Sunday, October 16, 2016

How I Use the Literacy Activity Packs

I apologize.

I was rushing on October 2nd and didn't do a good job. Let me try again to describe how I build a week-long module. This time I will get much more into specifics regarding how I use the activity packs that I have been uploading to the LITERACY area of the website.

Staying within a Theme
Though I don't always spend an entire month on the same theme, I do think it is beneficial to the literacy learner to stay within a theme for more than one week. Why? I say this because with literacy learners, it takes a lot longer to activate the schema and prime the brain for the topic(s). Once you've warmed them up for one set of linguistic terms and cultural concepts, why would you want to burden their cognitive load unnecessarily by jumping from topic to topic? Why not settle in a while and allow them to become really comfortable as they layer more and more skills and a richer vocabulary within the same theme week by week? The lower the stress, the more room there is for fun, and I would argue that retention of the new language increases.

Starting with a Needs Assessment
Since settlement English programs are student-centred, you will have consulted with the learners via a needs assessment to determine how to prioritize the topics. I have found over time that some topics cannot be optional. One example is learning about our PBLA binders; another is learning personal information and calling 9-1-1.  I also weave lessons on phonics, decoding skills, and printing into the thematic modules without asking the learners if they want that.

Mapping Out the Modules
When planning a series of four interrelated modules within a month-long theme, I start with a couple of modules that are heavy on skill building and end with a module or two that take advantage of the learners' new abilities. Just as a lesson starts off with more scaffolding and more controlled activities, gradually reducing the need for 'training wheels,' so can a module or series of modules be constructed so that students are using language more independently by the end. They can also be reading about the topic at a higher literacy level or with more fluency by the end of a module or series of modules when you stay within a theme.

An Example of Layering Modules
Let's say the theme is housing and the house. My series of modules might look like this:
Week 1 - learn the names of the rooms and a few key furniture pieces for each room
Week 2 - learn to read a house-related story in Talk of the Block short vowel series, HOME volume
Week 3 - learn to read Perminder's Cleaning Day
Week 4 - learn to ask the landlord to address problems in the apartment
Key Resources
The resources I would use to execute the modules listed above could include: a picture dictionary; student-made reference materials from flyers and catalogs; HandsOn!; Talk of the Block, ESL Literacy Network's Readers and Read Aloud versions of the same readers; ESL activity kits from Community Legal Education Ontario (CLEO); my own activity packs.

My Activity Packs
The resources I've listed above almost never come complete with sufficient activities to give the learners the number of linguistic affordances (opportunities to encounter the new language in a variety of contexts and ways) that I believe are necessary for long-term retention of the language. I have therefore developed the habit of creating my own set of activities that I use week after week. I simply change the vocabulary while keeping the activities pretty much the same. To see a sample, check out my activity pack for Deng Starts School.

One huge benefit to this habit of staying with a limited number of activities is that it vastly reduces cognitive load that otherwise would be devoted to instructions for the task. Students become so familiar with our routines that their entire cognitive load belongs to the linguistic and cultural content of the lesson. This level of confidence on the part of the learners means that when a new student joins the class, a peer will always jump in and show the new student the ropes.

An activity pack will typically start with easier controlled activities such as:
  • Match the word to the picture
  • Word Shapes worksheet
  • Listen and fill in the (first, middle, last) letter
  • How many times can you find the word?
It will include guided and more difficult but still relatively controlled activities, such as:
  • Unscramble the sentence
  • Gap fill with no word bank (answers are in the reader)
  • Crossword with no word bank (some schematic knowledge, some verbatim from reader)
I try always to include a peer survey. This can be used as a free activity, giving students an opportunity to use new questions and answers related to the real-world task or it can be used to help activate the schema and prior knowledge at the beginning of the unit.

Finally, I include two activities to be used at the end of the week to solidify rapid recognition of our new lexis:
  • Flyswatter game (I often don't include this as a document in the pack because teachers can simply print the words across the board)
  • BINGO grid with word bank
Incorporating the Activities into Lesson Plans
At the beginning of the week I remind students of our needs assessment so that they recognize the module as being an answer to their expressed need. This helps give them confidence to communicate to me any desire to slow down, repeat, add new material.

As I place activities into lesson plans, starting with a hook, I try to be mindful of how the student will be feeling after one activity. To keep a fast PERCEIVED pace, which has nothing to do with actual pace, I strive to give them a change in activity about every 20 minutes. I endeavour to go back and forth between work that focuses on meaning (e.g. T/F quiz) and work that focuses on form (e.g. printing). I also try to break up periods of sitting and concentrating with bursts of movement and interaction.
Of course all the while we are building toward one or more real world tasks such as asking, "Excuse me, where's the sugar," understanding, "On aisle six, with baking," and responding, "Thank you."

A Snapshot
So a typical day might unfold like this:
12:30 - announcements
12:35 - review the alphabet and sounds
12:40 - review the prior day's learning (if it's Monday, ask each other about our weekends)
12:45 - hook - activate the schema, brainstorm, elicit prior knowledge
12:55 - introduce the new lexis, reader, etc.; students predict from pictures, pass around picture flashcards, etc.
1:05 - matching words to picture (project onto board)
1:15 - take up the worksheet by projecting it on the board, students come up and draw the lines
1:25 - work with word flashcards - one set per partnership; teacher says, "Show me X, show me Y..."
1:35 - categorizing activity - students group the picture or word flashcards in some way, such as by part of speech, by type of object, by sound, etc.
2:00 - Introduce a short dialogue, such as "Do you like _____?" "Yes, I do / No, I don't." Give students a chance to practice it verbally many, many times in various ways. These exact phrases will appear on the upcoming peer survey.
  • Repeat after T
  • Teacher plays role of A, students take turns taking role of B
  • Chain drill around the room
  • Write the dialogue on the board. Read and speak.
2:20 - Project the peer survey form on the board, demonstrate. Make sure students remember how to say "How do you spell your name," and can spell their names. New students are allowed to cut corners (copy instead of speaking). Veteran students are strongly encouraged not to 'cheat.' Hand out the peer survey. Teacher always participates.
2:40 - Do a plenary activity with the results of the peer survey, such as forming 3rd person singular statements about others. Ali likes tomatoes. Jenna doesn't like tomatoes. (Note that you have now covered all forms of this grammar point: question, positive and negative answer, positive and negative statement in first and third person.)
2:50 - Written sentences summarizing our peer survey findings or start a puzzle. (Teacher is now free to start cleaning up the classroom.)

Extending with Online Games
There are times when I need a little ten-minute filler activity and the students need a change of pace. In that moment, I'll be so glad I loaded the week's words and sentences from their text into Spelling City. Our school pays about $74 CAD per year for up to 25 students at any given time to use the premium activities. If you only want spelling test and a few games, you can get a free account. Since I believe the Sentence Unscramble game has enormous value to the learners, I have the premium account.  In a given week, I might use Hang Mouse once, Sentence Unscramble once, and then link to the word list on the classroom blog so that the learners themselves can opt to practice our week's lexis using these same games and quizzes. 

The Week
I tend to stick to a rather predictable pattern through the week:
Monday - presentation, controlled activities, take pictures for LEA books
Tuesday - skill building, practice reading, paragraph unscramble in pairs, phonics
Wednesday - iPads, reading circles, gap fill, posters, practice reading
Thursday - comprehension quiz, peer survey, flyswatter game, role plays, assessments
Friday - learning logs, BINGO, computer lab

So those are some routines I follow in order to reduce the cognitive load on me and on the learners! When the students are highly familiar with an activity, they do not rely on me to spend my time and energy explaining and re-explaining, wrangling and redirecting them. This frees me up to help struggling students, tick boxes on rubrics, or prepare for the next activity.

What do you think?


  1. Thanks for the "peek" into your daily lesson, Kelly. Thanks for the ideas!

  2. Thanks for the "peek" into your daily lesson, Kelly. Thanks for the ideas!

  3. Thank you for taking the time to leave a comment! :)

  4. Thanks Kelly. PBLA is a huge, new learning curve for me. Do you have some ideas for a RWTG with the theme and topic Canadian Culture/Halloween? For could I use carving pumpkins as the basis for a module?? Sara

    1. Hi, Sara! I've given your question some thought and have modified and filled out one of the Manitoba Module Planning Framework templates to help me plan a couple of modules in the month of October. I have filled in some RWTGs that you might use or change to suit your class' needs. I also posted a rubric for assessing a speaking task. Tell me what you think. What would you change?

  5. Hello Kelly,

    Thanks for your sharing. I have a question about the "Talk of the Block". I couldn't find any of the stories, when I click the link you offered above. It showed the homepage of new readers press. I tried to search it in the searching bar, but there were still no relevant results. Can you please help me with it?



    1. Hi, Shannon. The Talk of the Block stories are not available for download, rather they are a book series you can order from that company I linked to. They do, I believe, offer one sample chapter for download just to let the prospective buyer get an idea of what the material is like. I hope that answers your question. —KM


Thank you for participating in this forum. Anonymous commenting is available, but is not intended to shield those taking pot shots at those of us challenging PBLA. If you are here to do that, please use your name.