Sunday, September 3, 2017

ESL Literacy Clients Deserve Better

Canadian ESL literacy instruction represents a tiny and often overlooked corner of the world of teaching English as a second or additional language. If you serve these clients, you know how difficult it can be to find appropriate resources and classroom materials of the same quality as what our colleagues teaching mainstream settlement English have at their fingertips.

When I was hired for the literacy class that I now teach, the materials I was expected to teach from consisted of a binder a colleague had put together on her own initiative. Had it not been for that, I would have had nothing but one shelf in a cabinet full of dusty, yellowed, outdated materials that fell far short of meeting what we know today as best practices for working with pre-literate and semi-literate ESL learners.

Slowly, by mining the internet every evening and weekend for many months, I began to curate a decent collection of resources on my computer. I found HandsOn!, Making it Real, and the treasure trove of materials and instructor handbooks at Bow Valley College Centre for Excellence in Immigrant and Intercultural Advancement.

But it wasn't enough.

I began creating my own activity packs to complement the wonderful Bow Valley College readers. I went shopping online, and my employer purchased some of the Talk of the Block sets, a few resources from Grassroots Press, and a few more books each fall at the publishers' expo at the TESL Ontario conference.

Yet even when I was turned loose in Toronto with a couple hundred bucks in my pocket and permission from my employer to beef up the ESL literacy section of our resource library, there wasn't much for me to buy. There still isn't. When I visit my local teacher supply store in hopes of finding an alphabet line for my classroom, I come away having settled for something that was designed with NS children in mind.  I don't want the S word to be star, which begins with a blend. I want a pure S followed by vowel sound. I don't want any of the images to be words my newcomers will not need in their vocabularies for another ten years; I want words that are relevant to their lives now. O is for octopus? How about O is for on / off with a picture of a light switch? Now that's English we can put to use immediately!

On my last post, Cintia Costa left a profound comment. Central to her teaching philosophy is Love. Yeah, big L Love. I also believe deeply in the value of Love. So much flows from Love: respect, growth, trust, community, a safe space.

Love, if you ask me, is in the details.

How can we claim to respect our ESL literacy clients if we do not pay attention to the details? I, for one, am not satisfied putting materials in front of them that are not designed for them. Would you use a magazine containing violent war pictures with a group of refugees just arrived from war-torn areas? Of course not. You would pre-screen what you use and would set aside the resources not appropriate for them. You respect them. You care about the experience they have in your classroom.

So why are we okay with an alphabet line that was made for little Canadian children? To be honest, it's probably because we have no choice. Materials designed for pre-literate and semi-literate ADULT newcomers to Canada are very hard to find. It's a tiny niche market, so what publishing company is going to bother developing these things?

The good news is that it's becoming easier all the time for you and me to stop waiting around for someone else to make these resources. I'm ready to make them myself. A is for apple, B is for baby, C is for a cup of coffee. D is not for dog, but might be for door or doctor.

I'll let you know when the set is ready for free download. ;)

How about you? Do you think we teachers of ESL literacy have to take it upon ourselves to create what we need?


  1. I did it a last year!!!!! I absolutely agree with you. I often found more free downloadable resources on American and UK sites. They seem to be ahead of the game for literacy.

  2. Sorry for the typo! All last year...

  3. Since you were in your first term of teaching that level, and since I didn't have good foundations level materials to share, I think you ended up spending more unpaid time outside the classroom than you did paid time in the classroom...sourcing images, creating worksheets, and so much more! You're like me; you won't settle for just whatever because it's available. It has to be right for those learners.

  4. Hi Kelly,
    You have expressed my exact thoughts and frustrations. Thank you for all the resources you develop and put out. I've wanted to work on the Alphabet but have not had the time.

    I'll be looking out for it.

    1. Zoe,
      Thank you for taking the time to leave a comment. I do hope my alphabet set, when finished, will be useful to other teachers. --K

  5. Kelly, you hit the nail on the head! There are very few resources available for ESL adult literacy that are both relevant to adults and provide the needed visually-supported repetition.
    Thanks for sharing your creations!

    1. Jean,
      I am honoured that you have dropped in to comment. I've enjoyed more than one of your ESL literacy webinars and have learned a great deal from you.
      Cheers! --K

  6. Kelly, thanks a million for your amazing work sharing your ideas and materials with us! Thanks for mentioning me here too! I feel honoured! I am going to share your blog with EAL literacy teachers in an online course I am taking about how to teach EAL literacy, ok? They are asking about materials and I believe you are the best teacher for that. By the way, as my school did not have so many literacy students to create a class only for them, they created one with literacy (CLB2L, CLB3L, CLB4L) + CLB 1. Even though it is a challenge, I am enjoying the group a lot! :)

    1. Cintia,
      Yes, you may share. Of course! Please encourage folks to not only download materials or use links, but also to comment. I really gain a lot from knowing who is using my stuff, where they are applying it, how well it fit their needs, what was missing! I love feedback, including constructive criticism.
      Your new class sounds really fun. I am enjoying a group with higher speaking and listening skills this term. I love how the spectrum of possibilities opens up with such a group. The mere fact that they are capable of communicating basic things among themselves using English is HUGE. --K

  7. I was able to purchase a D'Nealian script line from Native Reflections. It has photographs of things that are relevant to indigenous students and is definitely not juvenile in appearance. It adds colour to our class in a good way!

    1. Awesome! I can’t wait to go check that out. —KM


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