ESOL Stepping Stones — First Steps For Mums and Babies

Sharon Freeman shares details of her project which gives children’s centre staff the skills and resources to help non-English speaking parents learn English.

ESOL Stepping Stones is an ESOL* course designed by LuCiD* at the University of Manchester and funded by the ESRC. It enables staff or volunteers in children’s centres, schools and other community settings, to deliver ESOL for mums and babies themselves. The project aims to empower staff in these settings by giving them the tools to provide much needed ESOL to parents in their communities. This uses their existing skills and experience, while developing staff too, without the need for a crèche or external agencies coming in to deliver basic ESOL.

The aims of the project are to deliver a course that:

  • Increases the English Language skills of non-English speaking mothers
  • Increases levels of confidence and assertiveness in the target group
  • Provides examples of language-rich activities which will be of benefit to the child (e.g. book reading, storytelling, singing and rhyme)
  • Signposts to, and increases the uptake of, key services by the target group due to improved language skills and confidence
  • Adds to the skill set and resources of settings’ staff by providing full training, materials and ongoing support

The course is a great way to engage with EAL*/ESOL families and provide support for mums new to English. This has implications in many policy areas including school readiness, social cohesion, isolation, integration and mental health of mums and is proving to have really positive impact with great outcomes for families. As we know, one of the main barriers to attending ESOL classes for mums is lack of childcare and our course is unique because baby comes too. It also aims to promote language development and interaction between mum and baby which is so important for child development.

ESOL Stepping Stones was designed and developed last autumn before being successfully delivered in ten pilot settings earlier this year across Greater Manchester, including five children’s centres, three primary schools and a community centre. The course comprises twelve 45 minute sessions covering different aspects of family daily life, such as health, baby milestones, food, visiting the doctor and also aims to signpost next steps for the mums. Each session encourages interaction between mum and baby including songs and looking at books. All necessary course materials are provided. In the pilot phase, 74 mums plus babies enrolled across the 10 settings from 27 different home countries, with 20 first languages and mums resident in the UK between 3 weeks and 14 years. All the feedback from the facilitators in the settings has been very positive: “I’ve enjoyed delivering the course (something I would never have thought of doing myself)”, “I have developed my confidence working with a group”, “Very enjoyable!” and “It must be said that these are some of the clearest resources with high end production values that I have ever seen”. Feedback from mums has been excellent too with many going on to attend different sessions, feeling more confident and forming friendships when before they were very isolated. One mum said: “I never had such a chance before”, and another: “This course was an excellent opportunity for me and my child to socialise and gain confidence to speak English language.” (translation)

After the success of the pilot, the programme is now available UK-wide through our website Our vibrant course materials are available in two formats to any setting either as a FREE download or as beautifully produced hard copies ‘not for profit’. Feedback from settings is that these hard copies allow for a more ‘informal’ delivery which is less intimidating, without the need for technology, often in more family friendly rooms, such as a crèche room or similar. There will be a short eTraining module available soon to support facilitators in familiarising themselves with the course and we are just writing our Evaluation Report of the pilot which will be available on the website soon.

Since the launch in June we have had interest from all over the country. There seems to be a real appetite for settings to take control and deliver what they know their communities need themselves. We have had great feedback from interested children’s centres and schools so far; “This sounds like exactly what we have been searching for!” “This is a service worth investing in!” “There is a huge need.” “Desperate to develop our ESOL offer” “What an amazing idea and a great way to integrate mums who would otherwise be forgotten”

More than 50 settings or areas have already downloaded or purchased the materials, including in Belfast, Birmingham, Bradford, Clackmannanshire, Coventry, Dublin, East of England Vulnerable Person Resettlement Scheme, Hounslow, Knowsley, Lancashire, Luton, Merton, Newham, Salford, Scotland VPRS, Stockport, Wigan, Wirral, with more every week.

We have also had interest from the Resettlement, Asylum Support and Integration Directorate at the Home Office, and are working alongside the National Literacy Trust, the national ESOL Mapping Project, Refugee Action and Better Start Bradford to reach as many families as we can.

Our next step is to investigate ways to create a sustainable model for UK-wide dissemination of the course long-term and to allow for further development. We hope to turn the project into a social enterprise with the help of the University’s Intellectual Property department, which will allow us to bid for funds for further development, possibly including different versions, and to expand our reach. There is such a huge gap in ESOL provision for these mums, and with large cuts in ESOL funding nationally, this provides an opportunity to think differently and to try something new. What better way than to use the knowledge, skills and experience of staff and volunteers already working in settings in these communities to deliver what is so desperately needed? By providing high quality course materials for settings to deliver ESOL themselves, we hope to reach many of those ‘hard-to-reach’ families by reducing some of the barriers they face in accessing the necessary provision and support.

If your children’s centre would be interested in learning how you can deliver vital ESOL for mums in your community please get in touch. It would be great to hear from you!

*English for Speakers of Other Languages / *English as an Additional Language

*LuCiD:The ESRC International Centre for Language and Communicative Development


For the last ten years, Sharon Freeman has worked in a Primary School in Old Trafford where 74% of children are learning through EAL. She is the EAL Lead and also runs a very successful ESOL class for our parents and community. Additionally, for the last year she has been working at the University on ESOL Stepping Stones, designing and developing the course materials to make them as easy to use and engaging as possible.

Children's Centre