30 Leaders in the Field Speak Out: What about You?

Hi, everyone.  A blog from the Center for Advancement of Adult Literacy (CAAL) just arrived in my inbox yesterday, August 19. With the passage of the the Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act (WIOA), CAAL' s president, Gail Spanngenberg, has assembled thought pieces by 30 leaders in the field of adult education, including from the ELL side Jodi Crandall and Heide Spruck Wrigley. Other leaders represented are from the fields of worker education,and advocacy, community colleges, higher education, career and technical education, state departments of education, family literacy, professional development for educators, and more. There is also a piece by Johan Uvin, Acting Assistant Director Office of Career, Technical, & Adult Education.  The blog can be accessed at http://blog.caalusa.org/

It's food for thought. Issues brought up, include, on the bright side, the  increasing realization of the importance of English learners and their assets. On the less-than-bright side is the need for for more resources to address the literacy needs of the diverse population we have here in the United States,

I find what Lennox McClendon,  Executive Director National Adult Education Professional Development Consortium (NAEPDC) said quite hopeful and compelling when he wrote:

The challenge of the immediate future is to help program managers and teachers “infuse” careers throughout the program services—at the beginning reader levels, in multilevel classrooms, which are still the predominant delivery, and in English language learning services. By “infuse” we hope not to throw away the student-centered learning we are doing now; but rather integrate contextualized learning around the high demand jobs in local areas, integrating the soft (job readiness) skills that employers long for in their employees, and infusing career awareness and exploration because many of the high-demand jobs are those with which we are unfamiliar (we hear regularly that the high-demand jobs of today did not exist five or ten years ago). The challenge is magnified because we have a teaching force that is 80% part-time and a program management/leadership force that is 50% part-time.

So, here are my questions: How are you infusing contextualized learning while not discarding the student-centered learning? What do you do? What challenges are you facing? What successes?

I look forward to your comments, no matter how short and anecdotal.

Miriam Burt

SME, Adult English Language Learner Community of Practice




Thanks, Miriam, for posting a link to this CAAL blog. I took a cursory look, and there are many valuable points made by these leaders, and I'm looking forward to reading their comments more carefully. I appreciate Lennox's words and your question regarding implementing contextualized instruction through a learner-centered approach. I believe that instruction that is contextualized around learners' goals is ideally what learner-centered practice is all about.

When the learners' goals are to communicate effectively with neighbors, medical personnel, and co-workers, instruction would ideally focus on these goals. When learners' need a job right away, or want to transition to training or post-secondary education, instruction would focus on the specific literacy and language skills needed to support achieving these goals.

The challenge I have faced when attempting to implement a learner-centered approach that is contextualized around learners' goals is that there are very often learners with drastically different goals in the same class, especially in an adult ESL class. I have often thought that organizing an adult ESL program around learners' goals would make this an easier challenge. For instance, programs might offer a life skills class, a class for adults who are seeking employment or promotions at work, and an another class for students with academic goals. It seems to me that teaching a multilevel class  of students who all have the same goal would make it easier to meaningfully contextualize instruction than teaching a leveled class with students who have very different goals. Of course, we would still need separate classes for those who are emergent readers and/or at the very beginning level of English.

What kind of challenges and successes have other members faced when seeking to implement learner-centered and contextualized instruction?

Cheers, Susan

Moderator, Assessment CoP

I like your suggestion, Susan.  We know that skills are transferrable. For example, a person needs to know how to work on a team in just about any job or venture in the community, and a person needs to be able to follow directions in every pursuit, and so on. However, it may be difficult for students to see the connection to their goals if their specific job is not mentioned and content language from a field of importance to them is not being addressed.  If the classes were organized by learner goals, the language and content being taught  could more specifically match the students's need and expectations. I guess that's why English for Specfic Programs (ESP) can be so useful.


Hi Miriam and all, Yes, English for Specific Purposes (e.g., English for Engineering, English for Business, etc.) is effective for exactly these reasons, i.e., the learners' goals and the course content are in alignment. Unless I'm mistaken, I believe these courses are usually offered at higher levels of English. I wonder if any adult ESL programs for low intermediate to advanced learners are organized in such a manner. What might the pros and cons of such an arrangement?

Cheers, Susan

Moderator, Assessment CoP


Some of these questions/discussion implies that there may be an an either/or situation as far as student-centered instruction and contextualized learning go. 

In the Bridge Program at LaGuardia Community College, we have had great success incorporating student centered learning into contextualized curriculum and instruction. We’ve been able to quantify these successes, with higher HSE exam pass rates and improved retention (you check out a policy brief published by MDRC based on a random assignment study: http://www.mdrc.org/sites/default/files/Enhancing_GED_Instruction_brief.pdf). We’ve also been able to note a lot of qualitative successes, such as seeing students engaged in the classroom and being proud of their work and success. Although I think the contextualized student centered approach is very effective, it does take a lot of time and a lot of work, especially with curriculum design before entering the classroom, which touches on some of the challenges mentioned around staffing and funding. 

There are many interpretations and terms involved in ideas around student-centered contextualized instruction, so I believe it'is helpful to use examples, when available. One example that we have used in the Health Bridge Program is to create a curriculum around the book First Do No Harm by Lisa Belkin. This is book is a good example of how valuable strong authentic material is and can serve as a great foundation for a curriculum. First Do No Harm is a non-fiction book that follows several patients in the same hospital who are facing incredibly difficult health care decisions, most of these decisions are around end-of-life and Do Not Resuscitate orders. The book follows these patients over a year from the point of view of the patients as well as from the point of view of the hospital staff as they convene in ethics committees to review patient's case and grapple with ethical health care decisions. The curriculum we developed asks students to use a patient chart to record details about each patient as well as cite and summarize the information. In this way students practice some active reading skills, close reading, as well as citing and organizing information. As they practice these basic reading skills, they adopt the POV of a health care worker and gather information pertaining to symptoms, diagnoses, treatments, notes. At certain points in the curriculum, students meet in groups to discuss each patient in the book and the ethical decisions they are facing. During these meetings, students are asked to make recommendations as though they were the health care professionals caring for the patient, which mirrors the ethics committee meetings in the book. Toward the end of the curriculum, students write a formal essay on patient care using examples from the book. 

During this curriculum students are exposed to the varying roles in the health care field, some medical terminology, but they also get to look at some of the larger ethical decisions involved. And although this is a health care focused class the larger themes around ethics, the problem solving processes, soft skills, and critical thinking that students develop are all really transferable to any subject, theme, or career. So even if students don't continue onto a health care field or are only mildly interested in health care (which is sometimes the case) this curriculum is still engaging and students are still developing their academic skills as well as other transferable skills for whatever their next step will be. 

If your interested in and want to find out more about our work you can check out our website at www.lagaurdia.edu/pcap 


Serge Shea

Professional Developer, College and Careers Pathways Instiute (CCPI), LaGuardia Community College