Dr Nick Saville is Director of Research & Validation for Cambridge English Language Assessment and advises governments across the world on how to raise levels of English Language amongst their populations. This article appeared in the New Statesmen in October 2014.
You may have missed the launch of a report from the think tank DEMOS called ‘On Speaking Terms’. It calls for a national strategy for ESOL provision, helping migrants and the economy reach their full potential.
To be honest you wouldn’t be alone if you had missed it. For years politicians –of all parties- have ignored the problem of English language learning for our large migrant communities.
Instead of a cost effective approach we have in place a series of piecemeal arrangements which have neither helped integrate our migrant population nor enabled them to For years politicians –of all parties- have ignored the problem of English language learning for our large migrant communities."realise their economic potential -to the detriment of all of us.
Part of the problem has been our insistence on a ‘one-size fits all’ approach to teaching English to migrants. It’s a simple approach but one that has ultimately proven futile, whichever government has been in power. Just saying ‘Well, here’s the proficiency level you have to get to,’ is not an effective way of approaching this complex task.
But what should a national strategy incorporate?
Well, policy-makers need to consider the varying needs of all groups of migrants, and to tease apart what kind of support is needed in different cases. This will enable clearer eligibility criteria to be established for various kinds of language learning support and to ensure that where government funding is made available it reaches the intended targets.
Putting a language learning strategy for migrants coming to the UK in place is not simply about English language skills needed to cope in education or workplace settings. It must go further than this and consider migrants who come to the UK as spouses, retired people and for other reasons. These people may never enter the workplace - and may live predominantly within their family or a monolingual community – but will nevertheless still need to have the ability to interact with speakers of English, even in a limited way.
When migrants learn English, it’s important that there is an appropriate mechanism in place for assessing their current level and measuring their progression over time as a result of better focused This will impact positively on their learning and help them achieve their goal of integration and better engagement within a community."learning programmes. This will impact positively on their learning and help them achieve their goal of integration and better engagement within a community.
Research shows one of the best ways of learning a language is the ‘learning ladder’ approach which incorporates realistic goals linked to levels everybody understands and which allow progression to be measured reliably. This more effective way of teaching and learning English has proven to work with the grain of learners’ existing assets and ambitions, and unlocks their potential.
This is where recognised frameworks and qualifications come to the fore. The Common European Framework of Reference (CEFR) for example can play an important role in this respect. This language framework is now used globally and has proven to be successful in providing a common basis for setting realistic communication goals and in measuring progress. It is by far the most widely understood framework used by governments and education institutions worldwide and is already used by the Home Office to set language ability levels for visa purposes. There are also numerous learning materials and examinations available that are linked to this international standard.
Other factors to consider are how English will be used, for what purposes and in what contexts. Once policy makers have clearer answers to these questions, they can work on more effective strategies that will help make a real difference - not just to the individual, but to society as a whole. We’re fortunate in this country to have excellent provision of courses and specialised English language teachers, as well as community support workers who really understand the needs of migrants as language learners. Their expertise will be key to developing an effective national strategy, both for newcomers and for long-term residents seeking to improve their communication skills.
Dr Nick Saville
Cambridge English Language Assessment
If you have something to add to this project or a question about Dr Saville's proposals, please leave a comment below.