Teaching ESL Students in a Non-Formal English Study Group

The facilitation of an English Study Group requires some planning. It is involving dialogue and conversation, but is more than that. There needs to be some structure, some guidance, some demonstration of expertise, but not too little or too much. Too much structure, to much teaching, and too much direction, and the dynamic shifts to a traditional hierarchical classroom setup. However, too little structure, too little instruction, and too little direction, and participants become frustrated by cognitive overload, as their expectations of what the facilitator is supposed to do is not met, and their own expectations of what they ought to be doing in thrown in to chaos and confusion.

Participants attend willingly, participate actively in an overt way, or not. A facilitator needs to watch for cues for how engaged or bored participants are, watch the energy levels, listen to what the participants are saying, and watch for non-verbal signals. A facilitator needs to shift activities from those that require no planning, and grow spontaneously, such as an impromptu discussion about a recent event; other times, the activity is guided, semi-structured, with the facilitator providing context, presenting vocabulary, eliciting prior knowledge – some of the things a trained English as a Second Language teacher does to develop learners’ language skills.

Participants expect expertise in their facilitator, to repeatedly transition to various activities, from lesser structured, to more guided. Facilitators need to also move up and down and modify language output, modifying vocabulary, sentence complexity, and content, so that the various participants can take something away from the session regardless of their language skill level, energy level, or learning preferences.

Sometimes a facilitator needs to introduce new activities that participants have no prior or little experience with, and walk them through the tasks, carefully watching for push-back and buy-in. Sometimes a facilitator varies the activities so that it does not become routine. In a non-formal session, there is some teaching going on, and there is ample room for spontaneous discussion and episodic learning generated by the participants. The key is to be flexible enough to be able to decide when and how often to switch between the role of a guide, and the role of a peer.

Essential Skills is a really important part of non-formal instruction for newcomers. There is a need to introduce document use and reading to participants. The materials are typically authentic or near-authentic, and it is best to offer a variety of different texts encountered in everyday life and in the workplace. In addition, one needs to consider the rationale for using these materials in the first place in this kind of setting; then there is the selection of appropriate level and type of materials that practice Essential Skills; also, there are the issues of introducing essential skills activities to a multi-level group, carefully determining readiness and energy levels to proceed or not.

About Appropriate Materials

For second language (English) learners, it is best to start with basic examples like memos, emails, flyers, announcements, schedules, basic forms and tables, calendars and short letters with 4 to 6 details, and guide the participants through the document/texts by explaining the context, the intended audience, the vocabulary and phrases, and the common layout. The Canadian Language Benchmark Level 4 (Reading) roughly corresponds to Essential Skills Level 1 Reading texts and documents. There is a fantastic OER (online educational resource) available for Levels 1 and 2 and part of Level 3 called Read Forward, which was developed by The Centre for Excellence in Foundational Learning (CEFL) at Bow Valley College. The materials are thorough, broken down into a number of workbooks for 6 levels. There are also location “tests” and answer keys, as well as user guide. I do not use these materials as tests, and the materials were not intended for English language learners as stand-alone resources. Thus, I have used the “Tests” as worksheets to guide participants through exercises once or twice a week for about 30 minutes or so. I recommend that the worksheets be used sparingly with English language learners, and used with the guidance of a facilitator in a group setting. I also recommend that these materials not be handed out to participants as self-paced, stand-alone materials. Instead, they really should be gradually introduced in combination with another activity such as a conversation, review of current events and community announcements. These essential skills activities (intermingled with other activities) provide participants with exposure to a large number of near-authentic and authentic culture-specific documents and texts taken for granted by North Americans.

Why Use Essential Skills with Newcomers in a non-formal setting? How to determine appropriate skill levels?

Utilizing these resources as group work sheets without testing or grading gently introduces the content in a non-competitive way, inviting participants to work alongside one another. It does not require the facilitator to control the assessing of learning. Instead, in this setting, the facilitator gradually, gently introduces these exercises to help participants prepare for their eventual use in their everyday lives. The facilitator can ask the participants to give feedback on the difficulty level experienced, on the vocabulary and phrases they find confusing, and whether they want to continue or not. For some participants with low language skill levels, the facilitator will simplify the questions, focusing on distinct words and numbers and dates and other details, underlining the words, practicing pronunciation, and circling phrases. For the participants with more advanced language levels, the facilitator can instead introduce voluntary out of session activities based on the worksheet(s), which invite them to leave the facilitator a voicemail or send an email asking for more details or asking about volunteer opportunities. Also, Oral Communication is a vital essential skill. One way to determine how to incorporate essential skills oral communication activities is to combine the Canadian Language Benchmarks (CLB) Can Do checklists with the Essential Skills levels descriptions to find commonalities between them.

Here are four spaces online participants can use to complete tasks: a private Sandbox (with the option to invite the tutor to review posts) or a more open space for Reviews and ListsCommunity and Work Readiness, and the Personal Blog. These four interconnected spaces enable participants to learn to connect and learn independently, cooperatively, or collaboratively online.

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The sandbox provides a confidential space for rehearsing, revising, and practicing language use before showing it to the tutor or another peer for feedback. In it, the participant can engage in drafting, musings, “half-posts”, impressions, summaries, or opinions about stuff read online, screen-captures of Google Translate reading sessions, and even embed audio or video recordings of personal read-alouds to get verbal practice, or engaging in self-talk. The sandbox can also be used for mind maps, sketches, or rich pictures that illustrate the ideas from the readings. The sandbox is very useful as a staging area for polishing work that would eventually go more public to a wider audience. But literally, this space is for participants to put ideas together, and practice language play.

Reviews and Lists provides a shared space with peers to showcase resources, explorations, impressions, opinions and reflections on learning materials or activities. Unlike the sandbox, it is more polished, more ready for peer viewing. It acts as a sounding-board, inviting feedback from peers and the facilitator to clarify ideas, further revise and summarize links to online resources, and provide reviews of electronic and hard-copy resources, such as web sites, conversations, interesting learning activities, e-books, online presentations and You Tube videos. This type of interaction among peers is purposeful and meaningful, and the participant can control the size of the audience, moving parts of the posts back into the sandbox, and then moving some ideas that are better formed and polished back out in to the Reviews and Lists space.

Community and Work Readiness This online space assists participants with rehearsal and getting ready to interact in the outside world to make connections with employers, educational institutions, and community organizations. This is a journal or log outlining goals, reactions, and experiences while networking to find out more about :

  • college or university programs
  • looking for jobs
  • pursuing information interviews about jobs
  • interviews with community leaders
  • finding out more about social service agencies
  • learning about volunteering opportunities
  • finding out more about non-formal training

The Personal Blog space is a broader learning space that shares and showcases a participant’s learning journey, and can include a discussion of goals, activities, successes and challenges, as well as summary reflections of English language learning activities. This is typically intended for upper intermediate English language level participants who have confidence with communicating to others. Initially, many of these reflections might start out as sandbox posts, as scatted, unconnected pieces. The posts in a Personal Blog often result from a chaotic mix of posts left in the sandbox; only after awhile, when post tags are reviewed (after 6-12 months) a pattern often emerges, leading to integration.

One important mention is that a facilitator has a crucial role to play. The facilitator acts as an encouraging tutoring presence for the participants to develop their ideas in a private space, and also encourage participants to leave their sandboxes, to begin sharing their views and online explorations with others. The facilitator plays a critical role in setting an example of what types of posts and vocabulary, grammar and phrasing that could be used to complete various tasks. The facilitator suggests and models the use of the language in a variety of ways: self-talk using a rich picture, an outline, a screenshot of text translated from a foreign language to English, accompanied by the participant’s notes, a list of useful vocabulary, short summaries, etc., etc. The facilitator delivers a series of exemplars (example posts) and invites the participants to view, comment on, add to, interact with, and blend in to their own work.

Another important mention is that the non-formal online language training cannot be anything else by voluntary; the participants’ activities are based on their willingness. The facilitator sets no time constraints, and encourages and models but one suggested way of learning online.

Any chance of success for a non-formal English language training online environment requires that it 1. serves participants as a stepping off and stepping up point between non-formal and formal online learning, and that it must 2. adopt a long-term view so that participants identify their own progress by comparing early posts with more recent ones, and that 3. participants need to “own” their content, so they see value in their work over months or years as a portfolio they can further build on and revisit, review, and revise years later..

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