#RefugeeWeek post: Teaching ESOL in Initial Accommodation

Some of our ESOL teachers this year provided weekly drop-in classes for people living in short-term accommodation for asylum seekers. Here are some reflections from one teacher’s report.


From October 2016-March 2017, I was the main ESOL teacher working with Babel’s Blessing to teach English to residents of an Initial Accommodation Centre in London. During this time, I delivered 21 lessons of approximately two hours each. At various times over this period, I was also ably assisted by three volunteers.

The sessions were held in a local church hall. It proved to be a challenge to convince many residents to leave the accommodation itself for the Church Hall – especially during the winter months (when at times the Hall was not heated) – and sometimes the key wasn’t available.

Student numbers and nationalities

Over these 21 sessions I have records of teaching 77 students. This statistic does not include all of the people who participated in the classes, for a variety of reasons: some residents refused, failed or were incapable of completing a registration form, and there were also a lot of children for whom such a task seemed unnecessary and onerous. A closer, unverifiable estimation for the total number of students who attended would be at least twice the officially registered number, possibly more. At times we had more than 20 learners (of all ages) in total. An average attendance would be somewhere between 5-10 learners.

The students came from all over the world, from places such as Kurdistan, West Africa and China. Among them were people who had lived all or most of their life in the UK, including children who had been withdrawn from school with their families, as well as the occasional EU national.

Although I did not keep a record of student ages or gender, I would estimate that there was a pretty even split between male and female, and that most adult learners were between 16-39 years old. There were also a large number of children, often of primary school age, but also a few secondary school age children.

Lesson content

I quickly realised that this would not be a ‘standard’ ESOL class for many reasons. Most learners only attended one class (although a handful did return, and one resident – an IT engineer from Iran – consistently attended over a 3-4 month period and is still in contact with me). The student numbers, levels and needs were impossible to predict, making lesson preparation a real challenge, and the students who did attend generally represented a broad spectrum of age groups (from young children to middle-aged adults) and English/educational levels (on occasion, native level speakers would work with functionally illiterate, absolute beginners in English).  

In addition to this, the students had many concerns and worries (as detailed above), and were not usually emotionally or physically prepared for a lesson. Most learners were only informed of the classes when I knocked on their door or encountered them in the building, which meant that they had to make a quick decision on whether to attend.

Bearing in mind these challenges, I generally conducted a rapid needs analysis at the class’ beginning in order to identify the students’ levels, before moving onto a broad-based topic which would allow for learners to progress at their own pace. I would often ask students to choose which topic was the most interesting for them. Recurrent themes included education (in which we discussed and defined the concept and talked about our educational histories, before listing what measures we can all take to further our own mental and physical education), health and wellbeing (including listing body parts and common ailments, roleplaying a doctor-patient conversation, and discussing some of the particularities of the NHS and issues asylum seekers might have therein), immigration to the UK (watching a BBC Newsnight video about different refugees’ stories of life in the UK, before students told their own travel stories and we discussed how our future might look), British history and culture (talking about the political structures, form-filling and bureaucracy, colonialism and multiculturalism, etc), storytelling (drawing cartoons of a particular period in the students’ lives which they want to recount, or of a future dream which they have), the local area (mapping and listing its facilities), politics and media (trying to discern the reliability of some media sources, following some rather bizarre rumours and a certain Presidential election last November), and others.  

With native English speakers, I tried to focus on other skills they needed to develop: for example, many residents from former British colonies were confident speakers, but needed help in their reading and writing abilities. Other, more literate students required a cultural or historical orientation, or perhaps critical thinking skills.

With the children, I focused on arts and crafts activities, such as building model animals with straws, creating cards and decorations for Mother’s Day/Christmas/Chinese or Iranian New Year, origami, as well as learning short spoken phrases in English for personal introductions, likes/dislikes, etc. Older children were often keen to participate with the adults.

Student Feedback

The project presented numerous challenges, to which I had to quickly adapt, improvise and invent, but I am confident that the majority of residents who encountered me genuinely learnt something, either relating to the English language, British cultural norms or British bureaucracy. The students gave overwhelmingly positive feedback to the classes, herewith a selection of student comments when asked “In today’s class, what did you like?”:

“I like learning and enjoy class”
“Group discussion about education” “I like teachers”
“I like to exercise during a week and I like more discussion” “Way of teaching, role play and discussion” “Good atmosphere”
“Free to talk”


“I like this because I spend good time and I learn some words” “You can help me to learn English and increase my knowledge about UK like culture, market, economy. I want to start business after accept.”

I also gave the residents two opportunities to talk about any problems they have, either with their life in the accommodation, or specifically to do with the English classes. A selection of their answers:

“Pronunciation” “My problem is because I want to go to school” “I had problem understand speak English”
“No problem I love this class” “I have a problem because this class is for 2 hours I want more time” “Accommodation and stay in England”
“Open bank account, my accommodation, bring my family here. I find a job, go to university” “Not this time if I have anything I will ask” “I’m so happy, I love England I wish I stay here”

It is worth noting that most residents either left the ‘problem’ questions blank or wrote “no”; however, in conversation, many mentioned anxieties about their asylum application or immigration status, homesickness/missing their families, and – repeatedly – students who were parents mentioned their worries about their children not receiving an education during their time in the system. This was the biggest recurring issue that was flagged up to me, but we felt powerless to assist. I am aware that the local Borough Council had a policy of not giving school placements to its child residents and clearly there is no easy solution to this, since most families are quickly moved on. There are little to no educational facilities in their place however, and everywhere in the Accommodation Centre you could encounter children climbing up the walls, metaphorically speaking.

In Summary

All in all, I feel that this project has been a success, inasmuch as learning has taken place, despite the many obstacles that presented themselves, and I believe that with further cooperation and coordination between the community of organisations and individuals involved in the lives of the residents, it can grow and continue to flourish.

DESIGN COMPETITION – win £50 or 10 free language lessons!

Babel’s Blessing needs a new logo. “That Bruegel Painting With Some Words On It” has served us pretty well for the last two years but we think it’s time for a change.

We’re launching a competition, open to all artists and graphic designers, to make us a new logo.

Your design must contain our full name: Babel’s Blessing Language School. Beyond that we have no specific requirements, please use your imagination! Have a look around the website and particularly check out last year’s annual report for inspiration and more info on what we do.

The prize for the winning logo is either £50 cash, or 10 free lessons on any of our evening classes starting from September 2017. 2017-18 courses are still in the early planning stages but will almost certainly include Arabic and Spanish.

The deadline is 5pm on Sunday 2nd of July!

Please send images in any easily downloadable format (JPEG, TIFF, PNG etc) to babelsblessing@gmail.com