What ESOL curriculum do you use?[1] Do you use textbooks from Oxford or Cambridge perhaps – supplemented by a handful of go-to websites, self-created and downloaded handouts, games, and activities? We continually analyse and assess materials through an ESOL lens but is there really a way of thinking about materials ‘Christianly’?

Apart from the linguistic content, take a closer look to see if there are any political, spiritual, and cultural messages in the materials you use. I’m not talking about anything too controversial. After all, publishers need to sell books! However, it is not too much of a stretch to encounter opportunities to discuss racism and prejudice, debt, broken relationships, and the human impact on the environment. What about hospitality, simplicity, generosity, forgiveness, and satisfaction? Are there any allusions to secularism, materialism, consumerism, and individualism? What about that for starters?

In reality, however, setting aside time to consider such things is often swallowed up in the rush of spilt coffee, admin, prep, photocopying, and meetings. Even so, the question to keep in mind is whether our materials present such aspects in a neutral, positive, or negative manner? Could these topics be utilised in the light of a ‘Christian’ worldview, of Christ Himself even? Let that sink in.

It never ceases to amaze how ordinary, mundane topics can lead to contemplating more meaningful things. A discussion, about ‘bread’, for instance, could refer to an item of consumption or evoke ideas of world hunger, wastefulness, or the Bread of Life. A topic about ‘light’ could refer to a lightbulb, a candlelight vigil, or a symbol of good and evil.[2]

What about the characters that are portrayed in our materials? Are they the sort of people to hold up as models of what it means to be human? Do they reflect relationships and communication that are healthy? Or are they rather flat and endlessly buying things or complaining in shops, airports, or hotels?

One thing I noticed with a lot of my learners was that learning to disagree appropriately and respectfully in English was really hard! Whenever, disagreement inevitably occurred in the classroom, my learners would often sound abrupt, impolite, or harsh without meaning to. Then the classroom would go silent and everyone would be embarrassed. Not great for learning English and building relationships!

However, learning how to disagree and complain effectively involves so much, doesn’t it? Not only appropriate vocabulary, intonation, and body language, but also asking questions, showing patience, working well with others, and learning to interact with other people made in God’s image, not just a stock image in a book. These are the sort of Kingdom relationships I yearn for – for everyone everywhere.

When the stories, conversations, and personalities presented in our materials feel a little shallow, perhaps it is time to ‘personalise’ them. How could the materials be utilised to acknowledge and value the lives and experiences of the learners before us?

A topic I taught involved listening to four people from a textbook talking about what was most important to them whilst the learners took notes. Why stop there? I extended the activity by sharing my own ideas: putting God first in my life, playing football, and spending time with my family. Everyone else then wrote their own ideas and shared them. Some responses were brief or non-committal, some cultural and even spiritual. All were personal and authentic.

Have a look at the following ideas for thinking through your materials ‘Christianly’. Do any resonate? How could you adjust your approach to teaching and utilising your materials in response?

  • What roles and tasks can you spot in the materials? What might be missing? Do the shopkeepers, pop stars, and hotel staff we meet have joy in a job well done? Apart from influencing, is there mentoring? Are learners invited to consider creation and our responsibility of stewardship towards it?
  • What kinds of relationships are described? What is the quality of relationships? How is family, childhood, the teen years, retirement, marriage, and singleness portrayed? How do people speak to one another? Is the vocabulary suitable for encouraging healthy, Christ-like conversations?
  • Are we encouraged to judge by appearances? Is a person who speaks English well portrayed as more intelligent? Do smiling faces and fashion sense equate to success?
  • Do people in the materials experience fear, doubt, suffer, hope, and celebrate, as well as shop, play, eat and drink? Do people fail as well as succeed? Is there any sorrow, shame, or regret for ‘mistakes’ (or ‘sin’ if you insist), and the brokenness of people, families, systems, societies, and cultures?
  • Do people in the materials have a spiritual or religious dimension? Are ‘holy-days’, ‘retreats’, meditation, festivals, and places of worship mentioned?
  • Do people in the materials face any major decisions and what criteria do they use to come to a choice?
  • Do learner activities encourage open-ended and personal responses from learners and/or yourself? Are you able to plan and build worthwhile conversations, activities, homework, and journalling around these activities? How could you make yourself available in and around these activities in case learners want to discuss more?
  • Is there any mention of marginalised or misunderstood people within society? How are these aspects approached?
  • What are we encouraged to learn from the cultures described in the materials? What stories are we invited to listen to?

Now after reflecting on the above, what could be added, edited or minimalised to make the materials more suitable for inviting learners to give at least some attention to the Christian worldview and message? What could be redeemed or built upon to be signposts to Christ?

As we continue our ESOL adventures, may we be filled with the wisdom of God as we sift through and utilise materials. May the process of thinking about ESOL materials be meaningful and worthwhile: for ourselves, for our learners, and for our witness to Christ in and through our lives.

Written by
Daniel Whetham. As a Regional Developer for Greater Manchester, Daniel supports churches in setting up and running English classes. He also researches trends in ESOL, government policy, and movements of International people in the UK in order to consider how best to pray, prepare, and respond with English language provision in the love of Christ.
February 2023


Recommended Reading

Purgason, Kitty, Professional Guidelines for Christian English Teachers: How to be a Teacher with Convictions While Respecting Those of Your Students (California: William Carey Library, 2016). Lots of practical ideas about being confident in the middle ground of living out your faith as a teacher with integrity.

Smith, David I., On Christian Teaching: Practising Faith in the Classroom (Michigan: Eerdmans, 2018). One of the best books to date on faith and teaching. Insightful and practical ideas on how faith can motivate and impact our teaching and learning.

Smith, David and Barbara Carvill, The Gift of the Stranger: Faith, Hospitality, and Foreign Language Learning (Michigan: Eerdmans, 2000). A bit dated with an overly formal, academic style but nevertheless containing useful insights on the links between teaching, hospitality, and witness.

Snow, Donald, B., English Teaching as Christian Mission: An Applied Theology (Scottdale, PA: Herald Press, 2001). Thoughtful, gentle, but provocative. Essential reading for all Christian ESOL teachers.


[1] Teachers love acronyms to describe their craft! I use ‘ESOL’ (English for Speakers of Other Languages) but am pretty chilled as to usage. ESOL is also commonly referred to as ‘ESL’ (English as a Second Language) and ‘EFL’ (English as a Foreign Language). Note ‘EAL’ (English as an Additional Language) refers to school-age learners.


[2]  ‘Word associations’ remind us that learners can work with vocabulary in more contexts than simply being consumers. For more ideas, see Smith and Carvill, The Gift of the Stranger: Faith, Hospitality, and Foreign Language Learning, p.196-7.