Connecting the ESOL Framework to Actual Practice
North Andover, MA
Rosann was part of a statewide curriculum frameworks project
in Massachusetts. Funded by the Department of Education and facilitated
by the School for International Training in Vermont, this project
involved connecting the Massachusetts Adult ESOL frameworks to practice.
This is the account of Roseann's experience as part of that project.
This article is adapted from the draft document "Engaging Learners
and Practitioners with the Adult ESOL Frameworks." June 1999. Roseann
worked at the Lawrence Adult Learning Center during this project.
There were about 35 students in my two ESOL classes. We met five
a week for two hours each morning. My students represented a cross-section
of learners ranging in age from 22 to 64 with diverse educational
backgrounds. The majority of students were Hispanic with 2 Russian
students, two Haitian students, one Chinese student, one Cambodian
student and one Korean student. The classes were somewhat homogeneously
grouped as a high beginner-low intermediate level. They were all
highly motivated to learn the language, however, as adults trying
to juggle family, work, school, and the many pressures involved
in being immigrants. They had many obstacles to overcome.
The environment of our class was participatory, with the primary
emphasis on oral communication and navigating systems. Some daily
focus was also on reading and written communication. Oral communication
was encouraged and fostered by guiding students into peer conversations
and guided dialogues. There was a special emphasis on problem solving.
My students responded particularly well when the dialogues had special
meaning and relevancy to their lives. Because of the participatory
nature of my classes, the learner-input project was very enjoyable
The primary purpose of the learner input project was to investigate
ways in which teachers could develop instructional materials and
comprehensive units of study that would be relevant, meaningful
and responsive to students'needs. The ultimate goal was to tailor
our program to better provide our students with the language and
survival skills necessary to function effectively and meet the challenges
of everyday life in this country. As part of the DOE Learner Input
Project, my specific purpose was to see if the expressed needs and
goals of my students matched with those expressed in the Massachusetts
ESOL Curriculum Frameworks.
My project involved eliciting student's feelings and ideas regarding
what is important to them and what kinds of knowledge and skills
they hope to gain from our program/my classroom. We did this in
the form of a student-generated needs assessment.
Our project evolved into several stages. The initial stage involved
the learners identifying situations in their everyday lives that
presented the greatest problems and challenges to them in trying
to communicate in English. The process began as a class discussion
where students shared their experiences, their concerns, and problems
that they had encountered. Several students willingly shared stories
where their inability to communicate in English presented problems
that left them frustrated and embarrassed. As they shared their
stories, a common bond was established as they realized that they
all had similar feelings of frustration and despair. As the students
talked about the contexts where they had the most difficulty communicating,
I wrote the situations on an easel pad.
After coming up with nine areas of concern, I passed out index
cards numbered one to four and asked them to prioritize them by
listing the most difficult situation first, the next second and
so on. The results were:
1. Doctors and Illness
2. Communicating at Work
3. Police and Court
4. Talking on the Telephone
6. Children's School
The following day the class separated into focus groups according
to the context category that they had listed as their first priority.
Those that felt they had problems with "Doctors and Illness" made
up one group; "Police and Court" made up another, "Talking on the
Telephone" and "Communicating at Work" another. Their task was to
come up with specific problems that they had encountered in each
category. These were examples from each context: "I can't explain
my health problem to the doctor," "I have trouble when I have to
go for a job interview," "I can't explain my problems to a lawyer,"
"When my boss explains my job responsibilities, sometimes I don't
understand him and then I get into trouble."
Each team appointed a secretary to write down the group's ideas.
As I circulated among the groups, I assisted where necessary to
help clarify ideas. It was stressed that at this particular time
the main goal was to elicit ideas; grammar and spelling were not
issues to worry about. Students were allowed to express and write
their ideas in their native language if that was the way they could
express them most succinctly and if all members of the group shared
a common native language. Other members of the group helped to translate
so the secretary could write it in English. The grammar skill that
we were learning in class at that particular time was superlatives'.
Students were able to apply the skills that they had learned e.g.,
most difficult, hardest, most confusing, most embarrassing, worst
etc. in a contextual way. Integrating grammar into these discussions
was important because it gave them practice using grammar structures
we covered in class together by practicing oral language. Many students
needed to know that they were getting the "grammar" for which they
The groups were very engaged in the task. At the onset of the project,
I explained to them that they were playing an important role in
assisting teachers to plan lessons and identify content areas that
were important and meaningful to students across the state and that
there were other adult students engaged in the same process. They
took complete ownership of the project and expressed several times
that they felt it was a very important endeavor.
When the groups completed their lists of "can't do"s, they dictated
them to me and I wrote them on sheets of easel paper. I then asked,
"Does everyone have difficulty with all of these things?" From that
discussion we came up with varying degrees of difficulty. "That's
easy for me, sometimes I can do that, it's a big problem," etc.
The next phase was to convert those "can't do"s to "can do"s. This
was a difficult but necessary step to facilitate dealing with the
students'varying degrees of difficulty with the items they came
up with. It was also putting their thoughts in a "positive" rather
than "negative" context, emphasizing not only what they "don't know"
and "can't do" but also what they "do know and "can do". Statements
like, "When my boss gives me new job responsibilities, I don't understand
what he is saying and I sometimes get into trouble," were changed
to, "I understand what I need to do when my boss gives me a new
The students again worked in their focus groups to convert their
can't do's. Each group came up with a new list of can do statements
that they dictated to me and I wrote them on the easel pad. Their
enthusiasm was truly exciting and their productivity was amazing!
They were totally engaged in every step of the process. After our
lists were compiled, we were then ready to transfer our work to
produce a needs assessment chart (see pages???)
Part of our program was to integrate technology into what we were
teaching in class. This was a perfect opportunity to do this. Since
learning computer skills was very important to most students, they
took this on with enthusiasm.
This was the last step in finalizing our needs assessment tool.
Using the computer in my classroom I taught students how to produce
a table using Microsoft Word and how to insert symbols into a document.
Students were eager to go to the computer lab the following week
to produce their tables. Every student in both classes produced
a table, inserted their "can do" list, and very ingeniously selected
symbols to insert in their charts. Four needs assessment surveys
were developed based on what students felt were the four highest
priority areas: going to the doctor, police and court, talking on
the telephone, and workplace issues.
We ran off copies of each of the four completed surveys to be administered
to most of the day and some of the night ESOL students in our center.
Two of my students expressed willingness to administer the survey
to the lowest levels where some translation would be necessary.
They accompanied me when I administered the survey and translated
the items from English to Spanish. One of my Russian students translated
from English to Russian. Another student took the results home and
tallied every item to produce final figures for the survey. We surveyed
about 100 students in all four categories.
Students shared many interesting stories that helped to give me
further insight into the needs of my language learners. Although
many of the needs they expressed are the usual concerns that students
have, there were some new ideas that surfaced through discussion.
One of the areas that generated the most lengthy and interesting
discussions was the area of law enforcement and our legal system.
Students'concerns about these systems really got me thinking about
what my role is, or should be in assisting them to navigate the
legal system. It became apparent to me that if this issue concerns
my students to the degree that they expressed in our discussion
groups, it is an area that needs to be further explored. Is it our
responsibility to educate our adult students about the basic laws
of this country? Should we teach strategies that will assist our
students in advocating for themselves within the law enforcement
system? Where do you draw the line in encouraging students to take
risks and advocate for themselves?
This Learner Input Project was a valuable experience for my students
and me. It enabled me to take a closer look at my teaching, and
my role as a teacher and to formulate some new ideas for future
As a result of this project, I am currently facilitating a team
of teachers working on developing comprehensive units based on the
results of the survey's findings. Using the needs expressed in the
student-generated survey we will develop units of study that will
be closely tied to the Curriculum Frameworks and will address the
expressed needs of our students. We have developed several lesson
plans on "Doctors and Illness." We will then begin a second unit
on Police and Courts." Hopefully, this will continue to be
an ongoing process where increasing numbers of learners and practitioners
will participate in planning meaningful and relevant curriculum
for our center.
Originally published in Adventures in Assessment,
Volume 12 (Winter 2000),
SABES/World Education, Boston, MA, Copyright 2000.
Funding support for the publication of this document
on the Web provided in part by the Ohio State Literacy Resource
Center as part of the LINCS
Assessment Special Collection.