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Shifting our Mindset to Leverage Learner Assets

17 Mar 2022 9:26 AM | Anonymous

Authored by Hali Massey, Adult Education SIG Chair, ESOL Specialist at the Virginia Adult Learning Resource Center. 

In adult ESOL education, we often talk about learners’ funds of knowledge and ensuring that our instruction is relevant to the lives and goals of our learners. However, when we discuss our learners, their proficiency levels, and their needs, we often use language that focuses on learner deficits versus focusing on the assets that learners are bringing into the classroom. This language and associated mindset has an impact not only on instruction but on how learners view themselves and their language learning journey. 

With that being said, how can ESOL instructors shift their mindsets so that they are leveraging the funds of knowledge of  learners in English language learning classrooms? Here are four instructional practices that allow English language instructors to bring learners’ assets to the forefront of the classroom and the language learning journey as a starting point for further developing proficiency in English. 

1. Assess Assets

In adult education, there tends to be a focus on pre and post testing learners and on how learners can increase their proficiency levels for reporting purposes. While understanding where our learners are on the spectrum of English language proficiency is vital to delivering effective instruction, understanding how learners are already engaging with English in their everyday lives can also have a significant impact on instruction. 

Asset Assessment: Instructors can administer an asset assessment, which is similar to a needs assessment, but instead, it allows learners the opportunity to share their experiences and strengths when it comes to engaging with the English language. Instructors can then use “I can” statements from learners to include familiar content and linguistic features in the classroom in order to build learner confidence before moving onto more challenging content. 

Questions for an asset assessment can include but are not limited to:

  1. Where can you use English?

  2. Where can you understand English?

  3. Who can you speak English with? 

  4. What can you read in English? 

Instructors can use images and provide options to scaffold these questions for learners at the beginning or literacy levels of proficiency. 

In addition, instructors can also ask learners what content they have knowledge in, both in English and in other languages. For example, what career or education experiences they have. This information can be used to ensure that this identified content is being integrated into the classroom.

2. Incorporate Learner Voice into the Classroom

Instructors can provide opportunities for learners to share their voice, stories, and narratives in the classroom. This allows learners to feel validated in their life experiences and creates opportunities for learners to be the subject matter expert in the classroom. 

The Language Experience Approach: Using the Language Experience Approach (LEA) is a very effective activity for giving voice to learners at all proficiency levels. This is an activity where instructors ask learners to share a story verbally while the instructor or a peer writes the story down. This activity results in student generated texts that can be used for further learning activities. The benefits of this activity include the fact that the student generated text includes vocabulary and grammatical structures that are familiar to learners and that can be used as a place to grow that language knowledge from.

Response prompts: Another strategy for incorporating learner voice and experience into the classroom is to use problem-solution, growth-mindset, and suggestion prompts that allow learners to share their thoughts, opinions, and experiences on a focused-them. Instructors need to ensure that these prompts are relevant to the current topic of the classroom content and to adult life in general. In addition, instructors can scaffold these prompts with images or videos.

Example prompts: 

  1. Share a time when you solved a problem. What was the problem? How did you solve it? 

  2. Tell us about a time when you were lost. Where were you going? How did you find your way?

  3. Instructor presents a photo or a text of a person with a flat tire and asks learners to identify the problem and potential solutions. 

  4. Instructor presents a photo or a text of a person who is sick and asks learners to provide suggestions for what that person should do. 

This resource provides examples of incorporating learner voice into the adult ESOL classroom.

3. Learner Self-Assessment 

Another strategy for highlighting and leveraging student assets is to provide opportunities for learners to self assess their own progress.

Exit Tickets: Instructors can provide exit tickets after lessons for learners to indicate what they understood and what they would like to explore more. Using positive and asset based language for these activities is key so that learners do not feel demotivated by this reflection. For example, instructors can ask learners for a glow, something that is going well and a strength, and for a grow, an area that they want to keep improving and focusing on. These also lend themselves well to visual representations which helps to scaffold these more abstract ideas. 

K-W-L Chart: Instructors can also use a K-W-L chart for self-assessment which asks learners to indicate what they know (K) and what they want to learn or wonder (W) about a topic and then reflect on the topic after a lesson or series of lessons by indicating what they learned (L).

Goal-Setting Activities: Integrating goal-setting activities into the classroom provides learners with the opportunity to reflect on where they are and where they would like to go. In adult education, we place a lot of emphasis on college and career readiness and ensuring that our learners continue their education past English language classes, but it is important to understand what language goals learners have and how those goals can be used to provide support in pursuing larger life goals. This resource provides lesson plans for goal setting with adult English language learners. 

These activities and strategies also help learners shift from dependent to independent learners which aligns with the goal of delivering culturally responsive education.

4. Utilize Learner Heritage Language in the Classroom

One asset that all of our English learners are bringing into the classroom is that they already speak a different language. Whether they are literate or not in their heritage language is a consideration, but even if they are not literate, they are fluent in at least one other language. English language instructors can leverage our learners’ language abilities for developing proficiency in English. 

Instructors can encourage the use of heritage languages in the ESOL classroom by: 

  1. Asking learners to take notes during class in their heritage language. 

  2. Asking learners to journal and self-reflect on their learning progress using their heritage language. 

  3. Partner learners by heritage language to provide scaffolding for vocabulary or reading activities. 

This webinar presents additional opportunities for using heritage languages in the classroom. 

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