One Size Does Not Fit All: Designing Curriculum and Assessment for Adult ESL Literacy Learners

Published Dec 4, 2015

Developing “pathways, programming, services, and curricula design that promote a highly flexible, interactive and supportive environment” for learners is one of Bow Valley College’s Vision 2020 priorities (Bow Valley College 2011b, 15). Learning for LIFE: An ESL Literacy Curriculum Framework embodies this principle, and extends it beyond the walls of the College by supporting organizations to create their own customized curriculum tailored to their communities’ and their learners’ needs.Capture_Framework“Curriculum is both planned and lived (Aoki, 2005). The planned curriculum is the formalized curriculum which is developed in response to an understanding of the needs of learners as a group, the needs of your community and the wider environment of which your program is a part. The lived curriculum is the way in which the planned curriculum is addressed in the classroom, as instructors respond to the needs, interests and learning styles of individuals. Understanding curriculum as lived is one way of acknowledging ‘the uniqueness of every teaching situation’ (Aoki, 2005, 165).” (Bow Valley College 2011a [Framework], Introduction, 7).

ESL literacy learners bring diverse strengths and challenges into the classroom. Their life experiences may include war, poverty, and other forms of violence and trauma. Their formal education has been limited or interrupted for many reasons.

As a result of this history, many ESL literacy learners have not developed “the knowledge, skills and strategies that are commonly assumed of adults in Alberta” (Framework, Stage 1, 6). However, they possess remarkable resilience, survival skills, and perseverance. They are genuinely motivated to learn English language and literacy skills so they can participate as full citizens in their new lives in Canada.

This struck me from the very first day I walked into an ESL literacy classroom. As much as possible, leave your assumptions at the door. You don’t really know what people’s backgrounds are, what their skills are, what might be scary for them, or what might be comforting for them. (Katrina Derix-Langstraat, ESL literacy practitioner, personal interview)

Early in 2009, the Centre for Excellence in Immigrant and Intercultural Advancement (CEIIA) at Bow Valley College, with funding from the Alberta Government, began developing a curriculum framework intended to provide information, guidance, and a structure that would help adult ESL literacy program administrators, curriculum developers, and practitioners develop responsive programs designed to meet the specific needs of their distinct IMGP2617learners. It was not a “one size fits all” approach, which would be inappropriate and ineffective given that ESL literacy programs are diverse – in location (urban/rural), setting (colleges, community organizations), and learners. Instead, it aimed to provide a thoughtful and considered framework that encouraged practitioners to engage in their own curriculum planning process. Katrina Derix-Langstraat (project lead) and Jennifer Acevedo (project consultant) talked with me about how the Learning for LIFE: An ESL Literacy Curriculum Framework took shape.

Katrina began. “The curriculum framework was one stage of a larger project. The other parts were the Learning for LIFE: An ESL Literacy Handbook and the ESL Literacy Network website. The intention was to create a resource that would help programs across the province to develop an ESL literacy curriculum of their own. The resource is intended to support both classroom instructors and program developers. It was meant to give them a place to start.”

The Framework project began with an extensive review of the research and theory in adult ESL literacy and adult first language acquisition. This process also included a review of curricula and curriculum framework models from a variety of resources and countries.[1]

Katrina and Jennifer took a collaborative approach in developing the resource. The Framework project included the formation of an Alberta Advisory Committee comprised of ESL literacy experts and practitioners. This committee provided ongoing feedback throughout the project. Interviews and site visits were conducted at community and educational organizations throughout rural and urban Alberta. As well, experienced ESL literacy practitioners at Bow Valley College contributed their collective expertise and insight.

“There were consultations with different programs and providers across the province. We discussed learner demographics, the learning needs of the learners, as well as practitioners’ perceptions about those needs. These conversations helped to identify emerging themes and trends,” Katrina explained.

Through their research and consultations, Katrina and Jennifer outlined four program contexts of ESL literacy programming for the Framework:

Community orientation and participation in ESL Literacy programs: These programs focus on addressing needs related to the acclimatization stage of the settlement continuum.

Employment ESL literacy programs: These programs provide ESL literacy for the workplace or ESL literacy in the workplace.

Family ESL literacy programs: These programs focus on providing ESL literacy development for parents and children, and also often address parenting skills.

Educational preparation ESL literacy programs: These programs aim to transition learners from ESL literacy to adult basic education programs or other training opportunities.
(Framework, Stage 1, 15)

Learning for LIFE: An ESL Literacy Curriculum Framework provides background information and guiding principles for all four of these program contexts and can be easily adapted according to a program’s needs and resources.

Katrina elaborated on the stages of curriculum development. “We came up with a five-part process. Stage1 is understanding needs, both the community’s needs and the learners’ needs. Stage 2 is determining the focus of your program. Stage 3 is about setting learning outcomes. Stage 4 is about integrating assessment for learners. Stage 5 is demonstrating accountability to all stakeholders. It’s not intended to be a linear process. The parts influence each other and there is interplay back and forth. However, if you’re going to design a program, or even as an instructor, these are things you need to think about, and then make decisions based on your learners, your demographics, and what’s possible in your context. It’s not ‘here we did it for you.’ People still need to do a lot of work on their own.”

The Framework also looks at Habits of Mind. Katrina explained, “Habits of Mind are the soft skills, the non-literacy skills that learners need to be successful in school. They are things like setting goals, managing your learning, being prepared for different situations, managing information, and managing your time.” Jennifer added, “Based on conversations with other practitioners, we heard that learners don’t often realize how their behaviour is perceived. We do them a disservice if we don’t try to illuminate aspects of Canadian culture such as expectations at school or at work. We tried to develop a process, a series of questions teachers could draw upon in their classrooms.”

“In the Framework, Habits of Mind is the term used to describe the non-literacy skills that demonstrate the characteristics of successful learners in North American contexts” (Framework, Stage 3, 94). The term draws on the research of Costa and Kallick that identified 16 Habits of Mind[2] that contribute to success in learning and in life. They defined a habit as a behaviour that requires “a discipline of the mind that is practiced so it becomes a habitual way of working toward more thoughtful…action” (Costa and Kallick 2008, xvii).

The Framework focuses on four specific Habits of Mind: resourcefulness, motivation, responsibility, and engagement (Framework, Stage 3, 96). For each of the four, the Framework provides a description of the Habit, a description of the skills that support learners in demonstrating the Habit, considerations for understanding learners’ challenges, considerations for building on learners’ strengths, and a process of skill development that demonstrates each Habit of Mind (Framework, Stage 3, 99). In addition, practitioners are given considerations for assessing these Habits of Mind (Framework, Stage 4, 51-52).

The Importance of Integrating Alternative Learner Assessment

Katrina talked about the importance of assessment. “It’s particularly challenging in this field to make assessment meaningful, purposeful, and transparent. We want to demonstrate accountability to learners and instructors, and to the other stakeholders [funders, administrators]…. One of the reasons we included Habits of Mind is that progress is gradual depending on the learner’s background knowledge and life experiences. We see great growth and progress in learners over the course of a term or a program in these other [soft skill] areas which actually have a huge positive impact on learning…. So including Habits of Mind gave instructors some language and some awareness to capture the progress being made in [these soft skills], because everything, like bringing your glasses to school and knowing when it is appropriate to speak out…makes students more aware of themselves as learners.” Jennifer added, “The learners have an opportunity to practice these skills and make connections with their previous experience…and these skills help them succeed in their daily lives…how to be a student, how to be an employee….”

“Assessment is a transparent, ongoing process of purposefully gathering useful information that directs instruction and enables communication about learning. Effective assessment provides detailed, useful information for instructors, learners and other stakeholders” (Framework, Stage 4, 4). The Framework recommends getting learners involved in the assessment process by:

  • using assessments for different purposes,
  • integrating informal assessment as part of the classroom routine,
  • using a portfolio based language assessment approach, and
  • integrating regular learning conferences [with learners] as an opportunity for communicating about learning expectations, challenges and achievements. (Framework, Stage 4, 6)

The Framework’s philosophy surrounding assessment is congruent with a formative assessment model that requires learners’ engagement and involvement. Practitioners do not just give feedback but engage in a dialogue with students about learning.[3]

Progress for ESL literacy learners is not always straight-forward or linear. The more complex and flexible measurements of success such as personal growth, self-confidence, independence, social connections, and changed attitudes toward life and learning are all ways to measure progress, but are not easily quantified or standardized. Building accountability into each stage of curriculum development helps demonstrate and value the incremental progress made by ESL literacy learners.

Developing skills and personal growth are inextricably linked and equally necessary for foundational learners to make progress. Learners develop skills when they have the self-confidence to take risks and when the experience themselves as learners. They build self-confidence and experience themselves as learners when they develop skills that make a difference in their daily lives at work, at home, and in the community. Including both these components of progress offers the possibility of honouring the whole learner and giving a true indication of progress. (Jackson and Schaetti 2014, 54)

A Success Story

Jennifer shared a successful application of the Framework within her own work. “I took the Curriculum Framework that we designed and used it to successfully create and pilot a curriculum for what we call our ‘Practical Program’ at Bow Valley College. We define ‘practical’ learners as learners with 4 to 9 years of education who already have the very basics of literacy but still need support to develop more learning strategies and literacy skills. These learners benefit from a program designed for their specific needs.”

“The development of the Practical Program curriculum was a huge undertaking as the program consists of nine levels. The curriculum provides instructors with a progression of connected outcomes over these nine levels. The outcomes help instructors measure learners’ progress in small incremental steps across the levels, allowing for spiralling and recycling. Without the Curriculum Framework to support the development of this curriculum, it would have been much more of a challenge to create it. The Curriculum Framework provided a structure and tangible outcomes, not only in reading, writing, listening, and speaking, but in learning strategies and life skills as well. The result is a program curriculum that is able to effectively address the literacy and language needs of learners. Instructors use the Practical Program curriculum for planning, teaching, and assessment, providing learners with a cohesive learning experience across all levels of the program.”

Final Words

Learning for LIFE: An ESL Literacy Curriculum Framework is the culmination of well-considered research and the collective expertise of experienced ESL literacy practitioners. It provides an invaluable resource to ESL literacy program administrators, curriculum developers, and practitioners as they engage in the dynamic and ongoing process of developing responsive ESL literacy programming tailored to their learners’ needs.

An effective curriculum is responsive to learner needs and reflects the context in which it operates. Adult ESL literacy programs in Alberta are diverse, serving different learner populations in both urban and rural contexts, in part-time and full-time settings. The ESL Literacy Curriculum Framework addresses this diversity by provided a general process for curriculum development, as well as information for specific program contexts. (


Aoki, Ted T. 2005. “Teaching as In-dwelling Between Two Curriculum Worlds (1986/1991).” In Curriculum in a New Key: The Collected Works of Ted T. Aoki, edited by William F. Pinar and Rita L. Irwin, 159-165. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.

Bow Valley College. 2011a. Learning for LIFE: An ESL Literacy Curriculum Framework. Calgary: Bow Valley College.

Bow Valley College. 2011b. Vision 2020: Learning Into the Future. A Report to the Community. Calgary: Bow Valley College.

Costa, Arthur L., and Bena Kallick (Eds.). 2008. “Describing the Habits of Mind.” In Learning and Leading with Habits of Mind: 16 Essential Characteristics for Success. Alexandria, VA: Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development.

Derrick, Jay, Kathryn Ecclestone, and Juliet Merrifield. 2007. “A balancing act? The English and Welsh model of assessment in adult basic education.” In Measures of success: Assessment and accountability in adult basic education, edited by Pat Campbell, 287-323. Edmonton: Grass Roots Press.

Jackson, Candace, and Marnie Schaetti. (2014). Research Findings: Literacy and Essential Skills: Learner Progression Measures Project. Calgary: Bow Valley College.

[1] The Manitoba Adult EAL Curriculum Framework Foundations: 2009 and the Massachusetts Adult Basic Education Curriculum Framework for English Speakers of Other Languages (2005) were influential in developing the resource.

[2] “The Habits of Mind are an identified set of 16 problem solving, life related skills, necessary to effectively operate in society and promote strategic reasoning, insightfulness, perseverance, creativity and craftsmanship.” (

[3] Researchers Derrick, Ecclestone, and Merrifield (2007) list ten best practices in formative assessment:

  1. Make it part of effective planning for teaching and learning, which should include processes for feedback and engaging learners.
  2. Focus on how students learn.
  3. Help students become aware of how they are learning, not just what they are learning.
  4. Recognize it as central to classroom practice.
  5. Regard it as a key professional skill for teachers.
  6. Take account of the importance of learner motivation by emphasizing progress and achievement rather than failure.
  7. Promote commitment to learning goals and a shared understanding of the criteria being assessed.
  8. Enable learners to receive constructive feedback about how to improve.
  9. Develop learners’ capacity for self-assessment so that they become reflective and self-managing.
  10. Recognize the full range of achievement for all learners.

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