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By Nicola Sutton, CE, English Language Partners
‘Necessity is the mother of invention’, said Plato and we have found this to be true. English Language Partners' (ELP) work is teaching English to adults and until March 25th this work was done in face-to-face classes. All across New Zealand, learners gathered with the purpose of improving their language skills so they could participate more effectively in daily life and settle well in New Zealand.

Access to the internet and suitable technology were just some of the barriers to learning experienced by learners in lockdown. Limited language, which is important for engaging in English online, along with the responsibility of caring for family added to the challenge.

Despite the challenges, over 500 hours of online learning was attended in the first week of lockdown. Five weeks later attendance hours totalled 28,500 with 1,973 learners engaged in at least one of the 285 classes meeting regularly. Now, nine weeks after leaving their classrooms, learners are beginning to return. Attendance hours now total 60,190, which is about 53% of pre-Covid planned delivery. This was achieved by 2,036 learners attending 318 classes.

What made this momentous move from face-to-face to online delivery a success? The teachers.

“The level of innovation by our teachers surpassed all expectation. The first lessons started the day after lockdown with teachers organising their own technology and phoning learners to tell them about classes and how to access them. All kinds of delivery started as we scrambled to provide training for our teams,” said Jo Leach, programmes manager at English Language Partners New Zealand.

Teachers innovated. They made it happen. Their commitment to the learners saw them get started, teach themselves how to use the technology and adapt content to an online mode of delivery, take up training opportunities, and learn through their and others’ mistakes. Teachers used a wide range of platforms, some they were familiar with and some learners were familiar with. Just two days after lockdown one of our staff saw on WeChat, a Chinese social media site, a friend’s post with a photo of her parents in an ELP WeChat class. An Auckland teacher reported that, “The learners have taken to Google Classroom like ducks to water and are already submitting work and making comments.”

In addition to this, ELP trained teachers to use Zoom and provided licences so they could access all the features. By the 30th of March, 233 teachers had attended Zoom training. Teacher professional development did not stop there. Many then continued to attend weekly drop-in sessions where they asked questions and shared tips. We also sourced free training for online ESOL teaching so teachers could further their skills and knowledge. And our programmes team started publishing weekly newsletters with resources and teaching tips.

Week by week classes became more polished as everyone got to grips with this new approach to teaching. Some classes merged with others; in one centre three learners from one class and three from another joined together. In other cases learners joined classes run by ELP centres in other parts of New Zealand. Centres also requested some national classes that learners could be referred to if the centre did not have anything to offer. Five classes are now underway with topics such as Kiwi English, Reading and Writing for Advanced Learners, Grammar, and English for Customer Service.

Teachers used different tools to support learners. WhatsApp was used to provide written corrections (as in this example), and learners also used it to annotate their own work before sending it back to the teacher.

Competent teachers are only part of the story though. We were amazed at the effort learners made to join online classes. Some had the skills and technology to get started without support and others relied on their families and ELP staff and volunteers to help them.

A surprising number of older learners and those with little or no literacy skills in their own language, let alone English, participated in classes. Christine, a teacher in our ESOL Intensive programme said, “Getting online can be a struggle for some older people with very limited access to data or technical know-how. I had two learners in their 70s with no skills or experience with online technology. Initially, it seemed neither would be able to join, but both were really keen to learn how and persevered until they were successful. They are now the most regular attendees, do their homework, know how to annotate worksheets, and one has also learned how to email me his homework. It’s the first time he’s ever sent an email!”

One teacher reported that when she had a new learner join the class she asked the other learners to explain how to use Zoom. She said, “It was a great way for the learners to practise English speaking skills, create a friendly rapport with the new learner, and for everyone to consolidate their Zoom knowledge.”

Another teacher with a group of low level learners found the Zoom experience fun. She said, I love the breakout rooms. I’m amazed that my learners are managing so well in them. They think it’s such a hoot that I can pop virtually in and out!”

Learning didn’t just happen in the home though. One learner had to leave his class early for work because they were making silage. Once at the farm, he re-joined the class by phone to explain the process of setting up the silage pit. The other learners and teacher found it really interesting and it brought a different aspect to the lesson. They were keen to so something similar again.

For learners who could not access online learning, our teachers and other staff supported them with regular phone calls. Some calls included discussion about the content of learning materials that had been emailed or posted to the learner and other calls were purely pastoral care.

Learners were positive about the experience. One group of learners told their teachers they preferred online lessons. Another teacher reported, after her first lesson, “What a fantastic response with 14 learners joining their first lesson today. For many it was also their first time using Zoom. We worked through the lesson plan on how to use the Zoom features. Everyone was happy to talk to each other and connect again. They enjoyed it so much they even want to continue classes through the school holidays.”

A group of learners in Dunedin organised themselves and made a heartwarming video for their teacher. Learners and their family members held up letters to form words wishing her a happy birthday.

Online learning was not just for our classes though. Some of our volunteer home tutors also got online with their learners. Angela Botha, our Hawke’s Bay centre manager said, “Online learning was also a huge support for our volunteers and the learners they usually teach at home. WhatsApp, Zoom, text messages, emails and of course the telephone, meant our volunteers could stay connected to their learners, and continue to support their language learning. We will continue this support until one to one tutoring can resume.”

Home tutor, Jill, dropped worksheets to her learner’s letterbox and then used WhatsApp and phone calls for followup sessions. While Barbara, who used Zoom with her learner, sent us a photo (below) of her laptop set-up on the kitchen table surrounded by fruit and veges, letter tiles, and paper ready for a lesson with her learner.

Another home tutor made short videos in WhatsApp telling her learners what she was doing in isolation. She said, “They are just short snippets of what I’m up to, and I usually shoot them in selfie mode so they can see my face for most of the video. I always get a lot of lovely emojis back from them and sometimes messages in Arabic.”

It was not only the teachers that used technology to keep learners engaged. Our office staff continued to match learners with volunteers and teachers using technology. Patricia, a coordinator in Auckland said, “I used 3-way video chat on WhatsApp for matching volunteers and learners from our recent training course. It is early days with a steep learning curve all round but getting there slowly.”

ELP will look back on 2020 as the moment when a whole new way of delivering our services was birthed. We are excited by the possibilities. Learners can now choose to participate in face-to-face classes or join an online community; some might choose to do both.

Our vision, that former refugees and migrants can participate successfully in all aspects of life in Aotearoa, just got a massive boost.