Adult ESOL Learners who Struggle: Is it Really LD - Full Discussion Days 3-5

Adult ESOL Learners who Struggle: Is it Really LD

September 17-22, 2010

Guest Speaker Bio | Agenda
Full Discussion: Days 1 - 2 | Full Discussion: Days 3 - 5

Full Discussion: Days 3 - 5

Guest Speaker: Robin Lovrien Schwarz
Moderator: Rochelle Kenyon, Ed.D.

[LD 5803] Discussion on ESL and LD Day 3, posting 1-2

Robin Schwarz

Sun Sep 19 14:25:31 EDT 2010

Hi-- Day 3 discussion of problems with testing ELLS. Here are more challenges to testing in issues related to reading:

As I mentioned in my introduction today, adults who are literate in another language bring further complications to the testing situation. Briefly, here are some of those problems:

There is a conventional wisdom that “you only learn to read once.” In the neurological sense, this is true. As I noted in comments about low education, becoming literate is known to change the brain completely. So, in the sense that the brain has learned how to attach sound and meaning to scribbles on a page, yes, once that task is accomplished, the brain now knows that that is what reading entails. The leap to literacy happens once.

However, learning to read in a given language and script (orthography) establishes very clear patterns in the brain. When a learner who is literate in another language begins to read English, the brain does first what it has learned to do in the first language. It requires conscious effort for the reader to process words, syntax and meaning in English because it is necessarily different from how reading happens in the learner’s first language. (See the extensive work of Keiko Koda for detailed research on the way first language reading impacts second language reading). A reader’s brain will have to learn a new way of assigning sound to written symbols, a new word order, new features of grammar and so on.

Thus it is normal for a literate adult reader to read laboriously and slowly in English (and don’t’ forget that laborious reading could also be affected by poor vision!); practice will, of course, increase fluency and comprehension, but according to Koda, the increase can be very gradual. If tested on a timed test, an adult ELL may appear to perform poorly because of completing little of the test. We have no clear norms for how long adult learners from different languages learn to read English; on the contrary, what is being learned is that many other factors influence this process as well.

Cultural ways of organizing discourse and text also influence reading for adult ELLs and add to the difficulty of understanding what is read. (Koda addresses this, too, and I highly recommend a book by Helen Fox, called “Listening to the World: Issues in Academic Writing”, which provides excellent discussions of the effect of culture on reading and writing for educated learners. I downloaded it from the Internet). If a reading is not organized the way a reader expects because of conditioning in his or her culture to expect a different presentation, again this reader may have to make a significant conscious effort to make sense of the text.

Culture also influences reading at the word and meaning level. One study I found showed that if there were different ways of interpreting items on a test, ELLs were likely to receive lower scores than native English speakers. One example given was a statement such as “Mother served breakfast.” If the reader has an idea of breakfast and who serves it, if indeed it is served, that is culturally completely different from ours, then his or her understanding is already different.

Another complication of testing is the previous education of learners. I have written here about how having a very low education interferes with classroom performance. It is not hard to think that it also interferes enormously with testing. Learners with low education are challenged in every aspect of testing. They lack familiarity with the kinds of items used on tests, and may be visually very challenged by pictures, which they may not yet know how to interpret. Thus, so-called “non-verbal” testing is hardly appropriate. Non-verbal testing often involves geometric shapes or picture sequences, but unless the learner has been taught how to interpret these items, he or she will struggle with them. Learners with rote educations will not be familiar with the analytical thinking we require in our educational system, and any learner may be unfamiliar with content on tests from our country.

Robin Lovrien

[LD 5826] Re: Discussion on ESL and LD Day 3, posting 1-2 Keiko Koda

Jane Addeo

Tue Sep 21 00:01:29 EDT 2010

Hi Robin,

Thank you so much for your informative and timely postings. Would you mind providing the reference Keiko Koda's research?



[LD 5834] Re: Discussion on ESL and LD Day 3, posting 1-2 Keiko Koda

Robin Schwarz

Tue Sep 21 15:42:07 EDT 2010

Jane-- Koda's primary work is "Insights into Second Language Learning," published in 2004. Tonight or tomorrow a.m., I will post a number of things with information on readings I recommend. That will have another of Koda's more recent writings. You can always access all the things I recommend on Google Scholar, a fabulous place to find anything.

Robin Lovrien

[LD 5849] Re: Discussion on ESL and LD Day 3, posting 1-2 Keiko Koda

Jane Addeo

Tue Sep 21 23:26:19 EDT 2010

Thanks, Robin.

[LD 5805] Discussion on ESL and LD Day 3 posting 1-3

Robin Schwarz

Sun Sep 19 14:27:15 EDT 2010

This is more on the complications adult ELL learners bring to the testing situation:

Phonological skills are an integral part of reading skills, and for readers in English, weaknesses in these skills are often strongly associated with reading difficulties. I noted in the first posting today that if young ELLs have been educated from a young age in phonological skills along with their English-speaking peers, they can probably be reliably tested on these skills.

However, for adults, the situation is more complicated. There is some belief that phonological skills transfer from one language to another. This is true only on the most basic for most learners and is highly dependent on education level. If the adult has very low or no education in his or her first language, phonological skills in that language are necessarily limited, since we know from research that phonological skills fill out, as it were, as literacy grows. Thus testing an adult ELL and finding he or she has weak phonological skills may really be showing that the adult has low education. ELLs with higher education are much more likely to consciously transfer skills. To put it simply, such a learner may say to him or herself, “I know there are words in that string of sound. I have to figure out how to recognize them.” Or, “if I learn the sounds of this language, I will be able to figure out how to recognize words, “and so on. In other words, it is likely to be a very conscious process, as I noted earlier about adult language acquisition. This conscious attention to phonological skills is facilitated by education.

Second, evidence shows that once phonological skills are fully in place in one language, they influence how a learner reads in the new language, even if the learner’s first language is written in the Roman alphabet. Readers of Swedish or German read according to the phonological structure of their languages, and do not use English phonology readily.

This means that of course, each language has a different phonological system, and phonological skills play a different role in different languages. This was shown most clearly in contrasting English and Chinese. Those who are learning to read in Chinese traditionally learned by rigorous practice in writing characters and thus, one important study showed that for Chinese children, motor skills were more important to good reading than phonological skills. What this told researchers is that phonological skills are not universal and testing them does not reveal reading difficulties or strengths in the same way in different languages. Therefore, testing the phonological skills of adult learners can be very misleading.

I have long proposed, however, that we DO need to know how well developed the English phonological skills of an adult learner are so that we can help that learner strengthen these essential skills. The phonological skills may be low for several reasons, as I have mentioned. The learner may have a low education, or his or her language is phonologically very distant from English, or she or he has inadequate metacognitive skills and does not know how to reflect consciously on aspects of language, or, in fact, phonological skills may be a fundamental weakness of the learner.

If a learner is struggling with learning to read and other factors, such as vision problems or very low education, have been eliminated, then it is a good idea to check to see if that person can hear and manipulate rhyme in English, and if he or she can hear and manipulate individual sounds (phonemes) in words. I remember a teacher in Massachusetts who was concerned about a learner who was extremely fluent in English but was not learning to read at all. He had a reasonably strong education in his first language, and she insisted he would be able to rhyme and it must be something else. But when she actually tried it with him, she was astonished to find out he could not hear nor produce rhyme in English. In most cases, I have encountered, if this weakness is found, it can be gradually strengthened, and as it gets stronger, the reading skill develops. Rhyme is a fundamental phonological structure in English, and sensitivity to it also brings sensitivity to syllables and awareness of internal structure of words.

Robin Lovrien

[LD 5808] Re: Discussion on ESL and LD Day 3 posting 1-3

Carolyn Serva

Mon Sep 20 15:08:53 EDT 2010


I am wondering if the material you are presenting could be given to us in a format that can be used for staff/volunteer tutor trainings (i.e. handouts, PowerPoint).

Carolyn Serva, Associate Director

The Literacy Center, Allentown, PA 18101

[LD 5819] Re: Discussion on ESL and LD Day 3 posting 1-3

Robin Schwarz

Mon Sep 20 20:24:49 EDT 2010

Carloyn-- In regards to the request for the material in a format to use for training, I have Powerpoints on a lot of this, but they require a lot of verbal back up-- and I am writing my dissertation at the moment, so cannot take time to write the book I have always wanted to write.. I do appreciate this very flattering request however. The other way to get it is to ask me to come and do some PD!

Robin Lovrien

[LD 5810] Re: Discussion on ESL and LD Day three posting 1-1

Beth Ellie

Mon Sep 20 16:38:32 EDT 2010

My ELL students recently took the TABE for math. Many of them scored low because they could not decode the test, not due to lack of ability. As I teach, I am focusing on practical math skills as well as a small amount of time on how to decode common types of test questions. While I am not teaching to the test, I do feel it is important to help student know "when you see this, it means that."

When dealing with standardized tests, are there better ways for a teacher to help students demonstrate their true skills and test well? I don't want expert test takers, I want students whose skills serve them well in daily life. I also want them to be able see their progress when they take tests as they put a great deal of importance on test results. Any feedback is welcome...


[LD 5820] Re: Discussion on ESL and LD Day three posting 1-1

Robin Schwarz

Mon Sep 20 20:27:11 EDT 2010

Beth-- this question of how to help students be better test takers is very important. As I mentioned in the postings for Sunday somewhere, a great deal of research shows that it is usually the language complexity that gets in the way of good testing results, not knowledge of math.

Your method sounds good-- there are books on test taking skills that could help with guidance on this. I would suggest helping students with typical phrases on tests, with reading abstract language--deciphering the passive voice for example. Give them practice with impersonal language that is typical of math tests. And for sure give them lots of practice with the different ways different operations are signaled-- I found 2nd or 3rd grade math practice workbooks that had many exercises for just that-- asking students which operation was needed when such and so language was used. You could look for something like that and do LOTS of that.

And NO, it is not teaching to the test. It is teaching school survival skills and CALP.

Robin Lovrien

[LD 5804] Discussion on ESL and LD Day 3, posting 2-1

Robin Schwarz

Sun Sep 19 14:29:20 EDT 2010

Hi all-- this is the second topic in the day' discussion of challenges to the testing process for ELLs.

Learner issues obviously influence the testing process enormously, especially if the testing involves a lot of reading. The testing system itself is flawed for adult ELLs learners, too. In my view, two major issues exist. One is that none of the tests used for evaluating learners for LD are normed (that is, standardized) on populations that really resemble the learners in adult ESOL. They ARE normed somewhat on learners who are college ESL students, who tend to have a fairly robust educational background, although the factors of CALP and culture always interfere. But if the tests are not really developed on the adult ESOL population, then we cannot really know what testing results mean. Do they really indicate that this learner is performing poorly in an absolute sense, or is it because the items on the test are too hard, or have unfamiliar content or are unfamiliar in format, or what? How does this person compare to others from this language, country, culture, educational background etc.? As you can see, the picture from testing is highly incomplete.

Tests are, by definition, cultural artifacts. The very act of testing someone to find out why he or she is not learning is a cultural behavior, typical of our culture but not all others. Robert Sternberg, who is a guru of the field of intelligence, realized this a few years ago and has written interestingly on this. He is not the only one. Others realized that HOW testing items are written influences how persons from different cultures manage them. One researcher showed this with banana farmers in West Africa using the standard intelligence test. When the items were in their abstract, Western format, the farmers’ results indicated their intelligence was very low. When the format was change to use familiar problems related to banana farming, the farmers scored extremely high.

Thus, it is difficult to know what the results of intelligence tests mean when the tests are used with persons from other cultures. Though I do not have figures on outcomes, I know anecdotally of many adults from other cultures who were tested without consideration of their backgrounds and were labeled as mentally retarded because of low scores on testing. I worked with one such adult ELL, a Haitian lady who was devastated by this finding, which was obviously untrue, as this woman had achieved a great deal on her own. She did have a significant writing challenge that, with proper diagnosis might have been labeled dysgraphia. No one she had access to, however, was qualified to do such a diagnosis.

Robin Lovrien

LD 5811] Discussion on ESL and LD Day 3 posting 2-2

Robin Schwarz

Sun Sep 19 14:31:38 EDT 2010

Here I continue and then conclude the remarks on the flaws/challenges in the testing and evaluation process for identifying LD in adult ELLs. The second major issue in the testing process for adult ELLs is that tests must be administered by persons who are familiar with the culture and language of the persons being tested so that issues of culture and language are taken into account if possible. Not only that, but the tester should be someone familiar with adult learning, adult language acquisition, the effects of low education on learning, and so on. Is it hard to understand that perhaps no one with these qualifications exists?? Who, then, is qualified to test an adult Somali or Ukrainian, or Argentinean?

When I was studying the literature about the problems that arise when evaluating ELLs, I was also surprised to learn that in many cases in the studies, those trained to do testing actually ignored state and professional guidelines that require that ELLs’ language skills in both languages be evaluated and that any cultural factors that could impact testing had to be taken into account. But this behavior of evaluators aligns with the assertion of Ysseldyke many years ago that about 98% of the time, children referred for evaluation are found to have a special learning need. In other words, he believed it was a self-fulfilling prophecy: if a child is referred, then he or she MUST have something wrong so we will find it. This same belief affects the evaluation of ELLS apparently, according to the very good studies I have read. It also affects some teachers of ELLs, who may believe most sincerely that every symptom of struggling in learning must be the result of LD and that evaluation will therefore pinpoint the exact nature of the LD.

Please remember I am not making this up!! Over my 20+ years as a consultant, I have been asked countless times to tell teachers how to deal with the ELLs who have LD (how do THEY know their students have LD??); or how to deal with the learner who “can’t learn anything” or has bad handwriting and therefore, must have LD, or for whom teachers have “tried everything” and nothing works. Inevitably the many factors I have cited here that cause ELLS to struggle have not been examined, nor has “everything” REALLY been tried. In the case where I was told that, the woman had a very robust education, was literate in both English and Spanish BUT had only about 25% hearing left and had a serious home situation, neither of which her program or teachers was aware of! Our culture has taken to the notion of LD very firmly and learning struggles are typically framed in it, but it is important to be VERY careful in ascribing the struggles of ELLs to LD.

Finally, as I have said already in this discussion, the reality of the situation for adult ELLS must be taken into consideration. There is NO special education in adult ESOL. Even if adults WERE correctly diagnosed and had documentation, what would that change in their placement? They would still have to come to adult ESOL classes. FEW programs have tutors, and even if they do, the tutors may not be well trained in a broad range of remedial strategies for adult ELLs with learning challenges.

Learners in community college settings must request accommodation and present documentation to get it, but documentation would be based on the flawed testing I have described. Furthermore, as I mentioned in a very early posting, culturally, the notion of having something wrong in learning is very disturbing to students in my extensive experience with adult English language learners. This means that instead of feeling relieved at knowing what was wrong, as is often cited as a major reason adults should be diagnosed, adult ELLs may be offended or unduly worried or embarrassed by such a diagnosis.

I say all this to urge that when you have a learner who struggles, you consider carefully and systematically all the factors that could possibly be interfering with learning, and that you bear in mind what I have said today about the pitfalls of the testing process that will inevitably make your learner LOOK more disabled than he or she actually is. If you find you have done this and none of the factors mentioned truly appear to affect learning, then try many of the teaching suggestions I will make tomorrow and Tuesday about how to address a wide range of students.

Robin Lovrien

[LD 5815] 98% of ELL's evaluated found to have LD?

Brant Hayenga

Mon Sep 20 18:57:09 EDT 2010


You had the following statement: I was also surprised to learn that in many cases in the studies, those trained to do testing actually ignored state and professional guidelines that require that ELLs' language skills in both languages be evaluated and that any cultural factors that could impact testing had to be taken into account. But, this behavior of evaluators aligns with the assertion of Ysseldyke many years ago that about 98% of the time, children referred for evaluation are found to have a special learning need.

I am the first to agree that testing ELLs' is complicated. I wonder what the percentage of cases sampled was in which state and professional guidelines were ignored. A statement like that would be much better supported with data. In my present district we have a wonderful woman from Honduras who is trained in, and is a specialist in, evaluating ELL students, and on any cases we have worked on together, she always follows state and professional guidelines.

My most recent hit rate on all students evaluated for LD at my schools is not as dramatic as Ysseldyke asserts. Last year the percentage of students I tested who met LD qualification criteria was 82%. The previous year the hit rate was 76%. Most years my numbers are in that range.

Please cite any other of the very good studies you mentioned, as I am sure our bilingual evaluator will read them.


Brant Hayenga

[LD 5828] Re: 98% of ELL's evaluated found to have LD?

Robin Schwarz

Tue Sep 21 01:02:06 EDT 2010

Brant, I just wrote you a long and detailed reply and then my internet connection kicked out this mail service, so I lost it. The gist of it was that the details you are looking for are in the chapter 1 wrote for NIFL, which you can download-- maybe quickly since NIFL is about to be moved over to OVAE and things may be different then. If you go to, Learning to Achieve is a button on the main page. In my chapter, I cite 5 studies where the professionalism of persons involved in diagnosing or referring ESL students was way off. The biggest and most carefully structured study was in an entire school district of Southern CA. That one is by Figueroa and Newsome (2006).

There was a terrific summit on ELLs and LD held by the DOE in 2005 and many excellent studies were reported on there, quite a few of which I cite in my chapter. There was a strong feeling at that summit that fair evaluation of ELLS is elusive, and there was excellent and BIG research to back it up.

Robin Lovrien

[LD 5802] Re: Handwriting resources/articles

Aaron Kohring

Mon Sep 20 12:53:52 EDT 2010


Just thought I could share some resources/articles on Handwriting that I used on that topic in a graduate ESL class here at UT.

Ajineh, M. M. (1996). Handwriting: The neglected skill. English Teaching Forum, 34 (2), 44-46.

Barnard, R. (1997). The need to revise handwriting systematically. English Teaching Forum, 35 (4), 44-45.

Ediger, M. (1999). Evaluation, handwriting, and its importance. (ERIC Document Reproduction Service No. ED 429 095)

Einhorn, K. (2001). Handwriting success for all. Instructor (1990) [On-line], 110 (5). Available: Tennessee Electronic Library

Getty, B. & Dubay, I. (1994). Italic handwriting series: Instruction manual. Portland, OR: Continuing Education Press.

Graham, S., Berninger, V., Weintraub, N., & Schafer, W. (1998). Development of handwriting speed and legibility in grades 1-9. The Journal of Educational Research, 92 (1), 42-52.

Haynes, J. (1995). American handwriting: Slow and easy. McHenry, IL: Delta Publishing Company.

Humburg, R. (1993). Handwriting. Cincinnati, OH: South-Western Publishing Company.

Naus, J. M. (2000). A world of manipulatives to boost handwriting skills. Teaching Exceptional Children, 32, 64-70.

Stempel-Mathey, L. & Wolf, B. J. (1999). Teaching handwriting. In J. R. Birsh (Ed.), Multisensory teaching of basic language skills. Baltimore, MD: Paul H. Brookes Publishing Company.

Aaron Kohring

UT Center for Literacy Studies, Knoxville, TN 37996-4135

[LD 5814] Re: Handwriting resources/articles

Robin Schwarz

Mon Sep 20 18:40:39 EDT 2010

Fantastic Aaron!! Thank you so much for sharing these important resources!

Robin Lovrien

[LD 5854] Re: Handwriting resources/articles

Helen Booth

Wed Sep 22 10:46:01 EDT 2010


If you use a Smartboard and allow the students to write on it with their fingers or with a smart pen, you can use the video on the smart board to video their hand movements, (not the hand itself) so you can replay to them how they write. You can notice every time the pen is lifted from the surface of the board. A good tool for self-assessment!

Helen B.

[LD 5813] Beginning the DAY 4 postings on ESL/LD

Robin Schwarz

Mon Sep 20 17:34:31 EDT 2010

Hi all –this is day 4 and today I will talk about some things you can do to prevent adult ELLs from falling on failure by taking steps to assure the issues discussed over the past three days are addressed.

Things to do BEFORE instruction begins:

Get to know the culture of the learners you are likely to have in your program or class. In most communities, there are one or more predominant immigrant or refugee groups who are the most likely to show up for English. The more you can know about these cultures, the easier it will be to anticipate the students’ attitudes towards school, teachers, classroom behavior, families and family obligations, and so on. Remember that speakers of the same language are not all culturally alike—Spanish speakers come from an enormous variety of cultures, as do Africans or French-speaking Africans, or people from the Caribbean. There are various sites online which provide basic information about different countries and cultures, but these sites do not discuss the attitudes about school mentioned above, nor much about interpersonal relations. One of the hallmarks of my work is that I have consulted any field of scholarship that may inform me about different cultures and people who come from them. For example, to learn more about the culture of adult ELLs, I have found a great deal of useful information in books about multicultural assessment in the fields of mental health and social work. One book I really like is “Assessing and Treating Culturally Diverse Clients” by Freddy Paniagua. This is from a whole series of books called Multicultural Aspects of Counseling. Also reading books such as “The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down,” by Ann Fadiman has been invaluable for me. This book is about the Hmong people in Merced, California and is rich in information about a culture that is vastly different from our own.

There are MANY books available about the immigrant experience, particularly about people from Central and South America and their difficulties. Films, too, address these issues. Even popular films such as Babel give glimpses of other cultures and our misunderstandings of them.

When the Sudanese arrived in the US, there were many newspaper articles about them, and the Sudanese, as most people, have websites where much can be learned about values, cultural events, modes of dress and so on. Many films have been made about the Sudanese and others.

Perhaps some of you can suggest other readings to the list.

I suggest, then, that teachers in a program begin to compile reading lists and a notebook of information about the cultures they will regularly serve in their program. This way, new teachers will have a resource to consult and veteran teachers can add their hard-won knowledge about groups of people they have had in class.

Robin Lovrien

[LD 5816] Discussion on ESL LD Day 4 posting #2

Robin Schwarz

Mon Sep 20 17:35:26 EDT 2010

Posting 2 for Day 4-- teaching ideas

Perhaps the MOST important step to take in preventing failure among adult ELLs is to get to know your learners as well as you can. In college or other academic settings where teachers have little or no part in the actual intake, this means creating activities during the first weeks of class that provide opportunities for you to get to know students. These activities may include surveys, where students ask each other questions about work, families, educational history, interests, and so on. Another version of survey that can be fun in a very multicultural class is a statistical one, where students compile information about the number of languages students speak, countries they are from, months or years in the US, countries students have lived in and so on. Having a reading at the appropriate level or levels about someone else’s experience or an incident in the community can provide a starting point for small group discussions and so on. Other aspects of intake discussed below can and should also happen in the academic ESL settings.

For adult ESOL, I recommend creating a thorough intake process. For reasons I have yet to understand, many, MANY teachers and programs balk at lengthening and deepening the intake process. Some have said it takes away from instructional time, but I say if this helps you know your students well enough to adjust what and how you teach so as not to set up students for failure, then what could be more important? And, just as I suggested for academic ESL, activities for getting to know students can also be included in the first week or two of classes.

A good intake should not ask how many years of education a student has had, but rather for information about a student’s school experience. Where was it? More than one country? How was it? If in refugee camps, how often did classes meet? Who taught them? If in a student’s country, how long did he or she go to school each week? Each month? Each year? How big were classes, and most important, how was learning demonstrated? (i.e., did students memorize? If so what?) I also like to find out what teachers did when a student was late or disrupted class or did not know the information for class. You can do some of this by questionnaire, and if students cannot write or read well enough, then by interview, with a translator if necessary. This information will give YOU a GREAT idea not only of the oral and literacy skills of your students, but also of the mindset of your students when they come to your class. Don’t forget that example I gave of the Burundian student who was so upset by her “lazy, stupid GED teacher.” So many times teachers have told me they found out AFTER a student had dropped out that he or she was unhappy in class because the teacher was not teaching right or the class was not what the student needed or expected. As the old saying goes, “Forewarned is forearmed!” If you know your students are expecting the most traditional format for learning and do not expect to have to answer questions, you can avoid disaster by introducing the inter-active activities we KNOW are good for learning very gradually. You can mix straight book teaching with other kinds of activities in little doses. You can make VERY transparent everything you are doing.

Robin Lovrien

[LD 5821] Discussion on ESL LD Day 4 posting #3

Robin Schwarz

Mon Sep 20 17:36:23 EDT 2010

Continuing the discussion about doing a good intake to prevent learning difficulties:

As part of your intake, be sure to find out what your students’ work and home schedules are. One of the commonest complaints about students in adult ESOL is that they do not do homework, or as one teacher put it, “They do not have ‘student’ behaviors.” Of course, in the minds of students who have education from their countries, of course they have student behaviors. The behaviors are NOT what we expect, though. And, for students with no prior education, there ARE no school behaviors except what they have observed in others, likely in their country.

As I have mentioned, one major obstacle not only to homework but also to progress in our system of education is that students have learned through memorization. If you ask them to “go over” something at home, or even to do some pages at home without mentioning memorizing, many will dismiss it as unimportant. Others, wanting to be good students, but either not having the school behaviors or having very full lives outside class, will say they do not have time for homework. When I encountered that problem in my adult ESOL class, I had students go over a schedule and figure out where in their schedule they could fit in homework. One teacher I worked with recently took this idea to heart and now has her students go over an hour-by-hour schedule in small groups. Students must commit to their group how much time they will spend on homework, and then the groups meet every week to monitor each other’s progress. This makes the need for homework even clearer than if you gently tell them it is good for them to do it. And sometimes you have to get tough. I recently tutored an older Ethiopian lady who had been in the same level of ESL for over four years. I insisted she do homework, and she insisted right back that “Teacher, I have no experience with homework. I don’t DO homework.” I told her then that she could not return to tutoring, which she loved, if she did not do homework for me. The very next session she was there with completed homework, which she had done during breaks at work with the help of co-workers. This was GREAT because it meant she was interacting with other English speakers and was thinking about learning OUTSIDE of class for the first time.

So, as I suggest, if you take time at the beginning to help learners find time for homework, and gradually, according to their education and skill level, give them small assignments, acknowledge that they did it, and guide them to make a homework record—one where they can write the assignment, and then check it off when completed, they will be far more engaged and successful in studying outside of class.

Even students in academic ESL may need some guidance and prodding about homework for the same reasons as stated above—cultural unfamiliarity with our version of homework and the deep-seated belief that in the end, it doesn’t really count. Also, many students in academic ESL are generation 1.5, those born elsewhere but who grew up here and have gone to school in the U.S. These students may have a good idea of homework, but behaviors of fitting in have left them with poor habits about it. Guidance for them, too, is a good idea. I currently have a number of students like this who DO homework, but do it very poorly and sloppily. These students require explicit expectations and lots of reward for doing homework better.

Robin Lovrien

[LD 5822] Discussion on ESL LD Day 4 posting #4

Robin Schwarz

Mon Sep 20 17:37:13 EDT 2010

Day 4 -- Careful placement of students

Another way to prevent failure in adult ELLs is to make sure to the greatest extent possible that they are placed well. Using the intake information, take a good look at the literacy skills as well as the oral skills.

In most programs I have visited or coached, placement is ultimately done by oral skills. This means that students who have studied English in the traditional way—translation and grammar in workbooks—are obliged to be in class with students who have no skills in English at all. The converse is also a problem: a student who has great oral skills but very low literacy skills. These are the two placement mistakes that cause many dropouts and cause students to look as if they have LD. The student with great literacy skills may look very poor in the class for those with low oral skills because the literate student really understands a great deal and has a sense of grammar and so on, which the low educated students generally lack. (Remember my story on Saturday about the Vancouver program that kept losing well-educated students because they were treated as if they had no education?).

Another problem that arises with students of mixed literacy background in a low-skills class is that the literate students end up with an advantage since whether we believe it or not, “beginning” ESL usually includes a LOT of text, and those with no text skills are at a dreadful disadvantage.

The current wisdom is that students with NO prior literacy should be placed in a separate class since their learning must start with far more basic skills than any literate student needs. Literate students are frustrated at being with those who have no literacy skills, and non-literate students are embarrassed and confused. I have observed this situation, and it is very sad.

In the other situation, the student with low literacy skills but high oral skills is likely to feel very embarrassed because inevitably the text part of class will be way over his or her head. Again, the faster, more educated students will feel frustrated and may disengage, knowing they are way ahead of these other students.

Tomorrow I will discuss a couple of methods to insure full inclusion of students in all levels for those of you with just one class for all students, as well as for all of us, who always have mixed-skill classes.

A couple of readings that you might find useful are “Instruction and Assessment for Limited-English Proficient Adult Learners,” by Ronald Solorzano, National Center for Adult Literacy Report TR94-05, and “Misconceptions about Teaching English-Language Learners,” by Candace Harper and Ester de Jong, 2004, Journal of Adolescent and Adult Literacy, Vol. 48 # 2.

Robin Lovrien

[LD 5823] Discussion on ESL LD Day 4 posting #5--1

Robin Schwarz

Mon Sep 20 17:38:13 EDT 2010

More on preventing failure up front:

Finally, one other way to help prevent failure for ELLs is routine inclusion of some practices in any class. Bear in mind these are my recommendations, based on many years’ experience, much study and research, and much coaching.

One practice is to consistently find out from your learners what they need English for. Of course, initially they are going to answer, “to improve my English.” But you need to press a little harder and find out just where and for what purpose they actually NEED and use English. Every adult ESOL student is in class to satisfy some personal need for English. One of the greatest reasons for students’ disengagement and dropping out is that their personal needs for English are not being met. Then instruction should address these needs as much as is humanly possible. The trend in adult ESOL is towards practical, vocational English. This may disappoint those who want students to enjoy the language and the literature of English, but it will greatly satisfy students who are in critical need of practical English. I was deeply gratified to learn that all of the teachers I coach in the mid-Hudson region of New York now routinely ask their students what they need English for so that the teachers can structure lessons around those needs.

I recognize that this practice is less possible for teachers in academic settings, where there is a heavy curriculum to get through. That is my current situation. However, whenever possible, try to help students connect what they are learning to their personal lives or their personal desires for college. I constantly tell my community college students that the skills we are practicing are designed to help them compete when they get to their content courses. I frequently check which student is planning to study what and then explicitly connect our current lesson with their coursework—for example, pointing out that previewing a textbook will be invaluable in a nursing course, where there is a lot of academic reading.

Robin Lovrien

[LD 5824] Discussion on ESL LD Day 4 posting #5--2

Robin Schwarz

Mon Sep 20 17:39:11 EDT 2010

A longer discussion of more classroom practices to prevent failure up front:

Another practice that enhances classroom functioning in adult ESOL is using students’ names and personal information as part of activities. I have found this to have an electrifying effect on class activities. For example, instead of using generic ESL names and information for writing practice, I use names and jobs and job-related activities in those practices. When practicing the present simple, it is easy to use names of students and what they do on their jobs: Carla wipes tables in the restaurant. Anna vacuums the lobby every day. Students LOVE this—plus it helps them to hear, say and use the vocabulary related to their jobs so that they master it. I remember a bartender student just recently who told me he was so happy to finally SEE the words he heard every day in his job—words like check the wine, clean the glasses, wipe the bar, order mixer, etc.

A third thing I find very helpful for ALL students is to continuously include bits of information about English phonology, pronunciation and spelling. Just Saturday I was teaching my high intermediate speaking class at a local community college and found out they did not know about how to know how to pronounce a word by using the two-consonant=short vowel rule (e.g. hidden, written, hopping, etc.). They also did not know, despite many of them being VERY educated in book English, the simple rule for knowing when to pronounce final –ed as a syllable!! (Look for the t or d at the end of the base word: Load—loaded, paint—painted.) I let them infer that—but it took about 6 minutes of staring at the board before someone got it!! If you need help reviewing these rules, that book I suggested several days ago, “English Sounds and Spelling” has excellent basic information for you AND your learners, and I have loved the books by Elsie T. Rak for years: “The Spell of Words” and “Spellbound.” These latter books are NOT for ESL students—the language is much to complex—but for YOU they will provide wonderful review of some of these basic rules of English spelling and phonology.

Include with this practice plenty of work with syllables. I have suggested earlier having students sort pictures by syllable number, or having bingo with syllable matching. (These are great learning center activities. Tomorrow I will talk about learning centers as the ideal way to manage a multilevel classroom.) This practice is good even for “advanced’ students and it REALLY helps those who have a terrible time hearing and repeating words and sentences, too.

One more practice I use constantly is listening dictation, where you dictate a sentence at the appropriate level for your students, then have them repeat it until they can repeat it absolutely 100% accurately, THEN they write it down, counting the words as they write. Tell them in advance, or have on the paper they use the number of sentences in each word. Students find this very challenging at first, and you may be very surprised at how few of them can repeat things accurately the first time and can write down accurately what they say (Be careful of education levels here!! Low literate students should only deal with the vocabulary they know, and emerging literate students will find this very hard!) Joan Morley, one of the goddesses of aural English skills in my book, wrote a book called ‘Listening Dictation” out of print but available on Amazon, which has great lessons for this activity. However, this book, like all of her books is intended for the very literate student. Nonetheless, my “very literate” community college students were stumped by “in spite of” and “although” on Saturday. I found out quickly I would have to move down about three levels in this book for most of them to have success! This practice hits all the bases: phonological awareness, phonemic awareness, sustained listening, listening for meaning, spelling, punctuation, capitalization, reading (to check for accuracy in writing.). I really love it.

Robin Lovrien

[LD 5825] Discussion on ESL LD Day 4 posting # 6

Robin Schwarz

Mon Sep 20 17:49:42 EDT 2010

One more important message about screening:

Before I end this discussion of what can help to prevent failure up front, let me remind you all about what I mentioned a couple of days ago: Vision and hearing screening and screening for visual stress syndrome.

You should expect vision problems affecting reading in about 10% of your population or more. ELLs often do not have easy access to health care and vision and hearing screening, so they may have undiagnosed vision problems, or they may have very old glasses. Look at your group –of any age in any setting—and you will notice that many fewer persons in the ELL group have glasses than would a similar number of people who have lived in the US for a long time or are native-born Americans.

Visual stress syndrome is an issue in the occipital lobe of the brain, where light is received in visual messages. In some people, one or more of the light receptors is more or less “allergic” to a color in the light spectrum, and this causes great discomfort in reading and overactivity in the brain. This problem is easily addressed by use of colored overlays, and often by simple use of colored paper for reading and practice exercises. Many people have this problem to some degree or another and either realize it and avoid reading or compensate by making shade on their pages wherever they can, or by choosing books with yellow pages. Just last week I was working with young woman who is a master’s in TESOL candidate and she confessed she could not read for long periods of time. When I mentioned this syndrome she noted that she usually chooses books with yellowed pages!! She seized an aqua overlay and went home to read the articles I had given her! This issue knows no boundaries of education or culture, just as vision problems do not. It is NOT something an eye doctor will catch, either, so you can really help your students by screening them. The stories about people who have been helped by finding out they had this problem are endless and wonderful. You can learn more at

Don’t forget hearing screening. Our adult ESOL learners often have no idea they have a hearing loss, or because of cultural embarrassment about handicaps, will NEVER tell you if they know they have one. Remember my story about the Guatemalan lady who was nearly deaf and never told anyone in her program and was placed in phonics class for two years when she did not need that at all ..!!

One more day—tomorrow—more teaching ideas, especially learning centers.

Robin Lovrien

[LD 5830] Day 5 postings will come later in day for LD -ESL discussion

Robin Schwarz

Tue Sep 21 01:06:13 EDT 2010

Hi all-- I have to teach all midday tomorrow and there has been a ton of stuff for you to read, so I will post later in the day the last items about teaching techniques to help a wider range of learners. This will give you all time to read and to post some questions and more of your great questions.

Aren't there anymore "I have a student who..." questions out there? They really help others apply what I have been saying to real people.

Robin Lovrien

[LD 5831] I have a student who...

Nicole Hawkes

Tue Sep 21 13:11:33 EDT 2010

I have a student who.... is a woman from Brazil in her fifties. She has been in our Adult ESOL program for six years and has always tested into our beginner level class (always an 88 on the BEST Plus oral test and cannot answer any questions or fill in any blanks on our in-house written assessment). She is the most dedicated student who has never missed a single class in all her years with us! She seems to pay attention in class but when it comes time to produce anything, she seems to freeze, get frustrated, and sometimes gets very upset. For example, she has been in a class for 6 years that starts with learning the alphabet, numbers, colors, months, etc.. Every year it's as if she has never been in a class before and starting from scratch. Our program is almost all Brazilians, classes meet 2 nights a week from 6:30-9:30pm. (Robin, you came to this program when you were on the Vineyard a few years ago.) Robin, what can we do to help this student?


Nicole Hawkes, Martha's Vineyard Adult Learning Program

[LD 5836] Re: I have a student who...

Robin Schwarz

Tue Sep 21 16:09:09 EDT 2010

Hi Nicole-- I remember this program-- and probably this lady was there, then, too!! AS I have said to others who were good enough to share real life examples, this is exactly the kind of case that makes us all think there must be LD there. I would agree, in the sense that this woman needs to learn in highly exceptional ways and does not fit the norm of learning in any way that you and the program have seen yet.

However, as I have said several times, it makes no real difference in anything to diagnose her. It does make a difference to acknowledge what is clear and what you all already know too well: what is happening is not working. To quote FDR: Do something. If it works, do more of it; If it doesn't work, then try something else!

Here is a case where you need to throw out the current testing paradigm for this lady. By now, her brain has deeply imprinted on it that she is not going to perform on the tests. Also, throw out goals such as learning the alphabet or numbers unless there is clear evidence she needs them. Instead, back up and find a few words she wants to recognize in speech, or read or write, and work on those as whole units. Make clear to her and yourselves what the goal is. She may be able to learn to spell them by rote--start with her name and the names of family members, her road, -- not too much at once. Play matching games with the words, unscramble them, play bingo with them for her to recognize them, have her be the caller in bingo so she says them, have her spell them with movable letters while looking at the word, then try spelling while not looking at the word, picking out the letters for the word as someone says them to her one at a time from ONLY the letters needed for the word, not the whole alphabet. THEN, when she seems to have acquired some memory for those words, make a nice little chart with the words on it and use GREAT BIG holographic stars on it for each word she can read automatically and or can point to when read-- do not fudge the criteria for a star. This should provide her with a great big reward and motivation to try a couple new words ADDED to the ones she has already. It really requires re-thinking the approach to her learning and to what she learns. Continue to have conversations describing pictures, doing TPR and other things to continue to give her auditory input And for heaven's sake check--or recheck-- her hearing and vision!! I would be surprised if there were NOT a mild hearing loss, for one thing.

Do you have a good educational history on her? Is there anyone who knows her well whom you can talk to (with her permission) to find out what she learns under other circumstances? Does she work? If so, how does she learn on the job?? I would suspect she learns by watching and doing--then use that approach first, but include others once some retention is demonstrated.

Robin Lovrien

[LD 5832] Vietnamese student w/ possible LD?

Lynne Wheeler

Tue Sep 21 15:40:26 EDT 2010

I have a student who has been spending about an hour a week with me in a 1-1 tutoring situation for over a year and a half. She had no formal schooling in Vietnam, so did not know any alphabet. At first, I tried to address both her need to develop speaking and understanding skills and her need to learn to read and write. She learns new vocabulary quickly and is not shy about speaking English, so her speaking and understanding showed gains. However, we were at square one with reading and writing until we made that our main focus. (This came at her insistence that it was very important to her to become literate.) She can now tell me the sound each consonant makes when we do drills, and identify each letter, but she can't seem to understand that the sounds blend together to form words. We read things over and over and it is as if she had never seen these words before. I've used the Wilson Reading System approach with her (multisensory, phonics-based, direct) but we've not been able to progress very far. Recently, I tried taping a list of words from a story I wrote for her, so that it contained only words we had been studying. I also taped the story so she could read along with it. I told her I would ask her to spell the list of ten words for me at our next lesson, so she needed to rewind and listen over and over. I really did not know what to expect, but she spelled all ten with 100% accuracy! This is a very recent development, but for whatever reason it seems to be working. Do you think she is just a strong auditory learner? What would be the best way to go forward now that I've stumbled upon something that seems to work?

Lynne Wheeler, Program Manager

Literacy Volunteers--Campbell County Public Library, Rustburg, VA 24588

[LD 5839] Re: Vietnamese student w/ possible LD?

Robin Schwarz

Tue Sep 21 18:39:20 EDT 2010

Lynne-- in response to your questions about the Vietnamese lady--This is a little tricky to take stab at, but here goes. As I think I have mentioned here earlier, current research and wisdom about starting the non-literate on the literacy path is to build their receptive language skills and then use the Language Experience Approach to teach whole words that the learner herself uses. One of the clear findings about the non-literate adults is that if they cannot relate what they are trying to learn immediately to themselves, much of what is taught is lost, as you are finding out. That is why I do not recommend the Wilson approach for an ESL adult. The language is distant from them for the most part (I remember when I hadn't found that out and spent most of a 75 minute period once trying to explain three-letter CVC words on ONE page of sentences of Wilson to my university ESL students, who were remarkably fluent in everyday English.)

I believe I have recommended the Tacoma Community House Handbook for teachers of refugees and learners new to literacy. This book provides a fantastic array of activities to use to help increase the association of oral words to written words. I have suggested games such as Bingo, which provide a fun and easy way to help learners recognize words in print as you say them; when you use LEA, the student dictates or is helped to formulate, a story which is written and then many activities are structured around that. That way it is meaningful language--that is, language that is in the student's working vocabulary. Another way to assure that language and words are understood is to start instruction in any concept with CONCRETE items. For example, one common problem in teaching phonics to non-literate learners is that the learners cannot grasp the very abstract ideas of phonemes, or sounds within words. To teach this concept, use three REAL object-- a pen, a cup, a book, for example. Place them in front of your student, and, standing or sitting NEXT to her, point to the one on the left and say "This is the first thing." then point to the middle one and say "this is the middle thing." Then point to the one on the right and say "this is the last thing. We will call this the "final" one here." Then ask the learner "which is the middle thing?" She answers. Then, "Which is the final thing? She answers; "which is the first thing?" She answers. Then ask her, "Put the book in the middle." Then ask her the questions again. Continue this several times, asking each time about the first, last, and middle. Have her arrange the things and ask you. Next, switch to movable letters. Do the same process- use all consonants at first and tell her it is not a word. Then, move to real words; stick with a rhyming set if you can. Ask what is first, middle and last letter. Ask her to read it-- forget sounding out-- it should be a sight word--automatic. Then ask her to change the first letter to another consonant--that is, you say, "change the first letter to b ( the letter, not the sound). Ask her what the word is (bat)--try to use words you have pictures for. She may know nothing about baseball or about night bats, so check first. Now you have established that words can have beginning, middle and end letters. You can gradually go back and add on the concept of sounds if it makes sense--use words she knows.

Once you have the concept of beginning sound, have her practice listening to initial sounds and sorting pictures by sound. Do not move off of initial sounds until the concept seems very firm. Then go to final sounds, which will/should be much easier. Finally, start asking about middle sounds. Go back to the three letters and the concrete concept of middle. Point out that she can hear the beginning (e.g./k/ in cat) and the end (/t/ in cat)--and now listen to the middle sound. Take out the a and then say the word, the first sound, and then add the a as you come to it. Have her do the same thing with many words. Next day or week, have her listen to pairs of words and tell you if the beginning sounds are the same or different. When she is clear on that, then do it for final sounds, Then do it for middle sounds, waiting each time until she is really solid on the idea. By then she should be able to write familiar three letter words by identifying sounds.

Do these lessons a few minutes a day and then move on to the story for LEA and those activities. The adult brain has to organize all this information, and often information overload causes runoff--nothing soaks in.  (I might point out to all of you here that children do not learn to read by starting the alphabet or phonics. They have usually got a lot of training in phonological awareness- the beginning sounds and maybe ending sounds of words, rhyming and syllable awareness and even phoneme manipulation well before they begin literacy instruction, and great research has proven that those young ones who do not HAVE phonological awareness are in line for reading problems, so much focus is on these skills in pre-school and kindergarten for those whose PA is weak. Also, children are only taught to read words they already know, a rule many adult educators don't pay attention to. This is why LEA is critical. It requires a pretty good working vocabulary-- some say 3-5,000 words-- before phonics can make sense for those who have no prior literacy. Learning to write is just the written form of PA, which brings me back to my subject here).

I believe there is a pretty good section on LEA in the Practitioner Toolkit put out by the Center for Applied Linguistics. I will provide more information about this book when the discussion is over.

As for your learner getting the words 100% right, I say YAYY>   I would suspect, however, that it is pure memorizing and has little to do with real encoding. The test will be if she can remember them the next week and two weeks later. If so you have gotten the brass ring!! Keep doing more of that because of the success factor, especially. Use this for words the lady needs to read--sight words in the environment would be my recommendation. Don't worry about the story or sentences. Just be sure the words are words she sees: Women, exit, closed, open, etc. Names of stores, streets ,etc that are meaningful to her will also be of interest, I would guess. This takes a LOT of patience and time, but it sounds like you have no lack of the former, at least!!

Another of my favorite resources about the non-literate is an article written in 1982 by Haverson & Haynes called ESL Literacy for Adult Learners. This is just an amazing article in its grasp of the problem--the authors had extensive experience with non-literate adult learners. This item is available through ERIC--it was first sponsored by the Center for Applied Linguistics (CAL), but I have never seen it referred to on the CAL or CAELA sites.

I hope all of you out there who are working with learners with no prior education will take advantage of the resources I am recommending and start reading. We know little about these learners, really, and they are qualitatively and quantitatively different from adults who have even a little bit of literacy, and MUST be taught accordingly. These are not people who just need to catch up!!

Robin Lovrien

[LD 5833] Re: Day 5 postings will come later in day for LD -ESL discussion

Anna Carpenter

Tue Sep 21 15:42:51 EDT 2010


I have a student, who was in the beginning class and did everything he was asked to do in class. But no matter how many times I would ask him to complete his homework, he would come back to class next day without any work done. When I would review the material we went over the previous day with him, he would not remember 80% of the material covered. I talked to his wife, who by the way, is very proficient in English and was ready to help him, about the issue and asked her to help him at home. She told me he simply refused to do it. Consequently, he really didn't learn much, was frustrated being on the same level for a year and dropped out of class. And I felt like I failed. So, my question is this: how do you make a student do any homework or review the material? I've tried every possible way I could think of.

Also, how can we accurately differentiate between an ELL student with very limited language skills and an ELL student, who actually has an LD? It can be very confusing. I personally don't feel like I am qualified to diagnose someone with an LD.


Anna Carpenter

[LD 5840] Re: Day 5 postings will come later in day for LD –ESL discussion

Robin Schwarz

Tue Sep 21 19:05:18 EDT 2010  19:05:18 EDT 2010

Anna--do you notice the word "make" in your question?? For these adults you do not want to MAKE them do anything. You want to convince persons like this that a) they CAN do homework--it is possible for them to actually figure it out and b) that it makes a difference.

I have written in all this somewhere a lot about homework. For persons who have never done it, there needs to be a LOT of explicit conversation about what it is and why it is necessary, along with a LOT of explicit teaching of how to do what it is you want the person to do. You cannot send someone home with a reading to study, for example, who has never done homework before and has no idea of what is expected.

Start instead with an exact copy of something you did in class. Doing it again is NEVER a bad thing!! Make sure the student knows that he or she should do exactly what was done in class. Tell them it is practice, which is what all homework is for a LONG time in school. I worked with a lady in Massachusetts who would NEVER do homework. I finally made a bargain with her. I gave her 10 sight words on cards to practice reading and said if she did NOT do better on them after she read them at least 2 times a day between our lessons, I would not ask her to do it again. Of course, this was setting her up for success, because if she only read them one or two times at all before our next lesson, it was more than she had been doing, and of course she would read them more readily. She did just that--flew through the words without error and looked at me in total astonishment. After that, homework was not an issue.

It is awfully important, let me reiterate, that the homework be familiar and EASY, able to be completed in just a few minutes, and the procedure well known to the learner. NEVER give home-work to low literate learners that require figuring out anything or has words they have never seen.

NEVER underestimate the degree to which low-literate, unsophisticated learners can be confused by what is on the page nor by their inability to generalize from one activity to the same type of activity with different content either. So structure homework very, very carefully for a LONG time. Then, as I have suggested in many places here, ACKNOWLEDGE the homework and put something on it to prove the acknowledgement.

When I was teaching my adult ESOL class in Massachusetts, I put great big holographic stars on perfect papers only--BOY, did those learners WORK for those stars!! In other situations, I have used a great big hand written star and "great work" on the paper.

One other thing to bear in mind, and I spoke to this earlier as well, is that for many students, finding time to do homework is not a big priority, or because of their busy schedules, they think they cannot find time. Thus, an early step in getting them ready to do homework is to sit down and go over the student's schedule 15 minutes at a time and find the places where something can be done. THEN, bearing in mind when and WHERE those 15-minute chunks appear, structure homework to suit the situation. The lady I wrote of above did not want to do homework in front of her son and daughter, and really only had time on the bus. Of course, she did not want to sit with a low-level workbook in front of other adults on the bus, so I created small cards that she could look at discreetly on the bus. For another, I typed sentences with her sight words on a piece of paper so it looked like a letter. That way she was willing to practice the sentences and words while riding the bus, which she was on for hours.

The gentleman you wrote about may have been way too embarrassed to do such low level work at home where his children and wife could see. When you have someone else like this, go through the process I describe above and the two you find out together when and where work might be done and then try to structure work the student can do without embarrassment.

And let me tell you about my favorite story about giving "grades" to students in adult ESOL as motivation to study. In Texas, I met Miss Emily, an elderly lady who was a teacher's aide in an open ESL program (meaning learners could drop in any time between 9 and 3). I was there evaluating the success of this program in getting students to complete work for the GED, and one of things I was on the lookout for was too much testing at intake, which generally discourages those who have already failed a lot in school (which is NOT generally our ESL students). To my dismay, the students in this class, who were all Mexican mothers with some elementary school education working on English, proudly showed me their folders FULL Of tests--but all the tests were marked 100% "A" GREAT WORK in red ink. When I inquired further, I found out that Miss Emily asked each student what she wanted to learn in the textbook they had, assured that it was a small, reachable goal, and then helped the student as needed. When the student said she was ready to be tested, Miss Emily checked some more. When SHE felt the student was ready, she gave the student a real test, based on what the student had studied. Because of the careful preparation and Miss Emily's vigilance that the student was ready, no student ever got anything wrong on their tests. Needless to say, these students studied like their lives depended on it and LOVED being tested!!! This to me is the apotheosis of setting students up for success--and getting spectacular results!

I use this as an example of how you can whet the appetite of a learner to do more by making sure you set him or her up for success--without patronizing and making it TOO babyish or simple--and then, as one of my coaching teachers in NY state says, "have a party!" when the goal is met. It works!!!

Robin Lovrien

[LD 5862] Re: Day 5 postings will come later in day for LD –ESL discussion

Anna Carpenter

Wed Sep 22 13:48:01 EDT 2010

Yes, I am aware of the word I used. The reason I used the word "make" them do homework is to make a point. The point is this - if a student doesn't have a desire and motivation to learn and is attending class because somebody else sent them there, no amount of convincing, encouragement and stickers will help him/her do the work unless he/she decides to do so. Students need to want to learn for themselves, not for someone else, who thinks they should do it. Desire and motivation are the key components of success. Of course, I don't make students do homework. If I did, I would fail each and every time. On the contrary, I am very aware of my students' needs and always consider their feelings. Therefore, I only ask. In fact, I never had a problem before with students not completing homework assignments. They were usually asking me to give them extra homework. In 5 years of teaching, I didn't have anyone, who was unhappy with my teaching style. In fact, I started with 3 students and we had 65 students last year with over 70% progression rate. The only student in my teaching career I failed to motivate is the man I described to you earlier. And I still feel bad about that. But, I also know I have done everything I could to help him, including some of the suggestions you gave me, but with no success. He simply didn't think he needs to learn English outside classroom and nobody could change his mind.

Here is one of many success stories I have. I had a student, who started in my class from the alphabet around the same time my male student did. Within 6 months, she took a written test for her driver's license in English and passed it with the score of 95%. Not to mention, in a year she was attending TOEFL test preparation class for college. They both have the same educational background in their native language, they are both around the same age, and in class they would both catch on very quickly. The difference between the two - she WANTED to be in class, she was working hard at home as well, she went above and beyond all the requirements and always asked for more work. She was simply a very motivated student and had a goal to attend college in US.

Anna Carpenter

[LD 5838] Re: Day 5 postings will come later in day for LD -ESL discussion

Richard Kline

Tue Sep 21 17:47:18 EDT 2010

Hi Anna,

I've had frustrations similar to yours. But once I thought about it, I realized I was carrying way too much of the responsibility for any one student's failure to thrive as it were.

First, you are soooo NOT a failure. You sound very conscientious and caring! You asked, "How does one make a student do homework or review material." I learned the hard way that I couldn't make anyone do anything. But, I figured out how to save myself a lot of headaches...Here's what I do now to avoid frustration.

Whenever I start a new class, I hand out my "Top 10" ways to learn to speak English...something I came up with to try to guide my students in good habits. I took graphics off the Internet to make the list fun... just a few clip art graphics will do so the page won't look confusing.

I let my students know right up front that I can NOT teach them English in just 2.5 hours a day, four days a week. AND I will need THEIR help if we're going to be successful. And then I tell them what I expect of them by handing out my Top 10 Ways to Learn to Speak English. The Top 10 list gets a fun conversation going as to why any one thing on the list might be important. The Top 10 emphasizes skills our culture expects in good students and good employees, so it’s an important one for our students to learn!

1. Come to class, on time, every day.

We have a cut-off time where if a student arrives after that time, they are not allowed to come in to the class. I'm a tenderhearted person, but letting consistently late students into class is so disruptive...When I've had to send someone home, they make a real effort to arrive early after that. So it doesn't happen very often thank heavens!

2. Listen to your teacher and to other students in class.

3. Participate in class... (you will have to define participate!)

4. Find a quiet place at home to do homework. (My ESL students with children really get a chuckle out of this said she would have to go to the basement to find a quiet spot in her house!) 

5. Go over what you did in your class every day AND talk to your family about what you are learning in class.

6. Read something in English every day...even the side of a cereal box!

7. Look up words you don't know in a dictionary...or bring the word to class to talk about.

8. ASK when you don't understand the teacher or something in the classroom.

9. Get a library card: The library is a supermarket for your brain. (My students enjoyed talking about the way a supermarket can be for food...and books can be food for your brain.)

10. Take care of your health and get enough sleep. (I tell them about a student who worked all night and came to class right from work...then fell asleep in class because he was too tired to concentrate. You can't learn if you don't feel well or are too tired.)

I teach the pre-literate, beginning, and low intermediate all in one classroom. (I had 16 today with a potential of 22 when they all show up!) To monitor their progress and make sure they understand the day's lesson, I have them complete assignments in class to hand in. They LOVE getting their work back the next day... I only use three levels of "grading:" Good! Very Good! and Excellent. I found that even adults like stars work well and aren't too childish. Look for stickers at places that sell party stuff. Maybe others have suggestions where to find good stickers for adults?

As far as homework...I do assign some, but results tend to be spotty. Before I give homework, I make sure they understand the assignment and will really try to do it. The students who miss class are responsible to find out from another student what they missed or ask me if I have extra copies of handouts. Two of my students "cover" for each other when one can't be there...and ask for an extra copy for the absent one.

Having responsible students motivated to learn is what keeps me motivated too. Good luck...

Bernie Kline

North Kansas City School District, Adult Education

[LD 5860] Re: Day 5 postings will come later in day for LD -ESL discussion

Anna Carpenter

Wed Sep 22 11:26:46 EDT 2010

Thank you very much for a great piece of advice, Bernie. I will try your "Top 10 ways to learn English." I think it is a wonderful idea to teach them up front what they are expected to do in class, so that everyone knows the routine and tries to follow it. I use stickers in my class as well, and you are absolutely right they LOVE getting them on their paper. It's incredible, isn't it?

Anna Carpenter, Rolla ESL Program

[LD 5863] Re: Day 5 postings will come later in day for LD –ESL discussion

Anna Carpenter

Wed Sep 22 13:59:15 EDT 2010

Bernie, I completely agree with you. As instructors, we have a great responsibility to do everything in our hands to help each and every student in our class by motivating, encouraging, praising and rewarding them. But the bottom line is this: the student should want to do it first and foremost for us to succeed.


[LD 5841] Re: Day 5 postings will come later in day for LD –ESL discussion

Robin Schwarz

Tue Sep 21 19:39:39 EDT 2010

Bernie-- It's good of you to be supportive to Anna, and you have some wonderful suggestions for managing a multilevel class.

However, as I said earlier, some good research on low literate ESL students indicates that they are mostly very discouraged in the long run by how much text is used in the average ESL class, even beginning classes. That was the first thing that crossed my mind when I read that you hand out your list of 10 Ways to Learn English. I am wondering how your non-literate students really react to that and whether they, too, hand in homework, and if so, what is it?

The tip about the library is great-- at the school I used to work at, teachers of the very low literate actually accompanied the students to the library for the first time and helped them get a card, then showed them explicitly what they could find at the library-- picture books, magazines to look at, etc. Bear in mind that for some students from some cultures, TELLING them that they need to ask questions has little effect. The cultural reluctance is hard to overcome. In my current community college ESL classes I have several students from Asian countries, and one from Pakistan who will sit and stare intently at me when I ask for an answer, but will not even raise their hands. The other students are shouting out answers and jumping out of their seats! No amount of encouraging them has much effect on that behavior. In many cultures, students do not approach teachers and NEVER ask questions because it impugns the skills of the teacher. Obviously if the teacher had done a good job, the student would not have questions.

I am glad that you like I, love to use stickers and other visible rewards for doing homework. The motivating factor is BIG in this practice.

It was interesting that one student was bold enough to tell you that she would have to work in the basement (even jokingly). How do you help students figure out that problem of finding a place to study?

And with all due respect, I must disagree with your first assertion that you were carrying too much of the responsibility for any one student's success. To the extent that what you do and how you run your classroom affects how the student will succeed, it is indeed your responsibility. I couldn't agree MORE that students MUST take some responsibility, simply because adult students MUST do so to learn, but in the end, if a student does NOT take responsibility, I consider it my failure that I have not made it clear to the student why and how he or she can and must do that, and assured that the student does, in fact, gradually take a lot of responsibility for learning.

My training in special education taught me that ultimately it is the teacher's responsibility to help the student learn in whatever way works for the student. It is a joint effort, but if the student does not know how to learn, does not have the fundamental skills for the tasks I am asking him or her to do, or does not understand because I did not check understanding, then it is MY responsibility if that student fails to progress.

Robin Lovrien

[LD 5848] Re: Day 5 postings will come later in day for LD –ESL discussion

Richard Kline

Tue Sep 21 22:59:29 EDT 2010


Thank your for your remarks to my response to Anna. I appreciate all the information you have explains so much about how adult English learners learn. It's the first time I've actually been exposed to the study that's going on in this field. It's already been useful to me in my classroom...especially the comments on Vietnamese students, which I've had in my classroom.

About teacher responsibility...I agree with you that ultimately the teacher has the responsibility to do everything we can to find out what will help a student learn.

And yes, there is so much more than just what is going on in the classroom to consider. There are times when a student's life issues interfere with learning. I've had a student who was courageously defying her mother-in-law and husband to attend English class because she wanted an education. She loved English classes. She was making wonderful progress. But, because of the pressures at home, she eventually filed for divorce and had to stop coming to class because she had to go to work. I helped her find social service agencies who knew how to help her. I made sure she understood that she is always welcome to return to class when she could.

I've had students who I've taken to social service agencies for housing help, even driving a student to several apartment complexes to apply for a rental unit, all in the hopes of keeping that student in class. In this last case, the student is still coming to class and making progress now that her housing is more stable.

Sometimes it is transportation that is the problem. Helping students learn how to read a bus schedule or finding a ride from another student in class who drives by their home will keep them in class.

Then there are those students who tested at a low-intermediate level who take umbrage at being in a beginning class. This year I have a wonderful young man who was an ophthalmologist in his country and who speaks fairly good English. But his writing is wanting. He stopped coming to class for two weeks because he was upset that the work was beneath him. I asked a friend of his to intervene and he returned. I've been giving him extra work to take home and in all likelihood, he will transfer to the intermediate/advanced class by year's end.

One of my best student's husband was laid up with a back injury (and no medical coverage). She was absent for months handling her family's needs. Our class kept in touch with her. She has now returned to class and once again is a real achiever...going into her 2nd year having started from the "picture test" as she calls it. When students do not return to class, I generally contact them or someone who might know them and find out what has happened. Usually, they have found a job after about four or five months of being in English class...and I view this as a successful outcome. Several of these students have said they had more confidence after being in classes and having the opportunity to talk to other students and interact with the teachers and tutors. Often students move to another city or state.

Keeping the door open for students when they have to figure out a life issue is important. A student who was in my class 2 years ago but left to work in a chicken processing plant in another state stopped by last week and will be returning to class.

What I'm trying to say is that I think I phrased my comment about a teacher's responsibility in a way that made it sound like I didn't think teachers were ultimately responsible for student learning. I think about students who, after time and effort, decide not to come back for whatever reason. And, after doing everything I know how to do to help, at some point, I have to wish them well and let them know they are always welcome back...but I don't view this as a failure because the door is always open, and some may just need more time before they realize they need English classes for better life skills and are ready to do the studying.

About the Top 10 and my pre-literate students understanding of it...there are graphics on the list...a clock for coming to class on time, that little Word guy hand to his ear for the word "listen," a person sleeping in a bed for getting enough sleep etc.

Our combined ESL classes take a trip to the library every year; students fill out applications in class and their library cards are waiting for them on the day of the tour. We make this a picnic day in the park after the library visit. It's something everyone looks forward to.

About asking questions in class, I have several right now who are quiet. I let students know they have the option of answering when it’s their turn or passing on whatever it is we're doing. Interestingly, what I've found is that when a student passes up the opportunity to answer in class too often, other students give them encouragement to try...just try. And, once they do, the whole class is happy for them. Maybe it's just me, but I tell my students that if I make a mistake, writing on the board for example, it's okay to let me know. They loved it when I inadvertently made a mistake by putting 2009 up in the dateline and weren't shy about letting me know it.

Something else I do to make my students feel comfortable in class...I use the New Readers Press Dictionary regularly to check my spelling on a word I have already written on the board... I make a big deal out of it ...using the dictionary that is....and telling them that I have to look up words all the time to make sure they're spelled correctly. I decided to start doing this because of a student I was tutoring who was astounded when she found out I didn't know every word in the English dictionary!..she thought all American English speakers knew every word and that she would have to learn them too. Just the thought of having to learn all those English words terrified her. She was so relieved to find out that she did not need to know them all. She passed her GED this past spring, after 7 years in our Adult Ed programs and was scheduled to start classes at a community college this fall.

How do I help students find a place to study outside of class? We've talked about trying to do homework assignments as soon as possible when arriving at home, while everything is still fresh in mind. As for a quiet place to study, we talked about turning off all music, radios, televisions etc. Some tell me they like to have music on when they study.

My current group of students is from Ethiopia, several from Somalia, El Salvador, Sudan, Iran, Kurdistan, Mexico, Korea, and Haiti. The make-up of each year’s students makes for a different learning experience for all of us.

Thank you again for your patience in commenting on my thoughts and good luck on your dissertation.

Bernie Kline

[LD 5857] Re: Day 5 postings will come later in day for LD-ESL discussion

Robin Schwarz

Wed Sep 22 10:58:30 EDT 2010

Bernie-- you are the kind of teacher every ESL student should hope for. What a wonderful caring person you are! And, I know you, like all ESL teachers are constantly rewarded with all this care and attention by successes and friendships and enriched knowledge of the world. It is a wonderful job, isn't it??

Thank you for all these wonderful descriptions of how you help. You will inspire many teachers to do even more, believe me.

Robin Lovrien

[LD 5831] General thoughts about Robin's contributions

Michael Gyori

Tue Sep 21 15:38:49 EDT 2010

Hello, Robin,

Above all, please know how delighted I am for your participation in this list. I have been a second and foreign language educator for many years across a broad array of settings and have rarely encountered so many views being expressed by a single individual that truly resonate. I am also delighted that you are working on your dissertation. It will presumably be published and I look forward to your contributions to SLA. As a practitioner, I have not yet felt the urge to publish, except to express some (occasionally it seems quite controversial) opinions on discussion lists.

I would like to add my own thoughts to some of the issues that have been raised and to which you have responded:

1. Using whole language approach with non-literate L2 learners: I have used phonics-based approaches with ESL learners and have found when they don't know the components of symbolically represented language that they respond much better to whole language, because they make links between what strings of symbols represent and innate meaningfulness. It is also essential that learners not be encumbered with encoding at the same time, unless the purpose of an activity is to build vocabulary (in which case we must heed that instruction is properly scaffolded).

2. I am often approached with the question how to teach an L2, whether in general or to an individual person. We cannot overemphasize the importance of getting to know the learner. I do not mean conducting a somewhat clinical type of triangulated needs assessment, but rather getting to know the person, doing what we can to perceive the world through his or her eyes. Done with interest and compassion, we will accomplish much, including promoting a positive affective turf and getting our own questions about how to proceed answered by virtue of being able to step into the learner's shoes somewhat.

3. The issues of LDs have obviously been discussed, at times with much emotion, on this list. I am extremely careful in labeling my students and actually avoid doing so as a matter of practice. As palliative as a "diagnosis" may be, it creates a reality of its own for all involved. Perhaps a year ago we even discussed why there was no talk about teaching disabilities. If effective instruction were so simple as to run with a diagnosis and administer a proven treatment plan! Fact remains that we all learn and teach at all times. The truth of the matter, IMO, is that when we invoke some type of LD, we usually end up imposing a construct onto those we interact with and close the door on the possibility that we are missing key pieces of information. As Hugo Kerr has often pointed out, learned helplessness can often result, not to mention the ease with which we can stigmatize our learners.

4. In the case of SLA, the presumption of LDs is even more likely to occur given that we fail to recognize key differences between how we learn our mother tongue and an L2 later in life.

5. Cummins' BICS / CALP distinction is incredibly important. Aside from the fact that the two are easily confounded (she speaks English so "well," let's mainstream her), CALP is in many ways deeply embedded in the learner's culture. The knowledge we presume to be available is often not, and we fail to scaffold instruction as a result. Cummin's notion of a common underlying proficiency (CUP) speaks to knowledge that underlies L1 and L2, and one task is to tap into that knowledge. I find it especially useful to incorporate the notion of multiple intelligences into the realm of CUP as well, so that we work with as much of the "whole" person as only possible.

6. It is imperative that we not be readily critical of behaviors our learners exhibit lest we end up exhibiting our own possible ignorance. Classroom"participation structures" and study habits vary greatly across cultures. Designing Reading Instruction for Cultural Minorities: The Case of the Kamehameha Early Education Program by Calfee, et al. is a great read in this regard, IMO (see

7. A while ago, subscribers were invited to participate in Linda Darling-Hammond's (Stanford U.) webinar on international testing practices (see I think perhaps the key lesson, especially with respect to NNESs, is that our testing practices do not allow us to witness the thought processes are learners engage in, not to mention their frustrations that we frequently actually end up measuring.

8. Finally, as for pronunciation practice: I increasingly use visualization techniques and have my students close their eyes while I draw their attention to letter sound features and have them repeat, combine, etc. This is a whisper exercise and requires quiet surroundings. Have you noticed that when you produce consonant sounds while whispering, almost inaudibly, that it becomes much easier not to latch on a short or schwa vowel sound?

Thanks to Rochelle for inviting you, and thank you, Robin, for accepting the invitation. What an inspiring discussion this has been! I hope the essence of issues raised her permeate future discussions, too.

Michael A. Gyori, Maui International Language School

[LD 5837] Re: General thoughts about Robin's contributions

Robin Schwarz

Tue Sep 21 16:18:59 EDT 2010

Michael, what a beautiful and nicely presented list of important points you have added to this discussion. Your thoughts truly enrich this information I have tried to put out in little chunks!! YAY for the thoughts on LD labeling, on SLA and so much more.

I love the thoughts about not knowing our learners thoughts. I highly recommend to you and the list two articles, one by Elizabeth Bernhardt, entitled "Challenges to reading research from a multilingual world," Reading Research Quarterly, 2003 Jan/Feb/march. The other is by Jill Fitzgerald, "Multilingual reading theory, also the Reading Research Quarterly, 2003, spring issue. These women express just the concerns you mention, Michael, that we cannot know how the thinking process of persons from other culture or language backgrounds, and we cannot know how bi- or multilingualism affects thinking, reading or learning in another language, either. I quote these articles often because Bernhardt chides the world of reading for believing for so long that how we read in English must be the way everyone reads. Of course, that is poppycock, but believe it or not, it has taken many decades for that belief to be assailed.

More on your comments later, Michael. My dog is harassing me for sitting at the computer too long!!

Robin Lovrien

[LD 5842] Discussion on ESL and LD --last topic-- class teaching techniques #1

Robin Schwarz

Tue Sep 21 21:45:16 EDT 2010

Hi listers-- last day and last topic. Here I present several ideas for teaching that should help broaden instruction to include a wide range of learners and which explicitly include learners of all levels of proficiency. Of course there will be one or two here and there who do not profit from these kinds of approaches, but the last, learning centers, is the most inclusive of all, so try it if you can.

Just a reminder that tomorrow a.m. (I am really tired--been writing these messages for more than three hours this evening...dissertation is waiting!) I will post a list of recommended readings, and some more good resources.

Here is the first part of this topic: (it's kind of long....sorry)

Broadening the effectiveness of a leveled class:

When you have a leveled class—one in which students are more or less at the same level of English proficiency, you are trying to get everyone to start at the same time and reach more or less the same goal or goals. In this situation, some good techniques to bring everyone along are:

1. Be sure to do a good job laying the groundwork for a lesson. Review what has come before that is necessary to understand the new lesson; teach vocabulary in several ways before any reading; help students connect to the topic in as personal as way as possible. Be as honest as you can about whether students REALLY have the skills and knowledge needed to do a particular lesson. For example, if the lesson is on Shopping at the Supermarket, and students are supposed to find things in grocery aisles, do they know the organizing principle of an American grocery store? Do they know the abstract words such as Bakery and Dairy (and why eggs are included in Dairy?) If you are doing a lesson on the present perfect, do they know past participles really well? Do they can they understand the little time charts that are always used to present the concept of the present perfect?

2. Present lessons in a multisensory fashion---vary the presentation: Students can sort vocabulary on cards into piles by syllable number, by whether verbs are regular or irregular, or simply into alphabetical order. Students can match meaning to word either in a game of concentration or in a matching exercise on the table or in a wall pocket; Students can make graphic organizers to show relationships or grouping of ideas. Today my high intermediate reading students created graphic organizers to show the concepts of three parts of words, then two kinds of roots of words, then categorized suffixes by type of word created, and so on.

3. Anticipate that some will finish work early and fast, others will take normal time, and others will be very slow. Have something else related to the lesson for the fast students to move on to. (But do NOT punish the fast student with more required work. Make the extra work just that—extra) (When my youngest daughter was in 7th grade, she complained to me that the problem with being a good student was that you got more work!!).

4. Find ways to connect the lesson to previous and upcoming lessons and to real life wherever possible.

5. Help students organize themselves and keep track of critical information. But be careful about the popular idea of giving students 3-ring binders with dividers. I did this for my adult ESOL class and was embarrassed to see a month or so later that most had NO idea how to make the decisions about where to put things in the binder!! This is an example of students lacking metacognitive skills that school teaches them. We teachers had a powwow about that and one suggestion that came up was to color code activities with the swipe of a marker on the top corner of the page. Then students can put the pages in corresponding colors in the binder. They can gradually learn how to correlate the type of work to its color, but at first it is all overwhelming! The students’ notebooks became trash containers, with every handout the school had for them about help with fuel bills and upcoming health fairs etc.!

6. Use a good time management system so that there is time each period for whole group work, small group work and individual work, with the latter two lasting long enough for you to have time to work with individual students who are not keeping up. I am NOT a great fan of having better students help weaker ones, though I do it once in a while. It is important, I believe, not to let the better students bear too much of this weight, though.

7. Use Bernie’s idea of a buddy system for getting homework and class papers. The papers can be in a binder or, as for all of my college classes, posted online.

8. Provide students with regular opportunities for checking their own work in the spirit of gradually teaching them not to always wait for teacher approval, and moving them towards more independent work habits, too.

9. Teach students how to use resources—in the classroom, online, at the school at the library. That was a central focus of my special classes for my university ESL students who were at risk of failing out of our program. We spent a LOT of time helping them learn how to be good students and use resources available to them. Do not presume they know these things. TODAY in my low intermediate community college reading class, we had to change the order of lessons for this week because almost half the class claimed they could not either locate the website they were supposed to get readings from for their homework, or find the readings on the site! This was NOT a hard assignment by absolute standards, and they were shown the site and how to navigate it last Thursday on the internet in class!!), but to my amazement, these students did not know how to use Google to find the site, nor to reduce the URL to its basic components, nor even to navigate a site effectively!! We then had to go over 4 ways they could find the site WITHOUT calling me or my co-teacher!! The fourth was asking the librarian—no one even thought of that.

10. Make learning goals explicit to everyone and then give lots of visible, clear feedback and proof of learning towards these goals in whatever way works for your situation. That is, if, like me, you are teaching a graded course, then quizzes and tests and graded homework keeps everyone aware of how a student is doing’ if you are in an ungraded situation, have a culminating activity, or portfolios or some other way for students to measure progress; don’t just leave the lesson and go on to the next one.

Robin Lovrien

[LD 5843] Discussion on ESL and LD --last topic-- class teaching techniques #3

Robin Schwarz

Tue Sep 21 21:48:04 EDT 2010

Managing multilevel classes, part 2:

Another technique I recently learned about from one of my wonderful teachers whom I coach in NY State is a totally different approach to the multilevel class. I do not remember where this teacher learned this, but she has made it work for ESL. I will call her Debra here.

Learning in “families:”

In this approach, the class is divided into groups that are called families.

1. Debra makes sure that each “family” has students of all levels in it.

2. Families have no more than 5 students in them.

3. Each family has a family name—Debra uses colors because most of her students are Hispanic and she says using colors for family names is something unfamiliar to the students. Greens, Blacks, Tans, Roses, Whites, etc.

4. Each family member has a role. One is the head of the family and directs projects. One is the time keeper; one is the recorder—writing everything down; one is responsible for making sure everyone’s homework is in and for checking work, and the fifth is responsible for calling absent members of the family.

5. The class is given an assignment that is turned into a project. For example, they may have a long cloze exercise to do. The activity is done entirely in the family, with members helping each other to complete it. Everyone does a paper, however. The checker makes sure everyone completed the assignment, has headings on papers, and did it as well as possible. The group negotiates any disagreements in answers. Then the head of the family collects papers and hands them in. A folder of the family’s color can be used for this.

6. Discussions of course go on, but a family must take a stance or otherwise present as united a front as possible.

7. The family structure imposes responsibility onto a wider group than the teacher. If a student doesn’t do homework, it is the family that is in an awkward position because the head of the family must turn in a complete folder. Family members monitor attendance, not the teacher. The family must make sure that learners with lower skills participate and understand the task. Since all have jobs, no learner can be marginalized.

8. Students stay in these families all term, increasing their interaction with other students in a structured way and creating connections that have been shown to be critical to keeping students in school at all levels of education.

This is my interpretation of what my teacher-mentee has told me about this process. She says it works amazingly well and that many classic adult ESOL issues are moot—attendance, missing homework, failure to interact with classmates, not using English (where possible, families are mixed in language backgrounds and all else—age, education, vocations, etc.), and having a place for incoming students.

Robin Lovrien

[LD 5844] Discussion on ESL and LD --last topic-- class teaching techniques #4

Robin Schwarz

Tue Sep 21 21:49:55 EDT 2010

Managing multilevel classes, part 3:

The last technique I want to write about is learning centers. I will start by telling you the story of another of my mentee-teachers in my coaching project in NY State. This woman has taught me a virtually priceless lesson in classroom technique. I will call her Rebecca here.

In the fall of 2006, I was beginning the long-term coaching project in the mid-Hudson region of New York to help adult ESOL teachers who lacked training and were experiencing high dropout rates. At our kick-off seminar, I suggested to the teachers in the project that adult learners of ESOL could profit from any kind of hands-on, interactive learning, different from book-anchored, teacher-fronted classes. One of those NY teachers, Rebecca, was a retired 40-year K-1 veteran teacher who had used learning centers for many of those 40 years, and she asked me eagerly if she could use “all that stuff in my garage” with her adult ESOL learners. I said “Why not? Adjust it so it doesn’t look too childish and see what happens.”

Rebecca was typical of many teachers in adult ESOL. A K-1 veteran, she had had virtually no training before entering an adult ESOL classroom in the fall I met her. After volunteering to be a GED teacher, she was told the program needed ESL teachers instead. She was handed a book, told to watch a colleague for a few minutes through an ajar door, and then was assigned a class. By the time of our kickoff seminar in October, Rebecca’s class had diminished from 19 to three learners, and she knew perfectly well she was not meeting the needs of these learners in any way. She was on the verge of quitting the week we had our seminar.

After a bit of trial and error in presenting centers adapted to adults to her class (the young adult Hispanics in her class in that fall term were highly resistant to using hands-on activities), Rebecca gradually began to structure her entire three-hour class periods around learning centers. She set up activities around the room with which the learners could choose to interact and which initially had generic ESL content: activities for practicing correct word order in simple sentences, matching words to pictures of food, parts of the body, furniture or other vocabulary and so on. As her learners’ receptivity to center activities grew, they also began requesting specific vocabulary to learn: the names of the adult and juvenile animals on the farms where they worked, the names of tools they used on construction jobs, the parts of cars they worked on as mechanics, expressions to use at the gas stations where several were clerks, the names of cleaning products the employers of the cleaning ladies were requesting. For each of these centers, Rebecca brought in REAL items with which students could practice all kinds of English skills—asking, naming, recognizing the names, learning to spell them, writing about them.

When I visited two of her classes in the spring of 2007 and interviewed a number of learners, they were enthusiastic about centers and contrasted their interest and Rebecca’s ability to meet their needs in centers with what they characterized as the boring, traditional, teacher-fronted, grammar-based class they attended on alternate evenings. And thus, the learner-specific, learner-driven, learning center activity approach took off in Rebecca’s adult ESOL class, just as it had for her in her K-1 setting for many years.

Besides raising student enthusiasm, Rebecca’s centers also addressed a number of problems of adult ESOL. Not only did the students engage more fully in the class, but attendance stayed steady—a positive miracle in adult ESOL-- and by the end of the spring 2007 term, Rebecca’s primary problem was students’ arriving far too early for class. She could not arrive as early as they wanted!! (And she has now established a firm half-hour early arrival). Furthermore, in that spring semester, Rebecca reported that learning centers helped her when new students arrived in her class: the other students simply absorbed the new students and taught them how to use the centers. She did not have to interrupt a lesson or neglect the other students while the new student was evaluated; nor did she have to make the new student wait in puzzlement in the class until she had a time in her schedule to do the evaluation and orientation to class.

Two other major benefits of centers, according to Rebecca, were that students forged new friendships because of the enormous amount of interaction the centers require, and students took responsibility for the classroom, helping set up and break down centers and activities instead of just walking out of the room as the teacher erased the board and packed up books. Also, since centers could easily be adjusted as to content and difficulty of activities, Rebecca found it easy to have centers where students with low education could function readily while those with more education worked on GED work such as essay writing in another center.

Robin Lovrien

[LD 5845] Discussion on ESL and LD --last topic-- class teaching techniques #5

Robin Schwarz

Tue Sep 21 21:51:19 EDT 2010

Managing multilevel classes part 4:

I hope you can see what power the learning center approach has for students and for you as teachers having to meet that terrible range of needs in adult ESOL.

It serves every need of an adult ESOL class: activities can be at all appropriate levels of education and English proficiency; the individual needs and interests of students can be addressed; cultural issues of teacher and learner must be put aside (though admittedly there will be groups of students for whom this approach will never be acceptable since they will feel the teacher is not doing his or her job and is lazy. For these, a compromise amount of time in centers can be tried.) A Rebecca noted, it rendered moot that terrible practice of open or rolling admissions (what Beder & Medina (2001) gently call “enrollment turbulence”) moot; absences or dropping out are virtually non-issues in this class.

I recently did a study on learning centers in a school that has leveled classes and a heavy grammar focus to its curriculum. In this situation, all activities were designed to strengthen grammar and content topics that students had to know for the exit test. Because I was a visiting teacher, I did not have actual centers, but put out activities and students went to them. I used a wide variety of games and hands-on activities. The most popular, by student report in interviews, was Go-Fish with a vocational content. That is, the sets in Go-Fish were centered around the students’ jobs. Each card had a statement in the third person singular about what a person on that job does: A waiter serves food to customers. A waiter brings the check to customers. A waiter takes customers’ orders.

Each job had about 6-8 cards and, if you know Go Fish, you remember that to play the game, you attempt to collect sets of four cards until you have use up all your cards, or until someone has amassed the agreed-upon number of sets. The question to obtain cards was “What does a waiter do?” (you have to have at least one card in your hand of the type you are asking for.) The person who is asked and has a waiter card says, “A waiter serves food to customers,” and gives the card to the one who asked for it. This was a GREAT hit.

I also used Bingo a lot; some of the versions were fairly complex, like the one where students had to listen to a cue such as “Patty is talking to HER” and had to look at a picture of people at a train station to know who it was Patty was talking to and then find that person on their bingo sheet. This was, obviously, practice for object pronouns. Board games were also used often. Mostly they were simple: students picked up a card and answered a question, or in another game, used a verb with an object in a sentence in a designated tense, etc. Then after answering the student spun or threw a die and then moved around a game board. Winning is always motivating, which is why one uses games.

There were hands-on activities such as putting words into correct sentence or question order and perhaps changing statements to negatives, or answering the questions with another set of words. Another favorite was about as simple as you can get: Students worked in pairs. Each had a 5 x 8” index card and a personal sized erasable white board. On the cards were questions and answer pairs, or words the students were learning, or numbers (they were learning to write checks, too). One student would read her card to the other, who would write. When one had finished dictating, the writer could check her work against the card; then she dictated to the first one. This was incredibly easy to prepare, to have at all different levels, to target at content or grammar being practiced, and required virtually NO teacher response at all.

Students reported that at first, like Rebecca’s students, they had really disliked the idea of taking up instructional time to do games. Gradually, they said, they had come to realize that the games were helping them practice their lessons, and when they learned that, they engaged whole-heartedly.

In the last posting on this topic, I will give some principles of running successful centers. You can find great resources online for organizing and equipping centers, too.

Robin Lovrien

[LD 5846] Discussion on ESL and LD --last topic-- class teaching techniques #6

Robin Schwarz

Tue Sep 21 21:52:25 EDT 2010

Managing multilevel classes, part 5:

Here are some Principles I have deduced, learned from Rebecca and my own work, and found in literature about centers:

1. Students must know how to do EVERYTHING that is at a center. It is the content that can be easy or challenging, not the activity.

2. Students should be introduced to the activities as a group before centers are learned.

3. Content needs to be relevant, personalized if possible, and at various levels so students can challenge themselves or not as they wish.

4. Content and centers need to change often enough so students do not get bored or memorize.

5. Content and centers should NEVER be busy work. Students quickly catch on that the content is random and do not engage willingly. Content should be either connected to a class lesson or designed for certain students’ needs. Generic ESL content is useful for one or two centers. At higher levels this might mean matching definitions of higher-level vocabulary with the word, or matching vocabulary to a story or example, etc., or writing about a picture the student chooses.

6. All centers should have a self-checking feature. This assures that students a) develop some confidence in their ability to check and b) do not have to wait around for the teacher to show up and give approval. Self-checking can be as simple as having the sentences for the word-ordering activity on a “cheat sheet” in a folder next to the activity, or having a model sentence for students to use in a board game where they use sentences in the right tense. Activities such as Go-Fish and the dictation activity are already self-checking. Higher-level activities such as describing a picture may not be all self-checking, but you can include a list of “must-haves” to include in the story and the student can check for those.

7. A variety of activities is especially good. One of the talented teachers at the school where I did my study had 7 centers every Wednesday morning: one for putting words in order, one Go-Fish, one listening center, one writing center, one center where students created posters with pictures and writing, one work sheet center about the lesson the class had just done, and one spelling center (one student reads a word, the other either writes or spells with movable letters). Rebecca always has about 6-8 centers—more if she has a bigger class.

8. Centers are not intended for group work except where it is a game. Pairs work very well, however.

9. I do not believe in forced rotation. The teacher I described had students rotate as centers opened up. Rebecca lets students stay at a center as long as they like unless it is a center in great demand and with limited participation (such as a listening center).

10. Everyone must do some kind of hands on activity.

11. You can add a self-testing feature, or have students tell you when they are ready to be tested, in the manner of Miss Emily, whom I described in an earlier posting.

12. Materials for centers can be home made or professional. Unless they are clearly what students NEED, they should not be generic commercial materials. Mostly, I find that the commercial materials are too general and limited. That said, however, a number of my wonderful teachers in the coaching project in NY state use commercial materials they have found at yard sales, Goodwill Industries, etc. For example, one teacher has a terrific set of cards with household items on them; another has a sentence unscrambling activity she found.

13. Enlist students’ ideas and creativity. One of the NY teachers asked a student whom he knew was artistic to draw a map of a city center for a center where students practiced giving and listening to directions in city. The poster she created was lovely and interesting. It could be used on a table with little cars or people figures to move around, or on the wall to look at and ask and answer questions about. Another teacher asked her students to bring in items from their jobs that they needed to be able to talk about. Students brought in cleaning product containers, food containers, household items, tools, etc. Need I say that interest in these lessons was through the roof??

14. Groups can be assembled for lessons at a specific level. Rebecca only groups her students for something they can ALL profit from, such as pronunciation or discussion of vocabulary related to a holiday. Her whole group time is about a sixth of total class time. The other teachers tend to use centers for half a period (90 minutes) three days a week.

15. YOU must believe in centers and model them carefully and well. Introduce just a couple at a time, and keep at it despite student reluctance. Be sure students understand, know that the learning is related to class and can add content if they want.

Robin Lovrien

[LD 5847] What a difference!

Joni Wallace

Tue Sep 21 22:47:45 EDT 2010


I had my first ESL class since this listserv. I used many pieces of advice from these past 5 days in my class this evening. What a difference using their names in the examples makes! I started to interview my students about their previous education and need for English. This is already affecting how I will conduct the ESL class. Lastly, I related examples and lessons to their jobs. This was not planned, but it was great! We were talking the difference between "this" and "these" when a student who worked in a restaurant said she was confused what her boss meant by "I need more salads for THIS table." She now understood something that was confusing to her before. It was an "Ah-haaa!" moment! I could explain and then elaborate, making it practical for her.

Thank you for all the information and advice from the past several days. These and many more techniques, I will be using in my ESL class.

Thank you,

Joni Wallace

[LD 5852] Re: What a difference!

Robin Schwarz

Wed Sep 22 09:23:57 EDT 2010

Joni-- I am floating above my desk with joy for you!!! So glad this has proven helpful!!

Robin Lovrien

[LD 5850] Re: Discussion on ESL and LD --last topic-- class teaching techniques #6

Andrea Wilder

Wed Sep 22 08:47:29 EDT 2010

Hi Robin,

Do you have a recommended reading list? Did you write a thesis or dissertation? This discussion is SO VALUABLE! Thanks for being a wonderful discussion guest, I love reading your posts.


[LD 5853] Discussion on ESL and LD --resources #1

Robin Schwarz

Wed Sep 22 10:43:56 EDT 2010

Hi everyone-- I promised some resources for you--here is the first list-- these are places online where you can access some of my work.

First--Rochelle posted a number of links at the beginning of this discussion--here are a couple from Focus on Basics:

Taking a Closer Look at Struggling ESOL Learners:

*Discussion from Focus on Basics article:

The National Association for Adults with Special Learning Needs (NAASLN) also has an article, plus three webinars I have done for them. This is an excellent site and organization. Have a look at all the OTHER webinars that are archived there---for those of you primarily working with adult learners not just ESL, there are riches on this site.

This is an article I wrote for NAASLN's newsletter that is a short version of what I discussed here on the discussion list.

*A Difficult Puzzle to Solve: Adult ESOL Students with Learning Disabilities

A few years back I did a series of articles for a newsletter in Florida. There are a number of these that address the topics of our discussion. This, too, is a wealth of riches for teachers of adult learners, ESL and English speaking: Go to "newsletter" on this site:

Here is another letter for another newsletter--this one for the TCALL in Texas-- and this is another goldmine of information for you practitioners. My article focused on phonological skills since I had just done a research paper for the center on evaluating phonological skills in adult ESOL learners.

If any of you is interested in getting my current version of my phonological skills evaluation tool, contact me off list.

Ohio ABLE has a couple of article by me as well--don't know how to access them. Maybe Ohio can chime in on this discussion with directions how to access those articles.

And, the Virginia ALRC also publishes a newsletter called Progress in which I published an article a few years ago.

Robin Lovrien

[LD 5855] Discussion on ESL and LD --resources #2

Robin Schwarz

Wed Sep 22 10:47:10 EDT 2010

Here is a list of research and other articles I have used extensively in my work. Some is very academic; some is quite accessible to any audience. You may have to access some of these through a college/university library system. Starred ones are favorites:

Bernat, E. (2004). Attending to the adult learner: Affective domain in the ESL classroom. Humanising Language Teaching (September).

Baddeley, A., Gathercole, S., & Papagno, C. (1998). The phonological loop as a language learning device. Psychological Review, 105(1), 158-16.

Brutt-Griffler, J. & Samimy, K. (1999). Revisiting the colonial in the post-colonial: critical praxis for nonnative-English speaking teachers in a TESOL program. TESOL Quarterly, 33(3). 413-431.

Chen, M. J.(1994). Chinese and Australian concepts of intelligence. Psychology and Developing Societies, 6(2), 102-117.

Chhuon, V., Hudley, C. & Macias, R. (2006). Cambodian –American college students: cultural values and multiple worlds. Proceedings of the American Educational Research Association, San Francisco, CA.

DeKeyser, R. M. (2005). What makes learning second-language grammar difficult? A review of issues. Language Learning 55)1), 1-25.

Durgonoglu, A. & Oney, B. (2002). Phonological awareness in literacy acquisition: It’s not only for children. Scientific Studies of Reading, 6, 3(245-266).

Everatt, J., Jeffries, S., Elbeheri, G., Smythe, I., & Veii, K. (2006). Cross language learning disabilities and verbal versus spatial memory. Cognitive Processing, 1(Supplement 1), 32-32.

**Fox, H. (1994). Listening to the world. Cultural issues in Academic Writing. Urbana, IL: National Council of Teachers of English.

Goode, E. (2000). How culture molds habits of thought. The New York Times, August 8, p. D1.

Ilieva, R., (2005). A story of texts, culture(s), cultural tool normalization and adult ESL learning and teaching. Unpublished doctoral dissertation, Simon Fraser University, Canada.

Koda, K. (2004). Insights into second language reading: A cross-linguistic approach. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press

Koda, K. (2007). Reading and language learning: Crosslinguistic constraints on second language reading development. Language Learning, 57(s1), 1-44

Kumaravadivelu, B.(1999) Critical classroom discourse analysis. TESOL Quarterly, 33(3). 413-431.

Lim, H.Y. (2002) Successful classroom discussions with adult Korean ESL/EFL learners. International TESL Journal 9(5). Retrieved October 1, 2009 at

Marshall, D. B., & Snow, C. E. (2000). Three misconceptions about age and L2 learning. TESOL Quarterly, 34(1).

McDonald, J. L. (2006). Beyond the critical period: Processing-based explanations for poor grammaticality judgment performance by late second language learners. Journal of Memory and Language, 55(3), 381-401.

Obiakor, F. & Afolayan, M. (2007). African immigrant families in the United States: surviving the sociocultural tide. The Family Journal, vol. 15, Pp. 265-27

Pallier, C., Colome, A., & Sebastian-Galles, N. (2001). The influence of native-language phonology on lexical access: Exemplar-based versus abstract lexical entries. Psychological Science, 12(6), 445-449.

Peacock, M. (1998). The links between learner beliefs, teacher beliefs and EFL proficiency. Perspectives 10(1), 125-159.

Pulido, D. (2004). The relationship between text comprehension and second language incidental vocabulary acquisition: A matter of topic familiarity? Language Learning, 54(3), 469-523.

Schiff, R., & Calif, S. (2004). An academic intervention program for EFL university students with reading disabilities. Journal of Adolescent & Adult Literacy, 48(2), 102-113.

**Weldeab, C. (2009). Coping with culture shock: Challenges to newly arrived Ethiopian immigrant students. Unpublished paper. Weldeab Chernet

Robin Lovrien

[LD 5856] Discussion on ESL and LD --resources #3

Robin Schwarz

Wed Sep 22 10:57:35 EDT 2010

Finally, here are a few key resources for teachers of ESL

One is "Notebook" a publication of ProLiteracy--it is a small booklet of ideas for adult educators that is terrific--right up there with Hands-On English. It comes out quarterly, I think. -- you should be able to get info from them.

Here is a site which has a booklet from LDA Minnesota which is extremely well put together. It is a guide for evaluating ESL learners for learning problems, based heavily on my work. You must purchase this.

Three teaching books:

  • Teaching Adult Second Language Learners (McKay, Heather & Tom, Abigail. 2005, Cambridge University Press.)
  • Teaching Adult ESL (Parrish, Betsy, 2004, McGraw-Hill)
  • Practitioner Toolkit: Working with Adult English Language Learners. Put out by CAL/and The National Center for Family Literacy. 2004 --(many contributors) You should be able to track this down through 

Robin Lovrien

[LD 5858] Re: Discussion on ESL and LD --last topic-- class teaching techniques #6

Robin Schwarz

Wed Sep 22 11:00:32 EDT 2010

Andrea-- I just posted a whole list of things to read. There is no one place to find it all, but digging will turn up a lot of valuable things.

Robin Lovrien

[LD 5864] Final thoughts on LD/ESL

Robin Schwarz

Wed Sep 22 11:17:28 EDT 2010

Listers-- I am very happy many of you have found this discussion to be useful. As we see from Joni's comments, sometimes little changes can make big differences in how engaged ELLS are in the learning process and therefore no longer appear to be struggling. I have used that word often in this discussion--engaged. If a learner really feels that instruction and class are beneficial, even if ever so slightly, he or she will be more likely to be bringing full attention and belief in learning to the situation. Often in ELLs we have to overcome the idea that English is too hard for them to learn, and using their names, and showing that English class is relevant and not some abstract grammar lesson, can make a lot of difference in increasing that engagement.

What I hope you have gotten out of this discussion is that there are many ways to help a learner succeed in learning and that there are many reasons why an ELL can seem to have LD but does not.

One person wrote saying she did not feel qualified to "diagnose someone for LD"--this statement says volumes about what teachers may expect they should be able to do in differentiating between language issues and learning problems. I, who have excellent training and YEARS of scholarship studying this issue, am NEVER sure just why a learner is failing. What I do know, as I just wrote to Mary, is that I approach all learners with the supposition that ALL will--and CAN--learn. I know also that everyone learns differently and that the "prescription for learning" must be arrived at by working with the learners and finding out what they need and what works. There IS no need to go the disabilities route ever, in my mind, unless that is virtually the ONLY route to services the person may need. But, even there I am suspicious, having seen many disasters in the well-meant attempts to help ELLS.

I hope you find the readings useful. There are a number of wonderful, wonderful handbooks about screening and helping ELLs-- I don't have time to put that list out today-- but with the permission of the new owners of this List--OVAE/LINCS, I will put it out once the list comes back up in two weeks.

Meantime, thank you to everyone who asked questions, shared cases, and pushed me to me thorough and honest. I especially thank Michael and Bernie for their marvelous descriptions and comments, which greatly enriched this discussion.

Cheers to all—

Robin Lovrien

[LD 5864] Thank you to Guest Speaker - Robin Lovrien Schwarz

Robin Schwarz

Wed Sep 22 15:50:28 EDT 2010

Hello all LD List Subscribers,

This is the last official day for our guest discussion on Adult ESOL Learners who Struggle: Is it REALLY Learning Disabilities? It has been a very memorable and informative one. Your questions, comments, and student anecdotes have all been so helpful in bringing the topic to life.

I am especially thankful to our guest speaker, Robin Lovrien Schwarz for volunteering to take on this challenge. Despite all the time required to prepare the content for messages, resources, and readings, she was still able to keep up with answering every question or comment that was submitted. Doing that on top of her job, doctoral preparation, and staff development contracts truly shows her commitment to our field and to this topic specifically.  I offer Robin my most sincere appreciation for an exceptional job.

All guest discussion messages are now archived at

You can search the archives by thread, subject, or author's name.

In the coming weeks while the Discussion List is shut down, I will be preparing a final transcript with an easy-to-read listing of the entire discussion. I will post the URL so you can access the document when it is complete.

Thanks to everybody~

Rochelle Kenyon

Rochelle Kenyon, Ed.D.

National Institute for Literacy/LINCS Online Facilitator

Learning Disabilities Discussion List & Communities of Practice

Center for Literacy Studies at the University of Tennessee

Program Management Collection

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