Sunday, December 11, 2016

PBLA and Back to the Well

For those of you who only care about the practical stuff, you can scroll down to the CLASSROOM APPLICATION sub-heading. :)  You're welcome.

All week I have been communicating with stakeholders at every level of this PBLA puzzle. The more I talk to other teachers and the more I listen to national and regional project leaders, the more I become convinced of three things:

  1.   Those of us who are more conscientious, tending toward perfectionism, are feeling an extra dose of stress as we attempt to learn to implement PBLA while continuing to be responsible for the day-to-day delivery of lessons. It's like asking a career quality control officer to design a plane while flying it. In addition to feeling overwhelmed by the multi-tasking challenge, we balk at the ethical conflict of subjecting our passengers to a risky flight aboard an unproven aircraft.
  2. Many teachers--whether they weren't 'ready to understand,' as Joanne Pettis has put it to me, or whether unintentionally misinformed by their trainers--have been operating under certain assumptions that are now being contradicted. I am talking about exactly which elements of PBLA are non-negotiable and which are flexible, as well as how flexible we can be.
  3. There has never been a better time for teachers who are struggling with PBLA to consider slowing down, turning fewer pages, and engaging learners more deeply, i.e., "Sending Them Back to the Well."
To those teachers for whom the first point above resonates loudly, I want to say to you that your mental health, your work-life balance, and the wellbeing of our clients come before the forms pushed on us by bureaucrats. We MUST speak up when we feel something is ethically wrong for our students, for ourselves, for our classrooms. Only by speaking up are we ever going to get answers, solutions, compromises, acknowledgement of our right to do what is best for our clients.

That brings me to point two. I am beginning to feel cautiously optimistic and believe that I as a classroom instructor am still free to use my judgement when it comes to assessing my students' skills and making promotion decisions. Yes, I will certainly strive to collect the quota of artefacts to support and back up my decisions, but I am going to make sure that the assessment timing and methods are compatible with cultivating a safe space where learners' confidence is built up, not eroded. I will do whatever it takes to shield my clients from unnecessary test anxiety. I will set them up for success, not failure. I will assess my seniors' competencies in a way that does not demoralize them or bring to their attention the fact that their benchmarks seldom change. I will design assessments in such a way that a literacy learner with a (suspected) learning disability is not made to feel stupid; rather, I will test in such a way as to bring out each student's strengths and acknowledge ways in which they learn to compensate for areas of cognitive difference and/or differences in which their brains process language. I will not create a classroom in which excessive focus on testing exacerbates existing levels of PTSD. I will first do no harm.

Thirdly, I want to recommend that everyone--whether you teach literacy or level eight--read John Sivell and Chirawibha Sivell's article, "Sending Them Back to the Well" in the summer 2012 issue of Contact Magazine. Additionally or alternatively, you could read "A Year of Slow: One Teacher's Implementation of 'Back to the Well,'" the article John and I wrote for the February 2015 issue.

Just today John wrote this about the subject:
" relation to respecting students’ right to receive intellectual and affective satisfaction – I’ve recently been thinking about a very old idea from S. Pit Corder (Introducing Applied Linguistics, 1973), which I learned about a long time ago: it stuck in my mind and, on reflection, it now dawns on me that it has a potentially useful connection with BTTW – viz. his idea (although since then I think others have claimed it) of ‘surrender value’.  His analogy is to life insurance: if you buy a whole-life policy and then decide to cash it in early (before dying), how much is it worth? … i.e. what’s its surrender value? The idea is that we ought not to hold up the great benefits that will eventually result if a student continues studying until (say) CLB 8, because we know very well that nearly all of them will ‘cash in’ their studies much earlier, say at CLB 3-4. On the other hand, if we focus on making sure that students learn (cognitive) and feel good about (affective) something worthwhile right away, every single day, we take honest account of the reality that what learners really need is a reward now, not at some distant time. By going back to the well consistently, we can provide students with what they deserve (cognitively and affectively), which may well not only assure that they trust in the early surrender value of our lessons every day, but also that they might decide to hang in there and ‘cash in’ their studies later than they might otherwise have done.
Thanks for that, John!

And that brings us to...


To give others an idea of how I continue to go Back to the Well with my students, I have started using the #BackToTheWell hashtag on Twitter, and I invite you to do so, too! Also, I'm going to start providing links to the materials we used in class to revisit the same lexis in a gazillion (ha!) ways, leaving it up to the students as to when we move on to a new text. I assure you that students like to feel they have really come to own the new language.


Having finished a series of modules covering the journey of a newly diagnosed diabetic patient from initial appointment to lab to follow-up visit to pharmacy, the seniors and I then extended the last module by examining those colourful auxiliary labels found on prescription bottles and boxes.

To see all the ways we worked with those labels, visit my website - FREE - Settlement Themes - Health. Scroll down to PHARMACY at the bottom. Within those free printable sheets, we do not even come close to exhausting all the meaningful linguistic encounters we can facilitate for the learners.

Finally, on lab day, seniors learned to use Spelling City (which I normally only use with my literacy class) to practice spelling of our week's words and syntax of our sentences. This provided them with yet more opportunities to gain mastery over that week's lexis.

So what's the bottom line? Since learning to implement PBLA is taking up some of my precious cognitive real estate, I now have even more incentive to utilize a 'do more with less' tactic in my classroom. As counterintuitive as it is, I find that students do not get bored with repeatedly revisiting the same text in myriad ways. Rather, they appreciate the opportunity to gain intimate familiarity with a given set of terms and phrases--from collocation to connotation, from prosody (sentence stress, intonation, word stress, linking) to parallel paragraph writing. It all adds to their sense of mastery and thus to their confidence levels. Over time, students are able to lead activities themselves--freeing up some of the teacher's time and energy for writing / adapting new assessment tools, marking, and other new duties under PBLA.

What do you think?


  1. Kelly, thanks once again for your courage in providing this much-needed forum for an iopen and honest discussion of PBLA and how it has been implemented. My tired eyes first misread the title of your post as "PBLA and back to the wall", which could have been an appropriate idiomatic title for any discussion on PBLA.
    I think it's the heavy-handed implementation of PBLA that has caused the most distress to teachers - good teachers, who, as you point out, know the CLBs. The messaging from above has not always been consistent or respectful.
    A key line for me in your post above is "cultivating a safe space where learners' confidence is built up, not eroded." Students do see the many required assessments in PBLA as pass/fail and this often leads to negative affect. We all know that confidence and a willingness to try - willingness to communicate - is essential for successful language learning. Thank-you for articulating so clearly that the needs of the learners must always come first.
    I'll check out your #BackToTheWell hashtag on Twitter.

  2. Bonnie,
    Thank you for rewarding my courage by speaking out in the comments section so that I don't feel I'm alone in my questioning. I truly appreciate it. When I read how your tired eyes had mis-read the title of this post, I laughed so loud that it turned into a snort. :) Yes, our backs are to the wall. I like the way you have put it: "heavy-handed." I'm happy to say that I have an amazing director of newcomer services, and she is as concerned for the mental and emotional health of the teachers under her (and that of our clients) as she is for all other stakeholders. Together we are going to figure this out and get through it. Some teachers have already quit, and I know more will. She does not want to lose any more of the gems. I feel for those out there who are working under petty tyrants and micromanagers as this comes down the pike. :(

    1. Thanks, Kelly. I'm fortunate in that I also have an excellent manager who is concerned about teacher workload. I share your concerns with the prescriptive way that PBLA has been rolled out, without the necessary tools and resources.


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