"The whole movement of life is learning" (Krishnamurti). "To be an act of knowing, then, the adult literacy process must engage the learners in the constant problematizing of their existential situations" (Freire). "Once you learn to read, you will be forever free" (Douglass). "I can learn anything I have the desire to learn" (White, S.G.).

Monday, February 17, 2014

More than just teaching a language

Hillary Janks has helped to put into words what I had been feeling for a while, but had not found the reasoning behind those emotions.  A year or so ago, the English as a Second Language (ESL) department that I work at modified its curriculum, and instead of teaching ESL writing and reading as two separate classes, they were integrated as one.  Now that I have taught the class a couple of times, I do see some of the benefits; but I've also realized that during the semester, one of the skills takes precedence over the other.  It's been my belief that having two separate classes would allow more time to invest in teaching each particular skill. Though the implicit goal of joining the two skills was to move beyond just teaching students how to read and write in English and to move toward a critical reflection 'on the process of reading and writing itself', we haven't quite gotten there. (Writing implicit in italics was intentional.)

Our department has received criticism from the academic English department at VCU for not preparing the students to the standards that they have.  Upon reviewing their standards, the English Language Program (ELP) made revisions to their curriculum in order to align more closely to their norms, and consequently, be able to produce a more qualified student to enter Focused Inquiry courses.

However, nowhere in the curriculum for the ESL writing/reading course is it explicitly written that critical reflection is needed.  An example of an outcome for an advanced course reads: produce comparative and analytical writings.  You would think that you'd have to critically reflect in order to write such an essay, right?  As teachers of English to international students, we sometimes assume that they have been taught to critically think in their countries and schools.  Nothing can be further from this.  Many of our students come from countries where it is disrespectful to even consider going against the mandated beliefs imposed by their government, community, and/or religion.

So, I come back to the word 'implicit'. Should 'critical reflection needed'  be written on the curriculum so teachers, like myself, can make an effort to not only teach how to write (grammar, syntax, vocabulary) but also how to do so in a way that allows for reflection?  In the end, I believe that is what the academic English department at VCU is truly seeking. However, by the time instructors finish teaching the building blocks of the English language, there is little time left for the critical reflection piece, and the class needs to move on to another unit, and/or another semester.

There are ways around this, and the Adult Literacy class is assisting me to question a lot of 'why I do what I do' concerning adult literacy.  Though I may not have Janks' social agenda for education, I do consider that participating in this course can propel me to voice some concerns relating to this topic in my workplace.


  1. Carol, you bring up some really good points. Many international students come to us with educational backgrounds in which critical thinking skills were never taught or encouraged. It is quite an adjustment for them when they come to study in the United States. For example, a Korean colleague once confessed to me that she basically plagiarized her way through graduate school without realizing that she was doing anything wrong. In Korean culture, you would never dream of questioning an expert's opinion or paraphrasing their ideas in your own words. To do so would seem presumptuous and disrespectful. It wasn't until she started working on her doctorate that she realized this is a major offense in the United States, and she could have been kicked out of school. As Americans we presume that this is common sense because individualism and independence are so deeply embedded within our culture.

    I agree that is is very important to teach critical thinking as well as university culture in the USA in order for international students to be truly successful.

  2. I'm glad you both brought up these issues of cultural difference. My partner teaches classes in the Social Work School and almost every semester he has had a student from Asia that does not understand/was never taught the western idea of plagiarism. From what they explained to him and what he explained to me (hearsay, I know), there is no such concept, which makes it very difficult to be successful in classes here. He's worked with the students 1 on 1 and sent them to the writing center, and they've always completed the class successfully - but any ideas on what else he or VCU could do to help with this?

  3. Carol - yes, there are good reasons to teaching reading, writing and thinking together, even though there are times when "decontextualized instruction can be embedded in the lesson. In secondary reading, we call this "content area" reading, because the literacy learning is tied to subject areas like history, English, and science. I have some really good resources with concrete strategies for integrating these needs into lessons. Will bring them to class next week. :)


Thank you for taking the time to share your thoughts on this post. Diverse opinions are welcomed.