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Taboo or not taboo? – bringing the real world into ESOL and literacy classrooms

Linda Ruas Linda Ruas is an ESOL/Functional Skills lecturer, CELTA trainer and Teaching and Learning Coach at Greenwich Community College. She did an MA in Second Language Learning and Teaching at Birkbeck College, London University, and taught EFL in private schools in London and Japan before teaching and training teachers in Brazil for ten years. After returning to the UK, she started working in Further Education, taking a PGCE at Greenwich University.

Disability, rape, land grabs in Africa and protests against mineral exploitation. Does all this have a place in the ESOL and literacy classroom? We need to guide our learners with issues such as health and money but does this include discussing GM crops, fracking, gender imbalance and democracy?

I know learners in my class often need very personalised lessons about their own worries, lives (e.g. with ReflectESOL tasks, where groups work with the participatory tools like trees, rivers and matrices to discuss ideas and community issues) (Reflect, 2009) and how to understand and respond to that letter they received from the council. They also need lighter topics and humour, video clips and games. But I believe learners also have space and interest to move away from the very personal and from light humour to learn more about global issues.

Over the past few years, I have developed the Easier English wiki – New Internationalist. I started it as a way of making global justice ideas more accessible to language learners, and it has grown. It's primarily a self- access learner resource of simplified articles (and has just been shortlisted for an ELTons award for 'Innovation in learner resources'), but also includes a range of resources for teachers to guide learners. There are many lessons for teachers to use (in the Ready Lessons section); quizzes and infographics; category and search features to research topics; and argument, photo stories and country profile sections. Here is a link to the wiki:

Using more of these materials over the past few years, I have experienced totally demotivated literacy learners seize on the topic of climate change in Bangladesh and write impassioned letters to world leaders; a literacy class of women, many originally from Africa and Asia, discussing female genital mutilation; an ESOL learner from Angola explaining about landgrabs in his country; and Somalians writing about piracy in theirs. These topics can help learners to share their experience and be a starting point for interest in the lives of others. And learners are also developing their literacy and language skills: focussing on various grammatical structures in context, replacing punctuation, correcting spelling, and developing a wider vocabulary.

However, I started with some trepidation. I wondered whether all learners would feel engaged and interested to learn both new content and new language at the same time. I also worried that I might offend learners, start conversations that would become bigger than I could handle, or influence the learners.

Initial training courses often advise teachers never to give their own opinions. However, I feel that my opinions are so much part of me that I would find this impossible, or turn into a false, monitored version of myself only ever voicing general platitudes. So I started with “safer” topics, for example relating


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