Online English, Maths and ESOL

Summary: online English, Maths and ESOL workstream

This workstream focuses on how English, maths and ESOL could best be delivered online, noting in particular how innovative technologies could be used to broaden participation, increase learner persistence and lead to positive outcomes. 

Draft recommendations:

  1. Test the effectiveness of online delivery of English, maths and ESOL courses with different learner groups and technology solutions by setting up demonstration projects
  2. Identify the conditions under which online basic skills provision can be scaled up
  3. Provide guidance and other material to support the growth of online basic skills provision within Further Education

Your views:

  • What examples of online delivery of English, maths and ESOL do you think we could learn from?
  • How can online learning help low-skilled adults in particular?
  • What is essential for sustainable solutions in these subjects?
  • Are there other related issues that should be considered?

Rate the workstream:
In your opinion, how useful are these draft recommendations on the online delivery of English, maths and ESOL ( 5 = very, 1 = not at all)?

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Rating: 2.3/5 (12 votes cast)
Online English, Maths and ESOL, 2.3 out of 5 based on 12 ratings

18 thoughts on “Online English, Maths and ESOL

  1. Julie Watson; . This website and the interactive online learning resources it contains were developed as an ESOL resource and particularly for international students planning to study in HE or FE in UK. It was developed by the University of Southampton ( I was the project lead) with PMI funding through UKCISA. Since launch in July 2008 it has attracted more than three quarters of a million visits and is widely linked to be institutions and other organisations with an educational focus. It may be useful to look at as an example.

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  2. Mandy Kemp

    We have developed a fully online and comprehensive GCSE online maths course. The frist cohort took the exam in November 2013 and we are currently teaching 150 students from Sept 2013 to June 2014. We have found this a very well received and popular course. Many adults just can’t commit to an evening a week to attend a college. It is also being accessed by home schooled students. We await our first results in january eagerly but one of the things that would make it sustainable is to divorce the results from the college success rates. The fact that retention is often poor on these courses should not stop us running them and allowing this need to be met.

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    1. Jennie Turner

      Julie, a good post, but please don’t forget that ‘international students planning to study in HE or FE in UK’ are not at all the same as ‘ low skilled adults’.
      Similarly, in response to Mandy, it’s true that many adults have very busy lives, but for those with low skills, the community of the classroom and the encouragement derived from peers and teachers is invaluable. Those with low levels of skill in literacy, language or maths also often have low levels of IT skills, or no or little access to IT. Even if there is a computer in the house, the children often monopolise it for their own homework.
      Home schooled children are also in a completely different category to low skilled adults. I like the idea of separating out success rates though!

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  3. Sam Shepherd

    A move to greater reliance on e-learning is a major risk for ESOL learners. By ESOL learners I am referring specifically to learners whose first language is not English and who are ordinarily resident in the UK, as opposed to those who come to the UK temporarily for study purposes. The resource mentioned above is clearly aimed at adults with some degree of IT skill and reasonably high levels of literacy in both English and their first language. Many, perhaps the majority of ESOL learners, based on my definition, have a very low level of IT skill and confidence to be able to access online learning resources. In some cases, low skilled adults, both learners of literacy and ESOL learners, may not even have access to a computer at home, and not have the local skills or knowledge to make use of local computer facilities at local libraries.

    These practical issues aside, there are also pedagogical questions which need addressing for ESOL learners – successful acquisition of grammar and vocabulary relies on human interaction and feedback, which can’t be provided online, except perhaps through complex and expensive video facilities, which would still require a teacher on the other end of the activity. Learning language is not simply about the written language, and as yet computer technology, certainly affordable computer technology, is not yet in a position to provide learners with appropriate feedback on spoken accuracy, pronunciation errors, and so on, nor indeed is it yet in a position to make accurate judgements on the correct written form as required when marking written work.

    Therefore, and I think it’s important to try and be constructive here:
    Models of online learning for ESOL – the most successful online learning are those resources and activities which can be used to supplement classroom activities, for example There are many sites like this (google efl esol or esl learning and you will find plenty from around the world.
    Essential for low skilled adults would be clear and effective signposting and support in accessing public IT services such as libraries, with dedicated staff enabling this.
    I agree that testing needs to take place and it would be very interesting to see the impact on ESOL learners in particular. What many non-ESOL experts assume, however, and have always assumed, is that ESOL is simply adult literacy for people with foreign accents, and this is not the case. Language learning represents a complex process which presents a challenge on more levels than simply literacy. Any test projects in adult literacy and numeracy need to be analysed very carefully before assuming that the results can be applied to adult ESOL learners. Specific studies of ESOL learners need to be set up, where the sample chosen is not accessing ESOL at college or another learning provider, as this may skew the results. The samples need to include levels at pre-entry and entry level, and not just at level 1 or level 2. Indeed, the majority need to be from below level 1 as this represents the largest cohort of learners currently accessing ESOL in colleges. Any test using only these higher levels would be invalid and non-representative of the majority of ESOL learners. I am assuming, of course, that the language performance before and after the test project intervention would be assessed carefully and robustly – I would refer you to the methodology of the ESOL Effective Practice project run by NRDC in 2007 ( where the impact of practices was measured using a carefully designed tool.

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    1. Jennie Turner

      I absolutely endorse everything you say, Sam.

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    2. Karen Porter

      I appreciate the points made. There could never be a model where 100% of the language development is online and in blended format. Human interaction, accent/dialect recognition are all part of cognitive development of language. That being said, it is not unusual for ESOL tutors to dismiss out of hand the benefits of digital technologies to enhance the learning and I believe a balance has to be met. As long as Ofsted call the shots, opportunities for digital technologies must be part of all learning programmes and visible in Schemes of Work and classroom activity. It must be fit for purpose and contribute to the learning and in some cases that is using your mobile to time a speaking and listening discussion to using apps on smartphones for spelling tests and to read and write using Facebook – even IPlayer for clips will allow subtitles. I do find it hard to accept the position that for some learners blended learning is just not right

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      1. Sam Shepherd

        I have long been an advocate of using technology for teaching and learning, and make regular, hopefully effective use of it in all my classes, encouraging those learners who are more reluctant or less able to use the technology to try to do so and to develop those skills. My learners use their mobile devices in every lesson as dictionaries, using apps, emails and phone calls. We use PCs when appropriate and develop the learners . I am definitely not of the “technology is just a fad” school of thought – for me technology use can improve learning for many learners.

        My concern is that blind, uncritical and untested acceptance that digital technology will improve teaching and learning for all learners in all contexts, combined with increased funding pressures on ESOL provision will lead to the idea that language learning can happen entirely without some form of face to face human interaction, and the majority of ESOL provision will be mainly online with minimal class contact.

        I rather suspect that it is possible that blended learning is not right for some learners, however, and that the project needs to assess the value of e-learning and blended learning objectively: i.e. rather than simply assuming that it does, and trying to see how, the project perhaps also needs to assess whether or not it works at all, and what barriers there may be for some learners.

        This isn’t worry about technology replacing teachers, (blended learning courses can be just as time consuming as face to face courses) but a worry that over-reliance on blended learning models will lead to exclusion for some adults for whom even using or accessing e-learning is a major challenge.

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        1. Diana Tremayne

          I agree strongly with Sam’s comments here. I too am an enthusiastic user of technology and see its benefit in many situations. However, the majority of learners do want face-to-face contact as the bulk of their provision. Not only is this an key aspect of language learning but also ‘real’ interaction is crucial for many learners who are often otherwise isolated.

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  4. susan easton

    There is great merit in trialing the use of Apps for maths learning as they have the potential to support different ways of learning, e.g.

    • Flipped classroom delivery
    • Peer supported learning
    • Self directed learning
    • Blended learning
    • Personalised/ differentiated learning
    • BYOD

    NIACE has managed the development of one such App. The Maths Everywhere App, funded by BIS , was developed by Bolton College and Modern English developers as part of NIACE’s national Maths4Us initiative, to help adults improve their skills. It was launched on the 11th December and has received a very positive reception from providers and from learners.

    Mapped to the adult maths curriculum the App is free, developed under a creative commons licence and available online and for Android and Apple devices. It has three sections:

    1) Everyday Tools – help solve maths problems people encounter every day – aiming to engage learners in maths.
    2) How to Work It Out – video tutorials Khan Academy style
    3) Have a Go – earn digital badges by answering questions.

    It would be useful to trial its use in different parts of the F.E. and Skills sector to identify its success in supporting imaginative learning delivery for functional skills / GCSE maths and improvements in learner skills.
    Trialing would, as well as giving feedback on the use of this specific App, also inform us on the potential for future App developments, the usefulness of Apps for multiple learner and provider audiences and to shape sustainable developments under creative commons/ Open Educational resource licenses.

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  5. Judy Kirsh

    There is no question that technology is all around us and that everyone needs to be able to use it competently to perform everyday activities – shopping, booking a train ticket, sending emails, etc. However, the advantages of using technology to support language learning, specifically with ESOL learners, are less clear-cut. For many years there has been a trend towards using IT to support language learning, particularly in EFL, as the plethora of EFL/ELT websites suggests although these are not ‘on-line courses’ but websites with activities to practise specific aspects.
    For some learners (those who are IT literate and have a good educational background), this is a good option for supplementing and reinforcing their language learning, particularly if they want to work on certain areas such as vocabulary and grammar. The British Council’s ESOL Nexus website has a self-access area for such learners which, I understand, has been popular with higher level learners.
    But what about the lower level learners – those with no or very little literacy or limited education or experience of IT? Or access to computers/tablets? Spiky profiles? Here, I agree entirely with what Jennie and Sam have said – see their posts above. A teacher is crucial in helping to build learners’ confidence as well as their skills, in guiding them in their use of IT, in setting up opportunities for communication and interaction in a classroom setting and providing them with feedback.
    Another consideration is teachers’ IT skills – many may not be familiar with smartphones, apps and tablets, or confident/’competent with the different technologies available today.
    Having said that, I think it would be useful to carry out some research into the effectiveness of on-line delivery of ESOL with different groups – to see what does and doesn’t work, and whether technology is best used as a supplementary tool.

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  6. Vesselina Ratcheva

    Here are some of the lesson we’ve learned from creating the Basic Maths upskilling resource “National Numeracy Challenge”:

    1. Especially when engaging adult, low skilled, learners it is important to address the learner’s attitude and mindset in addition to their skill gaps within the online environment.

    2. The possibility of an adaptive, personalised learning environment is one of the largest benefits of learning online. It is important to utilize that effectively and in tune with sound pedagogical principles. With our online learning resource we have focused on the idea of a learner journey.

    3. We have learned that online, as on the ground in day-to-day reality, you need to be open to feedback, and aware of insights derived from data analysis of users’ activities. Understanding ‘what works’ needs to be complemented with a corresponding iterative development cycle with IT partners. It is unrealistic to expect an ‘out the box’ solution that works for everyone.

    The National Numeracy Challenge Online ( is a tool for upskilling adults’ numeracy. Our approach has been to closely integrate sound pedagogical theory with a dynamic technological development regime. Hence the Challenge Online utilises the benefits technology can bring to upskilling adults in an engaged, reflexive fashion. National Numeracy’s Challenge Online assesses the mindset of a participating adult, aiming to understand the degree to which they value numeracy and how far their mindset is geared to completing challenging learning. It then takes the user through a check-up to establish the their overall level and sets a target they can aspire towards. The numeracy levels of learners are measured in an adaptive online environment, which both provides an overall assessment of the learner’s skills, and identifies the skill deficits which are stopping the learner from reaching a higher level. Rather than feature resources in large database fashion, the Challenge guides a learner through a journey where they are presented with options tailed to their needs. After completing training, the learner is urged to complete a further check-up to establish their level of success in mastering the material thus far.

    Learning is personalised. It is also easy to log in and out, catering to your own schedule and avoiding some of the timetabling barriers encountered in a more traditional FE setting. By working directly with employers to encourage them to upskill their staff we will be gaining feedback on the skills requirements for their industry and gradually building insight into possibilities for employers to take ownership of the skills agenda.

    As we rolls out to a larger audience in the coming Spring, we will quickly gather a set of insights about how to be engage learners in learning and track outcomes through ongoing data analysis. Hence we will aim to scope out what ‘scaling up’ looks like. We’ve already engaged hundreds of users. Now we’re about to engage thousands, and hopefully millions.

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  7. Helen Nicholas

    I have seen some excellent online websites (especially sites like the Khan Academy) but I think they are best used in a classroom with a teacher to ensure that all levels of students are able to gain access and follow the lesson at their own pace.

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  8. Sue Southwood

    We have developed some online materials for adults to develop their everyday maths skills and to support their children with maths. There is also a unit on online banking to prepare people for Universal Credit. These resources have been developed with adults who are unemployed and/or homeless to focus on the maths skills needed for day-to-day living. They could be used by a range of third sector organisations in informal settings. A challenge is to promote their use more widely.

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  9. David Phillips

    Every year Pearson helps millions of learners improve their English and maths skills, both directly through delivery, and indirectly through the provision of resources and assessments. Our experience to date suggests that the most effective online delivery of English, maths and ESOL takes place in a “blended” learning model.

    This model combines online delivery with face-to-face, personal facilitation and/or tuition and provides a varied approach to teaching and learning and increases the potential for new and engaging digital content. The blended learning model can be particularly important for ESOL learners and adults who may have limited ICT skills or lack motivation to learn, and who therefore require support in order to make best use of digital learning materials and to maintain interest and momentum in their learning.

    In our experience, online basic skills provision can be most effectively scaled if the model considers and incorporates the following features to ensure an effective and enhanced experience for the learner: technical support; the support of a mentor, tutor or facilitator; social interaction and peer engagement; individualised learning modules; practice time for learners; timely feedback; support for the development of presentations; face to face communication and improved language skills; periodic testing supported by quizzes adaptable to a level that also provides stretch and challenge.

    We recommend all online results be delivered in a manner that helps the learner to understand their achievements. Outcomes can be enhanced by providing constructive feedback to help learners towards further improvement.

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  10. NATECLA (National Association for Teaching English and other Community Languages to Adults

    As an organisation NATECLA welcomes the use of appropriate technology to support language learning but would like to raise a number of issues to consider:

    – Practical issues – many learners may not have the equipment, skills or opportunity to fully use or access online material. Those who are at the lowest levels and most disadvantaged seem likely to remain the least likely to engage or benefit from online models
    – Successful acquisition of language relies on human interaction and feedback. Particularly at lower levels this would be extremely hard to achieve through an online model
    – It is often hard to assess effectively the benefits of online learning in terms of language acquisition. For example, successful completion of online tasks does not necessarily translate to effective production of the target language

    In terms of a way forward NATECLA suggests the following:

    – Online/blended models should be tested with a range of ESOL learners but with a focus on learners at lower levels
    – Groups tested should include learners who are not currently accessing other provision
    – Comparisons of online/blended/face-to-face models should be made to assess their relative effectiveness for language learning and also the attitudes of learners towards the different models

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  11. Helen Milner

    Introducing digital into the delivery of English, Maths and ESOL makes the learning scalable and trackable. It means that providers can keep abreast of what learning is being done and how their learners are progressing with it. We should embrace the open and free movement of MOOCs to ensure that providers can use, share and rebuild online courses that meet their and their learners’ needs. The English My Way (ESOL) course developed by Tinder Foundation (in collaboration with the BBC and the British Council) is aimed at ESOL learners who are below entry level 1, those who have very little grasp of the English language. This blended online and offline course covers a range of topics from daily life to health care, ensuring that learners are able to add context to their learning. They can practice their learning on a daily basis and can continue to use the online course even after their learning sessions have ended. English My Way provides a real flexible approach to learning, something we feel is really key when working with learners with very little grasp of the language. This is non-accredited, informal learning using the best of online courseware and multimedia as well as supported in local centres and in learning circles. This programme could link in with other providers interested in delivering very beginner ESOL.

    Course Builder is a very simple and easy to use tool, designed so that anyone (including volunteers and learners). It can be used by learners to co-create learning content for other learners who wish to develop their ESOL, English and Maths. For example, an English Language conversation class could take photos, build story boards, and actually create a course with the view to share it with other learners ‘like them’ – in the process of talking to each other about the content in the course they will also be speaking and listening. Learning by doing but also creating useful content that others can then use, re-build or personalise with their own local images or context.

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  12. susan easton

    In terms of learners’ individual needs, ESOL has been shown to encompass a particularly diverse spectrum of learner backgrounds and abilities. ESOL learners, particularly those with significant prior education experience, can be well equipped to undertake digital learning. ESOL learners do of course make use of technology in their everyday lives, for example to communicate with friends and family in other countries. However, many others have little experience of using computers and other devices for any purpose. Lack of familiarity with the use of technology, in combination with low levels of language, literacy and independent study skills, can form a significant barrier to the use of technology in supporting language acquisition for these learners.

    The specificities of ESOL as a subject must also be considered to ensure that learners’ participation in digital learning is truly active. ESOL is principally about language and communication. Not all digital resources provide the opportunity for the development of language skills in realistic, communicative contexts. While some skills, particularly in reading and writing, could be developed through independent online learning, this is far harder to achieve in speaking and listening. Speaking and listening skills are a key part of ESOL, and wishing to achieve better spoken English is a principal motivation of many learners. Effective teaching and learning of speaking and listening skills requires interaction with others. Although technology can facilitate opportunities for learners to practise speaking and listening, on its own it is limited in other respects. For example, the current ability of technology to assess and provide feedback on learners’ spoken English is insufficiently developed for speaking and listening skills to be taught solely by digital learning.

    Good practice in the use of digital learning in ESOL generally focuses on ways in which technology can support and enhance established effective practice in developing learners’ language skills. ESOL teachers have already identified many applications of current technology which can achieve this, although some tutors require further support to be able to recognise the potential and use learning technologies appropriately. There is a huge range of technologies and learning resources already available to support digital learning in ESOL. ESOL learners attempting to use these resources also report a need for guidance in selecting the most appropriate ones for their needs, and many are unable to self-direct an appropriate programme of activities even at the higher levels. This makes the role of tutors, intermediaries and mentors in supporting digital learning in ESOL even more critical.

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