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ESL Literacy Comes of Age

  • ESL Literacy Comes of Age

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 fourth article in the series highlights the leading role that CEIIA faculty played in researching and developing innovative promising practices in ESL literacy. Here is an excerpt from the article:

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 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.

Val 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.”

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