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Designing Curriculum for ESL Literacy Learners

  • Designing Curriculum for ESL Literacy Learners

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.

The sixth article in the series highlights the ESL Literacy Curriculum Framework.  Here is an excerpt from the article:

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 2011, 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.

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 learners. 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.”

A Collaborative Approach

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:

  • Educational preparation: These programs aim to transition learners from ESL literacy to adult basic education programs or other train opportunities.
  • Community orientation and participation: These programs focus on addressing needs related to the acclimatization stage of the settlement continuum.
  • Employment: These programs provide ESL literacy for the workplace or ESL literacy in the workplace.
  • Family ESL literacy: These programs focus on providing ESL literacy development for parents and children, and also often address parenting skills.

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.

Five Stages of Curriculum Development

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.”

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….”

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.

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


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