The Literacy Development of ESL Beginners: Observations and Analyses from the NCSALL/ESL Laboratory Classrooms

The Literacy Development of ESL Beginners: Observations and Analyses from the NCSALL/ESL Laboratory Classrooms
April 12 - 16, 2010

Discussion Description | Guest Participants | Suggested Readings | Discussion Summary

From Monday April 12, to Friday, April 16, the National Institute for Literacy and World Education will present the third of four Assessment Strategies and Reading Profiles (ASRP) special online discussions , The Literacy Development of ESL Beginners: Observations and Analyses from the National Center for the Study of Adult Learning and Literacy (NCSALL)/ESL Laboratory Classrooms.

The ASRP discussions, presented in cooperation with the Institute’s LINCS Discussion Lists, will be led by prominent researchers and by practitioners who are also content experts.

In July 2009, the Institute and a team from World Education that included John Strucker, Steve Quann, Sally Waldron, and consultant Rosalind Davidson completed extensive revisions and updates to its web-based ASRP. In addition to providing useful information and free resources on reading assessment and reading profiles, the ASRP site offers a unique interactive feature that allows teachers to match their adult learners' test scores to research-based adult reading profiles. It also provides teachers with additional instructional suggestions based on those matches.


Students in ESL classes come from a variety of educational backgrounds – some with a significant native language education and others with very little. There is a clear relationship between the students’ levels of native language education and their success in ESL classes. Students with less native language education and literacy usually take longer to move from one program level to the next, and many leave before achieving their English learning goals.

Kathy Harris, (Portland State University) and Dominique Brillanceau, (Portland Community College) discuss their work and findings:

At the ESL Lab School at Portland State University, we’ve been studying students who have little or no education in their first language while they attended our lowest level ESOL classes.

The Lab School’s video recording technology and special analytical software programs have enabled us to watch teaching and learning as it takes place. Each of our two classrooms was equipped with two remotely-controlled cameras focused on a single student who was also wearing a microphone as they participated in class. Each class day, two different students wore microphones and were followed by these remotely-controlled cameras. In addition, fixed-focus cameras were mounted in the four corners of the classroom to record the overall classroom activity. Although the classroom video recordings were made from 2001 to 2006, the analysis of the videos and our research is ongoing.

What have we observed in the videos? For example, it is well known that acquiring English literacy can be a challenge for low-education students, and we have seen that in our data as well. We have also seen that literacy isn’t the only challenge faced by these low-education learners. They must also learn how to “do school.” Learners who have attended school as children or adolescents come to ESOL classes knowing how school “works.” They know how to start activities, how to ask for help, and how to be an expert or novice in a classroom interaction.

We look forward to this weeklong special discussion about working with low-education learners. It is a valuable opportunity to bring together practice and research about this important learner population.

Guests Participants: Kathy Harris, PhD (Portland State University), Dominique Brillanceau, MA (Portland Community College)

Moderator: Miriam Burt, MA, (Center for Applied Linguistics) LINCS Discussion List moderator

Guest Participant Biographies

Kathy Harris, teaches in the MA TESOL/TESL Certificate program at Portland State University in Oregon. Her research interests include learners’ native language education and literacy influences in adult ESL classrooms, learner interaction, classroom instructional design, and teacher professional development. Along with Professor Steve Reder, Dr. Harris helped to design the NCSALL ESL Lab School at Portland State – two ESL classrooms equipped with digital audio and video recording equipment that enables researchers and teachers to analyze classroom interactions in detail.

Dominique Brillanceau, has taught ESL at Portland Community College for the past 24 years, including basic English skills, literacy, survival skills, workplace ES0L, and academic English to international students and immigrants. From 2001 to 2006, Brillanceau was a full-time instructor at the NCSALL ESL Lab School at Portland State University. Her research interests include literacy acquisition in adult ESL classrooms, the classroom as a community of practice, and ESL professional development through teacher self-reflection.

Preparation and Suggested Readings:

Prior to and during the discussion, we invite you to watch several video clips that illustrate a few of the things we have observed in our research. To view the videos, you’ll need to download a plug-in for Internet Explorer and take a few minutes to go through the process, but we believe that the effort will be worth it.

To watch the classroom observation clips, you will need:
1. A PC with Windows 98 or later
2. Administrator permissions on the computer
3. A high-speed Internet access such as DSL or cable
4. Internet Explorer (not compatible with other browsers)

If these four things are possible, then click here to view the video clips and follow the instructions.

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