English for Driving Theory

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I have just completed teaching English for the UK Driving Theory Test (EDT). This was a new venture for me and came from my employment with Norfolk Community Learning Services.  I mostly taught Syrian refugees, who have fled the conflict in their home country. They had been living in the UK for about one year when the 20-week course started. There were also two students from Algeria, one from Hungary, one from Bangladesh and one from the Congo.  I was apparently the first person in the East Anglia region to use materials devised some years ago by Stephen Woulds and Jennie Cole in Leeds, which are publicly available, with this cohort of learners.  It has been a fantastic opportunity to do something with a very specific learning aim.

Most of the students arrived in the UK as part of the government-led and financed Syrian Refugee Resettlement Programme.  In 2016, a decision was taken to accept 20,000 Syrian refugees over five years.  It roughly worked out as 50 families per local authority.  Some of the learners came from two low-level ESOL classes which took place at the same location.  Part of their conditions of being resettled is to have English lessons, but as you could imagine, there are often absences, lateness, social or childcare problems to deal with.  When a phone rang in class it was usually something quite important such as a doctors appointment.   They were, nonetheless, highly motivated learners and apologetic if they missed class.  To be able to drive will open up both work and domestic opportunities, making life easier as they continue to settle in the UK, despite headlines like this recent one which stated that Syrian refugees have been sanctioned for taking English classes rather than trying to find work!

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The EDT material had a general scheme of work, lesson plans, a student workbook and interactive PowerPoints or Word documents.  These were put together several years ago and did not always work properly with the latest versions of Microsoft Office.  The macros were disabled. The workbooks were also designed for ESOL Entry Level 2, while most of my learners were Entry Level 1 at best.  So I had to be flexible and adapt the materials accordingly.  There was a lot of input – mostly new vocabulary.  There was no wifi in the classroom.  I bought my own laptop, my own tablet plus four borrowed Nexus tablets, onto which I had to download the PowerPoints in advance as well as making sure they were fully charged.  Always one device per pair of learners. It was a little tricky, but I managed to facilitate the interactive element most lessons.  One female Syrian student occasionally brought her own laptop and, bizarrely, by using a PowerPoint saved on a USB stick, her laptop sometimes played the ‘macro’ elements, which meant that she occasionally had the answers before anyone else.

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Most of the questions in the PowerPoints were multiple choice and based on questions from the actual theory test.  They were adapted from books such as the AA guide, which we needed to use as, with macros disabled, answers were not always available on the PowerPoints. Almost every question involved unfamiliar vocabulary, so I allowed mobile devices to be used. Translation software for single words helped the lessons move along at the pace needed to cover all the material.  I always made sure students were working in pairs or small groups and that they discussed the possible answers.  Quite often I took a ‘back seat’ and let them go at their own speed, monitoring and checking understanding as we went. I also made sure they wrote correct answers in their workbooks so that they had a record of work and could feel a sense of progress on the course. It also mattered to show evidence to the organisations (stakeholders) who fund the course. I drew on 27 years experience of driving in the UK and several years working for insurance brokerages – including one in Norwich.  Often there was something topical, such as bad weather, which made for interesting discussions.

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In the second week, my car had its MOT test and I was told that there was hardly any oil in the engine. I’m technically savvy, but not very car savvy.  What a dipstick!  Two days later I had to teach the English vocabulary for parts of the engine and, of course, where to add the oil!  Part of that lesson was spent outside, with the students all looking under the bonnet of my motor.  It felt like I was teaching at a vocational college. A later lesson involved telling the story about how I left all my own car documentation on the roof of my car after breaking down.  On another occasion, I brought in ‘realia’, such as my now dirt-covered Registration ‘Log’ Book and replacement insurance documents.  Most of them already had experience of driving in their home country, but it’s the language barrier that they need to overcome and the specific knowledge needed to take the test. They also needed practical help applying for a provisional licence and how to book lessons with a local driving instructor.

There was supplementary material, which was either done in class time or given out as homework.  We completed a lot of work on recognising traffic signs – red triangles for warnings, red circles for orders, blue circles for things that are allowed, rectangles for information and directions etc.

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Some of them borrowed or purchased a Driving Theory Test book. I recommended that, as autonomous learners, they would do better in the mock theory practice test I planned for the penultimate lesson. For this, I had to obtain several copies of the official DVSA theory driving test + hazard awareness module.  On 18 May, we had a practice test in class where two groups did a full run-through of 50 random questions.  One group scored 29 / 50 while the other group scored 21 / 50 – so both groups failed by some distance, although they managed 50 correct answers between them!  I did the same test myself  later on and just scraped a pass – 43 / 50. So even for British-born, native English speakers with lots of driving experience, it can still be a struggle to pass the test. Especially questions related to first aid treatment and what to do with a casualty in the event of a road traffic accident.  Note: I am old enough and lucky enough not to have taken the theory test before getting my full licence!

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On 25 May, all the students individually took a full mock theory test using the above test kit from the DVSA. I created this guide to the two-part test using the official DVDs.  They sat both a mock theory test and the hazard perception test (14 videos with developing hazards).  As I predicted – they all failed the theory test, with the highest score being 33/50.  None of them were able to pass on their own. This is no reflection on their progress or my teaching, but a demonstration of how far short they are of taking the real test. Lots more practice is needed using the DVDs.  However, several of them passed the hazard perception test.  This is mostly because a lot of them have driven a vehicle before, in their own country.  Higher marks are given in hazard perception for quicker reaction times.  You can score up to 5 marks on each video.

Given the difficulty of the test, in terms of both their English level and UK driving theory knowledge, it was almost impossible for these particular learners to pass at this stage. The students clearly made progress, having started off as Entry Level 1 with only few relevant words. I wasn’t at all disheartened by the scores, because I always knew it would be too difficult to achieve a pass mark in the time allowed.  They have regular ESOL classes and not much time for self-study.  But autonomous learners will do better.

It has been one of the best teaching experiences because it combined all sorts of skills.  The ability to pare down language for lower-levels, classroom management, dictionary work, simultaneous translation, eliciting, correcting and monitoring.  My driving experience and awareness of what is required to drive in the UK was essential.  In addition, it required a good knowledge and aptitude to use technology – on a range of different mobile devices.

By the end of the course all of the students were still short of passing the real theory test. However, with revision and lots of practice using the DVDs, which were given to them at the end of the course, they are getting closer to reaching their destination!

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Some of the learners taking the mock test