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Shaping and Reshaping Teaching Practice in ESL Literacy: Part 2

  • Shaping and Reshaping Teaching Practice in ESL Literacy: Part 2

Stories from the Field Volume 3 is a 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 written 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 eighth story in the series is a two-part article that examines how experienced ESL Literacy practitioners at the CEIIA work to create transformative learning environments.  Part two of the article features Shelley McConnell and Julia Poon. Here is an excerpt from the article:

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 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.

Mutually Adaptive Learning Paradigm

“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.”

The shift from mainstream ESL to teaching ESL Literacy

Julia 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.”

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.”

Measuring Success

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.”

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

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