A Call for Rigor in Adult Ed

Last Saturday I took part in a welcome new addition to the conference circuit: Meeting Challenges, Exploring Solutions in the Adult ESL Classroom, presented by The New School and the Literacy Assistance Center. Set amid East Village foliage, catered with New York bagels like only New York can make New York bagels, intermingled with music by the Mannes School, and packed full of relevant sessions, it was a Saturday well spent.

The plenary was delivered by Betsy Parrish, author of Teaching Adult ESL, and at the heart of her address was a call for rigor in adult ESL. Taken on its own, such an appeal seems uncontroversial and even commonsense. But at a time when so many are so vocally railing against the new standards we find ourselves grappling with, for Parrish to make this case becomes something of a statement. But hers is a statement grounded in reason and research.

She points to stark disparities between the expectations at postsecondary institutions and what’s happening in ABE/ESL classrooms. Asked about higher-order thinking in reading, over half of college professors in one study said that synthesizing information from multiple texts was very important or extremely important, yet over 80% of ABE instructors surveyed address it only rarely or sometimes. This is only one of several such jarring disconnects: on the importance of note-taking from lectures, nearly 45% of college faculty ticked the top two boxes, compared with over 80% of ABE teachers reporting in the bottom two boxes. From the world of work, she points to the connection between low skills and low-paying jobs.

In light of these figures, Parrish’s call to arms—“We need to move beyond survival skills!”— is practically an understatement.

She went on to provide some practical and versatile ideas for injecting rigor into run-of-the-mill activities at all levels of instruction. For instance, in a textbook reading activity, adding rigor can simply mean asking questions of higher quality than those provided in the text. Rather than just asking students to answer basic read-for-details questions, we can ask students to make inferences and justify them with textual evidence.

Another idea: Providing carefully selected graphic organizers to complete while reading can help students to see how a text is structured.

Finally, we can have students gather real-world data from, say, one-question surveys. From there, analyzing and discussing that data, creating graphs and formulating observations in academic language, and using higher-order thinking skills. Activities like this can serve as a bridge between day-to-day English and academic language.

The entire presentation is up on YouTube.

Betsy Parrish will be taking part in a workshop and panel presentation on related topics at TESOL 2016 in Baltimore, Maryland, USA. Check it out, and be on the lookout for next year’s Meeting Challenges, Exploring Solutions event!

About Robert Sheppard

Robert Sheppard
Over the past 10 years, Rob has explored a variety of roles and contexts in the field. These include the cram-school culture of Taiwan and Korea; IEPs in Boston focused on academic English; advanced conversation and TOEFL prep taught via Skype to students in Japan; and nonprofit, community English programs for immigrants to Greater Boston. He currently serves as sr. director of adult programs at Quincy Asian Resources, a member of the community advisory council at First Literacy, and a curriculum consultant at Boston Global Institute. He has a master’s degree in TESOL from The New School, and his areas of interest include adult ed, pronunciation and grammar instruction, curriculum development, and assessment.
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5 Responses to A Call for Rigor in Adult Ed

  1. Not stupid says:

    This is probably a comment that I shouldn’t post because I really agreed with and appreciate the whole article, but as an educator, I am so tired of certain buzz words that are in fashion like “rigor”. Everywhere you turn it’s “rigor”. It’s like the term “best practices”. Good Lord!!! And it’s crept into everything. I overheard two hot dog vendors the other day talking about “best practices” in their line of work (kidding of course). And since when did we get so disconnected, everything is a “disconnect’. As an old timer, It all sounds so presumptuous to me. It’s almost as if we don’t have a valid profession if we don’t ‘upgrade’ our jargon every few years. Anyway, I hope “rigor” gets rigor mortis and soon.

  2. Jackie Smith says:

    Rob, your talk at the conference was one of the highlights for me.

    • Robert Sheppard Robert Sheppard says:

      Thank you so much, Jackie! It was an excellent conference and I was thrilled to be a part of it. My first conference presentation and I hope not my last! 🙂

  3. Emily says:

    Thanks for linking to my old post on One-Question Surveys. I actually got my TEFL certification from Betsy Parrish’s program at Hamline, so it’s not surprising how much I love that activity! I haven’t watched the linked video of her keynote yet, but I’m looking forward to devoting the 40 minutes to it when I can.

    I’ve found myself wishing that we could sometimes form ESOL classes not by English levels, but by L1 academic background. In some ways it would be nice to group the highly educated students all together, for example, because they need different academic support from us than students with, say, interrupted formal education in their L1. I’ve seen it done that way sometimes with literacy-level ELLs, but not really with regard to academic experience and soft skills.

    • Robert Sheppard Robert Sheppard says:

      Thanks for the comment, Emily! The idea of leveling students by academic background is a fascinating one. I wonder if anyone has ever tried this out!

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