ESOL learners at the British Museum. Photo: Benedict Johnson (C) 2017 Trustees of the British Museum

Using collections to support ESOL learning

Jo-Anne Sunderland Bowe, 16.10.2017
Case study from the British Museum
“Talking about your own reactions to objects can edifying. Responding to an object can deepen the experience. Authentic, unique and first-hand experiences with objects stimulate curiosity, exploration and emotions."
Scott Paris, Principles of Object Based Learning, 2002

The British Museum ESOL programme started as a pilot in 2003 following the introduction of the ESOL Core Curriculum.  The new curriculum provided for embedded language learning, where the grammar was taught through themes and topics.  

This gave ESOL tutors the chance to create their own schemes of work according to the interests of their learners.  In turn, this allowed museums with the opportunity to develop programmes where engagement with museum objects supported language learning and facilitated learner-led discourse around museum collections. 

In 2005, the ESOL programme was established as part of the British Museum’s lifelong learning programme (now adult programmes), supporting adult and community learning providers with enrichment visits to the museum.

The British Museum is the “museum of the world, for the world” as such it contains objects that track the history of humanity through material culture, art and technology.  It supports learning outside the classroom by using collections to scaffold language learning and encourage emergent language through discussion and active participation.

By interacting with museum collections, learners have the opportunity to explore connections with objects, have conversations that might be difficult inside the classroom, unlock personal stories and become active agents in their learning.  

The programme started with a general introductory tour of the museum, with accompanying online resources.  Further tours and workshops have been developed in the intervening years around the permanent collections and the team create new workshops for each special exhibition.  

Other work includes: outreach; short-term projects; conversation clubs; and training programmes for learners and ESOL professionals.  

Currently the team is supporting the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport-funded Iraqi Emergency Heritage Training. The tours and workshops are delivered by a team of experienced ESOL teachers who each bring a range of additional skills in art, drama, classics and museum studies.

The work of the programme is based on the understanding that both museum visits and language learning are socially-mediated activities.

The benefits to learners and the British Museum are multiple: through speaking English with increased confidence the learners are also better placed to access other cultural opportunities, make return visits to museums with their friends and families and improve their health and well-being

The ESOL programme has three core goals:  programme delivery, advocacy and research.  Advocacy covers a range of activities including support for the Museums and ESOL network and making links with the ESOL teaching and learning sector through organisations such as the National Association for Teaching English and other Community Languages to Adults, and the Learning and Work Institute.  

Research activities include assistance for postgraduate and PhD students, and furthering the understanding of the use museum collections for language learning. 

Jo-Anne Sunderland Bowe is the ESOL programme manager at the British Museum