The challenges and encouragements of community-based ESOL

The challenges and encouragements of community-based ESOL

by | Jan 11, 2021 | Blog

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Christian English teacher Colette shares her experiences of in-class and zoom English teaching

After qualifying in TESOL and with her experience of teaching English to asylum seekers in her church, Colette Harding and her husband relocated to a town near Chester.  From here, Colette started leading English classes again. These have drawn a consistent group of learners from Chinese, Bulgarian, Moroccan, Kurdish, Egyptian and Bangladeshi backgrounds. All students enjoyed the free weekly English lessons she offered…until Covid.

Here Colette shares what she focuses on in her English classes, the challenges of teaching on Zoom and the encouragements she has experienced along the way:

Our lessons focus on everyday English
I usually plan our sessions around functional English and grammar structures. This is so my students can be more at ease in English and function in society better.

We don’t tend to use bible material but there are opportunities to share faith
In some question times which they have initiated, we have had opportunities to speak quite naturally of how we trusted in Christ, how relevant we find the Bible to be, how the Lord led us into marriage etc.

Christmas 2019 we focused three lessons on the stories and fulfilment of prophecy concerning Christ’s birth: one on Mary, one on the shepherds and one on the wise men/Herod killing the babies. On the last one after we’d done the story, they had to act out different roles, trying to remember who said what. The year before, we just held a special event with food and a short talk about why Jesus was born. This year, I simply sent a link to each of them in their own language, of the Magdalene movie.

Things have changed a lot since we switched to Zoom classes
We are limited to 40 minutes sessions and they seem happier with shorter lessons online. Our in-person classes were 90 mins.

Beginners and those who can’t use the technology well enough have dropped off, so now I teach a very small group (4-5) on Zoom. Most who remain are all able to hold conversations and have fairly good listening skills, at around A2 (elementary level – a level above beginner). One Egyptian lady is very poor at listening, so I have to keep addressing her personally to check she hasn’t ‘zoned out’. However, the others are happily answering and sharing things.

One drawback for some ladies, is that their toddlers are around, and can cause distractions.

We cover less grammar on Zoom, as they seem to prefer a more conversational style. I sometimes send them a handout to do before the lesson so we can feed back and discuss in class. I screen share and use chat and the Zoom whiteboard, and I’ve also just written on paper and held it up. Generally, I seem to do a lot of one-off lessons, I think continuity is harder online.

Students keep telling me that our fairly informal classes help them more than their college classes
I think this is because our classes are more personalised. They say college tutors stick to their plan/syllabus and don’t check to see that everybody has understood. (Previously, when we taught asylum seekers in Rochdale, our students there said the same thing.)  In fact, one of our older Iranians had been to college for 2 years and had made absolutely no progress, he couldn’t say a single sentence in English. When he started to come to our class, I quickly discovered that he couldn’t read Roman script!  So, the college had been doling out worksheets week after week and they never picked up that he couldn’t read any of them. We had to begin a literacy class for him.

A recent encouragement came unexpectedly…
Chinese ladies are very shy talking about Christianity. They were also the first to stop coming to face-to-face classes when Covid first got into the news, feeling blamed. Alas, nobody came to our final in-person class. However, as we were packing up, one our regular students, a Chinese lady in her fifties, arrived at the classroom door for a chat.

She said she always started the day with sitting quietly and reading. When I asked what she read, she told me to guess. It was in fact the Bible. She then told me how she had come to trust in Christ as a teenage girl when she’d first come from Hong Kong and had found the Chinese church in Liverpool. We talked of her favourite passages (and even sang together part of the 23rd Psalm in Mandarin!) She doesn’t attend church since none of her family are Christians, but she prays for her sister and the others.

It was lovely to hear all this from her, though obviously we will encourage her to seek fellowship and teaching if she can.  She also told us that when we first started the free classes, some of the Chinese asked each other, ‘Is this going to be real lessons or are they just trying to get us to church?‘, so we are glad we have taken things slowly.

Thank you for sharing your story, Colette. Every blessing as you continue such valuable work.


Christians are adapting and continuing to reach their communities with English classes in new and creative ways. If you are inspired to reach out and teach, you might enjoy:

Tonja Taylor on teaching English online

Our Live Zoom courses – get a taste of TESOL or upskill

Train as a church for ESOL outreach. Find out how here

Free Zoom “How to…” videos on our partner YouTube channel

1 Comment

  1. Beth

    Thank you for sharing this. It encourages me to continue to pursue on line classes, especially with lower level students. Many blessings on your continued work.


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