Process / Product and de-cluttering ESOL

I had an interesting disagreement with a colleague recently. We were discussing Ofsted’s new ‘deep dive’ policy and what we would be able to show them if they wanted to scrutinise our learners’ work. I argued that work that is done solely in order to practise a particular skill or language point doesn’t need to be kept once the practice has been completed; it has served its purpose and there is no point hanging on to that particular piece of paper. My colleague seemed surprised at this attitude, expecting, both as a student and a teacher, that all work would be kept. We agreed to disagree.

I can’t really object to students keeping hold of every single worksheet I give them, or every little bit of writing they do in class. It doesn’t affect me, and it might be that we have to do it ‘for Ofsted’ (not a good reason for doing anything, in my opinion). But in terms of language learning I don’t think it’s useful or necessary, and it could even be detrimental. In this blog I will explain why.

By way of analogy, let’s compare learning a language with learning a musical instrument. At the moment I’m trying to get better at playing the violin. An incredibly useful tool is to record myself and listen back to the recording. I notice things I wouldn’t otherwise in the moment of playing, and I pick up on things I need to work on. Similarly in my band we record our rehearsals, listen back together and discuss any changes we think we should make to the arrangement or the song composition itself. But we don’t need to keep these recordings. For a start, I don’t have the space either for hundreds of CDs, or on my hard drive. But the point is, once I’ve listened to the recording and taken away what I need to work on, I don’t actually need it any more. Practising, recording and listening back is part of the process of honing my skill with the purpose of producing an amazing album further down the line. Now that CD, the final ‘product’ if you like, I will keep and treasure possibly for ever (yes, I’m old. I still like to hold an actual CD in my hands).

To return to ESOL teaching, I think (hope) no one would think we need to record every speaking activity and keep it in a computer file somewhere. Students do the activity, the teacher monitors, gives feedback and plans further work based on issues and language which came up during the activity. Job done. Why should it be any different with writing activities, just because it’s less faff to keep hold of a piece of paper than record and keep an audio file?

My students do a lot of writing practice in class. Sometimes it’s worksheet based, for example using a writing frame, but more often than not I put questions on the board for them to write answers to, or the beginnings of sentences for them to finish. I monitor, provide vocabulary and spellings, remind about punctuation, guide learners to self-correct errors – all the usual things. After they finish I share with the whole group any particularly excellent sentences and feedback on issues which are relevant to everyone. I also make notes of things that will need a whole lesson in the future. But in the same way that I don’t feel the need to record and keep any speaking activities, I see no reason for this writing to be kept once the students have had the feedback. New lexical items get recorded in their vocabulary books, spellings get recorded on their LSCWC sheets and this year I’ve asked my students to keep a sheet at the front of their files for ‘Things I need to remember’ where I, or they, can put reminders like ‘Don’t forget a full stop at the end of a sentence!’ or ‘I have / she has‘. The actual writing has served its purpose and is now defunct. In fact, more and more I use mini whiteboards for this kind of activity so the question of whether to keep it or not becomes irrelevant.

I think part of the problem is that conventional ESOL worksheets tend to be a combination of different elements. There might be a short text followed by some comprehension questions, then maybe some vocabulary matching and some sentences from the text which exemplify a structure and some exercises to practise the structure. Nothing wrong with this – it’s all good stuff, until you get to the end of the lesson and think about what happens to that sheet. In my experience, some students diligently file it neatly away, some tuck it into their notebooks, and some put it into a bag, only for it to emerge weeks later, crumpled and forlorn, when they’re rummaging around for their homework. In all three scenarios I can guarantee one thing, however, and that is that the sheet has not been looked at since the lesson. It might as well have gone in the recycling bin on the way out.

I’ve puzzled for twenty years about how to help my students organise their work, and, in particular, record, learn and re-use new lexical items. This year I’m labelling every single sheet I give them as either ‘Language to Learn’, ‘Grammar’ (reference) or ‘Practice’. They have to keep the first two (in a file or stuck in a notebook – as they wish, just please not in a carrier bag), but the third they can keep if they want but I’m not encouraging it. In class, they write new lexical items in their ‘new words’ book and any other writing counts as ‘practice’ – they can use lined paper and file it if they want, or use a different notebook, but I don’t need them to keep this and it must be separate from where they record anything they want to learn or refer back to in the future. I’ve also now developed a system which works for me and aligns a Dogme or unplugged approach with knowledge organisers, retrieval practice and the kinds of activity which I’m convinced are important for putting new language into long-term memory. But that’s for a different post.



My attempts to order, streamline and simplify the way that I teach is most definitely connected to a wider impulse to de-clutter other aspects of my life. I’m not ashamed to say I jumped on the Konmari bandwagon some years ago and it really did change my life and it really did seem like magic. Overnight I went from hoarder to minimalist and I’ve since felt much less encumbered by stuff and free to focus on what I enjoy, learn new things, reflect more and even…start blogging. In not wanting my students to cling to unnecessary worksheets I feel a bit like an elderly relative clearing their house to save their descendants from having to do it once they’re gone.

I still have boxes of worksheets and notes in my attic from my language degree. In Konmari terms I consider them sentimental items, and whilst they don’t ‘spark joy’ I still find it hard to let them go, no matter how many times I remind myself that nostalgia is not my friend. I know this is probably unusual and as ease of discard goes, university and school notes are generally pretty easy for people to discard. I no doubt shouldn’t burden myself with the worry that I’m burdening my students with the same millstone further down the line.

But apart from this, I’m convinced that keeping hold of too much of the language learning clutter is not only unnecessary but can actually be detrimental to learning. I remember on my year abroad saying to a friend something like ‘when I get home I’m going to spend the summer going through my sheets and learning everything.’ I can’t remember her response but it was something like ‘don’t be silly – learn it now, bit by bit, and practise now, a little every day.’ But my sheets were disordered and I had no guidance as to what would actually be useful to commit to memory. I have a vivid memory of proudly demonstrating that I knew the Russian for ‘tungsten’ and yet struggling to say where I’d gone the day before (Russian verbs of motion are particularly tricky for English speakers). And of course I never did go through my notes, but I still kept hold of them, and I still intended to go through them ‘one day’, and I’ve still got them 20 years later.

My students’ lives are very busy. Some of them don’t have the study skills and none of them have the time to waste sorting through pieces of paper deciding what might be useful and deciding where to keep them and how to organise them, never mind actually using them for the vague purpose which they kept them for. When I tell them they don’t need to keep the ‘practice’ sheets they often say they want to keep them to practise at home. These days I respond to that by asking exactly what they are going to do with them. The answer is always something along the lines of ‘practise again’. As I know they will never get round to it, I would rather they just didn’t saddle themselves with an unnecessary intention in the first place which they then have to live with not fulfilling. If they really want to ‘practise again’, I can easily give them a blank sheet of grammar exercises or the reading comprehension or whatever it was to do again. This would not be a waste of time, but in terms of cost/benefit analysis there are things I would rather they were doing with their limited time which would have much more impact on their learning, namely memorising new lexical items and extensive reading.

So to go back to Ofsted and their ‘deep dive’. I suppose I can ask my students to do all their ‘practice’ writing in one notebook. I could even keep hold of it myself to produce when asked for, hopefully with enough notice to add some written feedback if that’s still clinging on as ‘best practice’, and then chuck on the bonfire the next 5th of November (can’t recycle – GDPR). But I long for the day when it’s enough to demonstrate progress for me to say ‘They couldn’t speak English before, but now they can’, and anyone who wants to check can come and chat to the student and maybe even ask them to read or write something then and there. I also want teachers to stop carefully curating paper-based evidence of their students’ progress which miraculously demonstrates all of their ILP targets, even when they know those pieces of work could never be reproduced. I want it to be OK for a teacher to say ‘If I’m honest, I don’t think my students are making progress,’ and start that magical, life-changing conversation: “What methodology do you subscribe to…? Have you tried this strategy…? I’ve found this kind of activity works really well with this group… Have you read this book…? Have you seen this website…? Have you read this blog…?



Where are you heading? – some brief thoughts on curriculum, syllabus, course outcomes and Dogme

A few days ago I took part in a webinar with Scott Thornbury. It was excellent and thought-provoking and can still be seen here:

Also I got to ask my burning question: If I’m dealing with language items as they emerge, surely I won’t be dealing with them as well as if I’d planned in advance and had a carefully constructed lesson with a perfect context, good staging and engaging communicative activities which gave the students thorough practice of the item in all its forms? If you do access the webinar you’ll see I didn’t express my question exactly like that as I was trying to be succinct, but that was the idea.

Scott’s response, rather obviously: It’s a skill and it takes practice. I rankled a little at the insinuation that I might be a novice teacher, until it occurred to me that although I’ve been teaching for 18 years, I’ve only started incorporating elements of Dogme in the last two, and even then, not that often. So fair enough, it’s a skill I’m very much still in the early stages of developing, but so far it feels very worthwhile and enjoyable so I’m not too distressed by the idea that I’m going to need to work at it to get any better.

But today it occurred to me that underpinning my question was the approach to language learning that Dogme is attempting to rally against.  

By way of illustration: I’m currently teaching the 1st conditional with my Entry 3 class. I think I’m doing it quite well: nice context of a proposed trip to The Deep, discussion of all the things that could go wrong followed by what we’ll do if those things happen, and all the usual drilling, pair and cross-class q&a, followed by some freer practice with some ‘What will you do if…?’ questions. I’ve got a marker sentence on the IWB with the different clauses in different colours that I can move around to show that the if-clause can go at the beginning and the end of the sentence. It’s going quite well so far.

If I was teaching an ‘unplugged’ lesson and the 1st conditional came up I wouldn’t have any of that, so how would I deal with it well enough? But the answer to that question is unfortunately another question: ‘well enough’ for what?

Pretty much all my career has been in FE within the Skills for Life framework and I’ve happily engaged in criticising the Core Curriculum and certain exam boards, but always thinking how they could be different and how they could be better, never questioning whether we need them at all. But at the heart of Dogme, for all the useful suggestions about how the approach can be adopted within a school that has a prescribed syllabus or coursebook, is the idea that the learners’ own emergent language is all you need to drive the content of a course.

Back to the 1st conditional. Today I stopped and asked myself, Why am I teaching the 1st conditional? Why, when sketching out my scheme of work in September did I block out this week in February to be devoted to that? It’s because at the end of March some of my students will be sitting their writing exam, one task of which could involve them writing sentences from a given stem starting with ‘If’. With this end point in sight I’ve planned a carefully constructed flow of lessons that will end with them practising doing exactly that, and they’ll do it well and hopefully they’ll pass at least that part of the exam.

Today, for probably the first time, I’ve allowed myself to imagine a course that doesn’t end in an exam and that isn’t following a curriculum with prescribed language items which learners are expected to produce at each level. On this idyllic course where the content is exclusively driven, Dogme style, by the learners’ own needs and interests, they might never find the need to use a 1st conditional sentence, and if it did come up, helping them to construct the sentence they needed for that particular context would probably be all that was needed.

I wouldn’t need to dream up a context which exemplified typical and authentic use of the structure; if it had emerged in the course of the lesson, the context would already be established. I wouldn’t need to find some information gap exercise which required the learner to use the structure; they already want to use it to say whatever it is they’re trying to say. At most, I’d have to give them the sentence, guide them to analyse its form and maybe elicit other possible ways of finishing the sentence, all of which could easily be done on the hoof. The point at which I need to carefully plan how I’m going to present and practise the structure is the point at which it’s not yet starting to emerge naturally, but nevertheless the learners will soon have to produce it in exam conditions.

I’m imagining an alternative answer Scott Thornbury could have given to my question: “It’s a skill and it takes practice, but also try taking off the blinkers that are channelling you and your learners towards a particular linguistic destination; stop and look around at some of the things you’re missing on the way. But be careful – you might find it intoxicating.”

I am intoxicated by this idea and now a new question is lurking: I wonder how well my students would speak English if we leisurely ambled along that un-blinkered route?

Knowledge Organisers and Retrieval Practice in ESOL

A few months ago I took part in an action research project experimenting with knowledge organisers and retrieval practice activities with my Entry 3 ESOL class. Aside from the project itself, I discovered a world where people blog about education and ESOL. Excited but also nervous to join this world, here is my first blog, which is a reflection on the project.

Knowledge Organisers and Retrieval Practice Activities

Knowledge organisers are a bit of a thing right now, and plenty has been written about them. Briefly, they contain the key items of knowledge which students need to know as a minimum for a particular unit of a particular subject, organised on a single piece of A4 in such a way that students can self-test and memorise the information. Retrieval practice activities come from cognitive science research into learning and long-term memory, showing that the more practice the brain has at retrieving items from memory, the better they are remembered. Knowledge organisers go hand in hand with this as they can be used in and out of class in various ways which require the students to practise remembering the information on them.

Why I got excited about trying out knowledge organisers and retrieval practice activities with my ESOL class

I started teaching ESOL in 2001 when the Core Curriculum first came out. Even then, I was puzzled by the focus on skills, with grammar and lexis included within a few sub-skills almost as an afterthought. I understand this is due to the ESOL Curriculum being based on the Adult Literacy Curriculum, which of course has very little need to address vocabulary and grammar as it is for speakers of English as a first language.

Over the years I have reflected on the limitations of a skills-based curriculum. Of course there are students who need to practise skimming and scanning skills, but more often I find myself faced with learners for whom no amount of practice reading newspaper articles for gist will help them understand what they’re reading, because they don’t actually know what any of the words mean. A shift to raise the importance of structure and lexis – the ‘knowledge’ element of language if you like – alongside skills practice seems to me long overdue.

Another reason for my excitement was the solution knowledge organisers provide to the problem of how learners record and learn new language. I have experimented over the years with lexical notebooks and various ways to get learners to record language items which come up in class, such as advance organisers and gapped grammar reference sheets. Always with very little success. On balance, I have found the time needed to train students to organise and use their notebooks effectively would be better spent actually learning some English. A knowledge organiser gives them the language they need to know in an easily accessible place and the retrieval practice activities make sure they actually learn them.

As I learnt more about knowledge organisers and how to use them for retrieval practice I felt that this was the next logical step in the direction my teaching practice had been heading for the last few years, but also, paradoxically, it felt like a radical shift in mindset.

How I produced a knowledge organiser for my ESOL class and how I used it for retrieval practice

I decided to base my knowledge organiser on the Entry 3 speaking and listening exam my learners would be taking (we use Trinity). I looked at the exam syllabus and identified the words and phrases which I felt would be essential for successful completion of the tasks, and put these together as a table.

Here is what a section of my knowledge organiser looks like:


After some false starts, I settled into planning lessons in the way I usually do, except the focus of the lessons was the content of the knowledge organiser. Homework was to use the knowledge organiser for self-testing ready for a low-stakes test which I would give them next lesson. The test would usually be a section of the knowledge organiser with various words missing for the learners to recall. I also incorporated into my lessons activities and quizzes reviewing content of the organiser, often as a ‘do now’ activity or a warmer. The tests, activities and quizzes were on a cycle, with the same ones repeated at intervals.

Crucially, this was alongside, not replacing, more ‘normal’ lessons – reading texts, comprehension exercises, discussions etc. But also there are these key items of language which everyone knows, and I know everyone knows, and which we keep coming back to and using in different ways and different contexts.


Choosing the right content is essential, but also very difficult. In ESOL we have the whole of the English language to choose from. I chose the language needed for exam tasks but topics or functions could easily underpin the choice of content.

Finding a way to make the knowledge organiser quizzable without relying on translation is also hard. I suggest my learners also write a translation and self-quiz from that, but for the class quizzes and tests I blanked out columns of the table so learners were using the images, or half of a sentence to practise recall.

Another potential pitfall is to care too much about the presentation of the organiser. Many teachers, myself included, seem seduced by the potential of technology to create beautiful and well-crafted materials. But the content is key. Preparation time is much better spent getting the content right rather than tweaking cell sizes.

The results of my action research project

My students generally responded well to the knowledge organisers with comments such as:

“Everything I have to know is in the yellow page and I can find it.”


“When I write on the white paper you can’t remember which day… the yellow paper is clear.”

In an attempt to get some more quantitative data, I assessed the students according to the Trinity criteria at the beginning and end of the project. Obviously this was a subjective assessment, but what I did find was that there was a significant and unexpected improvement in the assessment criteria covering grammatical accuracy and range of structures. Tentatively, I concluded that memorising chunks of language which exemplify a target structure might be a more effective way of learning grammar than other more traditional methods. But that’s something to explore in a different project.

How my teaching has changed since the project

Bizarrely, I feel the changes I have made are relatively small and a natural progression from what I was doing previously, but in general my teaching has changed dramatically, and for the better.

In general, my planning and my lessons feel more streamlined. There’s more focus and a greater sense of purpose. There is still space to go off at a tangent, but I no longer get the frustrating feeling that an activity is a waste of time or that panic of not knowing what I’m going to teach and scrabbling around in textbooks for something that’ll do.

I repeat content much more than before. I’ve relinquished the idea that each lesson has to be something new and exciting and fresh. I repeat quizzes, drills and some homework sheets; I use the same discussion questions but change the groupings; I show the same pictures to elicit the same language again, and then take it further; I revisit texts to squeeze more language out of them; We rehearse and repeat role-plays until key functional phrases are memorised.

I’ve always given my students a test every lesson, but often this would be whatever vocab happened to come up in a reading text, or whatever happened to have been presented in a testable format on a worksheet. Now I put more thought into what I’m going to test and when – which items they need to know off by heart and when they’ll need to use them by. The items are already in a testable format on the knowledge organiser so all I have to do is tell the learners which section to learn for the test.

In addition to the action research project I’ve tried some Dogme-style lessons for the first time this year. Surprisingly, knowledge organisers and retrieval practice activities complemented this approach quite well, perhaps because they are also ‘materials-light’.  After a free and organic Dogme-style lesson, I take all the emergent language, select the most useful, and put it into a self-quizzable table using images or synonyms or whatever, and this then goes into the testing and retrieval practice cycle along with my ‘official’ knowledge organisers.

In general I rarely give my students anything that can’t later be revisited and quizzed.

Do knowledge organisers have a place in ESOL teaching?

In my opinion, the answer to this is a cautious yes. Whether you produce a knowledge organiser or not, the process of thinking about your group, and specifying which words and phrases you want them to be using at the end of the lesson / week / term or whatever, can radically change your teaching for the better. I’m not in a hurry to recommend ESOL departments across the country to start rolling out standardised knowledge organisers across all their courses. The nature of ESOL learners with their very different needs, different exam boards and syllabuses and the lack of any defined ‘knowledge’ at any one level makes this too complicated. I also think that it is the thinking process which the teacher goes through which is important, and which you wouldn’t get if you were simply handed a document to work with. Having said that, putting together a knowledge organiser is hugely time-consuming and, depending on what stage you’re at with your teaching, there might be other things you could do with your time which would have a bigger impact.

Retrieval practice activities, however, I think we should all be doing, and probably already are. Short snappy quizzes which force students to recall language items encountered last lesson, repeated lesson after lesson and mixed together in an endless cycle.

Above all, it does not have to be a choice between skills and knowledge. For too long, it seems to me, the emphasis of ESOL teaching has been on skills development at the expense of grammar and vocabulary. I’m merely advocating redressing that balance, not swinging the other way. My lessons these days are split roughly 50-50. The first half of the lesson has a language focus, and the second half will be based around a written or audio text, with plenty of speaking and some writing integrated into this broad structure.

Tips for ESOL  teachers thinking of trying knowledge organisers

  • Plan and teach in the usual way but use the knowledge organiser to decide the content of the lesson.
  • Focus on getting the content right and not on how nice the document looks.
  • Include blank space for learners to add items that come up.
  • Teach the students how to self-test using the knowledge organiser. Practise doing this in class time.
  • Print the knowledge organiser on coloured paper.
  • Don’t be afraid of over-learning and repeating the same quiz.