Stories from the Field 3: An exploration of programming through innovation in ESL Literacy

Published July 23, 2015 by Sandi Loschnig

We’re happy to announce that the Centre for Excellence in Foundational Learning is collaborating with the Centre for Excellence in Immigrant and Intercultural Advancement (CEIIA) to bring you a new series of Stories from the Field.

This series of stories explores innovations in ESL literacy programming in the CEIIA at Bow Valley College. In the next six months I will be writing about my discussions with ESL literacy practitioners working in this field: their successes and challenges, best practices and approaches, innovations, and professional development needs.

Who are ESL literacy learners and what is ESL literacy?

The term ESL literacy describes a distinctive group of learners who are facing two significant challenges: they are learning English and simultaneously developing literacy skills.[1]

Bow Valley College practitioners coined the term LIFE (Learners with Interrupted Formal Education) to describe this group. LIFE “have had between zero and ten years of formal education, often interrupted by war, political unrest, famine, displacement, or poverty” (Bow Valley College 2009, 3). Given this span of years in formal education, ESL literacy learners present with a wide range of literacy levels.

The Centre for Canadian Language Benchmarks uses the following categories to capture this diversity:

Pre- literate Learners come from oral cultures where the spoken languages do not have written forms or where print is not regularly encountered in daily life. They may not understand that print conveys meaning or realize how important reading and writing are in Canadian society.
Non-literate Learners that do not read or write, even though they live in literate societies.
Semi-literate Learners who have some basic reading and writing skills, but are not yet functionally literate.

(Canadian Language Benchmarks 2015, 5)

While they bring many strengths into the classroom, ESL learners with limited to no literacy generally do not thrive in mainstream ESL classes. ESL literacy practitioners at Bow Valley College advocate “for a separate stream of ESL literacy classes with the recognition that LIFE have different needs, different advantages, different ways of learning, and often different goals than mainstream ESL learners” (Bow Valley College 2009, ix).

‘Necessity is the mother of invention’[2] aptly describes how the ESL literacy field grew out of the need to provide training and develop resources for practitioners working with the unique needs and challenges of ESL learners with low literacy skills.

Building Capacity – Professional Development for ESL Literacy Practitioners

Many of the practitioners I interviewed during my research for these stories talked about entering the mainstream ESL teaching field ten to twenty years ago and gradually moving into ESL literacy as more learners with interrupted formal education (LIFE) began showing up in their classes. At the time, research, resources, and professional development for practitioners working with this group of learners were limited or non-existent. Practitioners essentially taught themselves and created their own teaching resources. Several described it as “baptism by fire”. However, over the past decade, this has changed largely due to the collaborative work of the ESL literacy faculty at Bow Valley College under the leadership of Diane Hardy.

The Beginnings of the ESL Literacy Network

“Over the past ten years, the Centre for Excellence in Immigrant and Intercultural Advancement has become a recognized leader in the field of ESL literacy. We’ve produced a wealth of resources that have been developed and vetted by ESL literacy experts. With funding from the Alberta Government, network was launched in 2011 with the purpose of sharing Bow Valley College publications, resources, and expertise,” Shelagh told me. Their initial target audience was ESL literacy practitioners in Alberta; however, the reach of the Network extends far beyond, including practitioners at a national level, in the US, and around the globe.

Shelagh Lenon manages ESL Literacy Network, a respected and recognized professional development website that provides resources and ongoing training in the field of ESL literacy. In her role, she oversees the development and maintenance of the site; her responsibilities include creating blogs, hosting and producing all the professional development webinars, managing social media, and collaborating with practitioners to create professional development in their areas of expertise.

I asked her how it all started. She explained:

“At the start of this project in 2009, we conducted a survey across the province to determine the needs of ESL literacy practitioners. The survey explored this question: What do ESL literacy practitioners need to effectively address the unique learning needs of learners with interrupted formal education? We discovered several things. Practitioners have limited time and resources. People couldn’t find information, they couldn’t access resources or even classroom materials. They wanted relevant materials and information they could use in their class to teach adult learners. We also discovered that many practitioners lacked specialized training in this area. 87% of respondents said that there are not many professional development opportunities that are specifically designed for the ESL literacy practitioner. …And lastly, we discovered that practitioners feel isolated. Almost 80% of respondents said that they weren’t connected to or unable to connect easily with other ESL literacy practitioners across Alberta…. We realized that there were three different areas – there was a need for resources, there was a need for training, and there was a need for community. We wanted to create a website that could support practitioners in these three areas.”

The Network began with concentrating on offering information and resources.


Sharing Resources and Expertise on the ESL Literacy Network

The ESL Literacy Handbook, ESL Literacy Readers, ESL Literacy Curriculum Framework, and the Financial Literacy Toolbox are only a few examples of the Bow Valley College resources available on the Network. In addition, practitioners provincially, nationally, and internationally share their resources including curriculums, lesson plans, learning activities, digital books, and more. All are available online to download for free at User Resource Guide.

In my reading, I came across research that supports this concept of sharing skills, resources, and information as a way of building capacity and strengthening ESL literacy practice. Perry and Hart encourage practitioners to:

Share what you know: Once you gain experience, be sure to pay it forward – remember that you have knowledge and expertise to contribute, too!

  • Offer to mentor a new instructor.
  • Blog about resources and successful lesson plans you’ve used.
  • Post videos of your own effective teaching.

(Perry and Hart 2012, 121)

The Network excels in all of these areas: mentoring, blogging about successful resources and programs, and hosting webinars on teaching practice and techniques.

Quotes from ESL literacy practitioners about professional development on the Network: 

“I honestly feel that the network is setting a global standard in ESL Literacy – the best and most comprehensive “go to” for professional development and direction, and I must say that I also feel proud that it is all happening right here in Calgary.”

 “I’m so excited about this class, you have no idea. Last night some issues I’ve been fretting about were cleared up. In a big city like New York, you’re on your own with low literacy ESL adults. Many, many thanks.”

 “I ran a 6-week study circle in Minnesota for low literacy ESL teachers this spring, and my participants LOVED the short, informative, clear nature of your videos. I told them to set a timer before opening your site, or they might lose a few hours with all those great things to see and read.”

The Development of Training on the ESL Literacy Network

The Network excels in all of these areas: mentoring, blogging about successful resources and programs, and hosting webinars on teaching practice and techniques.

Next, the Network focused its eye on training. “We started to think about how to address the ongoing need for training. That’s when we started to offer workshops,” Shelagh explained. Initially, Val Baggaley and Katrina Derix-Langstraat, Bow Valley College practitioners who were part of the ESL Literacy Curriculum Framework project, went around the province providing face-to-face workshops. The training workshops introduced practitioners to the newly developed framework, and additionally to the ESL Literacy Network. Although the workshops were successful, Shelagh soon realized that the Network wanted to reach a wider audience. “We needed to offer training with a bigger return on investment. When you do a face-to-face training in a small location you might reach 10 people and once it’s over, it’s over. Although we blogged about the workshop, people who missed the training couldn’t access the actual content.” That’s when the idea grew to offer online professional development through webinars. In 2012, Val offered the first webinar, a two-part series on using the ESL Literacy Readers. “We had about 24 different people from across North America participating which was really exciting,” Shelagh told me. She and her team realized that practitioners embraced the online delivery method, which had the added bonus of connecting and reconnecting practitioners regardless of location. Now, in addition to its face-to-face workshops, the Network hosts online professional development webinars every fall and spring. Recorded sessions are archived on the website for others to watch and learn from. To date, they have produced over 30 webinars and instructional videos for the Network. Many of the videos are also posted on YouTube. And people are definitely watching. For example, Val Baggely’s video on Portfolios has over 1200 views to date and there are over 8000 views on the Language Experience Approach video by Julia Poon, another Bow Valley instructor.

“I am really inspired by Centre faculty who have stepped out of their comfort zone to share their expertise in an online format. They are generous with their time and the resources they have developed, and demonstrate an ongoing commitment to lifelong learning.” Shelagh continued on to say, “We’ve also been delivering targeted professional development to ESL literacy organizations, tailoring the workshops to their specific needs. For example, Centre faculty have delivered training for organizations in Edmonton and Vancouver. Through the Network, our Centre has also consulted on curriculum and assessment practices.”

As the Network continued to develop, attention shifted to the third goal of addressing the need for community for ESL literacy practitioners.

Connecting and Collaborating with Community on the ESL Literacy Network

IMG_4663Shelagh described some of the community connections made through the Network. “From the instructors who operate the ESL literacy bus in Tennessee to a practitioner that connected with us from Portland who was writing a manual for volunteer tutors to an ESL literacy practitioner from the Calgary Immigrant Women’s Association…the Network has provided many opportunities for connection and collaboration.”

Along with offering the webinars and workshops, the community section includes a Blog, Discussion Forum, and Showcase.

  1. Blog

The Blog promotes exchanges of information and inspiration. ESL literacy practitioners post articles sharing their experiences and information about classroom practices, new programming, and curriculum development. Some recent posts have included the Low Literacy Employment Program by Calgary Immigrant Women’s Association, a Pre Beginning ESL Curriculum created by the Minnesota Literacy Council, and Creating a Peer Teaching Community posted by the ESL Literacy Bridge program staff at Bow Valley College.

Shelagh shared a story about an experienced Bow Valley College practitioner who was new at blogging and initially shy about the process. “Beena is passionate about using music in the ESL literacy classroom and I thought that would be a great entry point. She agreed and did two different posts which generated lots of discussion, over 30 different comments. She realized that blogging and sharing what she was doing in her class allowed her to reflect and be reflective. She said that there were conversations happening on the blog that she thought wouldn’t have happened face to face, even with colleagues in the same building because of people’s work schedules or people not having enough time. The Blog allowed this exchange of information.”

  1. Discussion Forum

The Discussion Forum encourages practitioners to enter into reflective discussions about their participation in the online training and study circles and how that affects their teaching practice. Past topics have included Integrating Technology, Creating Digital Books, and Teaching Immigrant Youth among many more. Participants include new practitioners interested in expanding their knowledge and teaching repertoires as well as experienced practitioners sharing their expertise.

Research strongly supports the value of reflective discussion around teaching practice. In a pilot study by Vinogradov (2012), practitioners working with adult ESL emergent readers described some of the benefits:

  • First the teachers developed a sense of loyalty and commitment to the group. This led to dedication to the tasks and thoughtful reading and preparation for meetings.
  • Secondly, teachers were able to share resources, ideas, teaching tips, and other professional wisdom with each other. The facilitator provided readings and tasks, but the most useful sharing appears to be from the collegial conversations themselves, from having a place to finally meet others who do similar work and to bounce ideas off them.
  • Thirdly, participants found that the study circle helped them to break their sense of isolation in their teaching, to realize that their frustrations and challenges are in fact widely held.

The study concluded: “In an instructional setting as complex as teaching ESL to low literate adult immigrants and refugees, this sense of shared work and collaborative learning was reassuring and hopeful to participants” (Vinogradov 2012, 41-42).

  1. Practitioners’ Showcase

The Showcase invites practitioners to share instructional materials, approaches to teaching, learning activities, lesson plans, and worksheets, and collaborate with peers. This repository features over 50 resources created by both Bow Valley College faculty and ESL literacy practitioners elsewhere.

Shelagh cited another example of the Network’s success in promoting professional growth and sharing expertise. “Kelly Morrissey was a new ESL literacy practitioner from Windsor, Ontario, who attended one of the very first webinars on using the ESL Literacy Readers in 2012. Through our discussions in the webinar, I realized that she had created a blog for her ESL literacy class. We featured her in a two-part ESL Literacy Network blog series, focussing on how she uses a blog with ESL literacy learners. She also uses Bow Valley College resources in her classroom. For example, she uses the ESL Literacy Readers and has developed numerous companion activities that support the use of the readers in the classroom – all of which she has shared on the Network’s Practitioners’ Showcase.  Just this past month, she facilitated a webinar on creating an ESL literacy blog. She’s moved from being a new ESL literacy practitioner to mentoring other practitioners in her area of expertise.”

Some Final Words on the ESL Literacy Network

A “community of practice is a group of people who share a concern or a passion for something they do, and learn how to do it better as they interact regularly. This definition reflects the fundamentally social nature of human learning” (Team BE 2011). The evolution of the ESL Literacy Network from providing resources and online training to building community connections has succeeded in creating an online community of practice which supports the professional development of ESL literacy practitioners.

0G9A9020“The Network is an inclusive learning environment for practitioners to connect, share ideas, and grow professionally. You can be a novice practitioner looking for mentorship or instructional resources. You can also be an experienced instructor, like many of the instructors at Bow Valley College, and share your expertise,” Shelagh explained. “The biggest success [of the Network] is that this high quality professional learning and sharing has a ripple effect. It impacts ESL literacy instruction which in turn impacts the lives of ESL literacy learners.”


 This is the first in a series of stories from the field featuring innovations in programming in ESL literacy at the Centre for Excellence in Immigrant and Intercultural Advancement at Bow Valley College. Watch for more coming soon!


Bow Valley College. 2009. Learning for Life: An ESL Literacy Handbook. Calgary: Bow Valley College.

Brod, Shirley. 1999. What Non-Readers Or Beginning Readers Need To Know: Performance-Based ESL Adult Literacy. Denver: Spring Institute for International Studies.

Centre for Canadian Language Benchmarks. 2015. Canadian Language Benchmarks: ESL for Adult Literacy Learners (ALL).

Perry, Kristen H., and Susan J. Hart. 2012. “‘I’m just kind of winging it’: Preparing and Supporting Educators of Adult Refugee Learners.” Journal of Adolescent & Adult Literacy 56(2):110-122.

Vinogradov, Patsy. 2012. “‘You just get a deeper understanding of things by talking’: Study Circles for Teachers of ESL Emergent Readers.” Journal of Research and Practice for Adult Literacy, Secondary, and Basic Education 1(1): 30-43.

Team BE, “What is a community of practice?”, Wenger-Trayner (blog), December 28, 2011,

Wikipedia. 2015. “Necessity is the mother of invention.”

[1] Currently, the term ESL (English as a second language) is still in use. However, there is a movement toward using the term ELL (English Language Learners) which recognizes English may be a learner’s third, fourth, or even seventh language.

[2] ‘Necessity is the mother of invention’ is an English proverb meaning that difficult or impossible scenarios prompt inventions aimed at reducing the difficulty (Wikipedia. 2015).

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