The Road to College and Career Readiness: Why It Just May Be Paved with Rigor

By Lia Conklin Olson

Perhaps you have heard the term rigor dropped now and again at staff meetings, professional development gatherings, and even in lunchroom conversations.  Lest the term lose its glitter from overuse, let’s consider why it may be worth its weight in gold.  When we as adult educators recognize the high stakes our students face and commit to the tall order of helping them succeed, we realize we need a high-yield investment.  Rigor may be just that investment, one that provides our students the successful returns this era of high stakes demands.

High stakes for ABE students

Let’s consider just how high the stakes are for our adult basic education (ABE) students.  The “Tipping Point” study (Washington State Board of Community and Technical Colleges, 2005) found that individuals who completed one year of postsecondary education plus a credential had significantly higher earnings than individuals who held fewer than ten college credits.  A more recent study (Mancuso, 2015) again showed this disparity, finding that individuals who met the “tipping point” earned on average $6,265 per year more and were 23% more likely to be employed than those who did not.  High stakes, indeed.

That is exactly the reason behind the Workforce Investment and Opportunities Act (WIOA; 2013-2014) that legislates rigorous instruction for all ABE students along a pathway towards college and careers readiness.  Since students requiring at least one remedial college class have college graduation rates 27% to 39% lower than students who require no remediation (Wiley, Wyatt, & Camara, 2011), college and career preparedness is specifically defined as “academic knowledge and skills required to qualify for placement into entry-level college credit coursework without remediation” (Camara, 2013, p. 22).  Therefore, to meet the high stakes, we must prepare all students for the rigor of college and careers and propel them toward the point where the balance tips from economic disparity to prosperity.

Credit: sirtravelalot.Shutterstock

Serving diverse needs of ABE students

When we consider these high stakes alongside the diverse needs of our ABE students, we recognize just how tall an order we, in partnership with our students, must fill.  Each year, the ABE field serves approximately 1.8 million adults (Patterson, 2016) from a pool of 36 million who would benefit from ABE services (Coalition of Adult Basic Education [COABE], n.d.).  Adult English language learners (ELLs) represent the largest portion of this population and present a wide variety of educational backgrounds and levels of language and literacy development, including students with limited and interrupted formal education (Lesgold & Welch-Ross, 2012).  Native-born ABE students are equally diverse with wide variation in level of knowledge and skills, educational goals, and prior educational experiences (Lesgold & Welch-Ross).  To magnify these needs further, 29% of all ABE students self-report having a learning disability (Mellard, 2013).

As ABE educators, we are ready and willing to step up and mediate the melee of student needs.  However, a number of professional and programmatic limitations often leave us ill-equipped to do so.  According to Patterson (2016), 78.6% of ABE teachers are part-time, which limits the preparation time and commitment teachers can provide.  Likewise, few ABE teachers have teaching preparation specific to the ABE population and limited professional development opportunities (Sun, 2010).  In addition, ABE programming is severely underfunded, receiving approximately one tenth the funding of the K12 system: $800 per ABE student in 2014 (COABE, n.d.) versus $11,009 per K12 student of the same year (U.S. Census Bureau, 2016).  Clearly, we are left with a tall order, indeed.

Rigor in instruction

What we can latch onto are instructional content and methods that offer our students an opportunity to meet this tall order as efficiently and effectively as possible.  Rigor may offer just this opportunity.  Researchers in education have defined rigor in a variety of ways.  The definition I favor is that of Hess (2014) which describes rigor as “the complexity of content, the cognitive engagement with that content, and the scope of the planned learning activities” (p. 1). This definition lends itself well to instructional considerations around content and material selection, deep student engagement, and the design of challenging learning tasks.

Regardless of the definition you prefer, rigor inherently requires the use of critical thinking and problem solving, skills that are overwhelmingly supported in the research as integral for success in college and careers (Camara, 2013; Conley, 2014; Foster, Strawn, & Duke-Benfield, 2011; Johnson & Parrish, 2010; Pimentel, 2013; Rothman, 2012).  Even adult learners who may not enter postsecondary education benefit from rigorous learning. According to Parrish (2016), when considering the increased literacy and critical thinking demands placed on adult ELLs as they compete in the job market and navigate everyday tasks, it is critical for ELL instructors “to imbed these higher order, more complex academic and career-readiness skills early and often at all levels of adult English language acquisition” (p. 3).

How well does ABE instruction deliver on its commitment to prepare ABE students for college and careers?  Johnson & Parrish (2010) surveyed college faculty and ABE instructors and found four critical gaps between what postsecondary faculty expected students to know upon entering postsecondary education and training and what ABE instructors were actually teaching: critical thinking, notetaking, technology, and presentation skills.  Of particular note, Johnson and Parrish found that 60% of college instructors regarded the critical thinking skills of paraphrasing, summarizing, and synthesizing as very or extremely important, whereas ABE instructors reported teaching these skills only sometimes or rarely.  Clearly, to deliver upon our commitment to our students’ success, we must better prepare them to meet the higher expectations of the future.

WIOA and its legislated rigorous content standards for all students provides the opportunity to do just that in earnest.  The College and Career Readiness (CCR) standards were designed to articulate the knowledge and skills needed to meet the rigorous demands of college and career readiness.  According to Pimentel (2013), these standards articulate three research-based instructional advances designed to increase instructional rigor by targeting high-impact cognitively demanding skills.  One of these key advances is regular student engagement with complex informational texts.  According to Williamson (2006), prior to the CCR standards, a gap of approximately four grade levels existed in the level of complexity between secondary texts and postsecondary texts.  In addition, the ACT study (2006) found the ability to read complex text to be the best predictor of college and career success.  Taken together, these studies indicate that developing the ability to read complex text may better prepare students for college and careers.

Credit: Shutterstock

According to Pimentel (2013), college faculty input and national assessment data indicated the use of evidence to be a critical skill for postsecondary preparation.  As such, the second key advance is a focus on student “reading, writing, and speaking grounded in evidence from text” (Pimentel, 2013, p. 10).  This focus ensures that students must rely on the text to develop their understanding, limiting the role of their prior knowledge and experiences and increasing the need to develop deeper understanding of the text itself.  Tied to this reliance on text is the third advance, “building knowledge through content-rich nonfiction” (Pimentel, 2013, p.10).  This advance recognizes the need for students to build their knowledge base through text in all content areas while developing the ability to read complex text and use critical thinking skills.

How do CCR standards live up to their design?  So far, there is little research available to support or dispute their effectiveness.  My dissertation, Minnesota Adult Educators’ Descriptions of Standards Implementation and Its Influence on Cognitive Rigor (Conklin Olson, 2017), set out to answer this question.  I interviewed 12 ABE instructors regarding their experiences implementing CCR standards in their classes and what they believed to be its impact on the cognitive rigor of their instruction and student learning.  Ten of 12 participants reported that their CCR standards implementation increased the rigor of their instruction and their students’ learning.  Participants described choosing more complex texts, implementing tasks that demanded increased cognitive rigor, and setting higher expectations for students.  In reference to student learning, participants reported that their students demonstrated higher levels of rigor, met increased expectations, and experienced increased confidence and self-reliance.  Obviously, more research is needed to measure the impact implementation of rigorous standards has on the learning outcomes of ABE students.  However, this small study offers a hopeful glimpse into its potential.

Even if we knew unequivocally that imbedding rigor via CCR-aligned standards would result in more successful student outcomes, we would still need to build our own knowledge and skills to exploit its potential to the fullest.  The LINCS website, under the auspices of U.S. Department of Education, Office of Career, Technical, and Adult Education, contains a full battery of professional development resources designed to train educators to enact rigorous instruction and effective implementation of CCR standards.  Equipped with high-quality, CCR-aligned instructional resources (be sure to access publisher-provided correlation charts or request them if not available), we are on our way to facilitating the high returns we envision for our students.

It’s true that a focus on college and career readiness demands a disconcerting concerted effort on the part of us and our students.  Yet, when we acknowledge the high stakes our students face, we recognize that these high stakes necessitate the tall order of preparing all students along a pathway to college and careers.  To fill that tall order, we must believe in the glitter of rigor, not as a flash in the pan, but as a 24-carat commitment to provide rigor-rich content, rigorous student engagement with that content, and rigorous knowledge and skill building along a pathway to college and careers.  True, all that glitters is not gold, but rigor…well, it just may be the real deal.


Lia Conklin Olson, PhD has been an instructor for St. Paul Adult Education for twenty years.  In addition, she is an adjunct professor for the Teaching English as a Foreign Language program at Hamline University and a curriculum developer of College and Career Readiness standards-aligned curriculum for Minneapolis Adult Education.  Dr. Olson is the author of the New Readers Press series What’s Next? (2012) and Bridging English Language Learners to GED Prep teacher’s guides (2017) as well as the series consultant for Road to Work (2017).  Dr. Olson focused her PhD dissertation on CCR standards implementation in Minnesota (Adult Basic Educators’ Descriptions of Standards Implementation and Its Influence on Cognitive Rigor; 2017).


The new edition of Future: English for Work, Life, and Academic Success integrates English language instruction with workforce, academic, and soft skills and the latest digital tools in one complete program. Built on the backbone of College and Career Readiness (CCR) and English Language Proficiency (ELP) Standards, Future empowers students to successfully reach their work, life, and academic goals.

The new edition features increased rigor built into all lessons at every level that challenges students to analyze, evaluate, predict, infer, and problem-solve. Future‘s curriculum closely aligns with WIOA, NRS, ELPS, and CCRS. The skills and competencies are fully and seamlessly integrated in every lesson of the program, equipping learners with higher order skills to help them achieve their personal, professional, and educational goals. Future, 2E is the best solution to ensure your students’ success.

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References

ACT. (2006). Ready for college, ready for work: Same or different. Iowa City, IA: Author.

Retrieved from https://www.michigan.gov/documents/Ready_for_Life_or_Work-Are_They_Different_159090_7.pdf

files/3-PI-%20ELA.pdf

Camara, W. (2013). Defining and measuring college and career readiness: A validation

framework. Educational Measurement: Issues & Practice 32(4), 16-27. doi:10.1111/emip.12016.

Coalition on Adult Basic Education (n.d.). Adult education is needed now. Retrieved (3-3-2017)

from http://www.coabe.org/adult-education-is-needed-now/

Conley, D. T. (2014). The Common Core State Standards: Insight into their development and

purpose. Washington, DC: Council of Chief State School Officers. Retrieved from http://cusd200.org/cms/lib7/IL01001538/Centricity/Domain/38/CCSS_Insight_Into_Development_2014.pdf

Foster, M., Strawn, J., & Duke-Benfield, A. E. (2011). Beyond basic skills: State strategies to

connect low-skilled students to an employer-valued postsecondary education. Washington, DC: CLASP Center for Postsecondary and Economic Success. Retrieved from http://www.clasp.org/ resources-and-publications/publication-1/Beyond-Basic- Skills-March-2011.pdf

Hess, K. (2013). Cognitive rigor in today’s classroom. Measured Progress. Retrieved from

http://asdn.org/wp-content/uploads/CCAP3010_Cognitive_Rigor_in_Todays_Classroom.

pdf

Johnson, K., & Parrish, B. (2010). Aligning instructional practices to meet the academic needs of

adult ESL students. TESOL Quarterly, 44, 618–628. doi: 10.5054/tq.2010.230742_2.

Lesgold, A. & Welch-Ross (Eds.). (2012). Improving adult literacy instruction: Options for

practice and research. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi:10.17226/

13242

LINCS [Website].  Department of Education, Office of Career, Technical, and Adult Education:

https://lincs.ed.gov/state-resources/federal-initiatives/college-career-readiness

Mancuso, D. (2015). Impact for WorkFirst participants of reaching the ‘tipping point’. (Briefing

Document). Department of Social & Health Services. Retrieved from http://www.sbctc.

edu/resources/documents/colleges-staff/programs-services/basic-education-for-adults/WorkFirst-Tipping-Point.pdf

Mellard, D. (2013). Observations about providing effective instruction to adults with low

literacy. Perspectives on Language and Literacy 39(2), 13-16. Retrieved from

http://search.proquest.com/openview/6183a187e471927b78de6f8a9ed84d18/1?pq-o            rigsite=gscholar&cbl=28091

Parrish, B. (2016). Meeting the language needs of today’s adult English language learner (Issue

Brief). Literacy Information and Communication System. Retrieved from

https://lincs.ed.gov/publications/pdf/ELL_Increasing_Rigor_508.pdf

Olson, L. C. (2017). Adult Basic Educators’ Descriptions of Standards Implementation and Its

Influence on Cognitive Rigor. (Doctoral dissertation, Capella University). Retrieved from https://search.proquest.com/openview/cd9b8b7cd65ea434864d79e21676cc15/1?pq-origsite=gscholar&cbl=18750&diss=y

Patterson, M. (2016). Full-time instructional staffing and outcomes of advanced adult learners.

Adult Education Quarterly 66(4), 336-358. doi:10.1177/0741713616662906

Pimentel, S. (2013). College and career readiness standards for adult education. Washington,

DC: U.S. Department of Education, Office of Vocational and Adult Education. Retrieved from http://lincs.ed.gov/publications/pdf/ CCRStandardsAdultEd.pdf

Rothman, R. (2012). A common core of readiness. Educational Leadership, 69(7), 10-15.

Retrieved from http://www.oprfhs.org/documents/CommonCoreofReadiness.pdf

Sun, Y. (2010). Standards, equity, and advocacy: Employment conditions of ESOL teachers in

adult basic education and literacy systems. TESOL Journal 1(1). doi: 10.5054/tj.2010.215135.

U.S. Census Bureau. (2016) Public Education Finances: 2014 (G14-ASPEF). Educational

Finance Branch. U.S. Department of Commerce. Retrieved from https://www.census.gov/

content/dam/Census/library/publications/2016/econ/g14-aspef.pdf

Washington State Board of Community and Technical Colleges (2005). Building pathways to

success for low-skill adult students: Lessons for community college policy and practice from a longitudinal student tracking study (the “Tipping Point” research).  (Research Report No. 06-2). Retrieved from http://files.eric.ed.gov/fulltext/ED496218.pdf

Wiley, A., Wyatt, J., & Camara, W. J. (2011). The Development of a Multidimensional College

Readiness Index. Research Report 2010-3. College Board.

Williamson, G. L. (2006). Aligning the Journey with a Destination: A Model for K-16 Reading

Standards.  (White Paper). Durham, NC: MetaMetrics, Inc.  Retrieved from https://www.georgiastandards.org/resources/Documents/AligningJourneyWithDestination_MetaMetricsWhitepaper.pdf

Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act, 113th Cong., H.R. 803, (2013–2014). Retrieved

from http://www.doleta.gov/wioa

Wrigley, H.S. (2007). Beyond the lifeboat: Improving language, citizenship, and training

services for immigrants and refugees. In A. Belzer (Ed.), Toward defining and improving quality in adult basic education: Issues and challenges (pp. 221–240). Mahwah, NJ: Erlbaum.

 

How do we design programs that lead to measurable progress?

By Sara Davila

In institutions around the world there is increasing pressure to demonstrate how program design will lead to demonstrable progress in English for learners. It raises a key question: how do we design programs that lead to measurable progress. Over the last three years, numerous schools have begun to work on how they can address this challenge using the Global Scale of English (GSE). This year, at TESOL 2019, it will be my pleasure to facilitate a discussion between two administrators who have worked through this process. For me, it’s an opportunity to share some of the best practices I’ve seen developed by experienced educators in the field. For my colleagues, it’s a chance to talk about what they learned during the process, the benefits to their learners, and their future plans.

Salem State University

 Shawn Wolfe, the Associate Director of English Language Programs and International Enrollment Management at Salem State University, will be the first to share his insight into applying the GSE in an institutional environment. At the institution—located in Salem, Massachusetts—Shawn began to explore how the GSE could help to address a greater need for insight into progress given the time ELLs had to prepare in order to enter their degree courses. How much time was required to achieve success in English? How could progress be measured in a way that was tangible to professors and students? These are just a few of the questions that lead Shawn to begin to explore the Global Scale of English.

While the process has been slow and steady, Shawn can provide first hand experience from his use of the GSE, including how he is working to secure facility buy-in by embedding professor views in the curriculum alignment process.

Sacred Hearts University

 Alla Schlate, Academic Director at Sacred Heart University based in Connecticut, will be our second speaker, sharing her process of curriculum review and alignment for her various English programs. At Sacred Hearts, like Salem State and other schools that enroll international learners, there is a significant challenge with both the diversity of language ability and degree interest areas demonstrated by students. In order to address these challenges, Alla has developed a four pillar approach to support learner development. Her long-term goal is to create a curriculum that can be easily adapt over time to the changes in learner needs, instructor needs, and available materials and content. At her institution, like Shawn, she faced similar challenges with aligning the program to the GSE: from gaining faculty buy-in to addressing the challenging and changing needs of the student population.

How did Shawn and Alla achieve success in their institutions using the GSE? What can other schools learn from their experiences? At our TESOL 2019 panel discussion session (on Friday, March 15 at 2pm, Room A407) we intend to explore answers to these questions, and more. We look forward to seeing you in March, and sharing our experiences with you.


Shawn Wolfe is an associate director of the Center for International Education at Salem State University in Massachusetts, where he oversees student recruitment and the core academic components of the center’s English language programs, including accreditation preparation, curriculum and student assessment, instructional coaching, and professional development for English language specialists. Shawn has more than 11 years of EFL/ESL teaching and administrative experience in Japan, Mexico, and the United States. Prior to working at Salem State, Shawn oversaw a community-based English language program for adults and was a recognized state leader and advocate for adult language learners in West Virginia. Shawn holds an MAT-TESOL from the University of Southern California Rossier School of Education and has research interests in teaching English for Specific Purposes (ESP), second language Computer Adaptive Testing (CAT), and E-learning.

Alla Schlate is the Academic Director of the English Language Institute at Sacred Heart University. Professor Schlate is responsible for academic oversight of the ELI. She is in charge of the content of the Intensive English Program: curriculum, instructors, books, etc., as well as makes sure that the curriculum meets the rigorous requirements of higher education accreditation organizations. She leads Professional Development meetings providing the instructors with the best opportunities to keep abreast with the latest research in Language Acquisition Methodology. Her goal also is to ensure that international students are actively engaged in meaningful language learning process exploring all opportunities offered by numerous Departments at SHU. Prior to working at Sacred Heart, Professor Schlate worked at the Institute of International Relations, Yekaterinburg, Russia, and was an acknowledged leader in Education in the Ural Area of Russia. Professor Schlate holds an M.A. in Linguistics and an M.A.T in Teaching EFL/ESL and Literature from Udmurt State University in Russia (Evaluated by WES); an M.A. in Educational Leadership from Teachers College, Columbia University, New York; and a CELTA in Teacher Training and Material Design, from Cambridge University, UK.

Designing a Superhero Movie Unit

by Lora Yasen

“You’re despicable. Dishonorable. Faithless,” said Gamora to Peter Quill.

This short line from the sci-fi superhero movie, Guardians of the Galaxy, provides a lot of material for the ESL class.  First, this list of adjectives in the movie makes a good multiple-choice listening exercise. Next, students can learn new vocabulary words and talk about the tone, informality and intent of the speaker. This scene is a good discussion topic also. What are some characteristics of a hero?  Is Peter a hero at this point in the movie? Why or why not? At the end of the movie unit, this line from the movie may be cited with a reference in a student essay on the transformation of the hero character during the story.

In my university level reading, writing and discussion skills-based ESL courses, I often use a movie and reader in addition to the usual textbooks. Superhero movies are instantly engaging, and a favorite source of language and cultural content for my students. Here is the process I follow for designing a superhero movie unit.

Superhero Movie Toolkit

First collect the movie resources. Find a junior novelization or ESL reader on the movie (which includes movie photos) as a student textbook. Find teacher reference materials such as the movie script online, movie websites, movie trailers, soundtracks and lyrics, comic books, etc. Official movie websites may have games, quizzes, taglines, trailers, etc. that can be used in worksheets, scavenger hunts, or previewing activities. Most have character photos that can be references for students to learn about the heroes and the villains.

Pearson English Readers have a whole series based on the Marvel Super Heroes

Materials Creation

 For Guardians of the Galaxy, I created a PowerPoint with movie photos to help students learn the character names, and different groups and planets. Later we returned to the character photos to talk about special abilities, motives for wanting the orb, and tragic backstories.

I created a listening assignment called, “Who Said It?” for the movie. I used quotes from the movie or website taglines that are important to the comprehension of the film.

“You keep throwing that in my face!”

Who said It? Peter Quill said it when Yondu reminds him the crew wanted to eat him.

Since music is such an important theme in the movie, I developed lessons on several songs from the Guardians of the Galaxy: Awesome Mix Vol. 1 soundtrack and discussed the lyrics, and we viewed the original singers in YouTube videos. Knowing the songs made the music more meaningful during the movie and helped students comprehend more of the movie.

I chose Scene 13 from the movie script for student role-plays. This scene, “12 % of a Plan”, is significant in the movie. It is a difficult, humorous, sad scene where the characters decide to set aside their selfish motives and unite to save the galaxy. Student read the scripts and then discussed the vocabulary and meaning of the scene before viewing this part of the film. Without this preparation, students would have missed this major change in the plot.

Lesson Plans, Course Outcomes & Assessments

Using a reader and movie offers plenty of opportunities to meet course outcomes and design interesting assessment options. I have students read 3-4 chapters of the reader each week. While reading, we discuss vocabulary in context, discuss parts of speech, work on reading comprehension skills, reading for details and do a lot of summarizing. We practice the concepts learned in our regular textbooks.  We begin with the paragraph and locate main ideas. Then we summarize the paragraph, then the page, and finally the chapter. We practice note-taking skills with the reader and make oral and written summaries. Unless the reader comes with reading exercises, I create my own worksheets that incorporate the skills and student learning outcomes that I normally teach in the course. To scaffold summarizing skills, students work in groups, pairs and then alone to summarize the chapters. Assessments include reading tests on the story and writing assignments on a character or a compare/contrast essay on the reader and movie.

Stop and Go Method

Every Friday after finishing the weekly reader chapters, we watch the portion of the movie we’ve read about. I turn on the closed captions and we watch the movie scene using a stop and go viewing method. I stop at confusing scenes to ask questions. Who? What? When? Where? Why? How? At the end of the movie unit, we watch the movie through without stopping to prepare for the final writing assessment.

Superhero Themes

Superhero movies reflect American society and culture and include many interesting themes for discussions or writing assignments. My students decided that one of the themes in Guardians of the Galaxy is that diverse groups of people can work together successfully to help others. Superhero movies are not simply for entertainment, they can be rich sources for teaching language and culture.


Pearson ELT offers a large collection of graded readers at all levels of proficiency. Our new series of readers is based on Marvel’s Super Heroes series. To search the catalog of all Pearson English Readers, click here.

Using Plays in the Classroom. Part 4: Reflecting on the Play

This article is another installment in our Helping Superheroes Teach series. The aim of this series is to offer teachers helpful strategies and practical tips they can implement in their classrooms.

 
By Dr. Frances Boyd and Christopher W. Collins

In this series of blog posts, we’ve discussed a variety of language-learning exercises and activities for introducing the play preparing for the play and digging into the play . In fact, some of the most satisfying moments come when the play has been finished. Completion of the play allows for a deeper, more reflective response on the part of students. While they have focused on comprehension and interpretation of individual scenes, students now have the opportunity to respond to the work as a whole, to make connections with their own experiences, and to think critically about their views.

Play Performance
Whether students see a stage or a movie performance, when the reading is done, they can step back to observe and react to the director’s choices. The teacher can give them a choice of what to focus on and then pose such questions as: How do the casting, costumes, setting(s), lighting and sound fit your imagined version? How does the audience react (in a live performance)? If the director omitted or changed any lines or scenes, why and to what effect?

In our experience, few students have analyzed film; fewer still have ever experienced a play in the legitimate theater. By empowering students to get into the director’s shoes, rather than elicit a simple reaction, teachers create an intriguing platform for students to think critically about the techniques, strategies, and expressive power of drama.

Integration of Grammar and Vocabulary
Throughout the unit of materials for a play, students learn new language and practice using it. By the end, it is appropriate to expect more nuanced, varied, and accurate utterances. To both elicit and model such language, teachers can create a structured conversation between two readers who have just viewed a performance. Such an exercise could either be a quiz or a final practice. In either case, it is also effective as a prelude to a discussion.

Two readers of “To Kill a Mockingbird” have just seen the Academy-award-winning film. Use modal perfects, adjective clauses, and past unreal conditions.

A: Wow! That was no run-of-the-mill film. Gregory Peck was amazing as Atticus. I read that Harper Lee, [1] ___________wrote the original novel, said the director [2] _____________[choose/not] a better actor.

B: Uh, huh. One big difference from the novel is the point of view. Jean Louise, [3] __________ is Scout as a grown woman, is only there in the beginning of the film. If she [3]_____________________[continue], it __________________[be]

Essay Writing
When students write an essay in response to a play, they practice their writing skills in an organic way: the motivation should be intrinsic and much of the language should be at their fingertips.  In a variety of unedited quotes from student essays in response to August: Osage County, we can see some of the depth and breadth of their engagement with the work.

I really like this story and movie even though this is totally a tragedy, but this story gives me a lot of thoughts and made me reflect on what the family is…This story tells us an important thing: we are all part of our family and that is why we can talk to each other by heart and criticize them without offense, because we love them so much.

***

Every family has inevitable contradictions; everyone in this world has their own miserable problems.

While these students focus on the family, the following student delves into the emotional relationships themselves.

It’s an indisputable fact that some of plot is “fiercely funny”, but when I think rationally, I tend to think it’s “bitingly sad.” The emotions and implications of August: Osage County are complex….

Other students comment directly on how the reading of a play holds possibilities for understanding culture in greater depth.

Language and culture are the important factors that make the film or play have different national characteristics.

***

This play quintessentially displays the real American family who lives in the countryside.

***

As an international student, if I hadn’t learned this play so deeply, I would have never known those complicated aspects of real American life.

While excerpts from individual writings only give a narrow sense of the writing itself, we can see students responding to the piece of literature and to the culture out of which it emerges. We can also appreciate their search for connections to their own experience as well as explanations for the similarities and differences across cultures.

Concluding Remarks
“People’s need for theatre is as powerful as their desire for food or drink,” says Oskar Eustis, Artistic Director of the Public Theatre in New York in his TED Talk “Why Theatre is Essential to Democracy”. In the dialog on stage, he explains, we hear the drama of conflicting points of view, and we “lean forward” in empathy; moreover, we do this together, as part of an audience.

In an in-depth study of an American play, English Language learners can partake of this powerful, ancient, collective experience – guided by teacher-made exercises and activities that move from comprehension to interpretation to reflection and coached by teachers who set the stage for students to explore new contexts, new relationships, and new ways of using language.

Here is a list of plays we have successfully introduced in the ESL classroom. This list is by no means exhaustive; we would welcome hearing recommendations for other plays, particularly those that are contemporary.

Selected American Plays for English Language Learners

Advanced: CEFR B2 – C1
All My Sons, Death of a Salesman, An Enemy of the People – Arthur Miller
Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, The Glass Menagerie, A Streetcar Named Desire – Tennessee Williams
August: Osage County – Tracy Letts
Inherit the Wind – Jerome Lawrence and Robert Edwin Lee
A Raisin in the Sun – Lorraine Hansberry
Six Degrees of Separation – John Guare
To Kill a Mockingbird  – Christopher Sergel/Harper Lee
Twelve Angry Men – Reginald Rose

Intermediate: CEFR B1
Lost in Yonkers, The Prisoner of Second Avenue – Neil Simon
Children of a Lesser God – Mark Medoff
Crossing Delancey – Susan Sandler
The Miracle Worker – William Gibson
Our Town – Thornton Wilder


Dr. Frances Boyd has been teaching students and developing teachers for over 30 years in the U.S. and abroad, in China, Columbia, Kyrgyzstan, and Mexico. She serves on the faculty of Columbia University’s American Language Program in the School of Professional Studies, where she has collaborated on the American Play Project for nearly all of those years. She is co-editor of the academic book series NorthStar, author of Making Business Decisions –both published by Pearson, and a frequent featured speaker at international ELT conferences. Boyd holds the BA from Oberlin College, the MA from the University of Wisconsin, and the Ed.D. from Teachers College, Columbia University.

Christopher W. Collins is a lecturer in the American Language Program (ALP) at the Columbia University School of Professional Studies, where he also co-chairs the annual ALP Winter Conference, and he has also taught in the Czech Republic and in Japan. He completed his M.A. in TESOL at The New School, with a concentration in Curriculum Development.

Using Plays in the Classroom. Part 2: Preparing the Play

This article is another installment in our Helping Superheroes Teach series. The aim of this series is to offer teachers helpful strategies and practical tips they can implement in their classrooms.


By Dr. Frances Boyd and Christopher W. Collins

Preparing the Play
To instructors, the amount of time it takes to develop materials for a play may seem daunting. Yet, there is much to be learned in the process, and good materials written for timeless plays may be refined and re-used for years. At Columbia’s American Language Program, we have built on original sets of exercises and activities begun decades ago for a number of enduring favorites, including Tennessee Williams’s “A Streetcar Named Desire” and Arthur Miller’s “Death of a Salesman.”

How to select a play? 

  • Look for a film adaptation and/or an upcoming stage performance: To give students a whole theatrical experience, you’ll want to complete the reading of the script with a showing of a film or stage version of the play. On the one hand, the similarities enrich comprehension. On the other, the differences create rich critical-thinking opportunities to predict, compare, and critique the director’s choices.
  • Consider reading level: In our experience, intermediate (CEFR B1) students are fully able to engage with the authentic, informal, and idiomatic dialogue in such plays as “Children of a Lesser God,” “Lost in Yonkers,” “The Miracle Worker,” and “Our Town.” The choices for more advanced (B1 – C1) students broadens considerably, including several by Arthur Miller and Tennessee Williams, as well as “Inherit the Wind,” “A Raisin in the Sun,” “Six Degrees of Separation,” and “To Kill a Mockingbird,” among others.
  • Consider the topic: Family dysfunction, self-delusion, criminal trials, coping with illness and disability, gender, racism – this is the stuff of high drama in the American canon. Working with quality materials, an interested and engaged instructor can highlight aspects of setting, conflict, and language that appeal to a wide range of students. It is often true, too, that students pick up much more than we teach explicitly.

What about research on the play?
Understanding the context the play was written in, the world of the playwright, and the cultural and critical response to the play can help the teacher develop an overall understanding of the text to be adapted. Plays are reviewed as books, as stage productions, and as film adaptions; these reviews can offer cultural context and information which may inform the materials. Who was the playwright? What is their background and how does it inform the play? Learning the answers to these questions provide the building blocks for understanding the play itself.

What activities work to introduce a play?
 We find it worthwhile to begin with three short activities, plus a research/report assignment. 

Purpose of Studying a Play: Draft a list of the potential benefits that you see for your students. Here is a short survey task to complete with students at the start of working with a play:

 Discuss the benefits of reading a play and seeing a film or stage performance of it. Check off your top three choices. Explain them to a partner. Agree on one to explain to the class.

___ Become familiar with US culture and history through a story set in a specific time and place
___ Interpret behavior, motivation, and relationships of Americans
___ Understand complex family situations, perhaps identify with an American family
___ Discuss serious themes in an American context
___ Learn lots of vocabulary, including expressions used in speaking
___ Think critically about American culture
___ Use advanced grammar to infer, hypothesize, consider alternatives
___ Practice using my voice expressively in English
___ Read a whole work of literature
___ Imagine a performance of the play
___ Compare the written play to a film or stage performance
___ Analyze elements of film/drama, such as setting, casting, lighting, sound
___ Learn about an American playwright
___ [Your own ideas]

Connection to Themes: Craft a few questions that get students to connect their personal experience to key themes in the play. Here are sample questions from the materials for the play version of “To Kill a Mockingbird”:

Discuss with a small group. Reflect on a possible personal connection to the themes of the play version of “To Kill a Mockingbird.” [Harper Lee’s novel, dramatized by Christopher Sergel.]

  1. In the play, a father intentionally teaches his children crucial ethical values.Think about your parents. What ethical values did they try to teach you: integrity, compassion, courage, respect for nature?  How did they teach you these values?Did your mother and father participate equally in these “lessons”? Tell your story.
  1. In the play, a group of people is segregated and discriminated against in every aspect of public life: housing, employment, religious worship, the legal system, and so on. Has this ever occurred in your country or in your experience? Tell your story.

How to Read a Play: Select a short section of Act I to read aloud in class (in roles). Write a few questions that ask about: comprehension, prediction, and the reader’s role. Help students see themselves as a director: they need to imaginatively construct the story out of dialog and stage directions.

 Socio-Historical Context:  Identify 6-7 key words that students can research on the Internet and then apply to the play. In other words, they try to answer these questions: “What?” (What does the key word refer to?) and “So what?” (Why is this important in the play?) Such knowledge should enhance their understanding and deepen their enjoyment. Three-minute reports by pairs of students can be distributed over several classes. Here’s a list of key socio-historical references for “To Kill a Mockingbird”:

Jim Crow laws; segregation
The Great Depression; WPA
The jury system
Lynching; National Memorial for Peace & Justice (Montgomery, AL)
The black church: A.M.E. Churches
The Southern belle; social expectations of Southern women
Racial stereotypes in the l930s: how blacks viewed whites; how whites viewed blacks

To begin drafting materials, you’ll first want to be fully conversant with the play and the movie yourself. From this point, you will be able to identify the most salient themes for your students – for Connection to Themes questions– and the most salient aspects of the larger setting – for key words for Socio-Historical Context reports.

In the next post, “Part 3: Digging into the Play,” we will describe and illustrate the process of drafting exercises and activities for the heart of the play: Comprehension of Content and Language, Integration of Content and Language, and Expressive Speaking.


Dr. Frances Boyd has been teaching students and developing teachers for over 30 years in the U.S. and abroad, in China, Columbia, Kyrgyzstan, and Mexico. She serves on the faculty of Columbia University’s American Language Program in the School of Professional Studies, where she has collaborated on the American Play Project for nearly all of those years. She is co-editor of the academic book series NorthStar, author of Making Business Decisions –both published by Pearson, and a frequent featured speaker at international ELT conferences. Boyd holds the BA from Oberlin College, the MA from the University of Wisconsin, and the Ed.D. from Teachers College, Columbia University.

Christopher W. Collins is a lecturer in the American Language Program (ALP) at the Columbia University School of Professional Studies, where he also co-chairs the annual ALP Winter Conference, and he has also taught in the Czech Republic and in Japan. He completed his M.A. in TESOL at The New School, with a concentration in Curriculum Development.