BBC Learning English has produced Learning Circles as part of a nationwide campaign, English My Way. The programme aims to help people in hard-to-reach areas in the UK, particularly those from Bangladeshi, Pakistani and Somali communities, to learn English. The project has been run together by the Tinder Foundation, the British Council and BBC Learning English. Mike Harrison, ELT producer at BBC Learning English, explains a bit more about the project.

So, what is a Learning Circle?

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The combination of live actors and animated background is a novel way of overcoming the problem of authentic setting.

Learning Circles are based around communal experiences and situations that can be really problematic – problematic in that they require some kind of transfer of information, but even more difficult when they have to be carried out in a language other than your mother tongue. Imagine something like using the self-checkout machines at your local supermarket.

How many times have you been caught up with your shopping and heard the line ‘Unexpected item in the bagging area’ or similar?

bbc2Dealing with computerised checkouts is one of a series of 12 sessions, all based on this type of communal experience. So, we start by sharing our own experiences of these places and situations. Learning Circle participants may be asked how often they go to the supermarket, if they ever have any problems, and if they ever use English while out doing the shopping (and if not, why not). This allows a Learning Circle to start very much with the learner in mind.

How does a class work?

The learners watch a video showing people dealing with the situation. In the video, the characters, who are women from the target communities, come up against a problem. Maybe they can’t work the checkout or they don’t know how to ask for something. The first part of the video ends when the situation becomes stuck, that is, when the problem prevents a happy outcome. The discussion then moves on to the problem itself. The facilitator asks participants in the Learning Circle if they have ever been in this situation themselves and what they would do if they had the same problem.

They resume with the second part of the video. Here, the character is able to move the situation on and get what she wants or needs. In each of these situations, there is a key phrase and key items of vocabulary that help move everything towards this happy outcome. In the example of our confusing checkout computer, this might be something like ‘Excuse me. I don’t know how to use this. Can you help me?’ There is now the chance for further discussion in the Learning Circle – how did the situation get resolved? What did the character say? More personalised discussion follows, with practice activities and other opportunities to use the language from the session.

Each Learning Circle session follows this two-part video format of situation, problem, solution. There’s support material, in the form of flashcards, video transcripts and follow-up activities with instructions for people to lead the Learning Circle sessions. These are designed to be simple enough so they can be used without the need for any teaching experience.

This is perhaps the key to Learning Circles – they are designed to be used by people in their communities, setting up informal sessions with their friends and family to learn some English. The aim is that participants will pick up the key vocabulary and key phrases to help them get through these problematic situations in English.

The British Council project team have been creating resources for the English My Way website and evaluating the response from both tutors and learners. Recently, Frances Carbines, Project Officer at the British Council, had the chance to visit a few English My Way centres around the UK, to meet migrant ESOL learners, programme volunteers and centre staff in person, and to take part in sessions. Here’s what she saw:

Our visit to the Crossover Centre in Birmingham involved participating in a lively Learning Circle facilitated by ESOL tutor, Julie Hughes. It was designed not only to teach learners key vocabulary and phrases to use in a realistic day-to-day situation, but also to encourage everyone to share their experiences equally and it was clear that the activities were very much enjoyed by the group of learners – a group of predominantly Pakistani women who lived in the local area. In this instance, the group were doing a session on using the Post Office, looking at the different options for sending parcels: economy or recorded delivery? It was a situation that everyone present was all too familiar with – waiting for an available post office assistant, then suddenly being presented with a myriad of postage options while an impatient queue forms behind you…

 

After watching the Learning Circle video and having a look over the flash cards containing key vocabulary, everyone in the room was invited to talk, in English, about their experiences of sending packages in post offices. One learner recounted how previously she hadn’t realised that recorded delivery was an option: her package to her son had got lost in the post, causing disappointment, confusion and stress. Personal anecdotes are key to keeping the flow of conversation open; learners are encouraged to participate fully in every discussion, regardless of their level of English.

 

Peer teaching is an integral part of the English My Way programme; the most confident learners in the class will support others in the class, even acting as ambassadors in their community, and, when needed, more experienced learners can assist less experienced learners by suggesting useful words and phrases – the flash cards and visual imagery are of vital importance. The emphasis is on getting used to speaking in English without a need to get it completely right every time – building confidence through a shared desire to communicate and swap ideas. This is particularly important for learners who have no prior experience of education and for whom the idea of sitting in a formal language class may seem at best, unfamiliar, and at worst, intimidating.

 

Learning Circles can be held anywhere – someone’s living room, a café, a community centre or even in the local park (weather permitting!). They complement the more formal English My Way sessions found on the website: for example, Learning Circle 8: Medicine gives learners the confidence to discuss medical symptoms in an informal environment, while the Healthcare sessions on the English My Way website encourage learners to consider their wider lifestyles and healthcare implications. English My Way centres across the UK can then complement the sessions with additional talks and workshops. For example, Cooke e-learning Centre in Leicester ran a session on the risks of diabetes, with a view to encouraging learners to live healthily as well as recycling new vocabulary they’d come across earlier in the day.

The Learning Circles packs are being delivered to providers and people in the target communities, ranging from local community centres to faith groups, volunteer organisations to libraries. Learning Circles resources are also freely available on the BBC Learning English website, where they can be used online, or downloaded as audio, video and PDF files.

 

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