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Building Capacity: Professional Development for ESL Literacy Practitioners

  • Building Capacity: Professional Development for ESL Literacy Practitioners

Stories from the Field Volume 3 is a new series of stories from the Adult Literacy Research Institute that explores innovations in ESL literacy programming that have been spearheaded by the Centre for Excellence in Immigrant and Intercultural Advancement (CEIIA) at Bow Valley College. In the next six months Sandi Loschnig, the project’s researcher and writer, will be writing about her discussions with ESL literacy practitioners working in this field: their successes and challenges, best practices and approaches, innovations, and professional development needs.

Here is an excerpt from the first article in the series that explores the professional development of ESL Literacy practitioners and showcases the ESL Literacy Network: 

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. The 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 is manager of the 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.”

Sharing Resources and Expertise on the ESL Literacy Network

The ESL Literacy HandbookESL Literacy ReadersESL 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.

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

Shelagh 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.”

Some Final Words on the ESL Literacy Network

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.

“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.”

To read the entire article, visit the Adult Literacy Research Institute.