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Focus On Basics

Volume 1, Issue B ::: May 1997

Rediscovering Themselves: Learning to Read for Survival

by Melissa Nieves
I came into the ESOL classroom ready to instill the English language into the minds of my students. I believed that I needed to drill and drill the grammar and sounds of English to teach efficiently. As a fledgling teacher at the University Settlement Society of New York, in New York City, I had a lot to learn about meeting the needs of learners.

That year, I learned that my students were real people with pasts and a lot of pain from their childhoods. Many had limited views of the world and the possibilities available to them in the future. Many of the women -- primarily immigrants from the Caribbean, Latin America, China, and Bangladesh -- had less than a fifth grade reading level in their native languages and had not been to school for years. Many were in school because they were mandated by welfare to attend classes or have their welfare cases closed. Many felt contempt for the ‘system' for forcing them to attend classes. As a teacher I represented the system to them, so they were ready to take their anger and frustration out on me.

A Large Task

Setting out to develop a level of trust and communication in my class, I asked the students why they were coming to school. One student replied that she needed to learn English, but she didn't know why. A second told me she needed to get her check from welfare. A third student said she was on welfare but she wanted to get her GED and possibly go to college. I came to realize that my task as a teacher was larger than I ever imagined. Teaching words and sounds was the easy part; my true challenge would be to inspire my students to rediscover themselves, for some to regain inspiration for the future and for others to develop their path for success.

The program director was a mentor to me and taught me how to begin the process of true education. I started learning to take into account my students' pasts and the issues that were relevant to them. I began to see that students bring to class every day concerns that act as barriers to learning. Throughout the year I observed behavior that reflected my students' ongoing struggles. One student would start to cry when she was asked to read aloud. One student came to the classroom angry and refused to participate. Another student tried to belittle students whom she perceived as vulnerable. I also had students who were constantly late and absent. I knew that I had to deal with all this or I would never have a viable class.

I had the students talk about their problems, develop solutions, and plan for the future by writing their own stories and reading them aloud. As the teacher, it was essential for me to participate in the dialogue and to share stories about my struggles and accomplishments. I shared my experience as a child of parents who were factory workers, and talked about how my father was an alcoholic, how I began working at the age of 13, how I worked full-time to make it through college, and how I had to struggle in this country. I told them that they all could achieve what they wanted if they planned for their goals.

The students began talking about their hopes and dreams for themselves and their children. We developed text based on the topics we discussed. We did follow-up reading activities using literature written by other literacy students or magazine or newspaper articles that dealt with the issues we were discussing. In the following months, we continued our dialogue. Tears were shed as students re-lived their experiences: stories about being beaten by teachers when they were children, stories about being raped by step-fathers, stories about dealing with abusive husbands, and many others.

Bilingual Teachers

The fact that I am bilingual really enhanced the class. At the lowest levels of ESOL, students feel more comfortable talking about their lives in their native languages. At our program we offer classes taught bilingually in Chinese, Spanish, and Hindi, so teachers can use their native languages to talk about personal issues and also to explain fine points of grammar, which are easier to teach in the students' native languages. The bilingual environment does not mean that English is not learned, because all activities include English writing activities as well as translation of dialogue into English. Higher level ESOL classes are taught completely in English.

The model of teaching and learning we use challenges learners and teachers alike to be vulnerable in the learning environment. It expects everyone in the group to begin to respect and trust each other. It forces individuals to explore the difficulties of the past and deal with their fears of the future. Our method is not easy to implement: it is easier for teachers just to teach and students just to learn words and sounds. But our approach is truly effective.

Many of the students in our program come from traditional educational backgrounds where the teacher was the sole source of information. They were told what to write and were taught to memorize information. They expect to see red ink corrections on their writing samples and want to compare grades on tests given back by the teacher. As a result, many of the students initially could not see the relevance of using their lives and issues as part of a curriculum. This comment illustrates their perspective: "Look, I am a poor woman with little education, I just need to learn a little English so I can survive in this city. My life is not what I want to talk about."

Three Phases

Working with my colleagues at University Settlement Society, we developed a three-phase model that addresses the tension between this view and our interest in using the lives of teachers and learners as part of the curriculum..

Phase 1

In the first phase, to get the students accustomed to talking and reading about issues in their lives, and to build relevant English vocabulary, teachers use learning materials in which fictional characters deal with issues such as child abuse, domestic violence, limited education, and lack of health care. Classroom activities include debates, dictations, and writing. Students share their beginning writing activities with their classmates. They are exposed to theme-based learning and critical thinking activities, and develop portfolios of their work.

Phase 2

In the second phase, with the teacher facilitating, the class begins to talk about issues as they pertain to their own lives. Students work on theme-based activities about their children, families, or communities. They create group texts, bring in relevant articles, and make presentations in English about their themes. Teachers lead traditional grammar and writing lessons addressing specific needs that arise in the course of the class. In this phase, students write one-page stories and use complete sentences in English, with minimal grammar mistakes.

Phase 3

In the third phase, the students develop journals and personal dictionaries -- their own word lists -- and may be ready to begin independent projects. Students choose a theme they want to work on by themselves and develop a presentation or piece of writing. Teachers assess the progress of the projects and create activities that support students in completing their projects. Students, working with their teachers, analyze their portfolios and journals, and begin developing written plans on how to reach their future goals. Students begin to work as peer teachers in the lower level classes, assisting teachers in taking the new students through the process they have experienced.


The rate at which a class or an individual can move through this process depends on many variables. It depends on the teacher's ability to assess students' needs and progress and plan lessons accordingly. It depends on the teacher's ability to create a safe and comfortable learning environment for all his or her students. It also depends on the needs and goals of each individual student and on the commitment which the student has to his or her own education. Some students take two years to progress; others take six. Feeling that our program is their second home, many of our students visit us years after they have finished. It is a place where they were given the chance to rediscover themselves as they learned to read. As one of my students told me, "You taught me that I can have whatever I want in life if I want it and plan for it. I will never forget this."

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