Wednesday, 15 January 2014

A Sleeping Beauty or Needs Analysis with the ESL Literacy Learners

As you probably know, I teach ESL literacy and low beginner class in Toronto. Not long ago, I taught at two very different programs: a TESL class for foreign university students who came to Toronto for one year (I would call it advanced academic) and an ESL Literacy. Needs Assessment was very different at these two levels. At the advanced level, I performed an ongoing needs assessment and self evaluation with some pauses for reflection every six weeks. In general I wish to think of myself as a teacher who encourages and boosts self-reflection and metacognition in the classroom. The first day of class always started with discussions, on a friendly note students were prompted to share some background information about their previous studies, experience and why they chose the program. They also were often asked to close their eyes and describe a perfect classroom situation. Then, followed a more formal part where students were invited to think about five goals they wanted to achieve in the following six weeks. They usually had to do it on their smart phones using an app (Evernote) that could be easily shared with the teacher. After the goals were set up, students were asked to think about what they needed to do to achieve these goals and then record their responses using the same app. I was able to see their written goals and listen to their responses on how they thought they were going to achieve those goals and make some notes regarding their writing and speaking difficulties as well as learning needs and styles. Every week, usually on Fridays, students were given half an hour to work on their journals (we used Google Docs, again they shared them with me so I could easily comment on their work). In their journals they had to talk about class experience, the things that they learned and how they did it.  After six weeks, learners had to complete a written assignment (usually 6 questions) entirely based on their performance in class (I'd like to note that this was actually used as their midterm or final evaluation). They were asked to review the notes in their journals. Some of the questions were:
What was the most valuable unit learned in class and why? What was new for you? What was challenging? Name one moment you were proud of yourself? Name one instance you felt frustrated? What could have you done better? What are your goals for the next 6 weeks and so on...
I taught at this program for three years and consistently used this approach to communicate with the students regarding their needs. Considering that learners came from a culture where they did not find it possible to speak freely about what they liked or disliked in class and teaching, it greatly enhanced the classroom management, class rapport and our (my and the learners') understanding of what learning and teaching involved.
However, in my Literacy class things are very different regarding the NA. I have to say I do not like questionnaires. I tried to use one that I found somewhere in a book and as a result all my level 1 students answered yes to all the questions. Of course, they thought they did not know anything and wanted to learn about everything. I did not see much use in that. So I decided to utilize a co-worker who spoke the same language with the majority of my ESL Literacy learners to help them complete a similar NA in their language. No luck either. The majority of learners did not have previous educational experience and simply could not answer those questions in their own language. Of course, how would they know?! They needed training to be able to do it. So, the NA in my Literacy class has been sleeping for a while now . I based my planning primarily on my understanding of Canadian society and its requirements to fully engage in life here, my own experience as a Canadian immigrant and also the observations about the students. I was thinking that now in January, when we are doing our report cards with students, would be perfect timing to give it another shot. Therefore, I designed these two tools to use in class: ‘Needs Assessment’ and ‘My Week in Class’. I think that now in the middle of the term, majority of the learners will be able to understand  the NA and complete it with a bit of help. They will also enjoy reading and re-reading it. The second tool,  MWIC, will take time to implement. For weeks and maybe months, students will need a lot of help and guidance, but provided a consistent approach, I am sure some of them will master it and will be able to assist their classmates. Let's see!

Learners are working in pairs on their Needs Assessment reading activity:

Learners are labelling the pictures to aid retention and enhance reading fluency:

I’d love to hear from YOU. How do you do Needs Assessment in your classroom?


  1. As I have zero experience with literacy students like ones you describe, I always struggle relating to the issues mentioned about them. How can they not answer questions in L1? What type of students are they? Where do they come from? What has brought them here?

  2. Oh, Tyson! They all have different stories to tell. But they mainly come from places where human rights mean nothing, girls are abused and forbidden from education, war has been going on for centuries...

    1. This is partly why you're important for the exec. You bring diverse experience to us, much of which we could learn from.

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  4. Hi! Thanks for sharing your experience on teaching ESL literacy. The needs assessment activities work well with advanced students as you mention in your article. This article provides tips on getting to know your students, creating a safe learning environment, minimizing the cognitive load, connecting to the real world, and celebrating success when teaching ESL literacy

    1. Hi OnTESOL team! Thank you for sharing your resource. It is true that creating a safe and meaningful learning environment is where one should start in the ESL Literacy instruction. I think this is important at any level of proficiency and in any program. SAFE means students feel comfortable to interact with the teacher and their classmates, their affective filters are lowered down, gradually a culture of interaction and working together is being built within the class. MEANINGFUL means that learners work on tasks that provide a lot of comprehensible input tailored to their needs, relevant to their reality, valuable for their life in a specific country. The last but not the least, learners must have opportunities to develop their ability to learn independently. It might take a very long time but it is crucial for their further progress.
      Thanks a lot for your contribution.


#LINCchat turns two!

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