3 Effective Strategies for LESLLA Education

This is the second of two posts by guest blogger Raichle Farrelly, a longtime TESOL educator and advocate who is currently assistant professor of applied linguistics at St. Michael’s College in Vermont, USA.  “Rai” has worked in multiple ESL and EFL contexts across the United States, Africa, and Europe, and focuses much of her work and advocacy on preparing teachers to be effective with adults, particularly immigrants and refugees.  In this post, she discusses LESLLA—the acronym for Low Educated Second Language Acquisition and Literacy for Adults—which is becoming more commonly known as both an association and a field of study.

In the growing field of LESLLA, symposia take place in various locations around the world. LESLLA symposia tend to be small (but growing) with attendance ranging from 60–200 participants. Because groups are small, participants enjoy activities outside the symposium together. This year in Granada, Spain at LESLLA 2016, attendees enjoyed a passionate flamenco performance, a group dinner with plenty of sangria, and tours of La Alhambra. At the symposium, there were concurrent sessions presented by professionals from 13 countries. Topics included LESLLA teacher preparation, LESLLA learner agency and identity, developing handwriting skills, digital storytelling, language learning apps, assessment of LESLLA learners, and much more! Here are a few highlights:

It’s a fish. It’s a bug…No, that’s actually a pen. Jenna Altherr Flores of the University of Arizona gave us a glimpse into her research on multimodal assessments in the LESLLA context. She presented LESLLA learners with various written assessments and later, through interpreters, asked them questions about their responses and perceptions of the test questions and layout. It was fascinating to see how learners interpreted elements of tests that we take for granted. Common features such as tick boxes after choices and lines used to separate sections of the test were wildly confusing. Typical icons and graphics on tests and handouts can also be misunderstood. Clip art of a pen to reinforce “Write” represented very different things for various learners, including a fish and an insect. Cartoon eyeballs, sometimes used to signify “Look at…” were perceived to be eggs by one learner. The take-away: we have to be very mindful in our test design to make sure that we are giving our non-Western learners with emerging literacy skills the best chance possible to demonstrate what they know.

Invite them to tell their story. Language Experience Approach (LEA) and personal narratives emerged in several sessions as champion strategies for developing literacy and oral language skills with LESLLA learners. Annie Schneider from Saint Michael’s College in Vermont shared what one student said after they wrote a story about a shared class experience: “Teacher, I was so tired of reading about Pooja. I love reading about myself.” LEA keeps learning meaningful and relevant, which is essential when working with adults. For an amazing demonstration of an LEA lesson built around a field trip to a hardware store, watch this video of Andrea Echelberger as she takes a Whole-Part-Whole approach to literacy instruction with adult refugee background students in Minnesota.

Study circles and lesson study for teachers. Teaching LESLLA learners is demanding and requires that teachers have a wealth of LESLLA-specific professional and practical knowledge. There were several sessions on LESLLA teacher education and professional development. Our group from Saint Michael’s College presented on its experiences with teacher-led professional development that used study circle and lesson study approaches to investigate and try out LESLLA appropriate classroom strategies. Patsy Egan Vinogradov introduced the Low Lit Study Circle II Guide—a sequence to her first study circle, which has been used widely around the country by various teachers and program directors to help professionalize the work of LESLLA teachers. Currently, there are few courses available in TESOL programs that prepare teachers for work with LESLLA learners. However some institutions are beginning to introduce such courses into their curriculum (e.g., Grand Valley State University in Michigan, Saint Michael’s College in Vermont). The number of sessions on LESLLA teacher preparation is, I hope, an indicator that professionalization of our field is accelerating.

If you are teaching adults with interrupted formal education or are preparing teachers to do so, please get involved with LESLLA. Join us next year for the 13th Annual LESLLA symposia to be held 10–12 August 2017 at Portland State University in Portland, Oregon. Information about Calls for Proposals and much more will be posted to the LESLLA website in the coming weeks! In the meantime, join us on Facebook, and be sure to also participate in the Adult Education and Refugee Concerns Interest Sections in TESOL.

About Kristen Lindahl

Kristen Lindahl
Kristen Lindahl holds a PhD in linguistics with a specialization in L2 teacher education from the University of Utah. She is currently assistant professor of bicultural-bilingual studies at the University of Texas at San Antonio, where she teaches pre-service ESL/TESOL educators at the undergraduate, graduate, and doctoral levels. Dr. Lindahl has taught K–12 and college ESL, and actively pursues consulting and coaching teachers of English learners in public and English language schools around the globe.
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