participatory ESOL’ Language Issues 26.2 p.55.

Learning and Work Institute, (2017). Citizens’ Curriculum Activity Pack for Participatory Learning. Available at: [accessed 8.6.22].

Tusting, K., and Barton, D., (2003). Models of adult learning: a literature review. London: NRDC (National Research and Development Centre for Adult Literacy and Numeracy).

Freire, P., (1972). Pedagogy of the Oppressed. Harmondsworth: Penguin Books

Auerbach, E. R., (1992) Making Meaning, Making Change: Participatory Curriculum Development for Adult ESL Literacy. Center for Applied Linguistics/ERIC.