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Critical literacy with ESL students: Language learning through affirmation of linguistic & cultural identities. Sunny Man Chu LAU PhD candidate, Second Language Education Department of Curriculum, Teaching & Learning/ OISE Mei Lan MA Teacher, Toronto District School Board

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Critical literacy with ESL students: Language learning through affirmation of linguistic & cultural identities

Sunny Man Chu LAU

PhD candidate, Second Language Education

Department of Curriculum, Teaching & Learning/ OISE

Mei Lan MA

Teacher, Toronto District School Board

Master’s student, OISE

  • Workshops/ conference presentations on CL with ESL vague suggestions e.g. “Have it toned down”

But what may a CL program for beginning ELLs look like?

  • CL research with speakers of English

CL research with ELLs

CL research with beginning ELLS

purpose of this presentation
Purpose of this presentation
  • Shows how a space for CL was negotiated in ESL curriculum
    • how basic language skills & critical literacy skills are step by step infused with each other
  • Invite comments & discussion on how CL program could be improved for ESL classrooms
why critical literacy
Why critical literacy?
  • ESL  functionalist/ assimilationist approach
      • Language learning  autonomous, asocial and decontextualized cognitive process (Pennycook, 2001)
      • minority Ss social & cultural vacuum
  • Build up ESL Ss academic literacy (BICS & CALP)
    • Language proficiency:
      • surface conversational fluency
      • discrete language skills
      • academic language & critical literacy (Cummins, 2001)
  • Need to prepare Ss for global community

critical users of information and knowledge, acceptance of diverse cultures, etc.

what is critical literacy
What is Critical Literacy?
  • critical pedagogy Freire, Giroux, McLaren & Shor (Burbules & Beck, 1999)
  • Literacy :
    • a psychological or developmental phenomenon ?!
    • a social and cultural practice!
  • Traditional view of literacy “cloaks literacy’s connections to power, to social identity, and to ideologies often in the service of privileging certain types of literacies and certain people” (Gee, 1996, p. 46)
different orientations of cl
Different Orientations of CL

Lankshear’s (1997) three takes on critical literacy object(s) of critique

      • A critical perspective on literacies
      • A critical perspective on texts & ideologies
      • A critical perspective on wider social practices—
  • concern how the ideas, cultures, languages and voices of students from the minority ethnic and lower-class backgrounds are marginalized by the dominant mainstream curricula and teaching practices.
  • built on the notion of voice: “... the opening up of a space for the marginalized to speak, write, or read... so that the voicing of their lives may transform both their lives and the social system that excludes them.” (Pennycook, 2001, p. 101).
Context: School and Student population
  • Middle school in Scarborough, Grades 7 & 8
  • approximately 480 students total
  • 78% of students have primary language other than English
  • Students living in Canada for 5 years or less 18%

ESL students/ research participants

  • 12 participants, all of Chinese descent, from mainland China, HK, & Vietnam
  • Stage 1 and 2 learners, majority have basic English
  • length of stay in Canada less than 1 month to 3 years
the esl program
The ESL Program
  • ESL open withdrawal model
  • Ss are withdrawn for 1-2 language periods per day
  • Stage 1 & 2 learners together
  • integrated for other subject areas, e.g. Math, Science, French, etc.
  • delivery of services occurs outside of the school building in a portable
overview of curriculum plan
Overview of curriculum plan 
  • Topics that address immigrant Ss’ lived experiences
    • Social & familial upheavals, identity crisis– linguistic & cultural, adjustment, etc.
  • Distinct language focus tied in with progressive introduction of CL skills
  • Aligned with curriculum requirements
Guiding Framework-

Critical Literacy: An integrative approach

1. Integrative critical literacy instructional model (built on Ada and Campoy’ s creative reading approach (1991, 2004)



Personal Dimension



Creative/ Transformative


2. Luke & Freebody’s (1999) concept of

a. Code breakers b. Meaning makers

c. Text users d. Text critics

bridging program
Bridging Program
  • What was involved
  • -introducing oneself/meeting people
  • -basic classroom English
  • -classroom vocabulary
  • -days, weeks, months, seasons
  • -establishing and developing rules together
  • -set up of class library and blog
  • to provide ELLs with the language to function in the ESL classroom as well as other classes
  • to develop a community of learners, where ELLs feel confident enough to take risks in their learning

(Stage 1 vs. Stage 2 ELLs)

  • -to set up firm expectations within the ESL class


Rainy, warm

Picnicking in the woods,

going on the trip ,fishing

trees, singing birds, clear sky

Kite-flying, moon admiring

playing with lanterns.


(by Chicken)

SummerSunny, hotSwimming, camping, shoppingSunshine, beach, hotpotSkiing, skating, sleddingCold, snowywinter

(by Sam)

Module on Me and My family

3 units:

a. The Story of My Name

b. My Family

c. Who am I?

Negotiating new identities

What to retain, what to forgo?

immigrant refugee experience
Immigrant /Refugee Experience
  • Family separation & shifting between homes
  • Economic pressure
  • Balancing new employment, culture, , etc.
  • Language barrier
  • Lack of housing/ health care
  • Social isolation
  • racism
factors affecting acculturation process
Factors affecting acculturation process
  • Traumatic experiences of war, imprisonment, persecution, etc.
  • Voluntary vs. involuntary immigration
  • Cultural backgrounds/ traditions
  • Experience with western education
  • Level of literacy in L1
  • Grade level entered
“Immigrant teenagers have to cope with three traumas simultaneously:
  • The crisis of adolescence
  • The culture shock
  • The problem of identity and status

(Epstein & Kheimets, 2000)

research participants
Research participants
  • Half of the class experienced multiple transitions, splitting families:
      • 1 came to live with sister/ brother-in-law
      • 1 lived with grandparents for 5 years before getting back with parents in Canada
      • 4 lived with just 1 parent (either divorced/ staying in place of origin for work)
  • Disman (1983)

immigrant experience ≈ bereavement

unit 1 the story of my name
Unit 1: The Story of My Name
  • The Name Jar:
    • Explore cultural values attached to names
    • discuss problems concerning names encountered by story characters and Ss themselves as immigrants
    • Language focus: pronouns, vocab, reading skills e.g. predictions, making connections, etc.
  • Amidst class discussions, Ss disclosed incidents of bully in their own classroom
unit 1 the story of my name1
Unit 1: The Story of My Name

1. My name is X. L.. My character is more gentle, my name mean glitter filled with sunshine . My parents chose the name for me . l have no sister.I have not any nickname. l like my name , because my name is very beautiful like the meteor.

2. My name is H.K.L.. I have 3 characters in my name. The first character in my name is my family name, second or third is first names. ... H means health ,K means outstanding. And my mam call me H.K. it is quite an affectionate term.

I have nicknames. My friend call my “chicken”. I quite like my nickname because it is short and easy to write it. I like my name to because my name is my mam and dad to it give me.

3. My name is T. L. I have 2 characters in my name. L. is my last name. T. is my first name in Chinese. “T” means child, It is my dad help me chose. Why my dad chose this name for me? Because he wants to tell people that “T.L” is in our family. And he hopes I am help every day, so he chose this name for me.I have a nickname is: “xpy” which means a little kid. They say that I’m a “little kid” forever in their hearts. So I get this nickname. I like my Chinese name, because it has some special meaning for me .
unit 2 my family
Unit 2: My Family
  • Photo story of my family sharing information about family & life in home countries
  • Language focus: present continuous tense, vocab on family members, adj. to describe appearance & personality, etc.
  • Ss’ response
unit 3 who am i
Unit 3: Who am I?
  • Share what they like/ dislike, what they have, their abilities and roles
  • Language focus:
    • Present tense to show personal habits/ preferences
    • I’m _______(adj)____________
    • I’m a/an ____________ that/who__________
    • I can _______(v-infinitive)________________
    • I’m like a/ an _____(metaphor)______
loves and hates
Loves and Hates

1. I love going to school, becausein the school, I can see my friends.I love shopping with my mother, becauseshe will buy many beautiful clothes for me.I love caring for my friends, becauseI love them.I love sharing cakes with my sister, becauseshe likes cake.I hate going to hospital, becauseI will scared!I hate running in rainy, becauseI will fall down on earth!I hate eating with my uncle, becausehe can eat too much!I hate shopping with my friends, becausethey will use my money!

love and hate
Love and Hate

I hate beans, corns and animals.selfishness and jealousy;summers hot and winters cold;English food and books;being popular,nosey people,smoker.liars. I love computers and Eureka Seven. Jackies Chan and being home;learning, playing, walking,Pepsi and strawberry flavors;green and black,video games,camping,

HateI hate doing homeworkall day longeating seafood,going to the library.reading English book.


I like playing in the snow,playing violins.playing computer games,swimming in the pool.eating chocolate ice cream,watching movies in the cinema ,playing soccer and basket ball with my friend

I like comic Naruto ,One piece.

I hate homework, cats and gym;
  • Tests and jealousy;
  • winter and books;
  • Selfih people and time;
  • Friends and smoking;
  • French.
  • I love school ,Canada;
  • Dogs and history,
  • Fishing and television;
  • Trombone and playing game;
  • music and food;
  • Shy,
  • walking
i am poems
“I am” poems

I am a Chinese that can speak Mandarin very well.

I am a basketball fan that can shoot a basket very nicely.

I am a student that loves to learn.

I am a gymnast that loves to get strong.

I am a boy that can get any girl friends I like.

(by Boah)

I am a good swimmer that wins championship.

I am a student who loves to learn.

I am a bird that loves to fly.

I am a cat that likes eating fish.

I am a boy that is healthy. (by Sam)

i can poems
“I can” poems

I can do push-ups 40 times per minute.

I can play the race car games very fast.

I can read the books really loud.

I can use some words to make sentences.

I can speak Mandarin very well.

I can walk to school every day.

I can sing for a long time. (by Boah)

I can help my mother to wash dishes.

I can speak a lot Cantonese.

I can run on the Great Wall.

I can play computer games very well.

I can fold the clothes every day.

I can read a book every day.

I can finish my homework in one hour… (by Yorkie)

i can poems1
“I can” poems

I can play different kinds of baseball.

I can read Chinese books.

I can write in Chinese

I can ply pokemon games

I can speak a little English

I can read world map. (by Sam)

I can do my text very well when is open-book test.

I can make the house very clean.

I can finish my homework fast.

I can play a lot of instruments.

I can hand in my homework on time.

I can decorate my house very beautifully.

I can sing songs very loudly. (by Terri)

bullying at school
Bullying at School
  • Bullying:

- verbal:

“Are they dumb?" /“Are they stupid?”

“Why we have so many ESL students in our class?”

- physical or social exclusion

  • Unit on Bullying Painted Words
    • explore cultural differences & how they affect cross-cultural communication
    • Explore issues around bullying

 What, Who, Why & What we can do about it

bullying at school1
Bullying at School
  • Language focus:
    • past tense, reading skills (bookmarking / concepts of text-to-self, text-to-text, text-to-world)
    • Identify points of view & whose voice is missing
  • Categories:

(by B.C. Teachers Federation Program Against Racism)

  • Target 2. bystander

3. Intervener 4. perpetrator

student response
Student response
  • Mostly girls reported being bullied
  • Refrain from taking any action:

-fear of not having the language to report

-fear of revenge

  • Bystanders (both male & female) fear of revenge
  • Ignorance/ insensitivity
  • Misunderstanding
  • Teenage immaturity about socially acceptable behaviour, even among ESL students
  • Stereotyping images of certain social groups (e.g. from media, family, & society at large)
second language learning
Second language Learning
  • Cognitive approaches

 learner characteristics

 Input & output

  • Sociocultural approaches Community building & identity construction affects the learners’ investment in language learning(Norton, 2000)

Concerted effort of ESL teacher, and the whole school in helping students to feel they are legitimate members of a community

critical action
Critical action
  • organized a Lunch & Learn PD session for staff regarding ELLs and their experiences at school
  • Ss presented their stories Spoken Memories
  • discussed ways to stop bullying
  • staff
    • better awareness ELLs’ social & cultural adjustments
    • positive feedback
feedback from teacher on lunch learn pd session on esl experiences
Feedback from Teacher on Lunch & Learn PD session on ESL experiences

1. Hi.. I thought it was awesome... and sad.  It helped me to remember the ESL students..and I've made more of an effort to talk to Yoland and Melodie... Yoland doesn't want to present her presentation to her class which is really upsetting... I wish I could do more.  It's too bad that Sunny can't present these findings to the whole staff... I think a lot of people (on staff) don’t really have a clue what the students are actually going through.. (or they turn a blind eye like some of the students)...

2. After attending the lunch and learn last week (about ESL students) I decided to take a different approach to ESL and Science... I found some great resources through Tippett for the science unit and created an alternative assignment based on the resources. 7D was given an earthquake project recently that was language-based (although I did give it to the ESL students so that they also had access to what everyone else was working on). It was their choice (the ESL students) if they wanted to do the alternative assignment or work on the earthquake project.
I told the class that they'd be working on it in class, during class time, with a partner. Today, Melodie and Chicken showed up with the COMPLETED EARTHQUAKE PROJECT.. totally typed and everything answered. I was shocked ... basically over the last couple of days, they had translated everything on the sheet (must have taken forever!) and wrote it out in their own words. I was so proud of them that I showed the rest of 7D and everyone clapped!!! I think it was really important for their class to see that ESL students are capable of doing everything (and in this case --- so much better!) than English-speaking students. If only their class would give them a chance... sigh.