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The impact of learning English during COVID-19 and the transition to online learning

A case study from Walsall for All’s ESOL Intelligence Unit.

An ESOL learner practising prompts in a class. Photo taken in 2019.

Walsall for All’s ESOL (English for Speakers of Other Languages) Intelligence Unit, part of the Walsall’s Integration Programme, had little idea of the impact that the COVID-19 pandemic would have on their projects.

17 ESOL projects are running across the borough in collaboration with community and faith groups and a number of providers, in order to help those for whom English is not their first language to improve their speaking, listening and literacy skills.

As the situation developed and information was shared, it became apparent that there was a need to prepare for the potential suspension of projects until further notice. Maintaining a venue with no finances, the adverse effect on learner engagement, lack of social integration and shared learning experience were just a few of the immediate concerns raised by providers.

There were some mixed emotions amongst the participants too, many of whom were upset and disappointed. Postponement of classes would make it difficult for learners to retain the language skills they had worked so hard to improve on.

The ESOL Intelligence Unit wanted to ensure that these concerns were addressed and that participants were not deprived of the opportunity to continue with their studies and have developed the programme for online delivery.

Online learning platform and targeting learners

The new online learning platform will enable learners and providers to engage with each other.

ESOL Project Officer, Zishaan, explained how the new online learning platform will work.

“Teachers will have individual Zoom accounts assigned to help them deliver learning online. Our ESOL Coordinator Harjinder surveyed our projects, asking them whether they would be willing to move online and whether they thought this would be a suitable solution for their students. Ten projects responded with their interest.

“We looked at several different platforms and spoke to representatives in these companies. We decided to use Zoom because it is easy to use and offers cross-platform usability. Our plan is to provide each of these teachers with a host license.”

Zishaan has also developed a video guide and gathered a list of tutorials on how Zoom will be used for teaching ESOL. He has also offered his support if teachers experience any technical issues.

Natalia who is also an ESOL Project Officer, is contributing to the development of the online learning platforms and working with target groups.

She said, “We are targeting individuals from the Romanian community, in which English represents a barrier of communication, but also for individuals who want to improve their basic English and are able to use this time while they are staying at home.

“We are also targeting those who do not know that there are free ESOL online classes where they can enrol; young mothers who are taking care of children and those who do not have the courage to speak English, being afraid that they will be judged.”

Using online software like Zoom will not be the only platform to deliver ESOL courses. A list of educational materials has also been developed for teachers and learners to use. ESOL Coordinator Harjinder said, “I researched what resources were available online and which ones were suitable for all levels of learning and free of charge to download.

“I also researched those participants with children who are at home, where language-based activities could be completed by both the children and parents. A document containing all these web links has been created and will be shared with the tutors and participants once the online learning platform is up and running.”

Learners and providers will be able to use online resources to enhance English learning.

While the online learning platform has been developed, some providers have continued to stay connected with residents in different ways:

  • Nash Dom CIC have been delivering ESOL classes through Facebook Messenger calls.

  • Walsall Creative Factory have made up packs for women and children, set up a WhatsApp group for the women to keep connected and a Facebook intercultural dialogue group. The group has also encouraged befriending of community members who are vulnerable to ensure they are supported. They have also coordinated support for sewing laundry bags and ID bibs in partnership with Caldmore Community Garden.

  • Guru Nanak Gurdwara in Willenhall are delivering food parcels to the elderly and making food on request at the Gurdwara for delivery.

  • Accord Age Matters are contacting service users on a daily basis to check on their mental health and wellbeing, many of whom are elderly.

  • VeenPool Media Ltd created posters around COVID-19 in Punjabi, which were displayed in places of worship and sent out to their learners, as well as Punjabi speaking communities.

Although some providers are using online alternatives to connect with ESOL learners, the ultimate aim is to encourage all providers to use the same software application to ensure unification and consistency of the online learning experience.

Taking on new ESOL referrals during COVID-19

Tutors will focus on fully engaging with existing learners through the new online learning platform. Photo taken in 2019.

At the moment (due to COVID-19), it is believed that tutors will focus on fully engaging with existing learners, as they are out of their formal classroom setting.

The unit said that referrals could still be taken during COVID-19. However, a process would need to be developed.

One of the challenges of taking on new referrals is completing the initial assessment with the learners. One of the outcomes of the assessment is the level the learner is working at. This could potentially be done over Zoom, providing the prospective learner has access to a laptop or smartphone and the software. Taking on referrals without an initial assessment could mean that when an individual joins a lesson, it may be too hard for them, resulting in a loss of retention and engagement.

The new online learning platform, developed by the ESOL Intelligence Team will be aimed at their existing providers. Those leading ESOL projects will have their own paid individual accounts.

Prospective providers are welcome to enquire about delivering ESOL courses online, providing that a proposal is submitted to the unit based on online ESOL delivery and a breakdown of costs.

If you would like to find out more about the online learning platforms or the work of the ESOL Intelligence Unit, please email


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