Having Learners Help Each Other

In this blog post, I would like to talk about something that came up in a call from a tutor about a mixed-level group she has. It’s kind of related to the last past, but we can also go to another level of thinking about how we integrate students in a small group tutoring session, even if the students are at slightly different levels.

I’ll explain the situation the tutor found herself in, but first, let me tell you a little bit about how we determine the level of a learner and how we decide whether or not to group a learner with someone else or find them their own tutor.

Basically, our only opportunity to assess the level of an ESL student occurs when they call for the first time and we (mainly Laura) talks to them personally. We have a series of questions on our intake form that asks them if they can or can’t do certain things in English, like count, read a newspaper, etc. And of course, we try to speak to them a little bit in English and see how they do. Then, we compare them to a chart, which you also have in the training manual on page thirty seven of the current edition (May 2018 edition. Available on the shared drive) and frankly, we guess their level. That is to say, we don’t have any assessment test or instrument to use to calculate their level more scientifically. But…it works out pretty well for our program, for the most part. And in any case, tutors can always adjust materials and levels as they see fit.

Once we have determined a student’s level, we match them with a tutor. If the student is close to the level of another student who meets at a time and library that works out for all parties, we will put them together. So, if students have an exact level match, great! If they are just one level apart, say, a level two and a level three, we’ll go for it there, too. But we won’t match a level one with a level three, for example.

If you find yourself with slightly different levels in your group, first, let me say thank you for your effort! Keeping this system is one way we can deal with student-tutor matching, and our general lack of tutors. On the other hand, I know there are some issues that can arise in this situation, such as the issue I was called about last week. A tutor called saying one of her students was beginning level 1, and a newer student recently placed with her was ready to start the level two book. She wondered how she would work with them together…would she have to do two separate lessons from two books in one session? It seemed like a complicated situation. Let me relate the advice I gave her, and we’ll see what you think.

My first piece of advice was not to be concerned or stressed. Having one student that is at a somewhat higher level than other students is considered a pretty good dynamic by many educators, and is based on ideas by Lev Vygotsy, a social psychologist whose ideas are very influential in the field of education. His view is that learning is assisted when a more knowledgeable member of a social group helps a less knowledgeable member move from one level of skill to the next level, one that the learner couldn’t reach without a little help. So, if there are different levels, then you have the tutor AND the higher level student in a position to help the lower level student. The only thing to watch out for is when the learners are too far apart in skill, which is why I wouldn’t pair a level one with a level three.

So, hopefully that takes some pressure off! The next thing to do is to think about how best to design interactions during the session where we are addressing the lowest level learner by applying the skills of the higher learner, then finishing by having the tutor, as the most-skilled member of the group, helping the more advanced student get to the next level that he or she couldn’t reach alone. This is when artistry, creativity, and a little experimentation comes into play.

My advice was to divide the session time into three equal parts. In the first part, focus on a lesson of the lowest level student. While doing this, get the other student to take the lead and try and guide the lower student through a lesson while the tutor steps back and is there mainly to help out and guide the situation. Then switch gears and work on a lesson with the other student while the lower-level student helps out as best they can. Then, use the final third of the session to discuss topics from from both lessons as a group. This should boost everyone. The lower level will get good exposure to a lot of language, the higher level will get some good review and lots of opportunity to practice. Since the Lifeprints books have lessons based on different themes, it shouldn’t be too difficult to switch between lessons. In other words, they don’t necessarily build on the previous lesson, so you can jump in here and there and talk about counting, going to the bank, etc. The final discussion time is where the real learning will happen.

This may seem awkward at times, but I think you will see a rapid leveling out of both students because they will be using that language with each other. Using language is the most important part of language education. That’s when mastery happens.

Another thing that I find to be true is that more advanced students aren’t always as advanced as we might think at first. Unless you have been working with a student a long time, it could be easy to overestimate their skills based only on how well they seem to know something in the book. In other words, it’s easy for learners to recognize something they see in a book, but it’s harder for them to use language from recall. Again, mastery comes from discussion. When a student is able to talk about something fairly consistently, then you know they know it.

So, in sum, if you plan your session time to take advantage of the social dynamic, and you are sure to include some good discussion time, I think you will find a lot of fun and improvement in your groups, even if they aren’t at the exact same level. It’s ok to be open and honest about using this approach with your students. They’ll understand. Heck, I recently used this method in a college ESL program that had two different levels of students in it, and I got some positive feedback. It wasn’t always great, but the students appreciated it overall. Yours will, too.

How to Integrate Low-level Learners Into Our Programs

One of the challenges that faces our tutors, primarily our Conversation Corner leaders, is how to deal with attendees who are at a much lower level than the group average, or, who may not speak any English at all. I completely understand this problem, as I have been faced with it many times. It can be frustrating and disappointing to know that when a low-level learner tries to participate, it can throw off the vibe of the group; but also, we feel guilty that we aren’t helping that person learn. Well, I have some tried and true ideas that I think can help us all out, and which won’t require much extra effort on the part of the Conversation Corner coordinator.

The first thing we need to do is be ready to manage our group. The typical Conversation Corner may have almost every member participating in one large group with the volunteer directing the conversation. In truth, we should almost always be breaking larger groups down into smaller groups of about three or four, and the Corner leader should float between groups like a butterfly, checking in on conversations and helping out when needed. This is beneficial because smaller groups ensure that more people will get a chance to speak than they might have in a larger group. Larger groups might get dominated by the stronger speakers. Also, smaller groups will be more likely to promote stronger speakers helping weaker ones carry on the conversation. If you happen to have students of similar levels, you can of course try to put people in groups according to their proficiency, but that might add a few extra challenges. For example, if everyone in a group is unable to follow the directions because of their language level, then they will end up doing nothing. A mixed group is probably going to be most effective.  I find that most often everyone likes to help others learn and express themselves.

Another thing leaders can do to keep things balanced and interesting is to mix groups more than once per session. This is called a “jigsaw.” Let students speak in one group for half the session, then jigsaw them around to new groups. This offers a fresh, new start and can avoid the feelings a student might get when stuck with someone who isn’t holding up their side of the conversation. As the leader, you can always decide who gets to be in what group, and you can place stronger speakers together with the jigsaw move, if you feel it necessary.

Of course, there is always the risk that when students are mismatched it can be frustrating for everyone because the more fluent speakers will want to speak faster, and the less fluent speakers will feel shut out. However, there are more approaches we can employ to help alleviate this issue. That starts with how you design and manage the flow of the session. In general, every session can follow a pretty easy formula: Part one should be to find out what people can say about the day’s topic, while also providing some key phrases, terms, and any pertinent cultural background knowledge. Once you go through this foundation phase, you can move on to discussions, and encourage everyone to incorporate the new vocabulary or terms. It may even be helpful to appoint one of the members of the group as language police who ensure that only English is spoken, new terms are attempted, and no one monopolizes every discussion. People often love to police others, so that’s a handy tip.

Leave time at the end of a session to check back in with the whole group, asking for questions, asking for final statements, and generally getting a feel for how the conversation went. Orally quiz people on new terms, and then, if you can, leave the students with a final thought or goal to practice independently until you see them again. No pressure, but that’s level ten session leading!

The next aspect that Corner Leaders can consider to help alleviate the difficulty of bringing lower level speakers into the group is to employ a variety of activities other than conversation questions alone. I highly recommend using games and activities that are game-like. Here are some of my favorites:

In this activity, you can select a speaking topic according to the average proficiency of the group, but it should be something most people could speak about without any special knowledge. Divide the group into groups of threes (this is the ideal, but of course, you may have to improvise if you have a number that doesn’t divide by three). Get those groups to arrange themselves in a circle, but each group member should be facing their own group. Each person in the group will become speaker A, B, or C. You will set an alarm for three minutes and allow speaker A to speak on the topic (alone) for three minutes. Then B the same, and finally C. Once every person in the group has spoken for three minutes each, Jigsaw the group by asking speaker A to move one group clockwise, and C to move one group counter clockwise. Speaker B remains in their original seat.

This round goes exactly the same, even the same topic, but the timer is set for two minutes. When you get through the two-minute session, jigsaw again and repeat the process with the timer set for one minute.

This activity helps to build fluency because everyone talks about the topic three times, each time having to be more precise about it. And, it generates a lot of talking.

Activate Games
In a previous post I mentioned the resources from the American English website. There you will find a resource called Activate Games.These are free board games that you can print out and bring with you to your session. They often focus on specific language skills, so it’s a good way to focus conversation that uses certain grammar constructs such as “What would you do if…”(Conditional phrases), “What do I know about…” etc. The only issue here is that you may need dice, which you could buy, OR, you could get your students to try and figure out how to make substitute dice (which is an activity in and of itself). If all else fails, all smart phones can download a dice or random number app or website.

Although, technically a board game, you don’t need to buy it to play it. Pictionary is charades, except with drawing pictures instead of miming. This is a great game to play for general fun, or to focus on specific words of phrases you may have worked with.

To set up, you need a whiteboard and markers. Any library will provide these. After that, all you need to do is write some words or phrases on scraps of paper. Again, it’s best to use words you are sure everyone knows or has been exposed to. Also, it is harder to draw concepts like “friendship”  than it is to draw simple nouns like, cars or dogs. So, I go for more concept words when possible. But, it’s nice to have a good mix.

Divide the group into two teams. Then start with the first player. Give them the first word on a slip of paper. That person starts to draw on the board, and their team has three minutes to guess. ( I believe actual Pictionary is only one minute, but it’s best to extend this time when it comes to learners.) If the team guesses in the allotted time, they get a point. Usually I let the other team try to steal (take a guess) if the active team wasn’t able to guess, but you can make the rules as you see fit.

One caveat goes with this. I was surprised when I first learned that many games are surprisingly cultural, in that, they are not played globally. Many is the time I have set up Pictionary and thought the students easily understood the rules and concept of this game, only to have them do the oddest things (in my point of view) when they were at the board. If you have students from non-western countries, or from poorer countries where they may have never played many board games that we take for granted, you may encounter some difficulties.  However, everyone does learn to play.

The next piece of advice I have to help low-level students, as well as all others is to show lots and lots of pictures. Adults like visuals to help them learn, and you can incorporate visuals in many ways. If you or your branch has laptops or tablets, then you can always bring up pictures on those. Bring up a picture and ask people to describe what they see, what they think happened before or after a picture, etc. And of course, show pictures of the things vocabulary words refer to.

You can also draw pictures on the whiteboard, if you are so inclined. Students love that, and I would be willing to bet that you already do this frequently.

Another method that is often recommended is to have students learn new vocabulary and concepts by drawing their own pictures. This is a highly recommended way to learn because it goes beyond writing a definition for new vocabulary out of often abstract or unknown words, it helps us to envision new ideas. So, you could always save some time at the end of a session to have people draw something that sticks in their mind. You could then ask them to share with the whole group and explain it (if they aren’t too shy). Lots of great language can come out of these activities.

There is another school of thought that says that students learn quickly and solidly if teachers employ the “Total Physical Response” method. And here what you do is a) incorporate a lot of gestures and movement in your own body when you talk, explain, or describe things. It looks like a form of sign language (Here’s a youtube video). And b) you get the students to use the same movements and gestures as they talk back with you and to each other. I imagine a lot of us would feel a bit silly at first, but there does seem to be some evidence to back up this method.

And my final piece of advice to you is to show everyone, but low-level people in particular how to get a library card and use Mango Languages. If you can show Mango to the student, they can start using that to build their language and vocabulary, which they can then practice in the group. Mango offers ESL lessons for speakers of all of the major world languages and then some. I don’t think we would be likely to encounter a student who couldn’t use Mango. And, it has a phone app that people can download. The phone app has a continual play feature that allows people to listen to the app, even if they are doing something else (perhaps, like working).

I hope that you will experiment with all of these methods, and I bet many of you have even more to contribute. Please do so in the comments, or share lessons/activities with us through email, and we will post them on our shared drive.

On a final note, no matter what approach you try to get low-level speakers woven into your groups, be sure that at the end of the session, low-level speakers feel like they have learned at least one thing, no matter how small.

Health Literacy Initiative is Under Way!

The Literacy Department has undertaken a new initiative to help promote Health Literacy, while of course promoting Reading and English Literacy at the same time! You may already be aware that we released a lesson plan earlier in March to coordinate with National Nutrition Month. We plan to release a second lesson for March, and more throughout the year. We hope that tutors will enjoy taking a break from the traditional teaching materials to explore some new ideas and boost language competence among our students when it comes to having the ability to discuss their healthcare and nutrition needs.

Low skill in Health Literacy is believed to be a significant factor that prevents people in the demographic that we serve from accessing healthcare. According to Health.gov, “For many individuals with limited English proficiency (LEP), the inability to communicate in English is the primary barrier to accessing health information and services.” And, limited literacy skills overall are considered to be an indicator that a person is less likely to seek and obtain healthcare.

For these reasons, we are trying to make a bridge between the services we already offer, and Health Literacy. We will be creating lessons and storing them in our shared drive where you can access, download, and print them whenever you would like to use them. They don’t necessarily have to be used in the month for which we create them, so feel free to try them out whenever you want a change of pace from Lifeprints, Laubach, etc.

What about Conversation Corners? They can use these materials as well. I recommend dividing up your groups into smaller groups and have them work through the activities together. The Corner host can circulate around to check on their progress and support students as they go along.

You’ll notice that we have included (Thanks, Laura!) the perennial favorite: word searches and crossword puzzles. These are great partner activities as well as at home follow-ups to the lesson. After students complete a crossword, I recommend that you ask more questions using the targeted vocabulary. These lessons are also a great opportunity for a doctor’s office role play, a grocery store role play, or any scenario where students can practice a speaking situation they may face when making health decisions.

According to national directive, any public service, including health care, receiving funding from the federal government must provide information about their services in various languages pertinent to the demographics of the area. They must also provide “plain language” information (i.e. jargon free) about their services. We can make sure we are at least providing some exposure to such “plain language” about health care and health issues. Please feel free to express any recommendations or questions in the comments, and please enjoy the lessons!

Also, FYI, the fact sheet I cited (linked below) is great lesson material.

A very special thank you to Laura for all her hard work on this month’s lessons!

Find lessons here.



Health.gov. “Quick Guide to Health Literacy.” U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

Eric’s Top Eight Online Resources List

I have been thinking for a while about great ways to help the HLC volunteer community in their efforts to teach literacy and English skills. I wanted to start out by sharing a list of what I believe to be the internet’s greatest gems that relate directly to our efforts. And, I mean directly, too. Many of these web resources I’m going to tell you about are the actual supporting materials for our textbooks, while others give a lot of the extra resources that tutors ask for, such as more supplemental materials. And finally, some of these websites give bunches of great aids to any language learner’s effort, no matter who you are.

This isn’t a ranked list, but I am willing to bet that you will find something really great in all of them.

And now, without further ado…..the list!

  1. New Readers Press

First, all of our tutoring books (published by New Readers Press) have online supplemental materials in PDF available through their website. You can download and print them as much as you like. For almost every book you can find teacher’s resources and manuals; flashcards, games and activities; and for each series except Grammar Wise there is an initial diagnostic test to help determine the reading and speaking level of your student. Some even include an online training course for tutors.

Laubach Way to Reading, Level 1 (this link goes to level one, but you can click to other levels and related books at the bottom of the screen.)

English – No Problem! (Great flashcards and games in this one)

Lifeprints (This one includes the audio that goes with the book, among all the other items)

Grammar Wise (The important document here is the instructor’s manual)

  1. Oxford Bookworm Series

The Literacy Department likes to order books from a series called Oxford Bookworms. These are a line of books known as “hi-lo,” which means, “high interest, low level.” These are great books for literacy and ESL students to practice their reading skills. They come in many different levels of readers, and in both fiction and non-fiction. To find them, you can search the catalog at HCPLC.org for “Oxford Bookworms.”

The Oxford Bookworms website has available 7 levels of reading tests to help determine the reading level of the student. It also provides reading guides and tests for many of the books, although you have to make a free account to access them. The aim of the materials is reading comprehension, but many of the activities could be adapted to ESL purposes and could be great ways to learn vocabulary and promote discussion.

3: Orca Rapid reads

Like the Oxford Bookworms, this is a hi-lo series. All of the titles are original fiction, and they are also available at different reading levels. They can be found by searching the catalog for “rapid reads.” When the results pop up, do a search again at the top of the screen. This time change the option in the “Search By” field to series. This will get you the whole list.

Most books in this series have online reading guides with summaries and discussion questions. These would be for more advanced learners in our program.

  1. American English

Another online resource that I like is managed by the US Department of State. Everything on americanenglish.state.gov is free and printable. The purpose of this site is to provide teacher resources overseas, so there are a few items that are not available online or in the US, but most items are downloadable. You will notice that the site has three sections: a general news/about us section, a resources section, and a section for English Teaching Forum. The latter is a professional journal for ESL teachers, but it often contains lesson ideas and interesting thoughts about teaching. The most interesting part to HLC tutors will be the resources section. Here you will find all the publications put out by the Department of State for classroom use. It is searchable by skill and level. I particularly like Activate Games for Learning American English. Each lesson comes with a teacher’s guide and a board game, which you could download and print. Audio lessons also include downloadable MP3s. And for gamers, there is a first-person video game called, Trace Effects, which is very fun, but not for absolute beginners in English.

  1. VOA Learning English  

Like the above resources, the government also produces an international news source called Voice of America. This service provides basic English learning resources through its “Learning English” website. Here you will find an excellent video series for level 1 and 2 learners. The rest of the site delivers current news in articles ranked for readability into levels 1 to 3. All articles provide slow audio and vocabulary in context with definitions at the end.


  1. BBC English

Similar to VOA, the BBC also offers a news-based English learning site called, “BBC-Learning English.” However, this site is more comprehensive in offering lessons for a wider range of skill levels. It has a wider variety of activities, including adapted scripts and dramatization for popular stories, and grammar lessons and pronunciation…albeit British. There is so much on this site I would dehydrate trying to tell you about it all. This site is almost overwhelmingly stocked with great resources! And there is even a lot of English lessons in other languages, such as Mandarin and Thai!

  1. Memrise.com

Memrise is a pet site of mine. I recommend it to literally everyone. It is basically great for learning vocabulary, and I have used it myself for years. Vocabulary lists and other lessons are made by the community, not the company, so there is wide variance in what you come across, but users can add their own mnemonic devices to each vocabulary word in order to better help them remember. An example is adding a meme that relates to your target word, and makes you laugh so much you will always remember the word: thus MEMrise. On top of that, the software takes you through several stages of learning, beginning with an introduction to the word and its meaning, then you do a quick multiple choice quiz, eventually moving on to a fill in the blank quiz….each way building your memory. It is nice and repetitive, so you get lots of exposure to your vocabulary. It has a downloadable app that you could use, for example, while waiting in line at the grocery store. Use it!

  1. Mango Languages

Finally, I would be amiss if I didn’t mention Mango Languages, which the library system subscribes to. All users in Hillsborough county should access Mango Languages through our website. You can use Mango as a guest, but it won’t save your progress if you do so. Making a profile is free and easy; just remember, you will need a library card number to make the profile. Once you have made the profile, you can learn any number of languages. For our purposes there are courses in English for speakers from a variety of language backgrounds. They choose English as the language they want to learn, then select their native language, and away they go! The English course has many different lessons, all of which are very vibrant and high quality. The program approaches the language learning process from many angles, including grammar matching between the mother tongue and English. There is also an app that allows users to listen to lessons while doing other things, like working. Very convenient!

And there you have it! These resources alone could keep us busy well stocked in activities and inspiration for the foreseeable future.  If, after looking through these resources, you find something you feel merits special recognition, please leave a comment and share your thoughts with the rest of us! Thank you again for all you do!

Starting the conversation: the Shared Literacies Blog

Hello, everyone! I have been hearing from some of you about your experiences with tutoring and Conversation Corner sessions, and I have detected a few themes. So, I have decided to start this blog as a way of providing a vehicle where we can share our experiences, our knowledge, and our resources in order to keep tutoring sessions and Conversation Corners fresh and fun for all involved. If there is something you want to talk about, all you have to do is post a comment below any blog entry, and the conversation starts from there. sounds fun, doesn’t it?

I’m no stranger to our teaching formats: both small group, discussion group, and one-on-one. Like you I have experienced the same feelings of pride and fun from working with people who are trying to improve themselves, and I also know about the challenges that come with finding new things to do with your group, new approaches to old material, dealing with people who don’t really speak English, more advanced learners becoming bored, and more. And I am happy to share what I know about these issues and look forward to hearing from you as well.

I started working on a document that I thought I would dispense to Conversation Corner organizers, but I thought that a blog might be a better engine of engagement with you. In this way we can explore issues as they come and we can perhaps go more in-depth, yet have more digestible portions of information than one super-document would be. And of course, everything here will continue to exist in an easily searchable way as we move into the future.

So, with that said, welcome to the Shared Literacies Blog!


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