ESL Literacy Comes of Age: Developing promising practices in programming and instruction

Published Oct 13, 2015

The field of ESL literacy has come into its own thanks to the dedication and efforts of practitioners and researchers working locally, nationally, and internationally to understand how to best serve this distinct group of learners. The development of best practices in programming and instruction was a natural step in creating a context for working with ESL literacy learners. The Centre for Excellence in Immigrant and Intercultural Advancement (CEIIA) at Bow Valley College played a leading role in researching and developing innovative promising practices.

Early in 2009, the CEIIA embarked on an ambitious project: the research and creation of a practical resource for instructors, program coordinators, and other stakeholders in the field that would give them promising practices in program considerations and strategies for the classroom.

ESL literacy practitioners Valerie Baggaley and Emily Albertsen headed up the research team under the guidance of Diane Hardy. They spoke to me about the project and their process and purpose.

“The ESL Literacy Handbook project, funded by the Alberta Government, was an attempt to gather together the collective knowledge, understanding, and experience of the CEIIA faculty working with ESL literacy learners. Val and I were editors of the book. Val did a huge amount of research and the literature review. I did the bulk of the writing, taking what our many contributors said and writing from there, as well as writing from scratch. The idea for the book was to pull together our accumulated knowledge in one place. I think one of the strengths of the book is its breadth – it is broken into sections such as program considerations and creating programming, and other sections designed for teachers as a resource in the classroom. But I think the most important part of the book was capturing what we have tried and feel are best practices in ESL literacy,” Emily explained.

Orientation May 2010 035Val added, “Even now there isn’t a lot written about ESL learners with low education, but 6 or 7 years ago there was even less…. If you really dig, there is research, but a lot of it is more academic writing than a classroom-based, how-to manual. I feel very privileged I got to work on this because it allowed me to read what other people who work in the field say about ESL literacy, to talk to people working in the field at that time, and then have the time to process and reflect on my own teaching and to go ‘aha’. A lot of what we were doing already was validated. In those early days of teaching ESL literacy, we figured it out as we went. It was trial and error, but it worked. Seeing the research validate what we were doing in the classroom was really reassuring. And it was really exciting to be involved in developing the best practices.”

The project was truly a collaborative one, drawing on the shared knowledge and expertise within the CEIIA, as well as extensive research including a literature review, focus groups held in Alberta and at two national conferences, and a survey of 100 ESL literacy practitioners worldwide. However, the first source of information was the learners themselves and “what they have told us about their lives, needs, and goals, and how they responded to different approaches, theories, practices, and activities…. Our primary intentions are to be true to the needs and goals of our learners and to be useful to instructors.” (Albertsen and Millar 2009, 6)

The project culminated in Learning for LIFE: An ESL Literacy Handbook, a resource intended to be a detailed introduction to program design and instruction in ESL literacy. The first section looks at program considerations; the second section focuses on strategies for the classroom; and the third section looks at the four levels of ESL literacy  (based on the Canadian Language ESL Literacy Benchmarks). The Handbook is meant to be a real world resource: well-used and well-thumbed.

The Handbook has certainly been successful in reaching the wider community of ESL literacy practitioners. Emily elaborated, “We sent out as many complimentary copies as we could all across the country, trying to reach as many programs as we could, and we’ve gotten excellent feedback. It’s even used as a course text.”

Val shared a story about the national reach of the Handbook. “My daughter went to university in Queens and I was out there visiting her…. I was working on another [ESL literacy] project and…I knew there was one program in Kingston where I was so I phoned and asked if I could meet with the person in charge. We met and I was asking her some things about her program. And she said, ‘Well there’s this great book that’s out there, it’s just my bible’, and she pulled it out. And I laughed because it was the ESL Literacy Handbook!”

Val and Emily both spoke passionately about how working on the project validated the teaching practices and work being done in the CEIIA. Val explained, “I was doing the literature review and I loved it. I like research so it was great to go on the internet and pull everything I could find and have the time to examine it. Researchers were describing some of the best practices and I got excited because we were already doing some of this at BVC, and this research echoed what I too felt a program should be to best serve the ESL literacy population. I remember thinking, we got it right!”

Emily agreed. “I think one of the things that I learned was that we were making good decisions with what we were doing in our classrooms, what kind of programs we were trying to create. This project gave me confidence in articulating why it is that we do what we’re doing. And I think in seeing what other people are doing and in seeing research that supports us, it gave us the confidence to say we are making some good decisions about what we do. I began to understand our place within an international community of ESL literacy…. That was a big piece of learning for me. It took me out of my classroom to see a much, much bigger picture.”

Bow Valley College’s work is recognized within LESLLA (Low Education Second Language and Literacy Acquisition) for Adults, an international community of researchers and practitioners working to increase the knowledge about low literacy second language learners and inform practice.[1]

What are promising practices in ESL literacy programming?

Based on the results of the project’s extensive research both in the literature and with experienced practitioners, the Handbook outlines eight promising practices prevalent in programs of excellence.

  1. ESL literacy is recognized as a distinct stream of classes, separate from mainstream ESL and from mainstream literacy.

As discussed in the first story in this series, learners with interrupted formal education have unique learning needs and challenges. Experience and research suggest that these learners do not thrive in mainstream ESL classes. Having a separate stream of classes helps ESL literacy learners “progress through classes where their specific learning needs are addressed” (Handbook, 354).

  1. The ESL literacy stream is comprised of a series of classes progressing in small increments along the literacy continuum.

Theorists and practitioners support a series of ESL literacy classes which progress in small increments. In its ESL literacy programs, Bow Valley College uses the standards set out in the Canadian Language Benchmarks 2000; classes are organized around stages within in each of four phases (Foundation, I, II, III). This means that there is a Foundation Phase class, a Phase 1 Initial class, a Phase 1 Developing class and so on. Learners progress through each distinct phase, acquiring the skills and strategies, before moving on to the next. Progress can be slow. Having small increments allows this progress to be observed and measured, and enables the learner, practitioner and funder to honour the progress being made (Handbook, 355).

  1. The ESL literacy program offers higher-level ESL literacy classes.

ESL literacy learners in Phase III may have higher literacy skills and higher oral skills and are sometimes overlooked and misplaced in either mainstream ESL classes or mainstream Adult Basic Education. They lack the literacy skills needed to cope with the textual demands of an academic class and get left behind.

These advanced learners still require the “scaffolding and explicit strategy instruction found in ESL literacy classes”[2] to help to develop their strategies for higher level concepts such as” inference, identifying main ideas, summarizing, and writing” (Handbook, 357).

  1. The program provides professional development opportunities for instructors.

A program of excellence provides training specific to ESL literacy to all practitioners in the ESL literacy stream, ongoing professional development, and opportunities for practitioners to engage with one another on relevant topics. “Instead of placing the inexperienced or those lacking seniority into the ESL literacy classroom, a program of excellence places instructors highly trained in ESL literacy into these demanding classrooms” (Handbook, 358).Research shows that ”the most successful teachers were trained and experienced in both language and literacy education, adapted their curriculum as needed, and were culturally aware” (Millar 2008, cited in Centre for Literacy of Quebec 2008, 5).

  1. Instructors are allotted time to make materials.

There is a general lack of suitable materials available to teach adult ESL literacy. This means practitioners must modify existing materials or create their own. In addition, materials “must be related to the learners’ skills, interests and personal surroundings” (Ontario Literacy Coalition 2007, 28). Consequently, practitioners are constantly creating teaching materials tailored to learners’ changing requirements.. A program of excellence recognizes that instructors require additional prep time to create their own materials and builds this time into the program (Handbook, 358).

  1. There is a program into which the learners can transition.

ESL literacy learners need viable and clear pathways to transition into once they have completed the ESL literacy stream programming. At Bow Valley College, these options can include mainstream ESL, mainstream adult basic education, upgrading, further learning, workplace skills training programs and employment.

  1. There is a numeracy component in the instruction.

Numeracy is an essential skill every bit as important as reading and writing. In an ESL literacy numeracy program, “it is important to teach both the language of math as well as the concepts” (Handbook, 359). A future article in this series will focus on the importance of teaching financial literacy to ESL literacy learners. The Financial Literacy Toolbox, available on the ESL Literacy Network, is a great resource of lesson plans and ideas for teaching this.

  1. There is support for the program and for the learners.

An ESL literacy program of excellence requires stable funding and full administrative support in order to be successful. This includes dedicated funding for professional development, resources, and materials.

Broader life supports for learners may include mental health and career counselling, information about affordable housing options, subsidized childcare, assistance in accessing financial aid, scholarships and awards, and referrals to appropriate community resources.

A specific type of classroom support for ESL learners is ‘access to first language’. The What Works Study found that “in classes where teachers used the native language as part of instruction to clarify and explain, students exhibited faster growth in both reading comprehension and oral communication skills” (Condelli and Wrigley 2008, 17). The Handbook suggests two ways of addressing first language support: having a person come in once or twice a week to translate important concepts; and using a student mentorship model, where learners from higher level ESL classes are paired up with learners in the lower level classes who speak the same language. This model has proven successful on two levels: providing bilingual support for the learners, and offering volunteer opportunities for the student mentors (Handbook, 361).

“ESL literacy teaching could be defined as supporting adults with little English and little formal education in their efforts to understand and use English in its many forms (oral and written, including prose, document, and quantitative literacy), in a variety of contexts (family, community, school, work), so that they can reach their fullest potential and achieve their own goals, whether these be personal, professional or academic.”(Wrigley and Guth 2000, 14)

What are promising practices in the classroom?

The Handbook project also compiled information on promising practices in the classroom and this resulted in the identification of the following six elements:

  1. Learning must be learner-centred, meaning-based, and linked to the community.

“Literacy instruction for those who are non-print literate should be part of a larger vision in which learners’ lives, oral culture, and other skills and knowledge are all part of the curriculum and classroom. There is a high degree of consensus in the literature that classroom learning for the non-print literate should have a highly functional, personal focus – more so for them than for other adult language learners” (Bigelow and Schwarz 2010, 14).

The Handbook project found similar practices to be effective. Using authentic materials found in the learners’ lives is one way of making literacy meaningful. They also recommend using realia (actual objects, such as coins, fruit, cooking utensils) instead of images (line drawings, pictures), as they help make the connections more real (Handbook, 361). Going into the community for walks and on field trips are other ways that help connect learning to real life.

  1. Learning is repeated and recycled.

“A classroom of excellence recycles the material and concepts each day and over time, thus enabling learners to fully incorporate this new knowledge and make it their own” (Handbook, 362). Many of the practitioners I spoke to for this series of stories talked about the ongoing need, and challenge, to come up with different ways to present the same concepts.

“Having a central theme for classroom activities provides many opportunities to repeat, reinforce and recycle the previous sessions’ learning. Learners’ familiarity, understanding and confidence increases when new information is recycled or repeated” (ESL Literacy Network n.d., recycling).

Recycling can extend beyond one class. BVC practitioners explained that concepts are recycled through the different phases in the curriculum so learners will encounter the same concepts in their next level class.

  1. There is a large dedicated classroom for each ESL literacy class.

Researchers recommend large spaces dedicated solely to teaching ESL literacy (Cummings et al. 2007). This way, practitioners can create a stimulating learning environment with walls covered in print rich material, and store realia and authentic materials for use when required. Unfortunately, this is not always possible as many classrooms are shared spaces. For example, the Pebbles in the Sand program, run by the Calgary Immigrant Women’s Association, takes place in mostly donated spaces (church halls and rooms) and the practitioners bring the classroom in a rolling suitcase (Loschnig 2014, 40). Practitioners at Bow Valley College also bring their own authentic materials and learning aids moving them from classroom to classroom as needed.

  1. Class size is limited.

The Handbook project found agreement among the literature, survey respondents, and practitioners that ESL literacy learners require an individualized approach, which creates greater demands on teacher time. “A classroom of excellence needs to be small enough to address the demands of these learners who have limited ability to work independently” (Handbook, 363). In one study, expert teachers recommended 10 to 15 students for an optimum class size. The numbers should not exceed 15, and numbers above 10 should be supported with a second teacher or trained volunteer (McPherson 2007, 4).

  1. There is specific oral and vocabulary development.

In a classroom of excellence, learning is done first in the oral before it moves to the written. “Because LIFE[3] are oral learners, it is important that they have oral control over the material before it is introduced in writing” (Handbook, 363). Practitioners can help learners develop oral skills by recycling vocabulary through chanting, singing, and using rhymes and drama (Handbook, 363). The literature supports this approach.

“Adult learners from high-oracy cultures not only bring with them adult cognitive and social capacities, but also a particular set of well-developed strategies for learning. Consequently, such learners may benefit from classroom learning that includes opportunities for: repetition and memorisation; rhythmic activities such as clapping, chanting, poetry, and singing; and ‘imaginative’ texts such as stories and poetry” (Achren and Williams 2006, p.1).

Val shared a story about the value of chanting and repetition. “We had practiced a greeting chant and we were out on a field trip. A stranger said hello to my learner and the learner responded just perfectly from the chant, the woman must have said ‘how are you’ and the learner said ‘I’m fine thank you and you?’ And the way she said it was exactly from the chant. I knew because she didn’t just monosyllable a word or anything. That’s a learner success.”

  1. There is a focus on strategies for reading, writing, and learning.

“In a classroom of excellence, the instructor explicitly teaches strategies for reading, writing, and learning, and spirals them throughout the learning” (Handbook, 364). Strategies can include asking the instructor for help, word-attack strategies, and brainstorming ideas before writing. “Learning strategies help learners become more successful in reading, writing, language learning, and test-taking. They also help learners to become more effective language users and learners both inside and outside the classroom, and help them prepare for the demands of post-literacy study” (Leong and Collins, 2007, p.125).

The ESL Literacy Network section on Strategy Instruction gives practitioners practical ideas for incorporating explicit strategy instruction into teaching. As well, Bridging the Gap, a framework for teaching and transitioning low literacy immigrant youth, has a section and toolbox to help practitioners integrate strategy instruction into their curriculum.

“Teaching at its heart is about communication because it’s saying something in a way that somebody can understand you, and listening to what it is that they are saying, and bringing those two together as best you can.” (Emily Albertsen, interview)

Some Final Words

2015Sep2-Emily-Val-1“This project was about helping practitioners gain the knowledge, the skills, and the resources to create a [positive] learning environment for ESL literacy students…. I think everybody who teaches in our programs uses the things we’ve talked about in here. It’s a book for teachers on how to be better teachers,” Emily summed up.

Val felt it was important to add, “All of our students have an amazing amount of skills. They’re adults and they come as a full package, but often our society just sees their deficits. We recognize their strengths.”

The ESL Literacy Handbook provided a first step in attempting to pull together the knowledge from both experienced practitioners and the ongoing research in the ESL literacy field, nationally and internationally. For Emily and Val, and the Centre for Excellence in Immigrant and Intercultural Advancement, it serves as a jumping off place for further exploration in and out of the classroom in their mission to better serve ESL literacy learners.

“ESL literacy remains a challenging field, but there are clear directions in which we can develop in order to best serve our learners and help them thrive in school, in employment, and in the community…. We hope to build on this learning and to support the continued development of communities of practice in ESL literacy” (Albertsen and Millar 2009, 364).


Achren, Lynda, and Alan Williams. 2006. Fact Sheet – Learners with low literacy in the AMEP. Australia: Adult Migrant English Program Research Centre, La Trobe University.

Albertsen, Emily, and Valerie Millar, editors. 2009. Learning for LIFE: An ESL Literacy Handbook. Calgary: Bow Valley College.

Archer, Anita, and Charles Hughes. 2011. Explicit Instruction: Effective and Efficient Teaching. New York: The Guilford Press.

Bigelow, Martha, and Robin Lovrien Schwarz. 2010. Adult English Language Learners with Limited Literacy. Washington, DC: National Institute for Literacy.

Centre for Canadian Language Benchmarks. 2015. Canadian Language Benchmarks 2000: ESL for Literacy Learners. Ottawa: Author.

Centre for Literacy of Quebec. 2008. ESL and Literacy: Finding Common Ground, Serving Learners’ Needs. A survey of the literature. Montreal: Author.

Condelli, Larry, and Heide Spruck Wrigley. 2008. “The What Works Study: Instruction, Literacy and Language Learning for Adult ESL Literacy Students.” In Tracking Adult Literacy and Numeracy Skills: Findings from Longitudinal Research, edited by S. Reder and J. Bynner. London & New York: Routledge.

Cummings, Jill, Mark Jacot, and Adriana Parau. 2006. An Investigation of Best Practices in the Instruction and Assessment of LINC Literacy Learners in Ontario. Toronto: Jangles Productions, Ontario LINC Literacy Project.

ESL Literacy Network. (n.d.) “Theme Teaching Strategies.”

Folinsbee, Sue. 2007. LINKAGES: Connecting Literacy and English as a Second Language. Discussion Paper: What do we know about the Connections between Literacy and English as a Second Language in Canada? Ottawa: Movement for Canadian Literacy.

Geronimo, Jojo, Sue Folinsbee, and Jacinta Goveas. 2001. A Research Project into the Settlement Needs of Adult Immigrants with Limited Literacy in their First Language who have Settled in the Greater Toronto Area. Toronto: Canadian Multilingual Literacy Centre.

Leong, M and Collin, L. 2007. Bridging the gap: A framework for teaching and transitioning low literacy immigrant youth. Calgary, AB: Bow Valley College.

Loschnig, Sandra. 2014. Stories from the Field: Professional Development for Adult Literacy Practitioners (Vol. 2). Calgary: Bow Valley College.

McPherson, Pamela. 2007. Fact Sheet 10: Course planning for preliterate and low-literacy learners. Australia: AMEP Research Centre. Macquarie University.

Ontario Literacy Coalition. 2007. Creating a bridge: A snapshot of ESL Literacy in Ontario. Toronto: Author.

Wrigley, Heide Spruck, and Gloria J. A. Guth. 2000. Bringing Literacy to Life: Issues and Options in Adult ESL Literacy. Prepared for the U.S. Department of Education, Office of Vocational and Adult Education. San Mateo, CA: Aguirre International.

[1] “LESLLA (Low Education Second Language and Literacy Acquisition) for Adults brings together researchers and practitioners from many countries to establish an international and multi-target-language research agenda. During annual symposia and information sharing throughout the year, LESLLA participants will increase the body of knowledge and outline areas of research that require investigation for low-educated second language learners.” (

[2] “Explicit strategy instruction is characterized by a series of supports or scaffolds, whereby students are guided through the learning process with clear statements about the purpose and rationale for learning the new skill, clear explanations and demonstrations of the instructional target, and supported practice with feedback until independent mastery has been achieved.” (Archer and Hughes 2011, 1)

[3] Learners with Interrupted Formal Education.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s