13b. Boston College

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).

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:

6a: Burton and South Derbyshire College

Exploring digital approaches to reading
and writing

Burton and South Derbyshire College

This project aimed to investigate the validity of new digital approaches deployed in the Learning Resource Centre (LRC), focusing on enhancing digital reading and writing development.

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


This research sought to determine the validity, relevance and impact of digital approaches which strive to improve and develop reading engagement and writing for learners within vocational areas. Learner observation indicated that awareness of valuable digital resources such as the e-textbooks could be pivotal to improving learners’ attainment and understanding, as well as enabling greater digital access to our LRC collections and services. Using collaborative digital writing platforms to promote learner confidence in writing was another area of exploration, with the aim to upskill learners’ digital capabilities further and develop confident understanding and use of digital technology for improving levels of literacy.

Other Contextual Information

Our action research was part of the Education and Training Foundation’s OTLA 8 Programme. The research engaged participants from different departments across our FE College. The first approach was developing reading skills and access to our digital textbooks with a Level 2 Health and Social Care group. Secondly, we explored the improvement of writing using digital approaches with an Entry Level ESOL group and, finally, we worked with vocational learners from across the college to develop their digital reading skills.


The project leader, in collaboration with the Health and Social Care department, identified a suitable group for the study. The Level 2 Health and Social Care group were selected as their tutor recognised a clear need for the learners to become more familiar with their online textbook to increase their awareness of researching online and improve their digital reading habits. A short survey with the learners was conducted to ascertain their current reading habits and approaches to reading as well as exploring their thoughts about reading and wellbeing themes (Appendix 3a). Sessions on reading and accessing digital textbooks were delivered with the group and data was obtained through surveys to capture their thoughts on this initiative.

As part of the College’s Digital Wellness week, the Health and Social Care group also participated in the new Essential Digital Skills programme, which was supported by LRC staff. The new online digital course included content that required significant online reading to be conducted before assessment. Learners were observed and interviewed as they participated in the course.

Module data generated from the programme was gathered to reflect on the pace of reading, specifically if the design of the content was accessible and how the course impacted on teaching, learning and assessment practices and how digital access could be improved.

We also ran a ‘writing camp’ with an Entry Level ESOL group who worked collaboratively (supported by LRC staff and an external organisation Higher Horizons) to write a novel within one week using an online programme. Higher Horizons are an organisation enabling engagement with Higher Education through outreach work. The one-week camp involved the learners planning a novel collaboratively and writing using a digital programme through Google docs, especially adapted so writers could write, edit and collaborate in different chapters to collectively author the novel ‘The Unwelcome Newcomers’ (Cooks, 2022).

Case studies and semi-structured interviews were used to capture learners’ feedback, as well as observation of participants composing and creating the novel. Discussion with tutors, support staff and learners ascertained whether the participants’ confidence levels had improved and provided an opportunity to investigate whether the structure of the week had engaged their interest and encouraged them to develop their writing skills.

Outcomes and Impact

Teaching, Learning and Assessment

The focus on digital reading highlighted the importance of building and maintaining personal reading habits that can be a crucial aspect of success for learners. In the session, the inclusive features of ebooks were explored (Appendix 3b), such as highlighting, audio options and notetaking facilities, allowing learners to extrapolate and engage with text whilst simultaneously utilising digital literacies.

Giving learners directed instructions (Appendix 3c) allowed them to explore the features of these digital texts and they commented upon the usefulness of formulating questions prior to reading the extracts to master their understanding. The intervention clearly indicated that there was scope to develop the reading extracts and perhaps incorporate further sessions with elements of study skills e.g., advanced notetaking techniques whilst reading the text.

Data analysis from the Essential Digital Skills programme (Appendix 3d) indicates interesting results about the demands of reading online. Learners were scanning the information rather than employing detailed reading strategies and engaged more with the interactive elements, such as quizzes, which demonstrates that further integration of these assessment techniques would potentially enhance engagement. Reducing the text for each module and improving the layout of the information would assist with engagement and accessibility (Appendix 3e).

Developing Entry Level ESOL learners’ writing skills using a digital approach demonstrated that the initiative had a positive impact on the selected learners’ writing skills. Learners commented that they found the first day of planning difficult. Interestingly, no digital applications were used at this stage to help them formulate the plot. Once they were writing in the LRC, using computers and the Google docs layout provided more comfort; they mentioned the security of typing and access to tools such as the spellchecker to improve their writing. The digital approach and the interface of the document allowed them to design the text with ease, and, more importantly, it may demonstrate that the thinking process is occurring more naturally through digital practice. The process of drafting, improving, and checking revealed that the digital approach provided learners with the confidence to view themselves seriously as writers.

Organisational Development

More effective communication and working practices have emerged as a result of the supportive collaboration between curriculum and support staff. One tutor commented that several of the learners are now more confident using narrative tenses and are happier to share written stories.

The ESOL tutors also commented on and recognised the positive effect on their learners’ autonomy as a result of working with wider college teams and spaces. The recognition that others in the organisation can support the learner journey gives both learners and teaching staff an enriching dimension and allows learners to feel they are part of a wider learning community. Following the relinquishing of Covid restrictions, learners felt energised using the LRC and breaking away from classrooms. The presence of both groups increased in the LRC, especially during non-timetable periods (breaks and lunchtime) and they were more likely to come and ask for assistance as they became familiar with LRC staff.

Learning from this project

The research has provided insights into the study skills needs of learners; their responses showed that they needed support in being more motivated, developing concentration and remembering. These observations suggest that these topics should become the foundation of future study skills and reading sessions. Many respondents perceived reading as unimportant and the preferred activity was using their phones, which presents both a challenge and an opportunity to develop new sessions to explore the rapidly transforming models of accessing reading materials.

Learner access to relevant digital resources and textbooks has increased and this has had a positive impact on learner achievement through increased usage and assimilation within assignment work, with learners using the interactive tools to highlight, copy and search. Learners commented that using ebooks was:

Very very useful, [a] great aspect on my course.
… really good. I really enjoy my time as it is easy to understand.

These techniques can be further developed with the focus on more active methods such as making notes, taking the key ideas to paraphrase and writing summaries of chapters. We hope that this will lead to learners further developing the skills of analysing and critiquing what they read.

Embedding digital information skills into the curriculum means that LRC staff have upskilled their digital capabilities to deliver new methods of information literacy. This has also highlighted the need to develop a better technology-rich environment with greater mobile devices to enable collaboration.

Some writers found writing fiction challenging as they were used to producing transactional writing as the norm. The majority enjoyed the freedom of this approach and excelled in the chance to explore and apply their creative talents to produce a novel in less than a week and discover the merits of self-publishing (Appendix 3f).

The writing camp showcased the affordances offered by technology to support writing. The framework of the programme nestled within the Google documents allowed the novelists to work through and collaborate on multiple chapters, adding characters, scenes and plot twists with ease. Learners remarked that they preferred the digital approach as they had access to the editing tools to refine their words, improving grammar and spelling as they wrote.
The adoption of digital tools and techniques offers a unique opportunity to extend the reading and writing skills of learners.

Professional Development

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

  • 15. Promote the benefits of technologies and support learners in their use of new technologies

    Our project had the aim and focus of engaging learners as active users of digital technologies to further enhance their reading and writing skills. The technologies such as e-books, Google docs and a bespoke platform were utilised to engage learners at scale to achieve their aims. Through research, we investigated learners’ engagement with these technologies and how they allowed learners agency to become confident users.

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

    The project has supported important strategic developments. One element of the College Skills Promise is to develop learners as Digital Experts. Having knowledge of, and skills in, the latest digital technologies will set learners up for their career in the 21st century workforce. In recognition of this Burton and South Derbyshire College (BSDC) has developed an Essential Digital Skills programme which the LRC team have supported by previewing and checking the content. During the college-wide Digital Wellness week LRC staff supported learners to enrol and participate in the course. Reflecting upon learner engagement will further enhance the quality of the resource as well as collaborating with other colleges who have also started to use the course to develop their learners’ digital skills.


Supporting vocational trainers in prisons to embed EDS in their courses


This project investigated the barriers preventing vocational trainers from embedding digital skills in their course delivery. By creating a bespoke training package with vocationally contextualised resources, these barriers have been reduced and colleagues are better prepared and more confident to support their own learners with the development of digital skills and awareness.

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


Many of the vocational workshops and teaching spaces in prisons have limited access to technology resources and equipment due to their location within the prison establishment. For example, workshop spaces are not connected to the education computer network or Virtual Campus. As a result, trainers tend not to adopt digital approaches in their delivery.

This results in a number of barriers to learning: some tutors lack current, up-to-date knowledge of the digital world; some tutors lack confidence and experience in embedding digital learning; learners do not develop their digital skills while studying vocational courses. This is not an isolated issue and is something experienced by vocational trainers across the FE sector (Cattaneo, Antonietti and Rauseo, 2022; Prisoner’s Education Trust, 2021; Prisoner Learning Alliance, 2020).

However, embedding digital skills does not solely rely on the availability of digital technology (Sailer, Murböck and Fischer, 2021; Sailer, 2021). Therefore, this project aimed to better understand the wider barriers preventing vocational trainers from embedding digital skills into their delivery to inform the design of a bespoke training package and creation of resources to be used by vocational teams across the West Midlands region.

Other Contextual Information

Our action research activities were carried out with the vocational teams across the West Midlands prison group, with a specific focus on working with vocational trainers from HMP Hewell and HMPYOI Stoke Heath. We worked with three subject specialists, each from a different area of vocational study: catering and hospitality, construction and industrial cleaning. The training package and resources were disseminated across the whole of the West Midlands region, totalling eight different vocational teams.

Image of 'starter and enders' task cardThe resources we chose to create were inspired by the ETF’s ‘Digital Skills Starters and Enders’ cards (ETF, 2018). These are already used widely across the prison education estate and are a simple, quick way of embedding digital skills into lessons without the use of a computer.

We have adapted this format to focus specifically on vocational subject scenarios, for example, a chef creating a recipe database in a working kitchen or a builder creating a social media presence for their business.

A Padlet board was used to gather and collate evidence throughout the project, including examples of the resources created and tutor and learner feedback. More details of this can be viewed in Appendix 3. Please view this alongside the report for additional context.


Phase 1 – Recruiting Subject Specialists

Subject specialists in each area of vocational study were identified by the regional manager. All three specialists were briefed on the project aim during a face-to-face meeting with one of the project leaders.

Phase 2 – Pilot Study

Subject specialists were introduced to the pilot study activity: a Facebook Group Template (pictured here on the left). They were briefed in how the activity should be carried out; learners were invited to fill in the template using information they created for a fictional business linked to their subject area. Subject specialists carried this task out, collecting a number of good examples of how their learners utilised the template and kept a reflective log about the impact of the digital activity on their teaching (see Appendix 3 for further details).


'Facebook' template

Phase 3 – Identifying Current Strategies Embedding Digital

Project leaders had planned to sit down with specialists to go through schemes of learning to identifying pre-existing opportunities to embed digital skills. However, this was not necessary with the two specialists as they already had a bank of ideas for digital activities they could create.

template ideas

Phase 4 – Planning, Drafting and Creation of Bespoke Resources

Subject specialists were briefed on their task; produce three activity cards that embed digital skills without needing the use of technology.

The project leaders took the final three ideas from each specialist and entered them into the template for the final resource. An online shopping example from a Construction scenario can be seen here on the right. The full set of cards is on the Padlet

Example resource (buying hardware online)

Phase 5 – Dissemination of Resources (with training)

A set of the relevant activity cards was shared with subject specialists with guidance from project leaders on how they might be used.

A WhatsApp example is shown here. Tutors were encouraged to record their thoughts and learner feedback received when using the resources.

Phase 6 – Collection of Feedback and Conclusions

Feedback was collected from those tutors who trialled the resources via a Microsoft Forms feedback sheet, in-person conversations and written feedback sheets.

An example of one tutor’s reflections can be seen here on the right.

Outcomes and Impact

Teaching, Learning and Assessment

The sharing and modelling of the use of the ETF’s generic digital skills ‘Starter and Ender Cards’ prompted and inspired the tutors in the project team to work with vocational specialists to produce creative, contextualised designs for digital skills development activities for prison learners without access to a computer. This process began with design of catering and hospitality themed cards and is now developing further with construction and cleaning-based resources.

Image of a storyboardThe resources produced empowered learners to develop digital, writing and communication skills as they drafted business Facebook pages like the one shown here, recipe website content and online review site content.

These activities gave learners an authentic experience of digital platforms and services such as Facebook, Trip Advisor, recipe repository websites and online purchasing systems for specialist equipment.

The vocational specialists also had an opportunity to trial their new resources with learners and to begin to refine them based on initial learner feedback.

This aspect of the research activity opened up an opportunity for the production of learner-led, co-designed digital skills development strategies and resources, which can be incorporated into future schemes of work as learners suggest the platforms and digital tasks they would like to explore next.

Following on from one pilot study activity (the creation of a Facebook Group Template), the catering specialist decided that having a blank template for learners to fill in was a very effective tool for the Food Safety course they were delivering. They created a blank ‘booklet’ for food safety guidance which is now an in-cell stretch and challenge activity that is available for each cohort of learners (see Padlet).

Organisational Development

Work on this project has led to improved communication and an increase in collaborative working between the tutor project managers and the vocational specialists who are working directly with learners. Co-working and co-creation with OTLA projects 2a and 2b saw increased creative collaboration between Novus digital champions on digital learning design.

Vocational specialists have expressed an interest in having more communication between vocational teams from different establishments and access to a place to share resources, ideas and questions. Our initial thoughts are that a MS Teams group could be set up and all vocational teams from the West Midlands added to it; project leaders are currently discussing this option.

The project management team have widened their professional network and profile by disseminating research outcomes to peers and now have the opportunity to set up digital skills learning networks by showcasing their successes and encouraging vocational tutors in other specialist areas to create digital learning resources.

Learning from this project

Drawing of an imaginary chef (with all the wrong PPE - wearing flip-flops, with a nose piercing etc.)

Image of an imaginary chef (with all the wrong PPE!)

This project has confirmed that specialist vocational tutors wish to integrate contextualised digital skills development into their sessions but felt that the lack of access to digital devices and networks in classes made this impossible.

What tutors needed was some inspiration in the shape of the sharing and modelling of use of ‘for instance’ resources which suggested the types of templates that they might use and the kinds of platform and task they could focus on.

Once engaging resources, such as realistic templates for online tasks using authentic colours and layouts, were modelled by the project team, tutors ‘ran with them’ to design engaging paper-based activities. The leveraging of existing popular strategies such as integration of the case study avatar ‘Chef Steve’ (here shown in a hazard spotting activity) from previous vocational learning activities added familiarity for the learners and encouraged even more engagement.

If digital and English skills development resources are created in one vocational specialism, these can be used as powerful models for other specialist areas, all that is needed are some ‘why not try this?’ examples to encourage and empower vocational tutors.

Professional Development

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

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

    Due to the lack of technology in vocational spaces, trainers have no choice but to be creative and innovative when designing was to embed digital into their delivery. Collaborating with each other, and digital champions, empowers trainers to share and develop ideas that ‘think outside the box’. Traditional methods for embedding digital are not possible in these spaces, so trainers have instead implemented strategies likes interactive display boards, interactive phone templates and simulated website pages.

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

    Working with multiple subject specialists meant a really positive team-working mentality was built in right from the start of the project. Specialists worked closely with project leaders throughout, sharing ideas and feedback at each step of the project. Positive relationships were also developed between the tutor and learners, as they supported the project by trying out different activities and providing feedback.

  • 15. Promote the benefits of technology and support learners in its use.

    This project aimed to support vocational trainers in identifying simple, yet effective, ways to embed digital without the need of technology, as this is often the main barrier to embedding digital skills in teaching and learning activities. By supporting colleagues to update their own knowledge of how to use digital skills, they were able to see the benefits of sharing this with their learners. As this project focused on digital skills outside of using physical technology, trainers were encouraged to explore contemporary digital content, including social media, showing they are up to date with what is being taught in other FE settings.


This project was carried out (and report written) by Ashleigh Whitwell (Project Lead) and Ellie Whitehall (Project Deputy).

With thanks to their mentor Lynne Taylerson and Research Group Lead Bob Read, for their support.


Appendix 2 – Learner Case Studies

Appendix 3 – Project Padlet


Cattaneto, A.P.P., Antonietti, C. and Rauseo, M. (2022) How digitalised are vocational teachers? Assessing digital competence in vocational education and looking at its underlaying factors, Computers & Education, 176, pp. 1-18.

ETF (2018) ‘Digital Skills Starters and Enders’ cards. [online]

Prisoners’ Education Trust (2021)

Prisoner Learning Alliance (2020)

Sailer, Murböck and Fischer (2021) Digital learning in schools: What does it take beyond digital technology? Teaching and Teacher Education, Volume 103, 2021 ( )

Sailer et al (2021) Technology-related teaching skills and attitudes: Validation of a scenario-based self-assessment instrument for teachers. Computers in Human Behavior, Volume 115, 2021. (