ELLs Meeting Neighbors in the Community

Sometimes working with adult ELLs for as long as I have, certain things just become routine. Good teaching strategies that seem to work universally are hard to stray from. So, like many teachers, I hold on dearly to particular lessons and activities and practice them with just about every group of students I teach. Once in a while, situations present themselves that are unique. We try to recreate them with other students at other schools or at other times, but special moments are just that –special.

I would like to share with you one of those moments. It’s the sort of “lesson” that should be practiced more, but circumstances have to present themselves and the stars have to align just right. Like, for example, having students make connections with members of their immediate community. Not some staged set of do-gooders who mean well by speaking with ELLs, but real, authentic members of the surrounding community genuinely coming to visit your class to intermingle with the students. This, as you can imagine, takes some careful planning and cooperation. But I was fortunate enough to pull something like this off. How? Using a fail-safe motivator: FREE FOOD.

Luckily for me, I work with the best ESL coordinators in the world. The idea floated around about inviting neighbors in the community surrounding the elementary school where free English classes were being taught in the evening. I coordinated with another ESL instructor and the program director to give flyers and make announcements inviting the families of the children who attended the school, as well as the general neighbors nearby. It was labeled a multi-cultural “Meeting Your Neighbors” event. There would be music and free ethnic food (mostly Mexican, Salvadorean, and Honduran). And though many were lured by the smell of good food and the sound of rhythmic music, no one really knew what to expect. But to my surprise, everyone made a new friend that evening.

I had students and our neighbors/guests sit in on two lines of chairs facing each other. On one side sat the students; on the other the “guests.” They were supposed to introduce themselves and talk about specific things. The students and guests would engage each other in a short conversation, and this would go on for about a minute. Then, a timer would go off and everyone had to move one chair to the right and repeat this. I admit before starting, I was nervous this would turn out to be a disaster. But it didn’t. Everyone had several very good, one-minute conversations. There was a lot of chatter and laughter. My heart filled with happiness, as did everyone else in the room. A special moment, like I said.

Below is a short video from that evening. It was completely impromptu, so forgive the shakiness and sidebar discussion. You can see and maybe make out bits of some of the conversations going on. Maybe they all were really interested. Maybe they were working up an appetite for the food. Whatever the case, I’m hoping I get to have more of these types of special activities.

TESOL 2016: Network King

From left to right: Jose V. Torres (IWTLE), Valentina Holubeva (English Speaking Club), and Alla Schlate (Sacred HEart University)
From left to right: Jose V. Torres (IWTLE), Valentina Holubeva (English Speaking Club), and Alla Schlate (Sacred Heart University)

The 2016 TESOL Convention was on my home turf and it was a big occasion. It was the 50 year anniversary, my first textbook was published just a month before, and I was representing the AFT and Baltimore City Community College. Having colleagues, former professors, and new connections all under the same roof magnified the anticipation. The adrenaline was pumping on turbo.

The timing of TESOL 2016 was impeccable, and I made sure to be there every day from the moment the doors opened on Monday morning until everyone scurried out at the last minute on Friday evening. It wasn’t necessary; it was crucial. I attended every session I could and networked with hundreds of people from all over the world. And why was I so immersed in TESOL 2016? Because everything is different now. The narrative on immigration and public funding for programs in general has shifted, and not just in the United States. The stakes seem to be getting higher simultaneously as our profession is making leaps in overall efficiency and the TESOL organization itself grows in size and importance. I roamed the halls and lobbies at the convention center for a one simple reason: networking. Some of it was to promote my textbook; some just to gain another nugget of knowledge to use in my quest to find “keys” that will contribute to unlocking some of the mysteries of adult language acquisition. And with every day there, I refined my ability to hone in on people who could be great contacts. I arrived as the sun was coming out and wouldn’t leave until the dark of night had fallen. As the final moments of the convention frittered, I was spent. My leaden body and feet slowed my pace as I left, but my mind remained ravenous.

Why Phonics is Important For Adults

portrait of young female student at school classroom

It is common practice for elementary teachers to go over phonics in the early grade levels (PK-1st grade). Little children have an inherent ability to absorb the phonetic structure of (any) language. Noam Chomsky attributes this to the L.A.D or Language Acquisition Device. It is widely believed by the teen years this L.A.D. begins to dissipate and people generally lose their abilities to acquire the essentials of a new language. This is believed by many to be due to the fact that by the young adult years, the mind has acquired what it needs to survive socially, culturally and otherwise. In contrast, it is also believed if people continue to learn new languages throughout their youth, the L.A.D. remains strong and people have been known to learn many new languages throughout their adult life.

There have been a slew of studies to support the existence of the L.A.D. and its attributes, so it is difficult to argue the “use or lose it” tendency inherent with it. This is important to keep in mind when considering the difficulties adults encounter when learning a new language, especially the English language. English is an especially difficult language to learn because of its “Frankenstein” composition. English is comprised of several world languages (Old English, Latin, Germanic, Danish, Norse, French, Greek, to name some), and many of their original rules traveled with them into English. This is quite evident when someone is trying to understand the many pronunciations of “ough” in different English vocabulary words, for example. The English language is filled with such examples. Although these complexities seem arbitrary at times, they really exist as a culmination of old pronunciation rules (and syntax) and a creole effect, meshing several languages in parts and morphing with trending acceptances to the rules. If this seems confusing to the native English speaker, imagine the confusion to non-native speakers and people new to the language. The one thing that can tie everything together is establishing English at the phonetic level. Having a strong phonemic awareness is tied to literacy, as well as listening and speaking skills. Before tackling the daunting, complex rules of the English language, ELLs should first establish a strong phonetic foundation.

The National Institute for Literacy published a report in an effort to “strengthen literacy across the lifespan” authorized by the U.S. Congress under two laws: the Adult Education and Family Literacy Act (AEFLA) and the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB). The report’s section on “Alphabetics” (Chapter 4) is at the heart of what the I Want To Learn English textbook was designed to do with adult ELLs. The  Phonemic Awareness Training and Phonics Instruction chapter gives a comprehensive synopsis of the complexities of teaching phonics to adult learners (click here to read the report). Many of the highlighted issues in this report are primarily what IWTLE addresses in the strategies and methods employed throughout the textbook. Instructors and administrators are encouraged to review this report. When the issues in the report are compared to what the student textbook covers, it will become apparent this textbook was tailored to meet the phonemic awareness needs of adult English Language Learners struggling with literacy and overall communications skills. With grant funded programs becoming more competitive and the needs for adult English learners to acquire the language more efficiently in order to apply their acquisitions at the workplace, the need for excellent language learning tools grows. “I Want To Learn English” takes all of these factors into consideration and works to resolve the fundamental needs of ESL students, which in turn will contribute to the improvement of communication in the workforce and make adult ESL (and high school) programs become more productive.

The Teacher’s Manual Is Now Available

Everything teachers need to know about the strategies and application of the lessons in the textbook “I Want To Learn English” for Level 1 Beginners is in the Teacher’s Manual. This manual gives an in depth look into all the nuances of the student textbook, gives suggestions and expanded activities, rationale for lessons, and gives a thorough explanation of every Section and subsection. The manual also includes some additional worksheets and activities which are not in the student textbook, audio scripts, answer keys and illustrations to make the application of IWTLE as user friendly as possible to instructors of English all over the world. Order your copy here.

The 30 Days Song

IWTLE will host all of its audio contents on PodBean. This will make access to the audio tracks that correspond to the textbook much easier with phone apps and free download options. We are nearing the official launch of the textbook. Check out this sample.

The 30 Day Song

Do you know how many days are in each month? Well, here’s a fun way to remember. Sing along.

30 days has September, April, June and November.

The rest have 31 days, you see, except February.

An Audio Sample From The Textbook “I Want To Learn English”


Here is an audio sample for the “soon to be released” Level 1 ESL Textbook “I Want To Learn English.” It comes from Unit 3 which focuses on consonant blends. The textbook will be released in the coming weeks. Stay tuned.

blue-play-button_fyMs9LUO_L33.1 Listen to the following short conversation and repeat. Then, practice with a partner.

Student A: Excuse me, sir. Where is the Florida school?

Student B: It’s on twelfth street.

Student A: Do I need to travel very far?

Student B: It’s just three blocks away. If you walk fast, you can get there in a few minutes.

Student A: Thank you very much.

Student B: Oh, you are very welcome.

TESOL International Conference in April 2016



As in the past, I will be attending the TESOL International Convention. The difference is this year time I will be representing Baltimore City Community College and will also be presenting my findings of using phonics more explicitly with adult learners and how this methodology is prevalent in my own teaching practice. I presented at the Maryland  TESOL Conference in 2014 and shared the results of using my phonics based textbook (I Want To Learn English) with colleagues and other professionals. The response was very positive. Now, the book is in the final phases of publication and I will have physical copies of the book to share with professionals from around the world this April. This, as you can imagine, is not only exciting, but a long time coming.

It is fitting since BCCC has been supporting me in the project since day one. I cannot express enough how thankful I am for Doug Weimer and others at BCCC for their continued support of this textbook project. But all that aside, the numbers simply do not lie. This book and the strategies it employs are immensely effective in teaching adults English. Students’ CASAS scores have improved significantly. That was my goal at the onset, my purpose when I set out to write this textbook, and I can honestly say “Mission Accomplished!”

The obvious question I get a lot is, of course, when will the next book in the series be available? I don’t think it will take nearly as long as the first one (which took 5 years to complete), but depending on the financial success of the first book will likely be the greatest determinant of how swift the second will come along. If the book does well in sales, then it will obviously demand and Book 2 be available sooner rather than later.

Level 1 Textbook Due for Release Winter 2015

We wanted the book to be released by the end of summer, but due to financial setbacks (and logistical challenges) it was concluded the best thing to do would be to wait to release the I Want To Learn English textbook around the holidays 2015. Even though there were grants to help fund the project, the amount of money was insufficient to get everything in order for a late summer release. Therefore, more time to use the textbook on another sample of students to get more accurate data is clearly the silver lining here.

Kickstarter Campaign Launched

Now that the “I Want To Learn English” textbook (prototype) is going on its third year in use, the data collected thus far shows this program works for adult English Language Learners at the beginner level. It even proves to be a very useful tool for students at intermediate levels. Now, the textbook is in its final stages before completion. With an eye on publishing the first edition this summer, a Kickstarter campaign is being launched to fund the project. Students and instructors both can make pledges to help make this textbook project a commercial reality, and also be among the very first to receive of the textbook.

Please take moment to look at the Kickstarter page, watch the video promo and make a pledge today. Your time and consideration is greatly appreciated. At the end of the day, this project is all about helping people learn English and building stronger communities. Thank you very much.