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Focus On Basics

Volume 2, Issue C ::: September 1998

An Unexpected Outcome

by Edith Cowper
No lightning flashed. No light bulbs blinked on. Change was not my intent. It is difficult to remember when I first realized that a change was taking place. I do know that my beliefs about teaching ESOL were not the same as they were eight months ago...

This story begins when Literacy South, an adult literacy research and staff development organization, obtained a grant for the North Carolina adult English for speakers of other languages (ESOL) Curriculum Framework Inquiry Project. They decided to work with ESOL instructors from Wake Technical Community College in Raleigh, North Carolina, because Wake Tech holds its ESOL classes in sites accessible to students, such as churches and high schools, in addition to on campus. The diversity of the ESOL student population was also appealing to Literacy South.

Of about 75 Wake Tech ESOL instructors, 15, myself included, applied to carry out the curriculum framework inquiry project with the goal of developing guiding principles for adult ESOL practitioners in North Carolina. Following an initial weekend retreat, the project group met monthly. In addition, we each did an inquiry project related to our practice to explore the teaching beliefs that guided each of us. Then, we presented our individual project findings to each other. Out of our research, inquiry, and reflection, we developed a shared vision of how best to serve our learners. From this we formulated our guiding principles: the foundation of our framework.

My Goals

When I applied to participate in this project I was an ESOL instructor, but by the first meeting I was working as an ESOL coordinator. My new role as supervisor included hiring, training, and observing teachers. I was actually the supervisor of some of the teachers who were participating in the project. I felt I must be a good role model for the teachers with whom I worked. In addition, I wanted to provide quality input to the group.

We began our project by reviewing our own language learning experiences and discussing some of our teaching beliefs. We also had quiet time for reflective writing. In my journal I noted, "All this re ection does make me question some of my own learning and teaching, which is a good thing, but not always easy to swallow sometimes. I'm frustrated that I'm not doing all these things in the classroom, but want to learn how to be better. The big question for me is how can I best use this info for my current position: more as a teacher trainer. How can I train when I'm not an expert' teacher myself and don't incorporate everything in my own teaching? It presents a new challenge "

We talked a lot about using a learner-centered philosophy. I thought I had utilized one in my own teaching practice. Through reading and discussion, we settled on Huerta-Macias' (1993) definition of learner-centered as the one that reflected our views. She defines it as an approach that "involves collaboration between teachers and learners; through ongoing dialogue, they determine the content of the curriculum and the learning objectives. This approach focuses on learners' real-life needs "

I began to realize that I was not as learner-centered as I thought. I had used many participatory activities. One, for example, was a lesson I used for "ed" (walked, talked, for example) pronunciation practice. I gave students cards of regular past tense verbs and asked them, in pairs, to decide the ending sounds (/t/, /d/, or /id/). Then, the students wrote their answers on the board and the class decided if they were correct. I thought I was learner-centered because I provided the students with tasks in which they made decisions.

Missing Component

An important component was missing, however: the students' input on what and how to learn. I did not spend enough time learning about their needs, interests, and styles of learning. I used materials that I thought were interesting and relevant, but I was not giving my students a voice in selecting the topics they studied and the ways they learned best. Then I began to understand that the manner in which our meetings were conducted by Literacy South staff demonstrated a learner-centered philosophy. Throughout the project they asked us the participants how we felt about the process: if we had too much information or not enough. Adjustments were made based on our comments. One such example is when our meeting time was near to ending and we were not through our agenda. The group negotiated how to spend the remaining time rather than having it decided for us. We had a voice in what we were doing and how we were doing it. In my journal I wrote, "I also really like how the activities we do in the project are done in a way to illustrate teaching philosophies, i.e., leading sessions in a learner-centered way."

Here is another example. On the last night of our second retreat, after a long day of working, we created images, with paper, glue, and scissors, of the process we had been through over the past eight months. It was optional: only those who wanted to participated, and we were free to create. We explained our pictures to the group and put them together to form a paper quilt, each individual having developed a piece of the whole. I was not only learning about the philosophy, but experiencing it, too, and finding I liked that type of learning environment.

I also recognized the value of applying your philosophy in all aspects of your job. Instead of saying, "we believe in a learner-centered ESOL teaching philosophy," Literacy South staff demonstrated the philosophy, showing that it is not just a belief, but a way of working. I wanted to apply these beliefs in all aspects of my practice. I came to understand that I do not have to be the expert teacher' but the effective administrator. I can find out the needs of the teachers and provide them with learner-centered training, which could motivate them to incorporate these principles in their classrooms.

Inquiry Project

Each project participant did an inquiry project. An inquiry project was defined as a "mode of research driven by the learner's desire to look deeply into a question or an idea that interests him or her." We each defined a question, developed a way to gather data, gathered data, and analyzed the results. Everyone in the project did an inquiry project that related to our end goal of identifying teaching principles for adult ESOL.

I wanted to provide the Wake Tech ESOL instructors not participating in the project with an opportunity to explore their teaching beliefs. I also wanted to see if their beliefs were like those of the project members'. I surveyed approximately 68 Wake Tech ESOL teachers to learn about their teaching beliefs and to find out if having a framework developed by their peers would be helpful. I had read, "Teachers' belief systems are founded on the goals, values, and beliefs teachers hold in relation to the content and process of teaching, and their understanding of the systems in which they work and their roles within it. These beliefs and values serve as the background to much of the teachers' decision making and action . . ." (Richards & Lockhart, 1994, p. 30). Since the choices teachers make illustrate their teaching beliefs, I questioned them about their criteria for planning lessons and selecting materials, how they define a successful lesson, and the effects of their own language learning experiences, as well as their ESOL teaching philosophy.

The survey data I collected indicated that many teachers used important aspects of a learner-centered practice. They focused on meeting their students' needs and providing a comfortable, safe, classroom atmosphere. Many teachers also noted that, with curriculum that was relevant to students' lives and needs, learners engaged more in the learning process. I met with a focus group of four teachers to discuss these ideas further. I learned that the focus group participants shared this philosophy, but perhaps not as strongly as those who experienced it by participating in the project. I realized that the teachers who were not participating in the project would need to have a voice in the process to accept our group's guiding principles. To help others incorporate these changes into their practices, they would need to be provided with opportunities to experience them in action.


Now, as ESOL Coordinator, I have the on-going challenge of implementing the beliefs I had gained. I have wondered how I can employ a more learner-centered format in our staff development. This task is exciting and scary at the same time. It is exciting to work with and develop staff in this way, but it is scary because it is very challenging. I question how well I can do it within the constraints of the system, which include a staff of part-time instructors who get no pay for professional development. I feel pressure to model our guiding principles, understanding that if teachers are to implement a learner-centered philosophy, they need to experience one, as I did.

In the teacher preservice training I did after completing the project, I tried to implement some beliefs I gained from my experience. For example, in the first session, instead of presenting the information myself, I asked the new teachers to choose a component of the paperwork and present it to the others. They chose the item and the method of presentation. They presented the detailed information in a simple and straight-forward manner. I probably would have provided too many details that they would not have remembered.

After my efforts to provide a more learner-centered teacher training, I was disappointed that the evaluations were not more glowing. However, the goal of being learner-centered is finding out what the needs are and feeling comfortable expressing those needs honestly. I learned that it is not necessarily negative to hear what needs were not met. Now I have more information to consider in preparing for future trainings. I also see I must find out the needs of each new group of teachers. Just as teachers in the classrooms need to make ongoing adjustments to meet their students needs, I must continually work on providing professional development designed for the varying needs of each group of new teachers.

In Conclusion

Several factors helped motivate me to change. One important element was the project group. I respected them and valued their insights and opinions. In our ESOL classrooms, we try to establish a community of learning in which students feel comfortable taking risks to learn. This was also the case in the project community, where I was able to discuss, read, write, and experience new ideas. I felt comfortable in reflecting on my teaching practices and inquiring about my teaching beliefs as well as those of other Wake Tech ESOL teachers. Another important element that helped change to occur was reflection: I reflected on and questioned my past and present experiences and their effectiveness. Also, the project was interesting. It was exciting to develop professionally and to gain information I can use to help other teachers' professional development.

As I have said, we came together with the goal of developing an ESOL framework for adult educators on North Carolina. My focus was not on changing my beliefs, but on contributing to the framework we were jointly creating. Even though I was not trying to change, I think the reasons I did would work for those actively seeking to. These elements are reflection and inquiry, experience, and implementation. They must occur in a comfortable, safe environment. Change and its implementation are not easy, but are made easier with support and encouragement. Knowing this, I can continue trying to employ these beliefs in helping other ESOL teachers in their own change and professional growth.

Wake Tech ESOL Teachers' Questionnaire

1. How long have you been teaching ESOL?

2. Why are you working as an ESOL instructor?

3. Describe your formal education (in any field):

4. Describe your training in teaching ESOL:

5. Complete this sentence: A successful lesson is one in which

6. Describe a successful/good lesson that you taught.

7. How do you decide what you will teach?

8. When choosing materials (a photocopy or book) what criteria do you use?

9. Have you studied/learned another language? Yes or No

a. If yes, (circle all that apply) When: High School College, Living abroad, Other:

b. What helped you learn another language?

c. What hindered your language learning?

d. What effect did those (9a, 9b, 9c) have on your ESOL teaching?

10. Describe your teaching philosophy as an ESOL teacher.

11. Would having guidelines for teachers of adult ESOL that were developed by your peers be helpful? Why or why not?



Huerta-Macias, A. (1993). Current Terms in Adult ESL Literacy. Eric Digest. Washington, D.C.: NCLE, Center for Applied Linguistics.

Richards, J. C. & Lockhart, C. (1994). Reflective Teaching in the Second Language Classroom. New York: Cambridge University Press.


About the Author

Edith Cowper is currently an ESOL Coordinator for Wake Technical Community College Basic Skills Division and a work group member of the Adult ESOL Curriculum Framework Inquiry Project. She has taught ESOL in the U.S. and abroad, in a variety of settings, including intensive programs, workplace, and junior high school.

Updated 7/27/07 :: Copyright © 2005 NCSALL