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!