Using Thoughtful Grouping Strategies

One of the strategies that I have found to be useful is an attempt to assist the learner to feel comfortable in a classroom setting and less threatening about sharing their reading ability. I believe that this promotes a feeling of community and togetherness.


Classroom setting is the environment that students will learn and develop the skills of language. It is very important for the learners to have an adequate place equipped with all the educational aids.Generally speaking, classroom setup can affect the learners,attitudes toward and habits of learning and enhancing new techniques.Thanks

Hello.  I will never forget my experience with a student from Vietnam, when I first started teaching ESL, which was about 20 years ago.  I was teaching at a community college.  She arrived early for every class; she had a notebook, and about three sharpened pencils (she reminded me of when I was a student in a community college; not because I had three sharpened pencils, but because I was 18 years old and didn't understand what was going on with the middle-aged women who came early, with sharpened pencils, and asked questions a minute before class was to end.)  She seemed so eager to be in class.  About a week later, she stopped coming to class.  I called her phone number.  Her husband, who was born in the U.S.A., told me that she had never been in a classroom before.  In Vietnam, her classes were held outside, under a tree, with no books, paper, or anything else other than a teacher.  He said that she just felt so uncomfortable, being in a classroom, with walls around her, that she needed to stop coming to class.  I felt so bad.  I don't know what I would have done differently, given what I know now; the class was welcoming and nonjudgmental; maybe today if I encountered such a situation, I would find another way.

Hello Marian (and all), Thank you for sharing this anecdote from your practice. I think many teachers can relate to this story. I certainly can. While your story comes from years ago, many refugees with little or no education-- in the formal way we do school-- continue to be settled in the US. Of course, these individuals bring a lifetime of informal learning and wisdom to our classrooms. Finding ways to tap into and honor that valuable background is an essential part of our job.

Researchers Helaine Marshall and Andrea DeCapua have been working on this issue for years, and they argue persuasively and helpfully in their books and many workshops for "culturally responsive" teaching to effectively work with this population of learners. Helaine and Andrea have developed a model of instruction called the "Mutually Adaptive Learning Paradigm" that shows how programs and teachers can support learners with limited formal schooling by first recognizing the cultural differences and honoring where learners come from. Their powerful model provides a realistic approach for bridging cultures to support adults to build literacy and language in line with their own purposes for learning.

I have been following the work of these experts for many years, and I was privileged to be on a panel with Helaine this week at TESOL in Toronto. I want to encourage everyone who works with adult learners who have limited or interrupted formal schooling to check out the "Mutually Adaptive Learning Paradigm (MALP)"

I know there are teachers who are currently using MALP to guide their practice, so I hope we will hear from some of you. Working with this special population of adults is one of the most important issues in our field right now. Please share your ideas, experiences, and practices, as well as your questions with our community.

Cheers, Susan Finn Miller

Moderator, AELL CoP

Hi Susan and Marian and all,

Thank you for sharing, Marian. I know that's what many of my students go through. I've had students get up and walk around in and outside the classroom because the idea of sitting for so long was impossible. Students have also been disruptive in other ways but instead of looking that their behavior in a negative way, we have to meet them where they are and 'mutually adapt.'

Thanks, Susan for bringing up MALP and culturally responsive teaching. I met Helaine and Andrea at the LESLLA (Low Educated Second Language and Literacy Acquisition) symposium in 2013. ( We, here at Greater Pittsburgh Literacy Council, have embarked on a researcher practitioner partnership that is entering its second year. It was an initiative started at LESLLA to bring researchers and practitioners working with low level, low literate students together. We're finding it to be mutually beneficial for our teachers and students. Sara Cole and I will be publishing a paper soon the the 2014 LESLLA proceedings but, in the meantime, let me give you some information on MALP.

The Mutually Adaptive Learning Paradigm, or MALP, is an instructional model developed to help reduce cultural dissonance in students with limited or interrupted education. The model seeks to reduce cultural dissonance by combining the informal methods and conditions for learning that LESLLA, or SLIFE (students with limited or interrupted formal education) students bring to the table with the sort of activities and tasks needed to participate in a Western-style classroom.

The model addresses the sense of dislocation that LESLLA students may face by adopting a blend of  student expectations for learning with the typical expectations of a Western classroom. The model accepts  learners’ conditions for learning (materials and subject matter immediately relevant to their lives, a feeling of interconnectedness with fellow classmates and the teacher). The model also combines both  and Western-style processes, or means through which students approach new material, by using the written word (Western-style) alongside oral transmission and including opportunities for both shared responsibilityand individual accountability (Western-style) in the classroom. By providing conditions and processes that are familiar and comfortable for LESLLA students, students are then less likely to feel overwhelmed when they are asked to perform decontextualized tasks, the type of learning tasks expected in a Western classroom.

We began implementing MALP in our classrooms with three teachers and four classrooms in January of 2014, Bridge Literacy, Foundations, and two Family Literacy classes. Our initial findings suggest that use of MALP encouraged active participation, further developed a sense of community, reduced cultural dissonance, and encouraged greater learner responsibility helping to enhance an already learner-centered curriculum.We are continuing with the project and are gathering and examining qualitative data.

I'm happy to give you more information on MALP and this partnership. I'm hoping my colleagues Sara Cole, Katie Murphy, Helaine Marshall and Andrea DeCapua will chime in too.




Some helpful references:

Condelli, L., & Wrigley, H. S. (2006). Instruction, language and literacy: What works study for adult ESL literacy students. In I. van de Craats, J. Kurvers, & M. Young-Scholten (Eds.), Low-educated adult second language and literacy acquisition: Proceedings of the inaugural symposium (pp. 111–133). Utrecht, The Netherlands: LOT.

DeCapua, A., & Marshall, H.W. (2015). Promoting Achievement for English Learners with Limited or Interrupted Formal Education: A Culturally Responsive Approach. Principal Leadership, National Association of Secondary School Principals, 48-51.

Marshall, H.W., & DeCapua, A. (2013).  Making the transition to classroom success:  Culturally responsive teaching for struggling language learners.  Ann Arbor:  University of Michigan Press.

Vinogradov, P. (2010). Balancing top and bottom: Learner-generated texts for teaching phonics. In T. Wall & M. Leong(Eds.), Low-educated second language and literacy acquisition: . Proceedings of the 5th symposium, Calgary, 2010, 3-14.

Thanks, Allegra, for the references that further explore MALP and learners with limited previous education I would like to add the following  to your great list:  Vinogradov, P. , & Bigelow, M. (2010).  Using Oral Language Skills to Build on the Emerging Literacy of Adult English Learners.
Washington, DC: Center for Applied LInguistics.

Miriam Burt

Center for Applied Linguistics


Hi Susan, Marian, Allegra and everyone,

I have also encountered students who feel uncomfortable in a Western-style classroom, including students who had negative experiences with the limited formal education they received in their home countries. I learned about MALP from Helaine Marshall and Andrea DeCapua while earning my master's in education, and decided to implement the Mutually Adaptive Learning Paradigm in an action research project at a community center close to home.  Like many teachers, I had found commercially published textbooks pedagogically unsound and in conflict with learners' needs for immediate relevance, so with Freire in mind, I decided to co-create the learning context with students by mounting butcher paper to the walls of our classroom, and having learners dictate to me about themselves, their work, and their homes. This met the MALP criteria of being immediately relevant, and scaffolding the written word with oral transmission.  From a simple chart with headings that included Name, Home Country, Languages, Job at Home, Job in U.S., and Family, we worked our way to lists of tools and equipment required for work, questions and answers associated with employment, and finally, to critical thinking about how much pay and what benefits were appropriate for various occupations and levels of experience. Instead of textbooks, student accumulated typed-up versions of the "scrolls" we co-created in the classroom. Some of these we called Pocket Guides, and they were folded into back pockets to be used as reference or study tools. This leaner-created curriculum was not produced by learners sitting in rows of chairs. We turned tables around to facilitate group work; sometimes students worked in pairs copying from the scrolls, sometimes we used the texts for choral drills. Creating "fertile spaces" is a way of looking at MALP's intention to situate students in an environment within which they can develop interconnectedness and enhance language acquisition.

Learners became comfortable in the classroom as opportunities to write on the scrolls themselves, move around tables to share map-making skills, and to touch landscaping and renovator's tools were provided. In this way, cultural dissonance was reduced and learners transitioned to more academic-style tasks, including hand-raising, categorizing data, and producing original texts.

I've also used MALP in other situations, including IEPs, to reduce cultural dissonance, and to build trust and a sense of community within the classrom.  For instance, on the first day of class I asked students to create Class Rules for themselves on butcher paper. This allowed them to use language skills to negotiate the terms they set for themselves, which were more likely to be followed than if I had decided the rules. 

Theme-based booklets were a culminating-project in writing classes, permitting students to exercise individual accountability and group responsibilty, while also developing interconnectedness.  In another example, students at a community center produced a booklet they called Immigrant Experiences and copies were distributed to all participants. I envision a community center creating a library of such booklets, forming texts for students to share.

Both the MALP website and Helaine and Andrea's books offer an implementation rubric so that teachers can modify their own lesson plans and courses of instruction to meet MALP criteria. Before and after self-reflection is a useful tool for analyzing whether implementation is successful. I've presented my findings from the action research project at several conferences and will continue to do. Here are useful sites for more information and if you would like to see one of my PowerPoints, please feel free to contact me.  Website:  Wiki:

I hope this has been useful!








Thank you, Allegra, Miriam and Nan, for sharing these resources as well as your expertise about MALP. It's great to hear about the butcher paper on the walls and how that evolved into "pocket guides." I, for one, would like to hear more! I'm hoping Katie and Sara will weigh in, too.

I agree that there is much that can be gained in any language learning context by applying the principles of the culturally responsive teaching model MALP outlines. However, in working with individuals who have had limited formal schooling this method is essential.

Members who have a special interest in this population of adult English learners may want to check out the free, self-paced online ELLU course "Teaching Emergent Readers" available through the LINCS Learning Portal here

Cheers, Susan

Moderator, AELL CoP

Its seems like a lot has already been said in this thread about students with limited experience with Western, formal education and feeling uncomfortable or at least unfamiliar with the learning environment. Not only is this an issue, but I've found that perhaps an even bigger issue is having students participate in unfamiliar, decontextualized classroom activities. At the beginning of my teaching career, I sort of took it for granted that students would be familiar with using a worksheet, writing on a line, circling, matching, or even writing on the board. After working with students who don't have much experience with Western classrooms for some time now, I now know better.

For me, MALP has been most helpful in meeting students where they're at and making these types of activities less abstracted and seem more of value by using material that is immediately relevant (about students' families, where they live, food and shopping, etc) and by having the students work together in ways that build a sense of community, trust, and camraderie with each other and me as the instructor as well. Using material from our daily lives, the students get to know each other and the instructor and build relationships.  Also, by using this material as the basis for more abstracted activities, such as circling matching words about food or identifying letters and sounds in family members names, these otherwise "random" activities are made more accessible and meaningful for the students since they connect back to their actual lived experiences. Not only that, but because they are familiar with these types of materials, the only 'new' thing is the activity, so they students aren't having to learn new materials AND a new way of doing things at the same time.

That said, Dr. Marshall and Dr. DeCapua's most recent book also has a great chapter on creating a MALP environment in your classroom. I've used this chapter as a jump-off point for facillitating class projects where we create simple sentence prompts around the classroom or study-aids with pictures and vocabulary on them for students to use for practicing if they come to class early. Because the students themselves helped create these study aids and posters, they feel a sense of ownership of the classroom and also are taking responsibility for their own learning. The students  gain confidence both through the making of thes study aids as well as through the use of them since they can use them as tools to remember or practice something without the teacher helping them.



Sara, Thank you for adding to this discussion thread and sharing your experience working with emergent readers. I (and I am certain others, too) would love to see some examples of the study aids and posters your students have created. If you might have the opportunity to upload a photo here (we can only upload graphic images such as jpg or gif), that would be wonderful! You along with Allegra and Nan have a wealth of knowledge and experience to share.

Cheers, Susan

Moderator, AELL CoP


Hello all,

Thank you for your comments.  If I ever teach a class of emerging literacy learners, I will refer back to all the wonderful information you have sent my way. When I was teaching the class that the middle-aged woman from Vietnam was in, I was teaching in a community college.  It is very different, I believe, to be an adjunct at a community college, than what your experiences have been.  I had a set number of text books, that I was required to cover.  I cheated; I didn't think it was reasonable to cover an entire fat book (200+pages) in one semester, plus three other texts.

Then I went on to teach ESL in an inner city high school, where violence was frequent, and not taken care of. Many students were awful; many needed to be protected.  One, was shot and killed with a very powerful gun; I had helped her with her young son.

I now teach an advanced class of ELLs.  They are all literate in their first, or third, or fourth language.  I appreciate all the information that you have sent my way.

Hi Marian and all,

Hello everyone, You have worked with English learners in a wide range of contexts Marian, which illustrates how our approach to instruction must vary depending on the context and the learners we are teaching. Clearly what works for individuals with a strong educational foundation does not work with those who have limited formal schooling.

So many of us have learners with a range of educational backgrounds as well as various levels of English in our classrooms. What are some strategies for dealing with this kind of complexity? What are some of the challenges? What approaches have members found to be effective?

Cheers, Susan

Moderator, AELL CoP

Hi, Susan-

Our program serves a lot of folks with interrupted educations, and I would be interested in exploring MALP.  Probably the most affordable way to start would be to purchase a book, and I have looked at "Making the Transition to Classroom Success" on Amazon.  The one thing I can't figure out from the MALP website or from the info about the book is the Functioning Levels most effectively addressed by the technique.  Most of my students are ESOL 1-4.  Would this book be a good resource for my team?  

Hi Kate,

I'm sure others will want to contribute answers to your concerns, but I wanted to share my experience with you. Yes, MALP is effective with pre-literate, non-literate and low-literate learners of all ages. Helaine Marshall developed the model while working with Hmong refugees who have no physcial representation of their language and are therefore considered pre-literate. "Making the Transition" provides examples of how teachers in various classrooms and levels revised lesson plans and developed projects in accordance with MALP principles.


I guess this will sound obnoxious, but who cares about any acronym about teaching, when you have students in the classroom who have weapons in their pockets and bookbags?  Who cares, when a teacher has five different classes to prepare for each day?  What about when you have a student, shortly after MRSA was identified, who comes into your room limping, because he had an infection in both of his legs, and blood was literally running down his legs, into his shoes?  How about when a student is blown away with a huge gun?  Or, when you as a teacher, is threatened, by a student who writes that he is going to kill you?

Is there no other person who has experienced teaching in an inner-city school district?????????

Marian and all, I know many of us who work with adult immigrants and refugees are well aware of the immense challenges and dangers individuals have faced-- and sometimes still face-- in their lives. Discussing these issues and ways to handle these concerns in helpful ways is certainly an appropriate theme for our Community of Practice. We welcome members to share their thoughts, strategies, and resources for dealing with these sensitive concerns.

Best, Susan

Moderator, AELL CoP