Keeping Up With ESL: Adult Language Learners

Keeping Up With ESL

How often have your heard that it’s easier for children to learn a new language than it is for adults? Don’t despair that you’ll never be able to learn Spanish to talk with your students or take that trip to Barcelona. There have been some studies suggesting that children might not always have the advantage in language learning. There’s still hope for us adults!

Linguistic researchers have found that under certain conditions, adults can have a leg up. One advantage the article suggests is that adults already have a deeper understanding about how language works from having learned the complexities and nuances of their first language.

To find out more, check out the article published in The Telegraph. What do you think? Do you agree?

What's New?: Thanksgiving Lesson Plan


English Forward has been busy at work creating new resources to make teaching easier. Our latest edition is the release of our Thanksgiving Lesson Plan on the Timely Lessons page - just in time for the fast approaching holiday season. In the lesson, students get the chance to talk with their classmates about the many things they are thankful for in their lives. 

Have an idea for a lesson plan topic? Submit your suggestions using the Ask A Question function in the right hand column of the page to let us know what you'd like to see. And watch for the lesson plan to be released in mid-September.

Resource Sharing: Using PowerPoints

If you’re like me, you like to use PowerPoints in the classroom, but you just don’t have the time to sit down and put a PowerPoint together. Lucky for us that one of our fantastic English Forward teachers, Hannah Davis, has generously shared some PowerPoints she put together in conjunction with English Forward lessons for her own class. Hannah teaches with iACT (Interfaith Action of Central Texas) teaching refuges in the Austin area. Thanks for sharing these, Hannah! 

**Daily Activities Lesson 2.4

**Finding a Place to Live Lesson 3.2

**Housing Step 1 Lesson 3.2

**The Weather in Texas Lesson 2.5

You can also download a number of PowerPoints from the EL Civics website. You'll find everything from PowerPoints on holidays, to transportation, jobs, studying for the citizenship exam, and even PowerPoints designed for beginning level ESL students. One of the great things about using PowerPoints someone else has shared is you can take their presentation and easily modify and adapt it for your own classroom.

Looking for a refresher on how to use PowerPoints in the classroom? Check out page 67 of the English Forward Instructor Guide.

Have you created PowerPoints, or other materials related to English Forward you’d like to share with the community? Send Dawn a heads up using the Ask a Question app on the right side of the page.  

New Resources: Grids, Surveys, and Picture Cards - Oh My!


Looking for more picture cards to use in your classroom? Well – you’re in luck! In addition to updating some of the photos in our collection of picture cards to better represent the students in our classes, we’ve just added new picture cards for Lesson 6.2 – Running Errands in the City.  

We’ve also had several teachers ask for grids and templates to use when having students survey and interview each other. If you’re comfortable with excel, you can create your own grids, but if excel isn’t your best friend, you’ll also find a new Other Supplemental Materials menu item on the For the Classroom page with a few different types of excel grids (horizontal, vertical, and a weekly calendar grid). You can resize the grids and add your own text to the columns and/or rows, depending on how you want to use them with your students.

Looking for ideas of ways to use grids? Check out this Car and Truck Survey created by Heide Spruck Wrigley that has students survey each other about their vehicles. If you use Lesson 8.2, this survey could be a great extension activity. Once students have surveyed each other, you can also use the info gathered in a number of ways, from asking students to line themselves up by the year of their car, to charting the makes of cars on the board, or comparing number of people who drive a car, to those who ride the bus, walk, or ride their bike. 

Keeping Up With ESL: Using Music in the Classroom

Keeping Up With ESL

Do you like to use music in the classroom with your students? Do they seem to pick up words and phrases more quickly when you use multimedia? Well here's some research to back up what we as teachers observe when we use music. A new study published in Springer Science+Business Media shows that participants who learned language through singing performed better that participants who learned by simply speaking or repeating phrases rhythmically. Check out a brief summary of the study and findings at Science Daily

For a refresher on using music and other media in the classroom, check out page 50 of the English Forward Instructor Guide

Name The Newsletter

Don’t’ Forget! Our Back to School contest to name the English Forward newsletter is in full swing. What does the winner receive? Bragging rights as the person cleverest enough to come up with the winning name! The winner will be chosen by our in-house team of ‘experts’. Since I know many of you are busy with back to school, we’re extending the deadline to October 4. Submit your ideas through the Ask a Question box on the blog or Teaching Tips page of the web portal.

Look for our upcoming September issue in the next few weeks. It'll contain quick classroom tips, updates on what’s new on the web portal, and news from around the world of English Forward. And if you haven’t been receiving the newsletter, send us a heads up through the Ask a Question box.  

Guest Post: Advice to New Teachers

I'm following up our last guest post with words of wisdom for new teachers from another of the Literacy Coalition's outgoing AmeriCorps members - Fiona Meeker. Fiona spent last year working with AVANCE here in Central Texas. 

Although I had been a private language tutor for many years, this past year was my first time teaching a full classroom, and many of my experiences as a tutor weren’t relevant in a class of ESL students.  As a tutor, I had been merely reinforcing concepts already introduced in a classroom.  As a teacher, I was now responsible for introducing those new concepts and ensuring that my students understood the material, hopefully, eliminating the need for a tutor.

Once I began using the English Forward curriculum, much of the stress surrounding lesson planning disappeared.  The stress that remained was a reflection of my perfectionist tendencies to believe that classes should unfold without a hitch.  It wasn’t long before my fantasy was shattered, as students showed up late, forgot homework, or struggled to understand the material.  This was quite the awakening!

My advice to first time teachers is this: don’t stress too much and learn to think on your feet.  You will make mistakes- either forgetting classroom material, or not making enough copies of an activity, or any other error from a long list of various scenarios that can occur in the teaching world.  When this happens, learn to roll with the punches.  A little quick thinking can save the situation, and students often won’t notice that the activity wasn’t quite what you had in mind.  What’s most important is that they’re learning something new and enjoying themselves. 

As a tutor, I was also accustomed to students simply needing a different approach, possibly a slightly longer explanation, to understand a concept, something that I could often remedy in a few short minutes.  As a teacher, I now had the more challenging task of introducing a new concept and explaining it in such a way that students could understand and link the concept to a previously presented one.  And as opposed to tutoring, where there was only one student needing an explanation, I was now in a class full of students with various learning styles, all needing me to communicate a concept in their own learning language (so to speak.) 

Hereby, my second piece of advice: don’t get discouraged.  Some students will take longer to fully grasp a concept, while others will simply need an activity that presents the idea in a different way.  Be patient and recognize that each student has his own process, and the speed of his learning doesn’t always correlate to your ability as a teacher.  It may have more to do with a student’s previous education level in his native language, or a learning difference.  Students learn at their own speed, and most will come to understand the material. 

Reflecting on my first year of teaching a full ESL class, I’m proud of my students for their progress in mastering the English language, as I am of myself for becoming a better teacher (according to my students!)  I now have a new level of respect for teachers as I better understand their struggles and the commitment they make to their students.  Teaching truly is one of the most fulfilling careers a person can choose, helping make a positive impact that can last and inspire a student for a lifetime.

New Labor Day Lesson Plan Released!

Searching for a Lesson Plan to get your students talking about Labor Day? Look no further than our Timely Lessons. We've just added a Labor Day Lesson Plan

Have an idea for our September Timely Lesson topic? Submit your suggestions using the Ask A Question function in the right hand column of the page to let us know what you'd like to see. And watch for the lesson plan to be released in mid-September.

Guest Post: Baptism By Fire

August is a big time of year for those of us who work in education. Not only is it the start of the school year, but it's also the changing of the guard for a lot of AmeriCorps members around the country. In honor of the hard work of last year's members, as well as a welcome to our new volutneers, I've asked some of our outgoing members to write up their words of wisdom for anyone just starting out as a teacher. This week I'm posting an article from Caitlin Edwards. Caitlin spent last year working with LifeWorks here in Central Texas. (BTW - for those of you who've enjoyed the new and improved English Forward Instructor's Guide, Caitlin did a lot of the editing work for us.)

When I started teaching ESL 2 years ago, I had a lot of excitement and not much knowledge. I had just graduated college and was starting my first job: serving as an AmeriCorps member at a nonprofit, teaching adult literacy classes. Part of my motivation serving as a Literacy AmeriCorps member was my love for other languages and cultures. I started learning a foreign language in middle school and continued learning through college. Really, I am still learning and always will be. I am thankful for this experience because it helps me relate to my students, and also informs the way I approach learning anything, including teaching. Learning is a process and must include hands on experience.

At the beginning of my AmeriCorps service, we went through a two day training on teaching adult ESL. I learned a lot, but still wasn't totally sure what I was getting myself into. Once I started at my site, I had a couple of weeks to read a lot of material about teaching, including instructor guides and actual teaching materials and textbooks. While I am glad I got the chance to have a foundation in theory, I feel that my education on teaching didn't truly start until I got into the classroom and interacted with students and other instructors. I had been trained on and read a lot about a learner centered approach, but couldn't really wrap my head around that until I was face to face with actual learners.

I am a very meticulous planner and like to be thoroughly prepared for any situation. Teaching has helped me round out my perspective to include the importance of adaptability and flexibility. Yes it's important to have a lesson plan and think through activities before entering the classroom, but it's just as, if not more essential to be tuned in to the classroom environment and teach to that. I learned so much more about teaching from jumping in, trying it, sometimes failing at it, and trying again than from being told about it or reading about doing it. Once I had some classroom experience, the multitude of guides, handbooks, trainings, and online resources out there were immensely more helpful and informative because I had a context for what I was learning about. I believe the best thing for new ESL teachers is to get an introductory training, plan an initial lesson while keeping in mind that the class may likely not go according to plan – and that that's normal and can be great! – and, as soon as possible, to get in the classroom and give it a shot. Just as we want our students to take risks and put themselves out there, we must do the same, as soon as possible. 

Any other advice you'd give to new teachers? Leave a comment below. And check back next week for a follow-up guest post from another former AmeriCorps memeber.

You Ask, We Answer - August 2013

ask a question

As we add new English Forward teachers to the web portal, I'm getting more and more questions each month. I'm starting to feel a bit like Dear Abbey:) For our August post, I've selected a few questions I thought would apply to many of our English Forward teachers.

Norma Lopez of Hispanic Community Services in Jonesboro, Arkansas wants to know what to do when something doesn’t go as planned in the classroom. How does one get back on their feet and keep control of the class? Well – I’ll start by saying this is not an uncommon occurrence, even with the most experienced of teachers. Sometimes I’ll find an activity that worked great in one class, bombs in another. Being flexible and rolling with the punches is the name of the game in ESL. I’ve learned to be comfortable with my mistakes in the classroom and even discuss them with students. Many of my students are a bit apprehensive about being in the classroom, and letting them see I’m not perfect can go a long way towards lowering their level of anxiety. I’ve also learned not to try and force an activity on students that obviously is not working. I’ll even ask the class for feedback if something isn’t going well. They often have great suggestions for alternative ways to do an activity or explain an idea. Sometimes they are able to get a point across to each other that I am not. Letting the students step in and give an explanation can be a great confidence booster to them. Unexpected situations are also a great chance for a teacher to reflect on their own teaching. If something doesn’t go well, after class I take a few minutes to think about what happened and brainstorm ways I could improve the lesson if I were to teach it again. Above all, don’t let it discourage you. Those unplanned occurrences are a natural part of the learning process – both for your students and for you as a teacher.   

Lindsey Engleman from Austin volunteers at a refugee center one night a week, but classes are taught from M-Th (3 diff. levels). The result is that students are bombarded with different subjects and teaching styles every night of the week. Lindsey is looking for ideas for volunteers to overcome this struggle? This is a tough one! I will say it’s not always a bad thing for students to be learning from different teachers with different teaching styles. Different students will respond differently to each teacher, and the variety could be beneficial. What is difficult is when the topics jump around and classes don’t build on each other or reinforce learning. The result I’m sure is frustration on the part of students as well as the teachers. It sounds like there isn’t a lot of interaction between volunteers? Is there a way to communicate with the other volunteers and at least select a topic you all will plan your classes around for a set amount of time? Even better – you could survey your students to find out what topics are of most interest to them, and use this to plan a calendar for the semester outlining which topics you all will teach at what time. Another idea is to have a box or folder in class where you leave activities or a copy of your lesson plan for the volunteer the next evening, and they can do the same for you. Then take each other’s materials and use as the basis for an upcoming lesson, or at least review at the beginning of class. Not only are you giving you students more continuity and reinforcement, but by borrowing from  your co-teacher, you’re also making your lesson planning easier!

Have a question to ask? Submit it using the ‘Ask A Question’ box on the right of the pages. We’ll select a few questions and answer them each month.




English Forward in the Classroom: A Teaching Practicum

I’ve recently had a number of teachers ask me what English Forward looks like at other organizations. I have to admit, I’ve been so busy lately I haven’t had the chance to visit classrooms to see it in action. So I turned to one of our local trainers (and star of the English Forward Lesson Flow videos), Karen Green. Karen is the Education Services Coordinator at Manos de Cristo in Austin. Karen asks all her new instructors (even those not new to teaching) to go through the English Forward training at some point during their first semester with Manos. Not only is this valuable to new teachers, but it also helps Karen to better support them because of their shared understanding of strategies and learning theory.

After the training, Karen’s volunteer instructors have the option to take part in a teaching practicum as well. As part of the practicum, teachers are placed in the classroom with an experienced lead teacher who uses the English Forward lesson flow and strategies. This gives new teachers the chance to see the strategies first-hand and try them out with students before taking on their own classroom. Over the course of the practicum, which can last one month or one semester, participants observe the lead teacher in action, assist with lesson planning, and help out during group work, which culminates with participants teaching part of a lesson.

Manos Students Teachers

Manos de Cristo students on an end-of-semester trip to the library with practicum lead teacher Julia Maffei (3rd from right), and practicum participants Ray Voith (2nd from left) and Claude London (far right)


Here’s what some of the participants had to say about how the practicum helped prepare them for the classroom:

*Seeing the teaching strategies put into practice is invaluable.  Watching the interaction between instructor and students as different strategies are employed gives me a more meaningful understanding of how these strategies work and how students react to a successful strategy.  Seeing theory put to practice by an experienced instructor is probably the most valuable part of this practicum.  

*(I) Definitely (feel) more prepared.  But not yet totally prepared.   I sure would not have wanted to teach a class without having gone through the practicum.   

*Before the practicum, my understanding of class composition was vague and one-sided.

*(I’ve gained) amazing respect for these adults and the motivation to succeed in this country.

*We are given constructive critiques and our questions are answered in real time. I was also able to overcome my anxieties because (the lead teacher) slowly eased us into teaching by ourselves.

*We are able to see what does and does not work and observe a variety of teaching methods and styles.

Are you interested in finding out more about Karen’s work at Manos de Cristo or starting up a practicum at your own organization? Contact Karen at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. .

If you’d like to share what English Forward looks like at your program with the English Forward community, contact Dawn at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

Keeping Up With ESL: The Influence of Geography on Language

Keeping Up With ESL

Are you interested in what’s happening in the world of ESL but don’t have the time to keep up with listserv discussions or read long articles? Do you feel left behind when it comes to current research in the field. Well, you’re in luck. I’m kicking off a new blog series called Keeping up with ESL. I’ll let you know about current news from around the world of ESL teaching in a series of short and sweet posts, designed to keep you up-to-date and ahead of the pack, while still leaving you the time you need to devote to classroom planning and teaching.

Our first post isn’t specifically ESL related, but is does look at language, an essential component of ESL. A study recently came out showing a connection between geography and language. The researcher, Caleb Everett, found that languages spoken at high altitudes are more likely to contain ejectives - sounds made with short bursts of air. There are no ejectives in the English language. While the study didn't look at why this might be true, Everett wondered if it has to do with the fact that air pressure decreases with higher altitudes making ejective sounds easier to produce.

For more details on the study and to hear an example of what ejectives sound like, check out this short article from National Geographic (  or go to PLOS ONE for the full article ( )

Stay tuned for next month's Keeping Up with ESL post on the effect of images from a learner's native country on language learning.

Guest Post: Native Language Use

Out first guest blog post comes from our wonderful AmeriCorps member, Tanlyn Roelofs. Tanlyn is finishing up her year of service soon and I asked her to write a guest post before she leaves us to return to grad school.           

I’ll admit it: I can’t speak Spanish. The most popular question I’m asked when I start talking about where I work or why I enjoy teaching adult ESL is whether or not I am fluent in Spanish. Sometimes people just assume and ask me where I learned Spanish or studied abroad. Although I have taken a class, I am still a true gringa.

For the past two years I have had the wonderful opportunity to teach ESL in Austin. The majority of my students are native Spanish speakers. At first, I was very intimidated to walk into a classroom and unsure if the students would understand me or learn anything for me at all. My opinion about this was shaped largely by a year I spent teaching English in Germany where I primarily spoke German to my students and had them do English grammar drills. Needless to say it wasn’t a very successful year.

Maudies Students

Tanlyn with her students at Maudie's Tex-Mex

Through the classes I’ve taught I’ve found that even very beginning students respond well to being exposed to English only for a long period of time (my classes average an hour and a half to two hours). When I establish a classroom atmosphere of acceptance with mistakes and not correcting every mispronunciation, the students seem to want to speak in English constantly to me and to each other. The emphasis on conversation really helps beginning students feel comfortable jumping in and practicing speaking. If I was translating all the time or focusing on explaining English grammar to the students in Spanish, I don’t think they would have the same zest for conversation.

That’s not to say that all activities work every time. Sometimes, a game or activity falls flat because it’s hard to communicate rules when students can’t completely understand you. It’s at these moments I wish I had the language behind me. But I usually find with some patience, poorly drawn pictures, and bad acting, they get the gist of what I’d like them to do. Then something like Simon Says turns into an activity they ask to play every class.

The moral of the story is, if you can speak Spanish or the native language of your students - that’s great! But try to be judicious about when you use it and only fall back on it when understanding has totally fallen apart. If you can’t speak their language - don’t fret! You’re in good company. Focus on the basics of communication and establishing a positive and supportive classroom atmosphere. The rest will fall into place. And if you have any questions ask Literacy Forward!


Thanks Tanlyn!

You can find more information about using students' native language in the classroom on pages 138-139 of the Instructor Guide. And check out our Who We Are page to learn more about Tanlyn.

You Ask, We Answer - June 2013

ask a question

This month’s You Ask, We Answer question comes from Debbie McManus. Debbie works with Lancaster County Adult Education in Lancaster, SC. Debbie wants to know if the English Forward curriculum could be used in elementary schools. My initial thought was that many of the interactive strategies seem a natural fit for young ESL learners, but I checked with Dr. Heide Wrigley who was instrumental in developing English Forward to get her take on the question. Here’s what Heide had to say:  

The model itself (the Lesson Flow along with the strategies) is definitely transferable. The content, however, is geared toward adults.  Our approach (purposeful teaching and engaged learning aka “explicit teaching”) is used in K-12 as well as in adult programs and in colleges. 

The strategies should be transferable to different populations including elementary school kids. The following strategies would work particularly well: Think-Pair-Share; Total Physical Response; Language Experience approach, Flash Cards; go Fish. Memory; Simon says; Chalk Talk; and of course the various strategies involving multi-media (visuals; PP, music; video)

Have any of you used the English Forward strategies in the elementary classroom? Tell us about your experience by clicking on the comment link below.

And don’t forget to submit your questions for You Ask, We Answer under the blue Ask A Question box on the right hand column of both the Blog and Teaching Tips pages. Right now we’ll be answering questions the middle of each month, but if we get a lot of questions and a demand for more posts, we’ll answer them more frequently. So be sure to submit your questions.


English Forward in the Classroom: Teacher Stories

Memorial Day has come and summer is in full swing (anyway it is down here in Texas). I’ve been curious to hear from teachers who used English Forward’s Memorial Day Timely Lesson Plan so I was super excited when I got an email from Trena Anderson. Trena is with the Jefferson County Literacy Council in Jefferson,WI and she took part in our recent English Forward training for Wisconsin Literacy. Here’s what Trena shared:

We enjoyed the Memorial Day lesson! The power point was a great discussion starter. We added a field trip into town to find out how our community would be celebrating. By the time we were done, we'd visited the VFW, library and city hall (and a coffee shop for chai tea, but that's another story.) ANYWAY - thanks for creating timely resources and sharing them with us!

This is exactly what we’re hoping for with English Forward – to give teachers resources they can use and make their own to create lessons that are relevant, engaging – and fun!

And I love the way Trena used the PowerPoint as a lead in to a trip out into the community. If you’re looking for more ideas on how to take English Forward into the community, check out the Teaching Tip from June 11 on creating community activities: Teaching Tips

English Forward is on the Road

The English Forward team is on the go. We spent last week in Madison, Wisconsin working with a great group of teachers and right now we're in beautiful Lancaster, SC. The Carolinas Literacy Network brought us in the share English Forward with their community as well.

We're so excited to be sharing what we're doing with so many new teachers and trainers!

Teachers - we'd love to hear from you. What is the one idea from the training you're most excited to try out in your classroom?

You Ask, We Answer - May 2013

ask a question

This month’s user submitted question comes from a teacher wondering about the best ways to use Can Do Lists in the classroom. This is a timely question! We just finished gathering feedback from teachers using the English Forward curriculum, and this very same question came up.


Can Do Lists are simple assessments that give students the chance to show you what they can do in English. You can find examples of Can Do Lists on the For The Classroom page of the web portal, as well as in the printed English Forward curriculum at the end of each unit. 


Can Do Lists can be used at the beginning of a unit, at the end of a unit, or both, depending on what kind of information you want to learn from the assessment.


  • To Give Students Feedback on Their Progress: It's often difficult for students to see their own improvement in class. This can lead to frustration and discouragement. Students wonder what the point of class is if they don’t think they are moving ahead. But if you share the results of informal assessments such as Can Do Lists and students are able to see proof of their growth, they will be much more likely to stay in class.
  • To Build Learner Confidence: Seeing improvement from informal assessments like Can-Do Lists can also be a big confidence builder. Like feedback from informal assessments, confidence building has a big impact on student attendance and persistence.
  • To Help with Lesson Planning: Can Do Lists give you information about what students already know and what they need to work on. This allows you to tailor lessons to students’ needs.
  • To Give You Feedback on Instruction: Knowing what students are able to do (or not do) at the end of a unit gives you feedback on how effective instruction was. Did students learn what you wanted them to learn?


  • During Group work: Circulate informally as students work in groups, observing what they are able to do with their peers.
  • During Comprehension Checks: Make a note during your checks whether or not students are able to complete tasks or respond to specific prompts.
  • One-on-one: Sit down with each student individually (or have a volunteer work with them) and bring up items from the Can Do List in an informal conversation.
  • As a student self-assessment: Give students a notebook in which to store Can Do Lists and let them evaluate themselves at times throughout the course of the class.

You'll find a short segment on using Can Do Lists on p. 133 of the English Forward Instructor’s Guide.

If you want to learn more about informal assessments in the classroom and see what they might look like, check out this video series by Dr. Heide Wrigley:

In the first two segments, Heide assess a beginning learner’s reading skills and in the last segment, Heide talks about the details of the assessment and what she was able to determine about the learner’s skill level.

If you have any tips for using Can Do List or informally assessing students, we’d love to hear from you. Add a comment to the post below.

And don’t forget to submit your questions for You Ask, We Answer under the blue Ask A Question box on the right hand column of both the Blog and Teaching Tips pages. Right now we’ll be answering questions at the beginning of each month, but if we get a lot of questions and a demand for more posts, we’ll answer them more frequently. So be sure to submit your questions.


What's New? (April 2013)

What do the Images Below Have in Common?

Earth Day TLP Blog Post Recycling

If you said they all relate to protecting the environment, give yourself a gold star.  Do you think your students would have been able to guess that?  Do they know about recycling and being green?  Earth Day is coming up on April 22, so now’s the perfect time for a lesson on the environment.  And what do you know – we just released a Timely Lesson Plan on Earth Day!  Go to the Timely Lesson Plans page to download the lesson and give it a try.

If you use the lesson, we’d love your feedback on how it went and any adjustments you made.  Leave us a comment below.

And be on the lookout next month for a new Timely Lesson Plan on Memorial Day.