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The universal language of swimming

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13 April 2011

My full time employment is as an ESOL (English for speakers of other languages) tutor for an Adult Education College.

When I talk with my students about what the learners like to do in their leisure or free time, I always mention my ‘other role’ of a swimming teacher. While a lot of them say they would love to learn to swim, most simply don’t have the money to pay.

So many people, who you imagine would take a daily dip to cool from the baking sun, actually can't swim!

However, one of my learners has recently ‘taken the plunge’ and started coming to swimming lessons.

So many people from sun-kissed islands, who you imagine would love to take a daily dip to cool from the baking sun, actually can’t swim!

While I was living and teaching at a factory in China, the manager organised a two-day trip for these very pool people by the sea.

I rushed out - the East China Sea is one of the clearest, bluest waters I have ever been in and the sand at the bottom was completely untarnished of pebbles. It felt like silk to walk on.

But where was everyone else? I saw no bikini clad girls sunbathing or paddling, and no young men venturing out either.

When I asked why they didn’t go in the water they said ‘but we can’t swim'.  And the girls said they didn’t like going on the beach because the boys would laugh at them!

And so Mrs A came to me. Originally from Sudan, she lives here with her husband and family and her English skills are just above entry level. So to teach the technicalities of a front crawl arm or a flutter kick was going to prove very difficult.

Before joining the group, we went over the names of different parts of the body and other pool vocabulary.

I had to be very careful about giving her clear instructions, often repeating and then eliciting them back from her. As English is not her native language, I use a lot of visuals and demonstrations in the water.

I need to make sure she is correct in one stroke before moving on to the next and doesn't feel inhibited by the swimmers.

Before joining the group, I felt it was important to give her a quick induction process. We went over the names of different parts of the body and a bit of other vocabulary associated with the pool.

This is very important because otherwise, you might be explaining to an ESOL learner to do an activity but they do not understand what you are asking them to do, or which part of the body to use.  

It is also a good idea to take the ESOL swimmer on a tour of the swimming pool, so they get some knowledge of where everything is.

Once Mrs. A felt confident enough, and after this ten-minute induction, she was ready to meet the others in the group and start her lesson.

I gave her a woggle and explained the name and what it is and how it would help her. She was very comfortable with it and seemed quite buoyant using it. 

One of the challenges of low level ESOL swimmers is that they might take longer to change from developing one thing and onto another skill. I let Mrs. A continue using the woggle and didn’t introduce a float for that first session.

She seemed very happy, and by the end of the session she was able to raise her legs and kick but then she put them down on the bottom again!

When Mrs. A came to her second lesson, she immediately took the woggle - even before instructions. This was her safety net!

I demonstrated a few very small changes she would need to make if she were to progress:

  • To kick her legs and bring them up straight with her body.
  • To put her face in the water, and breathe in out of the water and out below the water surface.  

Mrs A is making slow progress. She is now on fourth lesson and can use the woggle on her back as well as her front.

She is still a bit afraid to use a float and I have to give very clear instructions on how to hold it properly, but she is determined to learn.

That one of my ESOL learners has learnt to swim with all the barries of language learning is a remarkable achievement.

Like a lot of ESOL learners, Mrs A not only has a barrier with her English skills, but her overall confidence. I have to continually praise her, not only in her English but with her swimming skills, especially as she ‘can’t swim’.

I encourage her by saying she has made progress, and visually telling her how. Whatever she does in the water I will say ‘that’s good’, and ‘you are doing well’, as I feel that if she feels she is not making progress she will give up.

Much of the time ESOL learners will say that that ‘learning English’ is the most important thing for them, and that learning anything else doesn’t matter.

That one of them has taken the plunge to learn a completely new skill with all the barriers of language learning and swimming itself is a remarkable achievement.

As a coach and tutor, my role is to make sure my ESOL swimmer feels she is on the road to swimming. Once she gets this confidence, then I feel that other paths will open for her, and she will improve her English by day and her swimming by night.

Read more of Babs' blogs by clicking here for an index

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Go Swimming has everything you need to know about swimming. If you are a parent, a non swimmer or just want to improve your technique this is the section for you.

In British Swimming you will find information about the world of high performance sport, including the disciplines of Swimming, Diving, Synchronised Swimming, Water Polo and Para-Swimming.

The ASA is the governing body for the sport in England. In this section you will find all you need to know about joining a club or competing in England and becoming a swimming teacher or coach.

The IoS delivers the ASA’s courses and is a member organisation. Whether you are a teacher, coach, employer or club you will find everything you need to know about qualifications or educating your workforce.

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