Personalising ESOL

 How ESOL teaching resources are evolving

 Lewis Tatt who teachers ESOL at LSI Portsmouth questions whether textbooks are still an effective teaching tool in the 21st century classroom.

Textbooks have provided ESOL teachers and students with a measure of structure, consistency, and logical progression through their language development. They have also evolved over the years to reflect new findings in ESOL language research and its understanding on how to help students learn more effectively.

However, our role as language teachers is to ensure they are used at the right time, place and for the right purpose. We integrate the content of a textbook into a class to make the learning an interactive and meaningful experience, rather than a silent self-directed study session.

Textbooks certainly have their advantages.

Whether you’re following a functional, lexical or good old fashioned grammar syllabus, textbooks greatly reduce our preparation time.

However, there are of course also disadvantages.


However good the textbook is, by offering different editions for each level of development, they can restrict a lesson as there is never one book to suit the individual needs of each student in a class. Textbooks are often written to fit a majority of students and, even then, fail considerably at addressing all the issues necessary for most students; as we know, every student is unique and so is their progress.


The other challenge we find is that in general, textbooks do not inspire today’s digitally driven students to learn and often result in them becoming disengaged.

Textbook copy rarely relates to the reason that each student is learning English. For example, to read an extract in English about a child visiting the zoo may help them to learn certain verb tenses and new vocabulary but can be demoralising to someone wanting to secure a job in banking. I’ve taught classes in the past to introduce a topic such as ‘going to school’ and seen the students sitting and rolling their eyes.


A major aspect of learning a language, especially for people who want to be able to become fluent, involves verbal communication. I certainly introduce activities with live or recorded radio broadcasts to expose students to authentic language material, but it can be time consuming to find the right material to match each student’s level of development. Added to this the audio material is unlikely to be made specifically for ESOL students.

LSI Portsmouth


LSI Portsmouth is a large, year-round English language school judged to be the leading English Language Centre in the UK; this was partly because we offer a truly personalised, bespoke learning experience for each student.

Appropriate online content

I am always looking for audio learning content for the students and recently have used software that has been specifically designed for ESOL students. One website I have found, Sensations English, is, for all intents and purposes, designed to replicate a news website with reports on current breaking news and other topics. Ideal for the age of students we teach, the content is immediately appropriate for their areas of interest.


I wanted to enrich English language learning, making it accessible, fresh and rewarding for all. You could certainly spend time researching appropriately levelled news items on YouTube but for me, Sensations English makes it easy to find the right level.

For every news report, students can select one of five stages of development from beginner to advanced and the news report, both written and audio will be aligned to that student’s level; developing their skills while learning about real-world events. What’s really nice is the way that they can switch the level; starting by reading and listening to the A1 level content and moving up to B2 or C1 level.

They may not understand all the words but may still be able to follow the information. This is a great way to engage the students with very few demands on my time. For one lesson on Space Travel, I used the Sensations English video on the Space X launch with the associated questions at their specific level of development. This is all perfectly tied in with the Cambridge Advanced practice on space exploration.


I also welcome seeing each student’s scores – which questions they got right, and which were more challenging for them. Being able to give them instant feedback and additional support has resulted in a notable improvement over the past two to three months.

With the online ESOL resource we use, there is never going to be a topic they’ve already done as it’s all about daily breaking news. They may have heard about the news item or read related articles which makes it a lot easier to get their interest and make it relevant to the current landscape.

A combination? 

In my opinion textbooks are still an important part of my teaching; they certainly provide a starting point. However, to maintain LSI Portsmouth’s level of excellence I am always looking for new ways to engage the students and give them the most wide-ranging experiences to broaden their understanding of the English language. My life is so much more efficient using authentic copy with audio content to back up the learning and make it relevant to their daily lives and aspirations.


Starting his career as an English language teacher at the Wuhan University of Science and Technology in China, Lewis Tatt spent two years teaching IELTS classes for students preparing to study abroad.

He now teaches pre-sessional EAP courses and Cambridge Advanced courses at LSI Portsmouth.



Sensation’s English is online daily news content which is offered in written copy and audio formats at different levels of complexity.


All images with kind permission from LSI Portsmouth