English Language Learning Blog

VESL Workshop: The Language Experience Approach

  • VESL Workshop: The Language Experience Approach

The following blog post was written by Shelley McConnell, a faculty member at the Centre for Excellence in Immigrant and Intercultural Advancement. Shelley recently planned and facilitated a VESL workshop.

Since 2005, VESL (the Volunteer ESL Tutor Training Project) has supported the professional development of volunteer ELL tutors throughout the city of Calgary. The project is funded by Calgary Learns and is the collaborative effort of three Calgary ELL service providers with long standing volunteer programs: Bow Valley College, the Calgary Public Library, and the Calgary Catholic Immigration Society. 

On May 3, I had the great privilege of facilitating a workshop on the Language Experience Approach (LEA) for VESL. Because the approach focusses on using personal experience as content for instruction, I began the evening with the story of how I became a volunteer in ESL more than 17 years ago. 

In the 1990s, I worked as an archaeologist. When I turned 30 years old, I came to a crossroads in which I had to decide whether or not I wanted to do graduate work in this field or pursue something new. That spring, I decided to take a short leave of absence to explore options and ended up doing volunteer work with refugees at a Saskatoon college to fill some of this time. 

While volunteering, I had the opportunity to take a course through Read Saskatoon on strategies for tutoring adults acquiring literacy, since some of the people I was volunteering with had had little formal education in their countries of origin. The approach they endorsed for tutoring non-literate and semi-literate adults was LEA. As someone who had studied past oral cultures as an archaeologist and whose own beloved great-grandparents came to Canada as non-literate non-English speakers, the idea of honouring personal oral story-telling as the basis of language and literacy instruction was very compelling and moving. That evening was a major turning point in my life that sparked the idea that teaching adult ESL Literacy was something that could become my life’s work. Being invited by VESL to do a spring workshop on LEA for ESL volunteer tutors felt like a full-circle moment indeed.  

As I suspected it might be, the VESL evening ended up being story-filled and meaningful as well, thanks to the experiences and insights of the participants: all dedicated volunteers with diverse backgrounds who share a passion for helping newcomers in Calgary. We began the evening by activating the concept of LEA by taking part in a personal story-telling & recording sequence. Each participant told a short experience about spring to a partner, who scribed it onto a strip of flip-chart paper. I then split the participants into two groups that each organized, created, and presented larger connected texts with the gathered sentence strips. We then looked at different ways of breaking these new stories into teachable language and literacy-strategy “parts”, then brainstormed ways to reassemble the parts into new texts for further learning. This balanced approach to literacy instruction is called whole-part-whole sequencing.

The ultimate goal of LEA is to demonstrate to learners that reading is simply listening on paper and writing is simply speaking on paper.

In the next section of the workshop, I presented a number of LEA-inspired whole-part whole sequences and learner projects I’ve done over the years with ESL learners at different levels.  This included creating content from classroom experiences, field trips, and learner memories. It included activities using different types of scribes: teachers/volunteers, higher level mentors, writing models and digital tools. All sequences shared the idea that it is best to begin and end with meaningful “whole” texts, while spending time in the middle anchoring discrete literacy and language skills to this highly familiar content. For example, learners could begin developing the concept of parts of speech by collecting colour-coded vocabulary from their teacher-planned LEA stories on word rings. They could then manipulate the words on these rings to begin composing further whole texts with their scribes. The ultimate goal of LEA is to demonstrate to learners that reading is simply listening on paper and writing is simply speaking on paper. The “whole” texts learners gather, dictate, create, and manipulate help them develop this print awareness.

After a story-filled coffee break, participants then had a chance to work in groups to create their own whole-part-whole LEA sequences. I provided them with a shared experience learners could have: a walk to a local park with a scavenger hunt. Participants then worked in groups to begin developing a whole-part-whole sequence for that experience. Each group shared their ideas with others, so that everybody could go home with several ideas using the same jumping off point.

The evening ended with a final LEA-inspired task. Each participant told a partner one word that reflected a benefit of using LEA. The partner scribed that word and added it to a collective word wall. Together, these words tell the story of why LEA should become an important tool in volunteering with newcomers, particularly those acquiring language and literacy at the same time.  

To learn more about this approach, download these documents:

PDF icon Language Experience Approach.pdf

PDF icon Whole Part Whole.pdf

PDF icon Word Rings.pdf

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