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ESL Curriculum?

Hello colleagues, I'm very interested in how ESL programs have designed their curriculum. How do you know what to teach? What is guiding your curricular decisions? Is an ESL textbook your main guide? Do standards play an essential role in your curriculum? if so, how do you integrate standards?

This is a big question, and I'm hoping we can have a robust discussion here on LINCS about what programs and teachers look to to guide the curriculum we are using.

Cheers, Susan Finn Miller

Moderator, English Language Acquisition CoP



heather tatton-harris's picture

At the Carlos Rosario School, we design our own curricula.  To design the content targets, we do a needs analysis by interviewing students, working closely with teachers, and if it is a bridge course, we reverse engineer content from the certification course and talk with employers.  Our ESL language curriculum contains CCRS standards and has the same high-level objectives from our beginning levels to our advanced levels; the exit skills defined in those objectives are level-appropriate.  The curriculum comes together through the Scope and Sequence where the content targets are interwoven with the language objectives.  The content is crafted into thematic units that culminate in student-led projects.  Numeracy, digital literacy, and soft skills are also integrated into the Scope & Sequence of each theme.  We analyze textbook alignment after the content and language integration has been defined.  Sometimes we do find textbooks that work, especially in the lower levels.  In the mid and upper levels, we mostly look for textbooks that supplement the curriculum (a book that aligns to a particular theme, fiction for bookclubs, textbooks that focus on a particular ability aligned to that level).  It sounds like a neatly contained process.  In reality, it can be messy - assessment and professional development are also intertwined in this work.  But in the end, when students are deeply engaged and exceed their instructor's expectations, it's all worth it.  

Silvia Hildesheim's picture

Hi Heather, 

I hope you and everyone at Carlos Rosario School are doing well :) 

When you and Carlos Rosario School first started revising your curriculum, did you start one level at a time or did you go through the development process with several levels simultaneously? 

How do you balance revising/developing the curriculum for one specific level while maintaining overall cohesiveness across levels? I'm very interested in hopefully writing curricula for my program and in thinking about how I would start, it seems most manageable to start with one level at a time. Needs Analysis, development, piloting, revision etc for one level and then the next. However, by doing this, I'd feel as if I'm missing out on the broader picture. Any suggestions for how to balance the micro (one specific level) with the macro (overall program)? 

Thanks in advance! - Silvia

heather tatton-harris's picture

Hi Silvia,

We started with one level at a time.  It was important for us to walk the path, learn important lessons, and document our process before we scaled up.  We tried doing three levels at a time once we felt like we had a grip on the work. However, with the layers of assessment and teacher coaching embedded in this work, two levels at a time is the sweet spot for us.  As we went through the levels and gained deeper understandings about exit skills in each level, we did have to go back and make minor updates to the levels already revised.  We now have a complete draft of how the skills (reading, writing, listening, speaking, language, numeracy) stack from one level to the next, for 10 levels of ESL. It's definitely a draft and as teachers pilot and implement, we learn more and continue to update.  Honestly, teachers are working hard to implement the CCRS expectations of rigor.  As they do that important work, they learn what students are truly capable of, and I expect that our level-appropriate exit skills will shift upwards as we go.  

Susan Finn Miller's picture

Hello Heather and all, It's good to hear that you designed your curriculum to be aligned to the CCRS and the rigors these standards require. There is no doubt in my mind that learners are capable of a great deal when they are provided the right support.

I'm hoping we'll hear from other members about the curriculum development process.

Cheers, Susan Finn Miller

Moderator, English Language Acquisition

Silvia Hildesheim's picture

Thanks for sharing all of your experience!

Silvia Hildesheim's picture

Hi Colleagues, 

I’d like to post several questions I have regarding curricula in adult education ESL programs. I hope to learn from this community’s collective experiences.

  1. Are there any small programs who have developed in-house curricula? What challenges did/do you face?
  2. Has anyone faced push-back (from administration, from teachers, etc.) with regard to developing curricula at your programs? How did you overcome this?
  3. Has anyone recently (within the past few years) implemented curricula into their program? What steps did you take and what advice to you have for others who want to establish curricula (outside of the textbook..) for their programs?
  4. What online/public access resources have people found helpful when designing curricula for their programs?

Thanks! - Silvia H.

heather tatton-harris's picture

Question #2 is very important.  A lesson that I personally learned over the course of our curriculum work is that getting buy-in is absolutely critical to this work.  I found this formula helpful in crafting our message:  D + V + F > C (Kevin Eikenberry Group, 2015).   

D = Dissatisfaction with present situation


V = Vision for a better future


F = Clarity of the first steps


C = Perceived cost of change

With this in mind, we utilized many of the CCRS materials provided to talk with faculty and administrators about 21st century skills and the work we needed to do with our students.  I also used information synthesized from the PIAAC report to make the case about numeracy integration.

Susan Finn Miller's picture

Hello Heather, Thank you for identifying "change management" as a critical step in the process of curriculum development. What has the change management process been like for you? What advice can you offer?

Since you brought up numeracy, here's another question for you: While I'm convinced that numeracy integration is important in our work with language learners, I also believe that content knowledge is crucial, and not many language teachers have a background in math, nor do many math educators know how to teach language. How have you been able to address this issue?

Cheers, Susan Finn Miller

Moderator, English Language Acquisition CoP

heather tatton-harris's picture

Because I didn't identify early on that change management was going to be a critical component to this work, there were some bumps in the road.   Teachers didn't understand why were were making these changes, why contextualizing instruction was important, and why increasing the rigor was important when every semester their students seemed to do just fine!  We spent a couple semesters spinning our wheels, as a result. We had to take a step back and have bigger conversations with administrators and teachers alike.  My recommendations:

1 - The change mandate has to either come from school leadership or have their buy-in.   

2 - Communicate "the why" early and often, and from a variety of sources (curriculum team, PD, administrators)

3 - Teachers need to know that everyone acknowledges that change is hard!  

4 - PD coaches play an instrumental role in "the why" and "the how".   Leverage that.  

5 - Make sure that your assessments align to your curriculum work as you go.  You simply cannot expect teachers to implement a curriculum with fidelity if the assessments do not match.

6 - Update how teachers are evaluated to align to the curriculum and instruction expectations.

Those are the major areas of learning that we've experienced in this process.  

Numeracy: We are still learning how to support our ESL teachers in integrating numeracy into their instruction. We seem to be at point now where many teachers feel comfortable having students build and interpret charts and graphs.  I see a lot of examples on our walls.  Teachers find places in their content to have students do surveys, then they help their students build that data into graphical representations, and then write and speak about their interpretations.  We have one faculty member designated as our Numeracy Integration Specialist.  She works one-on-one with teachers and their content to design lessons that integrate numeracy and math.  One by one, we are moving through this.  We have done full-faculty PD sessions, but the one-on-one seems to be more effective.  

Susan Finn Miller's picture

Thank you for this thoughtful list of recommendations from your 'lessons learned' about writing curriculum, Heather.

Assessment is so important, but also challenging. I assume that you have created informal assessments--meaning they are not standardized-- to evaluate learners skills in all the components of language, i.e., listening, speaking, reading, writing, language + numeracy. In what ways is your program structured to account for the inevitability that learners vary in their strengths across these different aspects of language?

Cheers, Susan

Vinod Lobo's picture


When we designed the ESL curriculum for Learning Upgrade, we used the CCRS, Common Core, and other learning standards but a big challenge was what order and sequence to use for the lessons.  For example, go through the full alphabet and 26 letter sounds first or introduce one letter at a time.  I wanted to share our Order and Sequence of 360 lessons, as well as our CCRS alignment, so others can see the choices we have made.  The lessons are divided into courses six courses of 60 lessons each K, 1, 2, 3, 4, 5 that cover phonics, word decoding, grammar, spelling, vocab, comprehension, listening, and writing.

Lesson List for Learning Upgrade

CCRS Standards for Learning Upgrade

Best wishes,

Vinod Lobo, Learning Upgrade

Lori Rodriguez's picture

Hi Vinod,

Is there a lesson list for the Math modules as well?  If so could you share the link.

Vinod Lobo's picture


  Yes, here is the list of our 600 math lessons that cover from K to 8 and Algebra. We are still working on the CCRS alignment for math so that is not yet available.

Math Lesson List Learning Upgrade

   Best wishes,