Shaping and Reshaping Teaching Practice in ESL Literacy

Published Jan 28, 2016

This two-part article examines how experienced ESL literacy practitioners in the Centre for Excellence in Immigrant and Intercultural Advancement (CEIIA) at Bow Valley College work to create transformative learning environments for their diverse learners.

Part One

The Computer Enhanced ESL Literacy Program: Embedding computer literacy in low-level classes

Norma Tersigni, Lois Heckel, and Joanne Pritchard work together in the Computer Enhanced ESL Literacy program[1], which serves learners with interrupted formal education. They talked to me about how the program works, and the advantages of working together as part of a team.

Joanne began by talking about who is in the program. “Our target audience is adult English language learners with interrupted formal education. In many cases, these learners did not have the opportunity to go to school in their home countries and now, many years later, they’re trying to acquire literacy in English. Many of the people that join our program are older adults who have been in Canada for quite a number of years. Some have worked at entry-level jobs for 20 or more years. Most are Canadian citizens, who don’t qualify for other funded programs. We also welcome many learners who are referred to us from Bow Valley College’s full-time English Language Learning (ELL) program who haven’t been able to move to the next level of the program. Our learners have very little or no literacy in their first language, little or no literacy in English, and some may even have special learning needs, such as vision and hearing disabilities. To ensure foundational learning is accessible, this Calgary Learns’ funded program has a nominal registration fee that can be waived for learners who have little to no income.”

IMG_2651“Many of these learners live with relatives that have already come to Canada, so they do have access to a bit of a support system. However, we also have taught learners who were homeless,” Norma added.

The goal of the program is to help immigrant learners with interrupted formal education develop their reading, writing, and digital literacy (computer use) skills within an educational setting that that respects their learning needs and individual learning rates. The emphasis is on creating a safe environment that provides the support and time these particular learners need to develop their literacy and language skills. This class also introduces computer use in a gentle way to learners who have little or no experience using computers.[2]

The program is divided into three levels with equivalencies to the Canadian Language Benchmarks for ESL Literacy Learners. Norma teaches level one, Lois teaches level two, and Joanne teaches level three; however, the three instructors work together as a united team sharing resources and effective teaching strategies. As well, they collaborated to develop internal in-take assessment materials for the program.

Offering three levels and having small class sizes is crucial to the program’s success. Joanne explained, “Because we have three instructors in our program, offering three levels – very basic, basic, and low intermediate – allows us to meet a diverse range of learning needs. Although these groups are by no means homogeneous, we’re able to work with learners at the three different levels, in groups of only 8 to 12 learners, so we’re better able to meet their needs than if we had larger, more heterogeneous groups. Small class sizes and the three distinct levels are vital to our program’s success.”

The program runs for three 12-week terms over the year. Classes run for 3 hours on Monday, Wednesday, and Friday, and include 45 minutes of computer lab time. A unique feature of the program is that there are no set time limits. Learners move through the levels at their own pace and can remain in the program as long as they are progressing.

Lois explained, “During our program, learners make significant gains in their literacy and language development, but these gains occur in small increment steps. With time, learners develop an increased awareness of the significance of their learning achievements. I have one learner that has been in the program for quite some time. When he came into the program he was extremely quiet and didn’t ask any questions. Now, he actively engages, asking me questions, talking about his weekend, and writing in his journal.”

All three instructors emphasized the need to be flexible and responsive to the needs of learners, especially within a multi-level environment.

Norma gave an example of a lesson plan from her level one class that came from her observation of learner behaviour in the college campus. “I noticed when the learners were buying coffee that they would use a toonie or a five dollar bill, and when they got their change, they threw it in the garbage, because they didn’t know what to do with it and they didn’t know the value of it. Identifying this need created an instructional opportunity and I began to work with them on Canadian money and counting and making change. It is critical to build the financial literacy skills of ESL literacy learners – but it can be a real challenge for them. However, as a result of these lessons, I noticed that learners stopped throwing their change away.” Financial literacy, while not part of the formal curriculum in this program, is an important component of life in Canada, and ESL literacy instructors like Norma seize these real life opportunities to teach their learners the concepts of Canadian money and the value of money.

Lois spoke of the impact on practice. “I would say this program has changed my approach to teaching tremendously because I’m always thinking of new ways of doing things. I am constantly adapting my techniques to best meet needs. Working within a collaborative team allows us to share our materials and teaching approaches. I get many ideas from Norma. We try to create seamless transitions for learners from one level to the next. At point of assessment, learners move into the level best suited to their needs, but once placed, the achievement of outcomes determines movement to the next level.”

When I asked them to describe a typical day in their classrooms, the three instructors provided a good picture of the scope of the program.

Norma began. “At my level [level one], instruction needs to be very explicit. Learners benefit from routine and repetition. Because they’re non-readers, I include activities that foster metacognitive skills. For example, they have a binder with dividers, and I colour code the dividers so that, initially, they don’t have to be able to read anything – if we start out with vocabulary, I ask them to flip over the green coloured tab. So there isn’t the stress and they’re relaxed. If they’re anxious or worried about performance, they won’t learn. I have them do quite a bit of work ahead of actually working on the computers. I use a template of the keyboard they have at their desks and we practice putting website addresses in, finding letters. We practice in the classroom that way. And then I call them up one at a time to the computer at my desk and we rehearse what they’re going to do in the computer lab.”

“When we go in the computer lab, we blend our classes, so Lois [level two] and I are in the computer lab together. My learners have a role model – they see Lois’ learners are generally more proficient on the computer. It’s an opportunity for some peer tutoring because some of Lois’ learners will stop what they’re doing and help my learners,” Norma added.

Lois described some of the level two learning activities. “We always try to incorporate authentic learning opportunities. For example, some of the learners will bring in letters that they get about their income tax or a phone bill. They require help in understanding what information is being forwarded to them. One of the goals at my level is to help learners independently complete short forms where they have to give their name, their address, their status, etc. We practice the skill of form filling. We also focus on oral/aural skill development, for example how to respond to questions about where they live, etc. We do lots of role playing. I have introduced this activity called ‘in the hot seat.’ In this activity one learner is in the hot seat and the other learners ask questions such as ‘Where do you live?’, ‘What is your address?’ This activity becomes a springboard for learners to pose new questions of their own.”

Learners in Joanne’s level [level three] are able to demonstrate higher literacy skills and are beginning to share their stories through print. “I spend considerable time at the beginning of each term with oral activities for learners to get to know each other. As we move into the term, classes often begin with several of the students reading their completed (and jointly edited) work from a previous computer class, usually just 3 to 5 sentences on a topic. As the other learners in the class listen to their classmates’ stories, they are asked to identify what their classmate had to say about the given topic. To introduce new material, I use the SMART projector in my classroom to project web-based resources such as the ESL Literacy Readers. Learners are provided with booklets that contain the same reading passages as well as activities that relate to our thematic unit to complete during CELP storyclass and for homework. I try to focus on topics that are relevant to their lives in selecting our themes, and I encourage each student to express their own personal ideas in their writing. When they share their written sentences with the rest of the class, it’s their individual ideas, not something I’ve given them to type or the ideas of someone else in the class. Because of the wide-range of literacy levels, I structure each activity so that each student can work at his/her level.”

The joint learnings of the three instructors working in the program have been gathered together to inform the development of an internal program handbook. The handbook includes the learning outcomes for each level as well as suggestions for thematic units and related online and print resources. The handbook continues to be updated as these instructors shape and re-shape their teaching practice to meet evolving learner needs.

Part Two

Experienced practitioners working to create transformative learning environments

Shelley McConnell and Julia Poon have 40 years combined experience teaching in the CEIIA. I spoke to each of them about their evolving teaching practices and philosophies.

In addition to her teaching responsibilities, Shelley McConnell shares her experience and learning through professional development workshops and webinars designed for ESL literacy practitioners. She started our conversation.

“The target audience that I work with is people who didn’t go to school before in their country and have primarily lived in an oral culture. Print literacy wasn’t a part of their lives to any great extent.”

Shelley also spoke about an additional and often overlooked challenge faced by these learners. “In addition to being from oral cultures, my learners may have another challenge when adapting to life in Canada and developing literacy skills here. I would say a good number of the people I work with have not fully acquired their traditional culture to the extent that their grandmothers and great grandmothers might have. A lot of them have gone through many sudden interruptions and been displaced from elders and other chances to take part in their traditional culture. They might not have had traditional knowledge, life skills, and strategies passed down to them.”

Like all ESL literacy practitioners, Shelley believes in building on learner strengths.

“That’s why I like Decapua and Marshall’s model of a ‘Mutually Adaptive Learning Paradigm (MALP)’.The idea is to start with the channels through which people have learned in the past and then build on those strengths. You show them that those learning channels are valuable rather than liabilities. And then starting from there, you build on those learning styles and then help them adapt and develop new strategies while not necessarily giving up their old strategies either. So instructors adapt to facilitating learning in a learning style that is not necessarily their own, and learners adapt to learning through new channels.”

Shelley spoke about the need for using different approaches to teaching ESL literacy learners. “A common characteristic our learners share is the need for a very kinesthetic and hands-on approach to learning. A lot of the literature talks about developing oral language and oral language awareness first, and I think this is the case, but I think it is in conjunction with hands-on kinesthetic modelling, since this is the mode in which those from more oral cultures have been learning their whole lives. It’s very different from how I learn. I’m a very visual kind of learner, and I’ve had to adapt to teaching in a very kinesthetic, tactile, and auditory mode of learning.”

Shelley added, “We work a lot with developing concepts and strategies as well as language. When I taught mainstream ESL learners, they transferred concepts behind pieces of vocabulary directly from their language into English, so it’s relatively easy. But with these learners, you’re often teaching or deepening the concepts behind vocabulary as well as the vocabulary itself. For example, if I’m teaching the word ‘address’. For somebody who is educated and has lived in places with addresses that word has a deep concept behind it. They might know or assume that the system of how we derive ‘addresses’ in Canada might be slightly different from their country, but they would know that there is a system by which we assign or describe a location through text to another person. Whereas, ESL literacy learners might not have been exposed to this concept before, or have only a very superficial concept of the word ‘address’. They might know they have an address and may even have memorized it orally, but they don’t know what an address is used for. We help them develop the concept of what that word means in addition to teaching the language around it. I think that’s a big piece of learning for people coming into teaching ESL literacy – that we’re facilitating learners to develop or deepen concepts as well as learning the language itself.”

Shelley also emphasized the importance of teaching concepts in context as opposed to the artificially created context of a classroom.

“We’re teaching in probably the most foreign context for them – the classroom, and add to that mix trying to teach concepts completely decontextualized from the place where those concepts are lived. The approach that I always start with is having them experience concepts in real life outside the classroom, or simulate those contexts in the classroom. The learning that they have done in the past has been much contextualized. They would have learned, experienced, and used concepts in the location in which they would have been immediately relevant, practical, and useful. My approach is almost always to start with some kind of hands-on real experience and documenting that experience somehow, for example through photography, videotaping, or re-enactment, and that documentation becoming part of the content that we explore in the classroom.”

IMG_8947_2 (002)“Another thing that these learners don’t have is full print awareness. The best way that I’ve heard it described is, that when you’re reading, what you’re really doing is listening on paper or listening with your eyes, and when you’re writing, what you’re really doing is speaking with your pencil or speaking on paper. And learners don’t have that concept – that they can get information, they can listen through their eyes, or they can speak through their hands with text or pictures they create. I’m trying to help them discover that in this society we listen and speak in this different way a lot – that it is often the most common way we deliver, receive, and recall information.”

Shelley gave me an example that aptly illustrates how an ESL literacy learner can miss the use of text in his environment. “I’ve had learners who are beginning to read independently and could potentially read new words decontextualized from the support of the classroom. But they don’t know to look for text in their environment – they don’t fully know they’re constantly being communicated to in that way. I had one learner, for example, who was working as a cleaner in an office building. He came to school one day with this hand-written note, in large lettering written with a black Jiffy marker: Please clean this table. He said, ‘I just about got fired today.’ He explained it was because an executive had left this large note for him, but he hadn’t noticed it on the table in the room he was cleaning. He didn’t understand that anybody would be giving him instructions that way, so he didn’t keep his eye out for a note like that. He could read that sentence well, but didn’t know to look for it. He came to class that day with the note and asked to say something to the class. He held up the page, and said, ‘Hey everybody, did you know that Canadians talk to you like this?’ It was a ‘light bulb’ moment for him and for the other students, who assumed that bosses would always give instructions to employees orally.”

Shelley’s professional development workshops and webinars are available on the ESL Literacy Network. She also gives in-person workshops sharing her philosophies and ways of working.

Julia Poon has spent the last 30 years teaching in the CEIIA. She shared her personal experience of the shift from teaching mainstream ESL to teaching ESL literacy and how it has shaped her teaching practice.

Part of Julia’s role in the department is doing a combination of summative and formative assessment as well as an informal interview to determine where to place ESL literacy learners.

“While I do give them a reading/writing test, I’m also assessing whether or not they can follow a certain format that I’m sharing. For example, we look at a calendar to see if they can follow it. I notice whether they track from left to right. I use photos and ask them to match them with words. If they have difficulties with spatial awareness, it can be an indicator that they are ESL literacy learners. And of course we talk about their life history, school background, rural or urban – those types of things tell me a lot.”

Network_20121109_ (208) (002)I asked Julia how her teaching practice has changed over the years to meet the needs of these unique learners. She explained, “From my experience working with these learners, I understand that they really need to start with the concrete and not from the abstract. Everything has to be concrete, or what I call experiential learning. They need to do tasks that situate the learning in their real lives. When we focus on storytelling or developing stories, for example, the stories are told by the learners about a shared experience we have had, such as going to the zoo. Another understanding is that these learners need a lot more repetition, hearing or exposure to the same thing over and over in different ways. So I might do things like a song, chant, or story that uses the same words. I also use different media (art and music) to repeat the same vocabulary. And I use manipulatives as much as possible. Moving things around, doing things with their hands and bodies situates the learning in the physical. Kinesthetic learning is really important for these learners. Most importantly, I learned that they need time to absorb things. I learned patience.”

Julia shared one of her more unique learning activities as an example of kinesthetic and experiential learning. “One thing I have done a few times is hold a numeracy sale, which is similar to a garage sale. I asked teachers, everyone, to donate things that they didn’t need. I got the learners in my different classes to decide the prices – that way everyone has an opportunity to price items. They also take turns being the cashier and the supervisor during the sale. The whole activity gives the learners an authentic place to practice the numeracy skills they are learning in class. The money made goes to the student emergency fund. It’s a learning activity that everyone enjoys.” Julia created a video about this activity that is shared on the ESL Literacy Network:

Julia also emphasized the need to be spontaneous and flexible in the classroom. “We can take whatever happens in the class, and create a learning moment. I think those are actually the best lessons. It’s not the ones that are planned perfectly and stick to the agenda. I don’t know if the learners will remember them in the same way. But, for instance, a learner getting stuck in the elevator, as happened one time, can become a big lesson in itself. I’ve become more spontaneous and less attached to lesson plans – although learning outcomes are still a focal point.”

Shelley_and_Julia (002)For Julia, success is measured in small steps and subtle changes. She explained, “It’s those subtleties that make me feel I have made a difference. It’s the little things that I see. Like someone who might be very quiet and shy and in class they don’t want to say anything, but by the end of the term, has come out of their shell and is interacting more and has more confidence. Those are the things that I think really make the big difference to me. But those things sometimes are hard to quantify. When I see them from the beginning of term to the end of term, I notice the little differences in their personality, in the way that they approach things, in how they interact with other learners, how they adjust themselves to fit into the class routine. I think what supports them and helps make them successful in life is these other little things, like knowing how to adapt to a situation and demonstrating effective social skills.”

Some final words

These ESL practitioners are creative, adaptive, and intentional, and they work hard to provide a seamless and supportive learning experience for the more vulnerable ESL literacy learners. Their responsive curriculum can change to meet learners’ requirements. Perhaps most important of all, the ESL literacy learners in these programs are supported to move forward at their own pace, measure and celebrate their progress, and support each other as they learn and practice new skills.

In this series, ESL literacy practitioners working in the Centre for Excellence in Immigrant and Intercultural Advancement (CEIIA) at Bow Valley College shared their successes and challenges, best practices and approaches, innovations, and professional development needs. Read the other articles posted on the Bow Valley College Adult Literacy Research Institute website at Stories from the Field.

Suggested Resources and Websites

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

Canadian Language Benchmarks: ESL for Adult Literacy Learners has as its purpose to describe the needs and abilities of adult ESL Literacy learners, and to support instructors in meeting their learning needs.

ESL Literacy Network website is an online community of practice that provides resources and information to support the professional development of ESL literacy practitioners.

Fanta-Vargenstein, Yarden, and David Chen. n.d. “Time Lapse: Cross-Cultural Transition in Cognitive and Technological Aspects – The Case of Ethiopian Adult Immigrants in Israel.” International Journal of Knowledge, Culture and Change Management 10(3): 59-76.

Mutually Adaptive Learning Paradigm® is the website of Dr. DeCapua and Dr. Marshall, who have published articles and books on MALP® which provide both theory and practice, and contain many examples of lessons and projects for all types of programs and students, including those with limited formal education.

Multi-lingual Minnesota has as its goal to increase access to language learning by providing an online resource center that collects and shares the many language learning activities taking place across the state of Minnesota.

[1] This program is funded by Calgary Learns with funding support provided by Alberta Innovation and Advanced Education.

[2] Computer use is one of the nine essential life skills every individual needs to successfully participate in learning, work, and life as identified by the Government of Canada. The nine skills are: Reading Text, Document Use, Writing, Numeracy, Oral Communication, Thinking, Working with Others, Computer Use, and Continuous Learning. (

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