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Sunday, February 5, 2017

An ESL Literacy Teaching Habit

This past two weeks I have had no choice but to turn my classes over to supply teachers. The first day I was able to leave a detailed lesson plan for the literacy class, but then fevers swept over me, robbing me of my mental clarity. The best I could do, rushing to get my email typed before the next fever hit, was send a link to one of the Bow Valley College readers along with my corresponding activity pack. The supply teacher would have to write her own lesson plans, but at least she would have more worksheets than my students could possibly need in one week.

I inserted little 8-point font notes on some pages. "Teacher, Ss should be ready for this by Thursday," and so on. I mentioned that we usually practice a given story multiple times throughout the week, sometimes even reading it together in 15-minute increments two or three times on the same day.

A strange thing happened. One of the supply teachers reported to me that the students, on Thursday, were completely mystified by the Yes / No quiz. They were not able to do it. They didn't understand all the words in the questions.

Now it could just be that the material I had chosen was too high for the group. Three new students joined the class while I was away and one moved up. So it could have been that. In any case, it got me to thinking about how I teach ESL literacy. Is there anything that I do that comes so naturally to me that I might not even think to mention it to a newer teacher whom I'm mentoring? Since Beth Beardall has just posed a question on the TESL Ontario Blog about literacy teaching tips, I have decided to try to put into words a teaching habit that I think benefits my learners and helps them get to fluency and mastery of one story by week's end.

Before I get to the tip, let's get some basics out of the way.  When introducing a new story, I not only activate prior knowledge of the schema but pre-teach the terms that are new to the learners.  I use pictures, realia, and also try to personalize a new term on the spot. So if a new vocabulary item is the word son, we will go around the room asking one another, "Do you have a son?" We'll talk about how many sons and daughters we each have. If a new word is bill, we will talk about the various bills we pay. I don't start the story until most students are getting at least 65-75% accuracy when I ask, "What's a bill?" "What's a dentist?"

So now we're looking at a week that we will spend learning to read, for example, Mark Goes to the Dentist. We'll spend the week going back and forth between the whole and the parts. We'll do activities involving the meaning of the language, such as: dialogues and role plays, sentence unscramble, paragraph unscramble, peer surveys, T/F quiz, and my verbally quizzing them on meaning. We'll do other activities that focus on the parts of language, such as: spelling dictation, word shapes worksheet, categorizing by sound, hidden word, etc.  I will usually also find space in the week to assess a real-world task, such as filling out a form, role playing with the receptionist, and so forth.

Okay, so here's the tip.  Never waste an opportunity to reinforce either ability to read aloud (and pronounce), the ability to spell a new term, or the ability to show comprehension. Below are some examples of what I mean.
  • If a student comes up to the board to write the answer on a worksheet where meaning was the focus, never let her sit down until she has read the sentence aloud.
  • If you are the scribe calling on students for the answers as you write them in the spaces, don't settle just for the word. Have the student spell it to you as you write it in.
  • If you are taking up a worksheet where the focus is not on meaning, just on the spelling or shape of the word, before you erase the board, go back over all words--this time asking the class to say the word and give the meaning.
  • Never erase anything without having students read aloud/pronounce the words one last time. If they can say it, you erase it.
  • If you've been using sentence strips or flashcards with partners, don't let them just put the items back into the envelopes or paperclips. Make a new activity out of that: "Everybody show me 'The drink is cold.' Put 'The drink is cold' back in the envelope."
In this way, day by day, students build up their abilities to read all the words aloud, read the sentences aloud, spell all the words, define all the words. And don't think that I put students on the spot for these performances. Mine is a low risk, safe classroom. All are free to pass and know they will be encouraged when they are ready. However, I don't let strong students take easy questions! Those are reserved for the less confident students. With a quick glance in their direction, I give them the chance to signal me when they feel ready.

When we play Sentence Unscramble, I do not tell them if I think the sentence is right or not before I hit SUBMIT for them. I ask the class, "Everybody, is that right?" Through peer coaching, they eventually get the syntax right. I keep a poker face. Make the students do the work.

I fashion the end-of-week Yes/No quiz in such a way that most are easy and just one is tricky. One question requires the student to not only understand the new language, but also to be able to use it in a novel context.

Mark has a drink. 
The drink is hot. 
Mark has a toothache.
Mark gets a filling.
The bill is $1,999.
Kelly is a dentist.*

The same notion of cycling through ability to read aloud / ability to spell / ability to understand meaning can come into play in a simple game of BINGO. My students make me play it till I'm sick of it, so I jazz it up by switching from calling the words to calling out the spelling to making them guess the word. "This is what Mark gets. He can't pay it all today." They say, "BILL!" I say, "Yes, how do you spell bill?" Or, at other times, "What does B-I-L-L spell?" Also having a student play the teacher in this game allows peers to correct poor pronunciation. 

So to summarize my ESL literacy teaching tip: there should be no moment when the teacher is writing something and students are just sitting there staring. When the teacher is writing, the students have a job. When the teacher is erasing, the students have a job. When a student is at the board, the other students have a job. Chances to reinforce the language are EVERYWHERE. And keep your formative assessment feelers up at all times. 

How about you? Have you left a comment for Beth on her blog post?


  1. Thank you so much for this post, Kelly!

    1. Thank YOU, Christine, for taking the time to comment.

  2. It's heartening to hear that there are fellow voices out there in this PBLA wasteland who feel the same way that I - and MANY of my colleagues do. PBLA is a mess. It's a time waster. It's a huge waste of resources - paper, binders, plastic. It's behind the times (flash drive anyone?) The students mostly hate it and feel it distracts from real learning time (binder time???? what kind of learning is this? teaching educated people how to organize binders is insulting and patronizing!") It is so poorly thought out and has been jammed down teachers' throats causing riffs between teachers / management / so called 'lead teachers' who were mostly roped into it because they were too nice to say no - and have volunteered to do this for free. Common sense is out the window. Real teaching is considered rebellious. The amount of work - of wasted time, absolute wasted time - done to simply appease whomever it was that dreamed up this ridiculous plan is astounding. Good teachers want to leave. Teachers who want to appease, pay lip service. Many teachers are simply overwhelmed and trying to survive this mess. I think ESL teachers need to unite and rise up against this nonsense. I remain anonymous - unbelievably - for fear of reprisal. What does that say about PBLA? Teachers fear to discuss their true feelings! We live in a democracy and part of our job is teaching our students to COMMUNICATE, and yet, we are forced to keep silent about this.Btw - I have approximately 80 students to deal with - full time classes - 5 days a week - and i'm a hard worker - and find this to be completely unmanageable and unnecessary and I am considering changing careers. I used to love teaching ESL and told everyone I knew that I had one of the best jobs in the world. That was pre-PBLA. I am now stressed to the point of wanting to quit, as are many teachers I know. Who is going to stop this train wreck of a plan?
    My apologies. I am not normally this angry. I spend my days smiling to help my students get through their days and used to feel so full of optimism about my chosen career.
    Million women / men / ESL teachers march anyone?

    1. Whoever you are - please don't quit. There is nothing that the perpe-traitors of PBLA who are battening on this misguided experiment would like more. You have described many things I have been saying for years. Take a deep breath. Speak truth to power. You are not alone. Instructors from all over the country have been communicating through Direct Messages on Twitter and F2F at conferences. Truth will out. Those who believe that PBLA is their "legacy" to the ESL profession will be exposed as selfserving, blocking honest feedback, resistant to the negative effect their poorly thought out, reckless, inadequately researched project is having on the profession. I am disappointed at those professionals (from managers to academics to my colleagues) who sigh and say "The funders (civil servant appointees at Federal and provincial levels) want it." Even though privately they express reservations. The "funders" parrot what the TESL Association officials and CLB Board members and interested individuals feed them. Last time I checked you and I are the funders (taxpayers). I tried to follow the money. In the past fewcyears the Government of Ontario has sent additiiinal MILLIONS of dollars to CLB (; annual reports) PBLA is administered through CLB. I would like to know from the Government of Ontario how the ROI on this invalid experiment is to be measured and justified.

    2. Just to clarify - I have used portfolios (folders of student work samples kept IN the classroom) for years and years. Invaluable tool - but not prescriptive of how many and which artifacts ( snort) should be included. I am VERY familiar with the CLB descriptors and parameters (very useful but not carved in stone. ) i am constantly upgrading my teaching skills and follow developments in SLA closely. Yes, there are other experiments in portfolios ( mostly K-12) - but these are used for "brag book" rather than assessment. And the jury is out as to the efficacy of these.
      I have been teaching ESL and LINC for 17 years. I thought to applaud this initiative but it is so badly designed, so impractical, makes such erroneous assumptions about the nature of our programs and our students that I truly believe it should be stopped immediateky before it wastes more $$$,teacher time $ goodwill and student effort. Perhaps it coukd be reviewed by objective professionals and suggestions for improvement made.

    3. Thank you Claudie,

      Your response is refreshing. I am sorry that the other writer feels that they need to be anonymous. I continue to do my best, as you do, and I hope that it all settles down soon. It truly is difficult to know what one must do, when, and how. Perhaps an independent review would help but until then, I PBLA after day.

    4. Anonymous,
      Thank you so much for taking the time to comment. This is a needed discussion. K

  3. I have been teaching for 20 years. Everything was going great and then this PBLA came in. It does not work. It is based on research that is bogus and that cat is out of the bag now as researchers have said so. Hang on people. This can't last. The students are not improving and I know it and most of you know it too. I am a tax payer of Canada and I do not support this waste of my money on me and my colleagues as we paper shuffle hour after hour in our classes. Money can be better spent. I want somebody in the government to see the waste. I want the news to report this in detail to the Canadian public. Do we really think the taxpayers would support this if they knew about it? From the many people I told they are furious that such a program is funded. We need to do better. Do we really think a professional employer would look at what we do in the class really prepared them for the work place? Who can believe that? This system is killing this profession. How long will we accept it? How long will the students take this? 32 assessments level after level? What is going on? When I quit this profession I will not stop my opposition to this. I will organize a group and we will have meetings to let our voices be heard. We will push for change, have sound arguments and show the waste that this program now is. We will propose better ways to prepare our students to adjust to Canadian society better than what we are currently being forced to do. If Ghandi could change a whole nation, we can replace this PBLA. It's not that big of a deal. We can do it. We just need to have a better suggestion and show that this system is not working. That is easy to prove. We also need to encourage people and students one by one to add their voices to ours. I have talked to many many teachers about this. The huge majority of them completely hate PBLA. They won't speak up because they fear losing their jobs. This is sad. We can speak up like this and create something different. I believe in this. I know we can change things if we stuck together. Let's start...I won't go away. I think this is my life mission right now... To be a thorn in the side of these close-minded paternalistic and rigid PBLA creators. They may be well intentioned but they are misguided, stubborn and too athoritarian for a democratic society. Let's speak up and create some change!!

    1. Dear "Life's Mission,"
      I'm glad you chose to come here and express your thoughts on this. It does indeed feel to me that the missing element in the whole PBLA picture is a safe way for skeptics to voice their concerns without fear of reprisal. I hope we find a way to organize without risking our livelihood. I am aware of at least two teachers who have had an iron thumb come down on them simply because they questioned the validity of aspects of PBLA. Keep coming here and keep participating. We need each other. --K