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Recent evidence suggests that there are an alarming number of migrants in the UK whose English language needs are not being met. Bobby Smith argues that drama-based approaches to teaching English as a second language has much to offer.

There is a strong economic and social case for enabling migrants to gain a greater level of English, and many people who come to this country stand to benefit from employability focussed English as a second language (ESOL). However, there is currently limited capacity within ESOL classes – which largely hinge on employability outcomes – to engage more broadly with students’ wider needs. We should not ignore the fact that migrants may have additional needs; studies have shown that people from migrant communities are more likely to suffer mental illness, and the difficulty of integrating into new communities and ‘belonging’ adds to this.

So are there other approaches that could be more effective? One approach that seems to have secured good results is the use of drama in ESOL. And while teachers have highlighted there is now less space to focus on speaking and listening skills through drama, in recent years new books, courses and articles have begun to refocus on games and drama in language learning. 

The Creative English Alliance seeks to build on this. Creative English came out of research, which showed that drama-based teaching can help to establish a sense of belonging amongst migrants. Delivered in faith and community settings across England, it supports adult learners to feel confident in speaking English and establishes safe spaces full of laughter, creativity, opportunities for friendship to blossom and support to be offered. The joy of participating in a role-play or craft activity is often cited as a reason that participants keep coming back. The programme aims to increase speaking and listening skills around housing, education, health and general day-to-day living.

It is this combination of pairing creative education that empowers participants with greater English skills, whilst explicitly responding to some of the wider social issues faced by migrant communities that is unique. At the heart of this approach is applied drama; using exercises and activities for not only educational outcomes, but also for personal and social change. Sessions are learner-centred, with participants learning from each other and steering where sessions may end up. Rather than relying on practicing prescribed questions and answers relating to situations participants may encounter, we focus on the improvised ‘messy’ nature of real-life contexts and prepare learners for this. The programme utilises a ‘soap-opera’ style storyline (complete with house fires, marriage proposals and long-lost family members begging for forgiveness!) that engages learners and unlocks spontaneous language. 

The creative, collaborative and learner-centred approach facilitated by an applied drama approach to ESOL enables friendships and support networks to form among students experiencing marginalisation. These may be temporal and it is not clear yet how many of the relationships formed continue beyond sessions, but there is evidence to suggest that some of these relationships become more permanent. 

This approach is not about formal qualifications, although for some it may be the first step in accessing formal provision. Indeed, it is the informal nature of the sessions, and the fact that individuals do not need to work towards qualifications, that encourages the participation of the most disadvantaged participants including older people, mothers with young children or those with visa issues with regular Home Office appointments. Sessions are run on a ‘drop-in’ basis, so those with unpredictable schedules or poor health can miss several classes but still turn up and not feel that they have missed out.

Does it work? The evidence would suggest so and not only for newly arrived migrants. Facilitators often encounter individuals who have been living in England for many years, but who have been unable to integrate into the wider community or access services they need (such as the GP). As of November 2014 100% of participants who had attended 10 sessions reported an increase in confidence.  External evaluation by Coventry University has also shown that over half of those engaging in Creative English have gone on to access new community activities (a figure they consider to be ‘staggering’). The evaluation concluded that a drama-based approach has proved ‘a successful and well-received means by which to teach nuance and complexity’ and ‘an accessible and useful [approach] for those with low levels of both confidence and English language proficiency’.

None of this is to argue that traditional ESOL courses leading to qualifications do not have a role: they are an important part of supporting migrants to live rewarding lives here in the UK. But the experience of Creative English has shown that there are, and needs to be, a wider range of initiatives that can help to provide a more holistic approach to migrants’ needs. It suggests a greater role within traditional ESOL provision for understanding how untapping people’s creative impulses can deliver positive outcomes.

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