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ESL Literacy Readers: Igniting a passion for reading

  • ESL Literacy Readers: Igniting a passion for reading

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. 

Over the past six months, Sandi Loschnig, the project’s researcher and writer, has been 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 seventh article in the series highlights the ESL Literacy Readers.  Here is an excerpt from the article:

The ESL Literacy Readers Project: Developing resources for ESL literacy learners

In early 2010, Theresa Wall and Joan Bruce, ESL literacy practitioners in the Centre for Excellence in Immigrant and Intercultural Advancement (CEIIA) at Bow Valley College, embarked on an ambitious project: to substantially increase the available reading resources for adult ESL literacy learners. As practitioners they experienced frustration with the lack of suitable reading materials for their learners. And like many practitioners working in the field, they created their own materials from scratch or modified existing materials intended for mainstream ESL learners. Out of this need, an idea emerged: to develop a series of books designed specifically for adult ESL literacy learners that would be openly accessible to practitioners everywhere.

The result was the ESL Literacy Readers project funded by Citizenship and Immigration Canada. By its end, the project created 40 readers intended to be used in conjunction with theme-based lessons for adult ESL literacy learners.

Theresa described the project’s early days. “When we started this project, there were very few materials available developed for adults who were new to reading. Our goal was to develop books for ESL literacy learners that were appropriate for adult readers. We wanted the characters to reflect the learners in our ESL literacy programs. The books would complement the settlement themes used in LINC [1] classes. We wanted to create something that instructors could use as part of a larger unit in their classroom instruction and that learners would read with support at the beginning, and independently by the end of the unit. We wanted reading to be a successful experience for ESL literacy learners. In the end, the project team wrote eleven to sixteen readers at each of the different levels from introductory to intermediate.”

“The entire team of writers and editors were ESL literacy practitioners in Bow Valley College’s ESL Literacy and Practical programs in the CEIIA. In all, there were six writers and the two of us as editors directly involved. Other CEIIA instructors supported the process by piloting the readers in their classes and offering feedback on the stories.” Theresa explained, “Instructors worked in pairs, with two teachers writing for one phase. Some instructors worked together and would meet throughout the process. After writers finished a story, they would send it for editing, where Joan and I would run the stories through all of the criteria we had developed as a team earlier in the process.”

Joan added, “Our purpose was not only developing material for our learners, but also to create exemplars to demonstrate to instructors what they needed to take into consideration when they were developing [their own] materials.”

Other initiatives and related research

As part of the project, they reviewed other initiatives and related research to gather information about best practices in developing reading materials for new readers. They discovered ongoing work being done in this area at Newcastle University in England. Researchers Young-Scholten and Maguire (2010) found that there was a shortage of non-fiction and fiction books written for the lowest level second language learners. They set up a pilot project to train undergraduate English language and linguistics students to write stories for low level ESL literacy learners. The purpose of their project was two-fold: to educate the student writers about the needs of low literacy English language learners and to increase the availability of books for this population. The pilot eventually led to the Cracking Good Stories project, an ongoing initiative that trains people on how to write books for low literacy ESL learners and contributes to the development of appropriate level books for this learner group.

The ESL Literacy Readers Guide

Incorporating this and other research with the experience of practitioners working in the CEIIA, Theresa and Joan compiled a list of best practices for practitioners to consider in the creation of their own ESL literacy stories, which is included in the ESL Literacy Readers Guide that was written as an accompaniment to the readers. 

The ESL Literacy Readers Guide is intended to assist practitioners in developing lessons for both the pre-reading and post-reading stages. It explains how the 40 stories are organized in levels from introductory to intermediate, and encompass the range of reading skills within each level.

It also explains the importance of themes, and how they were carefully selected in the writing of the stories and recur throughout the different levels. “Theme-teaching allows for a natural progression into practical, real-life extension activities – activities that go beyond the classroom and have a basis in authentic printed material and application in the community” (ESL Literacy Readers Guide 2011). The guide gives suggestions for extension activities corresponding to the themes and using authentic printed materials. Theme topics include food/shopping/money, housing, transportation, employment, leisure, health, school and clothing.

Both the Readers’ Guide and the Readers themselves are freely available and easily downloaded from the ESL Literacy Network.

Success stories

I asked both Theresa and Joan about the success of the ESL Literacy Readers. Were learners using them and had they improved their skills?

Theresa replied, “I remember one of the things I was excited about was that one of the learners in our class told me she was actually reading her book at home. She had it in her bedroom so when she put her child down to sleep, she’d make some time to read. To me, there were two important pieces to this – first, there was a book she could (and wanted to) read independently, and second, this book was hers to keep and read whenever she wanted to. Now she had the tools to practice reading at home on her own.”

Joan added, “We sometimes also don’t realize the importance of a child seeing their parent read. That it is sending a message to the child that reading is important and that it’s something we enjoy doing. And so having this woman able to read to her child or having books in the home, the effects of that are far reaching because it affects the child and their attitude, and how they feel about reading.”

Some final words

The ESL Literacy Readers project is successful and innovative on many fronts. The Canadian-produced materials are specifically designed and written with the needs of adult ESL literacy learners in mind. The chosen themes are of high interest and pertinent to learners’ lives. The events and issues portrayed are those that a typical learner may experience in their new country. 

Deng goes to school, Lien buys food, Amir gets sick, and A Problem at Work are only a handful of titles in the 40 stories. An added bonus is that the photos accompanying the stories are of learners at Bow Valley College. Research and experience has shown that the more realistic a photo is, the more easily learners will interpret them and relate to them. The ESL Literacy Readers fill an important need for relevant, interesting adult-oriented reading materials targeted at beginning ESL literacy learners.

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


Bow Valley College. 2011. ESL Literacy Readers’ Guide. Calgary: Bow Valley College, ESL Literacy Network.

Young-Scholten, Martha and Margaret Wilkinson. 2010. “The Cracking Good Stories project: Creating fiction for LESLLA adults.” Presented at the EU-Speak Inaugural Workshop, Newcastle, England, November 5-7.

[1] LINC refers to Language Instruction for Newcomers to Canada, a program funded by the Government of Canada (

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