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Focus On Basics

Volume 1, Issue D :: December 1997

The Process and the Product

Involving Students in Choosing Content and Developing Materials Leads to Change

by Char Ullman and Aliza Becker
In 1994, the Chicago-based Heartland Alliance for Human Rights and Human Needs received a grant from the Lila Wallace Reader's Digest Foundation to enhance the quality of English for speakers of other languages (ESOL) instruction at community-based organizations (CBOs) through a collaborative curriculum development project. Five Chicago CBOs were invited to participate in the two-and-a-half-year endeavor. Some were chosen because of their long history in providing ESOL services in the area, others because they were representatives of Chicago's many immigrant communities, and still others were included because of their interest in the project goals. Centers serving the needs of Latin American immigrants and centers catering to Polish immigrants sent teachers and administrators to the project, as did centers which serve immigrants from a wide variety of backgrounds. Teachers came with varying levels of professional preparation; some shared linguistic and cultural roots with the people they taught, others did not.

Content-based instruction in the teaching of ESOL can be carried out in many ways. In our project, it meant findings out what content really mattered to diverse groups of adult ESOL learners, and then creating a text that would actually be used. Since the content used in this project was what learners wanted to know and not what teachers wanted to teach, the teachers had no choice but to become facilitators in the classroom. This experience caused many of them to rethink their own ideas about what it means to be a teacher.

Theoretical Underpinnings

The basic belief behind the project was that teachers - even beginning teachers - come to the classroom with lots of knowledge about their lives and with some knowledge of their students' lives. Our goal as teacher educators was to give teachers tools they could use to learn more about their learners so the curriculum could relate most appropriately to the learners' lives. Once the teachers began to listen to students about curriculum, their classrooms began to change. Many times the learners knew more about the subject matter than did their teachers. Students had both correct and inaccurate information, and teachers and students found they had to work together to become well informed.

What were once classrooms in which teachers deposited knowledge in students' head - "the banking concept of education" (Freire, 1970) - started to become classrooms in which learners and teachers were learning together. This model owes much to the work of Paulo Friere and to those who have developed participatory approaches to teaching ESOL in the U.S., such as Elsa Roberts Auerbach and Gail Weinstein. We also embraced the idea that knowledge is understood to come from teachers, students, and teacher educators. We tried to create praxis: that is, to find that place where theory and practice can meet and energize each other. Sometimes we were successful.

Finding the Content

Aliza Becker, the project director, began the development process by offering workshops including using learner-generated narratives and an introduction to content- instruction. At the same time, Aliza showed teachers and administrators how to lead focus groups. This proved to be invaluable. Many people reported that they had never before listened so intently to their students and were quite moved by the experience. Some used translators to facilitate communication with students whose languages they did not share, and soon all of the teachers found that a theme for the content of the curriculum was beginning to emerge.

Again and again, across immigrant groups, students said that they wanted to learn about their rights as immigrants. People wanted to know what their rights were if the Immigrant and Naturalization Services (INS) came to their workplaces. They wanted to know how to get driver's licenses when they were undocumented, and how to become legal residents. This topic emerged at a time when anti-immigrant sentiment was increasing. In Chicago, INS raids of manufacturing plants had increased sharply. In California, Proposition 187, which was intended to deny educational and medical services to the documented, had passed. Immigrants' rights were, without question, the content that learners wanted.

With this cue, Aliza conducted a literature search to find ESOL materials dealing with immigrants' rights. She found only a couple of texts that dealt with immigrants' rights, and a few more that had chapters that touched on the subject. When she contacted immigrants' rights organizations, she found a number of books and pamphlets that had useful information, however, these pamphlets were not readily adaptable to the classroom. Teachers sometimes used these materials, but they complained that many of the topics that most interested their students were left unaddressed. Teachers usually invited guest speakers to talk about immigrant rights, but they really did not know how to incorporate this content into their classrooms. The need was clear. The challenges were how to educate ourselves about this complex subject, how to approach a topic that had not been dealt with in this depth before, and how to create the text as a group.

Creating the Text

Once teachers decided that they wanted to create a book, Aliza got me involved in the project. A former editor of ESOL textbooks, I asked the group to do what is commonly done in publishing companies: to write a vision statement that articulated the group's beliefs about language and culture and their perspectives about teaching and learning. The vision statement needed to describe the book's audience as well. We would use the statement to guide our development of the text. Because the teachers' perspectives were varied, creating this statement was, at times, difficult.

After we agreed upon a general vision, we hammered out a format, or a "thumbnail sketch" of features that each chapter might contain. Chapter topics were chosen because they came up frequently in the focus groups, in class discussions, or in students' writing. Inspired by a workshop on learner-generated narratives, the group decided that an authentic student story would open each section. Some teachers already knew of student stories that related to the topics and asked those students for permission to include their stories in the book. Other topics were suggested by teachers as writing assignments, and teachers approached those learners about including their work. The question of whether or not teachers should edit students' stories was hotly discussed, and we finally decided that learners would get a chance to rework their stories on their own first, or have them edited at that moment, by the teachers. Learners were not involved in the decision, but in retrospect, it would have been a good idea to involve them. In the end, all stories were edited.

At this point, teacher chose small groups comprised of people with whom they felt they could work, and each group began to write a chapter of the text. This collaborative approach, although probably effective in other situations, resulted in prolonged discussions that often prevented any writing from happening. Some teachers came to the project with years of teaching experience and degrees, and others had with little experience and no relevant training. In this situation, leadership was needed.

Much more successful was this: each group had a leader, and the goal of the group became not to write the chapter, but to offer suggestions to me and, later, to Aliza, who would write the chapter and turn it back to the group for revisions. This worked well not only with the personalities of this particular group, but also with the amount of time that was allotted each week for this work. Lawyers reviewed each chapter, clarifying the differences between local, state, and federal jurisdictions, and guiding us on legal issues.

We established a process in which teachers brain stormed ideas, the curriculum developers implemented those ideas, and the teachers guided revisions of the text, usually three or four times. We learned that doing extensive revisions on the first draft was time consuming and not particularly fruitful. Teachers' time was best spent in field-testing the material with learners. In the field- stage, teachers were no longer working with other teachers or with administrators, but were in the classroom with students. The teachers and students showed us how to improve the material. By actively engaging the learners in a critical analysis of the text, we learned where the book came alive and where it fell flat. One teacher and his students pointed out exercises that were too easy, and suggested alternatives. "This approach," the teacher wrote, "forced students to focus on what they really did want to learn." That is, students did more than just choose the topics, they discussed the details of how those topics were presented, and, in doing so, had to think more specifically about what they wanted to learn than just absorbing what the teacher presented them with. He thought that it helped them take charge of their own learning and facilitated their setting goals for themselves.

When teachers returned to the project after field-testing, they were full of ideas about how to revise the text. With paid time to make these revisions, a text that reflects actual learner and teacher needs was born.

To Be a Teacher

One of the stumbling blocks that many of the teachers encountered during the course of this project was about which confronting their fears of teaching a subject about which they knew little. When the content is the language itself - grammatical forms and their use, for example - the teacher is the expert. But when language is being used to learn about how visas are granted, the teachers found that they were no longer the experts. Sometimes learners knew more about these topics than the teachers did. Sometimes, as mentioned earlier, learners had contradictory or incorrect information.

The immigrants' rights content made teachers ask questions along with students. One teacher wrote in her evaluation of the project that "my knowledge of the content was not high, so I often couldn't answer specific questions. However, I tried my best to direct them to resources they could utilize." Since this content was of high interest to the learners, and because the teachers had little previous experience with it, teachers had to transform themselves into facilitators, learning alongside their students.

Another change occurred. As the teachers in this project thought and talked about textbooks, they became more critical. The mystery was taken out of textbook publishing, and one teacher mentioned that he was starting to realize how poorly constructed some textbook exercises are. Many of the teachers in this project learned to learn with students, and in the process, gained confidence about crafting their own materials, an important step on the path toward more liberatory teaching and learning.


In conclusion, the model we used can help teachers to find out what content their learners really want to learn. Conducting focus groups with students is one way to start this process, and teachers in almost any setting can do this. Even if the materials are not created from scratch, as was done in this project, beginning the process by really listening to learners is essential. From there, teachers can combine already- materials with learner- and teacher- materials, and even get advice from community experts, as we did with immigration lawyers. This approach to developing content-based instructional materials has the potential to greatly improve language teaching and to transform the lives of learners and teachers as well.


Auerbach, E.R. (1992). Making Meaning, Making Change: Participatory Curriculum Development for Adult ESL Literacy. Washington, DC: Center for Applied Linguistics. Friere, P. (1970). Pedagogy of the Oppressed. New York: Continuum.

Friere, P. & Macedo, D. (1987). Literacy: Reading the Word and the World.Westport, CT: Greenwood Publishing.

Weinstein-Shr, G. (1993). " and Social Process: A Community in Transition." In Cross-Cultural Approaches to Literacy. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

About the Authors

Char Ullman is currently a doctoral student in the department of Language, Reading, and Culture at the University of Arizona. She has taught ESOL in Chicago and English as a Foreign Language in Ecuador, and has developed ESOL textbooks for adults. Her academic interests include critical pedagogy, queer theory in education, and social identity formation and its relation to language learning. She is a native Chicagoan who loves living in Tucson.

Aliza Becker, an independent consultant on immigration and education issues, has worked in ESOL-related work for 15 years. She has written a number of articles and books on citizenship and immigration-related issues for educators. She is based in Chicago.

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