Tuesday, 3 September 2013

L is for LIFE...

This post has been triggered by Nathan Hall’s  reflections on supporting students with learning disabilities in a language classroom: “Supporting”. I would like to draw your attention to another group of students who also need considerable support: Learners with Interrupted Formal Education and Literacy Learners. The ideas below are based on two outstanding documents in the field of the ESL Literacy instruction: “Learning for LIFE: an ESL Literacy Handbook” and “Making It Real” and, of course, my personal observations as an Adult ESL Literacy professional.

As an ESL Literacy instructor, I often get to hear teachers from higher levels complain to me about some students who they believe do not belong in their classes. It is usually something like this: “...there is one (or two, three, etc.) students, they just do not learn anything; I can not spend all my time with them, how about other students in my class, they get bored, you know”,  and so on, and on, and on… Nathan’s metaphor of “selling our students the wrong part” reminded me about these awkward moments. Does it sound familiar to you? Do you encounter these types of conversations in the teachers’ room? Unfortunately, “literacy” has become a coin given to any student who does not fit the so called majority of the class.

All classes are mixed-ability in a way or another, as all learners have different skills and aptitudes, as well as different motivation, needs and aspirations. If a student does not speak or write any English it does not necessarily make him or her a literacy learner. Some ESL literacy students can have speaking and listening skills as high as CLB6 or upper-intermediate. The difference between ESL Literacy Learners with Interrupted Formal Education and the mainstream (or traditional) ESL learners  is that LIFE, as it name suggests, often have incomplete or lack formal education and therefore need literacy support while learning English. The biggest discrepancy between LIFE and the mainstream ESL is that LIFE do not have enough or lack learning strategies to thrive in a language classroom. LIFE can not read to learn instead they are learning to read and often have  a very limited time to do it. Said this, it is possible to identify whether the students are LIFE or just a bit behind from the rest of the group and provided appropriate tasks can catch up quickly.

There are different ways LIFE can be identified. The most obvious one is to talk to them and ask them about their previous learning experiences (if they went to school or not, if yes, for how long). What if they do not speak any English? In community based programs learners usually have a settlement worker; if this is a case then it is a good idea to turn to the settlement team for help (ask them to talk to the students and find out as much information as possible about their previous learning experiences). It could be  a great opportunity to get to know the learners and collaborate with the settlement team. If the student happens to be the one who needs literacy support then the right thing to do is to direct him or her to an ESL literacy program. If there is not any literacy program in the community, there is still something teachers could do to help this learners even though being in a traditional ESL class is not the best case scenario (unfortunately, LIFE learners do not thrive in the mainstream ESL classroom).

The first step is to understand the main differences between learning styles of LIFE and literate students. LIFE learners mainly learn by doing and watching, tend to be aurally oriented, use repetition to aid memorization, learn best when the situations and contexts are familiar; they also need help in developing cognitive abilities, memory skills and metacognition; they are dependent on the teacher and have to be taught to learn individually, etc. Teachers can not expect these learners to know how to learn by themselves. Then choose appropriate strategies and make a plan. There is a very good chance that with “the right parts” the students will get moving.

Formal education and literacy skills in a native language is  a tremendous tool that helps a learner succeed. Not taking it into the consideration can harm both: LIFE and non-Roman alphabet literate mainstream ESL learners.  A typical case is described in “Learning for LIFE: An ESL Literacy Handbook” on p. 24. Once I had a student from China who was referred to me from Level 1 as an ESL Literacy (which, in fact, she was) and joined my 100% LIFEclass. She very soon became an exhibit in our class. With no English skills at all (when she arrived, majority of my students spoke and understood much more English than she did), in two weeks she mastered what the rest of the class had been learning for a couple of months and was helping me out in instructing the rest of the group. The difference was that she was able to apply a variety of learning strategies and quickly figured out the most efficient way for her to learn. Two more weeks and she felt that she needed to get back to Level 1. The tricky part here is that her chances to succeed from this point on will highly depend on the teacher to see that tremendous tool that she already has and be providing her with the appropriate tasks to progress.

Students come to the classroom with a wealth of experiences and abilities. Previous learning experience and literacy play a major role in students' success and can be effectively used in language teaching. At the same time,  timely and correctly identifying literacy needs and giving appropriate support to ESL learners with these needs greatly increases their chances to succeed.


  1. I just love that Nathan Hall's analogy! I like your point about the over-labelling of 'slower' students as having literacy needs. You offer great suggestions and resources to learn more about LIFE. Thanks for sharing this story.

    Is there a way I can follow your blog?

  2. Dear Jennifer:

    thank you very much for your interest in my blog. I just added a 'follow by email' button on the right side. Hope it works.

    Also hope there is more to share and learn from each other.


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