Final project report: A Participatory Approach to Curriculum Development

Inquiry Project Proposal

Sherry Fiaux, Rhode Island Family Literacy Initiative, Providence Public Library


My name is Sherry Fiaux. I teach English to Speakers of Other Languages (ESOL) in a Family Literacy Program based in the Providence Public Library. Our program encompasses three areas of learning: adult education, child education, and computer technology education. Each program is staffed by a Lead ESOL Teacher, a Program Assistant who plans and implements activities for children, a Computer Assistant who teaches computer technology to adults and children, and volunteer tutors, who teach small groups of adult ESOL learners. My job as a Lead Teacher is to teach adult learners, train volunteer tutors, prepare lesson plans and materials for all adult groups, provide family literacy activities, and coordinate the children's and computer components. I act as Lead Teacher in three library branches: the Olneyville branch, the Smith Hill branch, and the Rochambeau branch.

Classes in each of the three branches meet twice a week for a total of 3 hours per week. On the average, each library serves approximately 20-25 students, and 5-10 children. At each branch, I teach a group of approximately 10 learners. For the purposes of this inquiry project, I have included the 3 groups of whom I teach: a low intermediate group of 9 students, an advanced group of 10 students, and a low beginner group of 10 students.

The story of the question

For the past 8 years I have been teaching EFL and ESL with a predetermined syllabus. When I began teaching at the Providence Public Library 3 years ago, I drew upon my own experience of living abroad and learning a second language to create a curriculum that addressed "survival skills" for beginners. During these past 3 years, I have always been disappointed when a student who appeared so eager to learn either stopped coming to class or had very inconsistent attendance. My initial itch was to find out what I could do to increase student attendance; however, further reflection led me in a different direction.

Knowing that students encounter a myriad of life's difficulties that interfere with their ability to attend classes, I began to think of students' goals and how I could create lessons to meet these goals. I wanted lesson content to be tailored to, and taken from, the lives of learners; in other words, I wanted to create lessons that were based on real rather than imaginary situations. In my quest for answers and ideas, I began reading Making Meaning, Making Change: a Participatory Curriculum Development for Adult ESL Literacyby Elsa Roberts Auerbach.

The theories presented in this book became the leading agent of change in my own practice. Auerbach states the essence of this approach in these words: "...people learn best when learning starts with what they already know, builds on their strengths, engages them in the learning process, and enables them to accomplish something they want to accomplish." (Auerbach 9)

I wanted to explore the effects of using student-driven curricula with the objectives of increasing student attendance, and helping students to achieve goals and/or solve problems. Interestingly, students at the Olneyville and Rochambeau branch libraries have had excellent attendance for the past 2 years, whereas learners at the Smith Hill branch have had less consistent attendance. Having identified poor attendance as not being the impetus for change, I realized this was not the problem I wanted to tackle; I simply thought the lessons I was creating were not as meaningful as they could be, and in order to make them more meaningful, the content should come from the learners. With the support and guidance of my peers in the Teacher Inquiry Project of R.I.D.E, I narrowed the focus of my practitioner research question to: What happens when I use a participatory approach in the ESL classroom?

The Process of using a Participatory Approach

The model of this approach, defined by Auerbach, involves 4 steps:

1. Identifying themes, issues, and concerns of students, which can be used to create lessons.
2. Once issues are identified, the next step is creating tools to explore these themes and develop language learning.
3. The third step is action inside and outside of the classroom, which I will label as outcomes .
4. Lastly, students evaluate their own progress, actions, and the program as a whole.

Reservations and Questions about this approach

Many questions came to mind once I began thinking about this approach. In the section titled "Findings," I will offer answers to these questions based on my practice.

1. How can ESL students communicate their needs and goals if their English skills are limited and I don't speak their native language? What will a participatory approach look like with beginner learners?
2. How will students, who think "teacher knows best", respond to my efforts to collect data?
3. What will I do if students are unwilling to share goals, needs, and interests?
4. Taking into consideration that I plan lessons for 8 - 9 different groups each week, many of whom are taught by volunteer tutors, how can I implement a participatory approach? Will tutors be able to extract the information from learners and communicate it effectively to me?
5. How much extra time will I need to prepare lesson plans and materials using this approach?
6. With classes that meet only 3 hours per week, how much can we accomplish in the way of helping students meet their goals?
7. How can I keep all students engaged in lessons that address a concern of only one or several students?

In the following pages, I have outlined my experience of using a participatory approach in the Family Literacy Initiative Program of the Providence Public Library. I begin with the first step of identifying themes, which is a process of collecting data from students to determine the content and direction of curricula.

Step 1: Identifying themes and issues

Auerbach states that "The participatory nature of the class emerges through a cumulative process, rather than by following a sequential or linear procedure." (Auerbach 41) Establishing an atmosphere of trust was the first step in getting students used to sharing parts of their lives. Conversations in person and through dialogue journals helped to gain their trust individually and as a group. After a few months, students began to acknowledge that I cared about them as individuals, and, as a result, they began to share and discuss their needs and concerns more openly.

Once students began sharing, I decided how and when I could best address their interests in a lesson, and how I would engage the rest of the group. At times, I found it necessary to put aside a lesson I had prepared and do an activity that would tackle an issue that came up unexpectedly. Other times, I took notes in order to prepare a lesson for the next class that would address a concern requested by a student. Conversations, structured activities, and spontaneity were often combined, resulting in lesson material. As we worked on a particular theme, another topic often emerged.

The need to identify issues and the process of collecting information was perpetual. There was not one method of collecting data from students that was successful 100% of the time with 100% of the students. Some methods worked well with some students, and other learners were receptive to other methods of data collection.

Methods of Identifying themes and issues:

I used surveys, questionnaires, open group discussions, dialogue journals, classroom routines, observation, one-on-one conversation with students, and intensive listening before, during, and after class to discover the needs, goals, and interests of our learners. In determining the usefulness of these methods, I looked for responses that gave me specific details. I know that beginning ESL students need to be able to go to the post office and buy stamps, or go to a store and buy clothes. What I was looking for was: tell me about the last time you purchased something. What was it? Where was it? When was it? What did you want to be able to say or do, but didn't because you didn't have the language skills to do so?

What worked and why: The most useful of these tools of data collection were:

Open group discussion followed by free writing - This was the first form of data collection I used. In an open group conversation, I asked students how, when, and where they used English, and what specifically they would like to be able to do in nine months that they are not able to do now. This discussion before writing helped direct students to responses that were not too general, and gave me the opportunity to ask questions and delve a bit deeper into their needs. Most students were receptive to expressing their needs.

Dialogue journals - At the start of the fall 2001 cycle, all learners began to write in dialogue journals. I wrote to them and they responded accordingly. The result of these one-on-one written conversations was a mutual interest in one another that grew into a relationship of trust. Little by little, students began to confide in me as they learned that I cared about them as individuals.

Intensive listening - This was probably the most useful tool I used for gathering information from students. Listening and talking before, during, and after class usually revealed information upon which I drew to create lessons. Many times, students were talking among themselves and I would hear something that I probed into a bit.

Classroom routines - One of the class routines suggested by Auerbach that I found helpful was "Good news/bad news." I began most classes with each student reporting any piece of good and/or bad news. This gave me a window into what was happening in their lives and allowed me and other students to ask questions. Many times their news turned into an on-the-spot lesson. Other times, I prepared lessons and brought them into the next class. This was a good warm up to each class, and I often began this activity while waiting for other students to arrive.

One-on-one conversation with students before and after class - Something as simple as "How are you today?" resulted in constructive conversation of which I was able to extract useful information for classroom lessons. The rapport we established often resulted in students speaking to me about personal issues that they didn't want to discuss in front of the other learners. In these instances, I offered help one-on-one.

Structured lessons - At times I found my basket empty of useful information from which to create lessons, especially with beginning students whose needs were so broad in their own minds that getting specifics was almost impossible. When this happened, I simply began a structured lesson that I deemed to be useful, and took it in a direction that seemed to be most meaningful. Sometimes it was guesswork, and other times the topic or grammar led us in an unexpected direction.

Observation - In using a participatory approach, I was more astute than I had been in observing students' reactions to themes, activities, and conversations. I looked for signs that something was and wasn't working, then asked questions to confirm or negate my own deductions.

Keeping a journal - I kept a daily log of classroom activities, reactions to lessons, my own observations and my reflections. These notes were critical for the process of recording data and reflecting on what was happening in the classroom.

What didn't work and why:

Surveys and questionnaires: I was able to glean some useful information from surveys and questionnaires by asking a lot of questions as a follow-up to their responses. In and of themselves, they were not useful because studentsą responses were too vague. I think half of the problem was in the design of the questions, and the other half of the problem lay in the assumption that many students operate under, which is that English lessons would be taught with conventional teacher-centered activities in which students had little or no input. A common response to questions was, "I like all kinds of activities," or, "go to school and listen to the teacher and write some dictations."

Using volunteer tutors: I explained the nature of this approach to all volunteer tutors and shared with them strategies of identifying themes. Only 1 tutor effectively adapted these strategies into her teaching, and communicated them to me for the purpose of developing curricula. For tutors who were new to teaching, and, moreover, were teaching beginning students, the process of teaching and gathering information was overwhelming, and as a result I received little to no feedback that was helpful in creating lesson plans.

Step 2 : Using tools to explore themes and develop language

I used the same types of tools I have always used in teaching including texts, graphics, role- plays, writing exercises, and speaking activities. The difference in using these tools with this approach is the content and the origin. The content of each tool was derived from a need or interest expressed by one or more students, and, therefore, originated from their feedback.

Listed below are tools that I used and how I adapted them to this approach:

Role-plays were more complex. They were based on encounters students had or would plan to have. For beginners, they filled in blanks to a dialogue, whereas advanced learners wrote their own dialogues. Many of them were spur-of-the-moment activities that emerged from an issue brought forth by a student. For example, Maria came to class looking upset one evening. After finding out that her luggage had been lost on a recent flight, we spent the rest of the class learning vocabulary, then using the language to role-play calling the airlines to inquire about her claim.

The students, rather than I, often brought in authentic texts that they wanted to work with. For example, Amy, who works in a Chinese restaurant as a waitress, brought in enough menus from her restaurant for the group to use. We used the menus to learn vocabulary and role-play ordering in a restaurant. Amy was the server, of course.

Students were often given homework that was geared to solving a problem, or addressing a concern of one or more of the students. For example: Elizabeth took a stray cat into her home and wanted to get it spayed. In class, we used telephone books to find veterinarians to call, and practiced a telephone dialogue. For homework, each student had to call a vet and get the information on fees for spaying her cat. We did a similar lesson regarding property insurance, where students called insurance companies for information, and reported back in the next class.

Learning vocabulary: rather than choosing vocabulary on a particular theme, students often used picture dictionaries to learn words they wanted to know.

Writing assignments: students chose what kinds of things they wanted to write about such as an essay to apply for college, a recipe, a thank you note, or a sympathy card. They could also choose from a list of topics I had given them.

I used the video series Connect with Englishwith advanced learners. This was in response to a request to work on listening. The group said they wanted to be able to understand television programs. It proved to be successful for several reasons: students were totally engaged in the story, and looked forward to watching it each week; watching a video provides visual clues we normally have when listening; the series introduced many themes to explore, along with vocabulary and idioms in context.

Step 3 - Action and Outcomes

I began this practitioner research hoping that our English lessons would address problems and concerns of students, help them to reach their goals, and, overall, have an immediate or more direct impact on their lives. Listed below are some of the goals students achieved and issues they were able to address in our ESL classes, all of which were initiated by the students.

  • Chris practiced writing essays to apply for college. In May 2002, she was accepted into a certificate program at Rhode Island School of Design.
  • Yara thought her son was too advanced for the first grade. A series of lessons prepared her for a parent-teacher conference to address the issue. Her son will skip the second grade and advance to the third grade in September 2002.
  • Elizabeth got 2 cats spayed, thanks to the legwork done by her classmates.
  • Patricia Martinez, a guest speaker from the Providence School Department, helped a number of students with answers to problems such as mainstreaming children in the elementary classroom, what to do when the school bus doesn't show up, and how to get homework help for their children.
  • Karen passed the TOEFL test after 3 months of test preparation lessons with one of our volunteer tutors.
  • Health: students learned about walk-in clinics, ambulatory services, generic drugs, co-payments, and how to read their health plans.
  • Cars: students learned about the services of AAA, what to do in a roadside emergency, and how to lower their car insurance premiums.
  • Government: students debated bills that are presently before judiciary committees, and participated in Government in Action Day, where they had the experience of acting as Senators and voting on bills.
  • Students learned how to express their condolences, and what to write in a sympathy card.
  • Tsilyia called insurance companies to get information on property insurance after a fire in her apartment building destroyed her neighbor's belongings.
  • Step 4 - Evaluating progress and the program

    Students were asked to fill out evaluations in December, March, and in May. In addition, I often asked for their feedback, in writing or verbally, about specific lessons we had done and what they had learned.

    The evaluations that were given in December and May are standard evaluations used by our program. Although students were asked to report on their progress, the question is worded in terms of the five skill areas of reading, writing, conversation, grammar, and listening to English. As a result, they didn't provide details that were specific enough for me to monitor a change in progress from a non-participatory to a participatory approach. When students were asked for suggestions on improving the program, the overwhelming response was that they would like more class hours, and more time to learn computer skills.

    The mid-cycle evaluations given in March consisted of 3 open-ended questions: (1) What lessons did you like the most? Why did you like them? (2) What themes and/or activities would you like to concentrate on in the last half of the cycle? (3) Can you think of one thing you hope to be able to do in May that you cannot do now? Students' responses to these questions gave me some direction for lessons planning for the rest of the cycle, but they failed to target their progress.


    As I stated earlier in this report, I began with many reservations and questions about this approach. In implementing it for the past nine months, here are the answers I found.

    1. How can ESL students communicate their needs and goals if their English skills are limited and I don't speak their native language? What will a participatory approach look like with beginner learners? When I first introduced my intentions regarding student-centered curriculum, I translated this information into Spanish and French for students who speak these languages. I then asked them to write their needs and wants to me in their native language. For students whose language I do not speak, I asked either their children or more advanced students who share their language to translate both my explanation and their responses.

    Beginning level students tended to give responses that were quite general such as, " I need English for work, to speak with my children, to speak with the doctor." I began with structured lessons around these themes and extracted specific situations and details that would be helpful to them as we went along. Asking for details got students in the habit of giving input and determining the direction of an activity or theme.

    Another strategy I used was asking pointed questions such as, "Do you want to work on reading grocery store flyers or a dialogue at a restaurant?" Giving them a choice made it easy for them to state their preference. I would then ask for details such as, "Which restaurant do you sometimes eat at and can you bring in a menu?" Again, it was the details, not the themes that changed in my teaching practice with beginners.

    2. How will students, who think "teacher knows best," respond to my efforts to collect data? When I explained the teacher inquiry project to advanced and intermediate learners, initially, many students were reluctant to offer information, but over time their participation increased. I think they thought giving feedback was challenging my authority and was, therefore, disrespectful. I explained the teacher inquiry project and told them I didn't want to guess at material that would be meaningful. Once learners developed trust in me and my intentions, they began sharing more, and they also began to be more open about what activities they liked and didnąt like. Students often spoke to me a lot in private as well. I addressed a number of their concerns with them one-on-one such as dealing with a car accident they had, or looking at mail they had received, but didn't understand, or helping them with a letter they had written. If they needed more than a few minutes of my time, we arranged to meet an hour or so before or after class.

    3. What will I do if students are unwilling to share goals, needs, and interests?

    I often began with a structured lesson and tried to involve students every step of the way, as Auerbach suggests. "The only way to find out what a particular group is concerned about, how they already use literacy, and how they might use it to address these concerns, is to investigate the social context of their lives with them." (Auerbach 13)

    4. Taking into consideration that I plan lessons for 8-9 different groups each week, many of whom are taught by volunteer tutors, how can I implement a participatory approach? Will tutors be able to extract the information from learners and communicate it effectively to me?

    The effectiveness of this approach with volunteer tutors depended largely on the tutor, how long he/she had been tutoring, the level of the students, and the group dynamics. Some tutors who taught advanced learners were able to effectively use some of the strategies I was using, and, therefore, the feedback was helpful. With others, I couldn't get them in the habit of using the same strategies I was using to collect data. Their feedback on behalf of the group was often too general. In these instances, I prepared lessons and constantly asked for feedback. This was helpful, but not as useful as getting information first-hand.

    I never stopped trying to implement this approach for all groups; however, I don't think it was as effective with groups taught by volunteer tutors simply because the process of identifying themes and issues was on-going and needed to be inherent in their teaching.

    5. How much extra time will I need to prepare lesson plans and materials using this approach?

    I was able to plan lessons in approximately the same amount of time as I had needed in the past. The difference was that I did not plan as far in advance. In using this approach, I tended to prepare lesson plans that extended over a longer period of time by going into more depth of each theme and by adding in a lot of repetition, which reduced preparation time. In creating lesson plans, I left more room for personalization and student input, allowing me to use the same lesson plans for more than one group.

    6. With classes that meet only 3 hours per week, how much can we accomplish in the way of helping students meet their goals?

    Goals come in all shapes and sizes. One of the biggest surprises was the small goals we accomplished, many of which I could not have anticipated in advance like helping Elizabeth get her cats spayed. Certainly, some students stated goals that could not be accomplished in the course of nine months or eighty class hours. I looked at each objective, and decided what step, small or large, we could take in that direction.

    7. How can I keep all students engaged in lessons that address a concern of only one or several students?

    If I didn't think the rest of the group would benefit from a particular theme or issue because it was only relevant to one student, I either addressed it with that students one-on-one, or chose not to work on it. This decision depended on the nature of the issue. Occasionally, I chose a theme and hoped it would spark the interest of the rest of the group. Usually it did, but occasionally it didn't.

    I looked for ways to involve other students. For example, Yara, a young mother, wanted to work on the theme of education in order to talk to the teacher about her son. Most of the other students in this group did not have children and were initially not interested in the subject. Yara explained the problem about her son to her classmates. Then I asked the other students to help think of questions Yara should ask the teacher and her son. Once the issue was personalized, others became interested in the topic because they wanted to help Yara. Soon, another student shared a concern she had about her son's school; this opened up a lengthy discussion about bilingual education and its implications for Russian speaking children: a cumulative process.

    Conclusion and Implications

    When I began this research, I wanted students to take English learned in the classroom and be able to immediately apply it to their lives somehow. As I neared the end of nine months of practitioner research and reflected on what I had learned, I realized that my view on what "meaningful lessons" looked like was narrowly defined by what I wanted students to accomplish. I wanted to help them find jobs, or be able to have a specific conversation with a sales clerk or their children's teacher. While these kinds of goals were accomplished, I also learned of the many ways our lessons impact the lives of learners.

    I learned of the illnesses some students face, and how laughter in the classroom relieved them temporarily of the fears and challenges they were coping with in their personal lives. I learned of the benefits of providing a safe, social context where they could playfully learn and experiment with English. I learned to what extent learning English improves the self-esteem of individuals. I learned how much enjoyment students have in the fact that I was able to laugh with them. I learned how students view themselves in the community in which they live.

    In using this approach, I developed the habit of gathering information to identify themes to the point that it became intrinsic in my teaching practice. I realized that my role was to pose problems, rather than solve them. With all ESL students, the process of collecting data to identify themes and issues was constant. For beginners, it started with a broad theme and let them fill in the details. For intermediate and advanced learners, we often started with a detail and expanded it into a broader theme. The topic often included information about how systems and services operate and what this means to students as consumers.

    The process of using a participatory approach to curriculum development has changed my attitude and methodology of teaching ESL adults. Nine months of practitioner research has shown me what a participatory approach looks like in the adult ESL classroom. I have learned that this approach looks different in a group of advanced learners than in a group of beginners. The difference in language levels results in different approaches, tools, kinds of outcomes and actions.

    Works Cited

    Auerbach, Elsa. Making Meaning, Making Change: Particpatory Curriculum Development for Adult ESL Literacy. Center for Applied Linguistics and Delata Systems, Inc. Illinois: 1992


    Auerbach, Elsa. Making Meaning, Making Change: Particpatory Curriculum Development for Adult ESL Literacy. Center for Applied Linguistics and Delata Systems, Inc. Illinois: 1992
    Comings, J., Cuban, S (2000) So I Made Up My Mind: Introducing a Study of Adult Learner Persistence in Library Literacy Programs. New York: DeWitt and Lila Wallace-Readers Digest Fund.
    Comings, J, cuban, S, Bos, Johannes, Taylor, C. (2001) I Did it For Myself: Studying Efforts to Increase Adult Student Persistence in Library Literacy Programs. New York: manpower Demonstration Research Corporation.
    Pheasey, A., fofonoff, A., Morgan, D., Malicky, G., Keam, L., Norton, M., Park, V. (2000)Learning about Participatory Approaches in Adult Literacy Education. Edmonton: Learning at the Center Press.

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