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EPALE - Electronic Platform for Adult Learning in Europe


Lots of diversity, not enough equality – how can the ESOL curriculum help promote anti-racism?

Language: EN
Document available also in: ES DE NL

This blog is also available in Welsh: Llawer o amrywiaeth, dim digon o gydraddoldeb – sut gall cwricwlwm ESOL helpu i hyrwyddo gwrth-hiliaeth?


Diversity | Equality


The murder of George Floyd, which sparked anti-racist protests both in the US and internationally, has been a catalyst for critical examination and discussion of racism within existing structures. Floyd’s killing has happened at a time when deaths from COVID-19 are disproportionately higher for people of Black and minority backgrounds. In the UK, researchers’ early findings indicate structural racism is a ‘fundamental cause’. A large proportion of people within BAME groups are new migrants, and a proportion of those will be refugees and migrants learning English in our ESOL (English for Speakers of Other Languages) classes.

A recent EPALE blog examines the role of adult education in tackling racism, advocating for a more inclusive curricula and pedagogy. UK ESOL curriculum topics have traditionally contained useful functional language to support new migrants to be able to live in their new community. Topics have included how to register with a doctor and how to make an appointment, shopping and others. Language is taught within these contexts. Additionally, there is a great amount of celebration of cultural differences in ESOL classes. This supports the promotion of diversity as a value in the UK, and many an inspection report has highlighted the great work of ESOL departments in this area. However, the other side of the coin, and what I feel is missing, is the promotion of equality as a fundamental value, and to promote true equality I believe we have to take an anti-racist approach.


Bring the outside into the classroom

Newcastle Upon Tyne / UK - June 14th 2020: Black Lives Matter protests take place on the streets of Newcastle Upon Tyne

But how do we shift to teaching these topics with an anti-racist position? I believe to start with, we need to bring the outside into the classroom (See Baynham, 2006; Simpson and Whiteside, 2011). We need to engage with what is happening in the lives that our ESOL learners live, including what’s happening in the news and in their communities. Events sometimes occur when we have planned the perfect lesson, and so it’s understandable that we avoid reactionary last-minute changes to our lesson plans. Sometimes, it’s about not having materials readily available, and organisations like NATECLA can help [*]. However, to ignore events such as the current ‘Black Lives Matter’ movement, places our teaching within a vacuum. Furthermore, not acknowledging events such as national politics, terrorist acts or wars taking place in our learners’ countries gives the impression that we do not value the issues that are often really important to our learners.


Use participatory approaches to develop language for critical thinking

Moreover, as well as functional language for daily life, I think we need to develop language for questioning and discussion, in order to develop critical thinking in a participatory way. For the classroom to be democratic, learners must be able to share their thoughts and concerns, and some may cause disagreement. Agreeing discussion rules and expectations of mutual respect beforehand can help to create space for critical discussion, and avoid arguments. Focusing on the language that will be used in the sessions can help guide the discussion. As a teacher, we might need to do some of our own reading around participatory ESOL pedagogy (see: Reflect for ESOL) and also about the topic, so we are better able to deal with questions that might arise. Sometimes it might help to involve managers in our planning. I have heard of some instances where teachers will let their managers know that they will be discussing certain topics in advance in case learners have further questions.


Explore everyday racism and develop language learners need to recognise and respond

A photo of 3 women seated and having a discussion with a board full of post-it notes in the background

Finally, teaching anti-racism doesn’t just involve teaching about Black Lives Matters or current events surrounding racism. Racism manifests in everyday situations that our learners experience, and in some situations learners may not even identify they are experiencing racism. When we are teaching our learners about making an appointment with the doctor, are we teaching them what to do if the receptionist ignores them because they don’t speak English well? When we teach learners about how to apply for jobs in the UK, are we teaching them what to do if the interviewer asks them about their ethnic background?


Here are a few other examples of situations that learners experienced that I found out about in my previous research:

  • A learner is still in temporary accommodation, but someone else in their hostel of different ethnicity is given housing.
  • A bus driver shouts at a learner when they don’t understand a question.
  • The teacher of a learner’s child says the child didn’t tell them they had an accident and left them with soiled clothes all day.
  • A learner’s husband’s family uses racial slurs against them.


It may be that not all the above situations were caused by racism. However, I feel it highlights the need to listen to our learners’ experiences, and to bring these experiences into the classroom when thinking about the language that they might need for these seemingly unproblematic contexts. ESOL teaching is not just about teaching learners a language. We are teaching learners how to navigate their way through our complex system of life in the UK, and to do this well we need to equip them with all the knowledge and tools they may need to recognise discrimination and racism. Even better if we can help our learners learn how to call out racism and self-advocate in these situations. Step one is acknowledging that racism exists in the UK and talking about it with our learners.



*You can find a collated list of ESOL-specific (and general further education) resources for teaching about Black Lives Matter and anti-racism. As part of these compiled resources, there is a list of introductory and further reading for teachers.



A photo of Dr Nafisah Graham-Brown

Dr Nafisah Graham-Brown

Nafisah is one of the National Co-chairs for NATECLA, the national association for teachers of English and community languages in the UK. She is currently on sabbatical from her role of Head of Life Skills and Community at ELATT, an education charity in London. She recently gained her doctorate from UCL Institute of Education.

Her research interests include the experiences of refugees and migrants who are learning English and integrating into UK society, the role of trained teachers in language learning, adult basic skills in the UK, and the relationship between providers within the field of adult and further education. Her doctoral thesis was about the relationship between social interactions in English and participants’ perception of belonging.

Nafisah lives in London with her New Yorker husband and loves cats.



You may also be interested in: 

ESOL for Refugees: resources for new arrivals (resource)

The Sankofa Intergenerational Learning Hub: Writings on a Journey Part 1 (blog)

EPALE UK 5th Anniversary Highlights 

Forum Theatre: Its empowerment of, and community building role amongst, migrant women (blog)

Free webinars on digital accessibility and inclusion to create effective remote learning (blog)

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