TESOL (Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages) faculty members at Northeastern Illinois University incorporated CIRLI into courses that they taught. Below is their report indicating how they integrated real life issues into a variety of courses and the positive student response. They encourage TESOL faculty throughout Illinois to employ the CIRLI model.
Incorporating a CIRLI Model into TESOL Programs
Introduction by Bek Nurmukhamedov (U-Nurmukhamedov@neiu.edu)
During their careers, teachers frequently encounter students who have confronted real-life issues. A real-life issue is defined as “pressing life problems and concerns affecting students’ daily lives” (Glick, Joleaud & Messerer, 2013, p. 4). Real-life issues may come in a wide range of forms, such as violence, bullying, sexually transmitted diseases, substance abuse, mental health issues and others. These real-life issues can be difficult to resolve or endure, thus they can have a considerable impact on schoolchildren (and older students) and potentially hinder their learning. To help students and their teachers cope with these problems in a constructive and systematic way, a group of faculty members in the Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages (TESOL) program at Northeastern Illinois University (NEIU) incorporated a Curriculum Infusion of Real Life Issues (CIRLI) model into some TESOL courses. The CIRLI model is designed to help teachers understand the prevalence and importance of real-life issues that affect the lives of their students while integrating a study of these issues into classwork.
The NEIU TESOL program offers a Master of Arts (M.A.) degree in TESOL, a Graduate Certificate Program, a minor in TESOL, and courses toward English as a Second Language (ESL) Endorsement in the State of Illinois, as well as a general education course as part of the first-year experience. The NEIU TESOL generally provides students with an understanding of the nature of language, culture, instruction, assessment, curriculum development, and professionalism, and their interrelationships. We accomplish this goal through adherence to the TESOL International Association and state standards, rigorous training, and research. The majority of students enrolled in our respective TESOL programs (e.g., MA, or Certificate or Endorsement) can be divided into two categories. The first category of students are inservice teachers who have already obtained their teaching certification and are already teaching children or adults in a classroom. And the second category includes preservice teachers (aka teacher candidates) who started taking courses from or were enrolled in a teacher education program and were working toward teacher certification or planned to teach English as a second language locally or internationally.
According to our observations, most teacher training programs focus on training preservice and in-service teachers how to teach a particular subject matter (e.g., grammar, listening, etc.), leaving little or no space in the teacher-training curriculum for real-life issues. TESOL programs should consider incorporating the CIRLI model into some of their courses because the model “makes classes more relevant to students by addressing their real-world concerns and connects teachers more closely to the students and communities where they work” (Glick et al, 2013, p. 4). This report describes the integration of CIRLI into some graduate- and undergraduate-level TESOL courses at NEIU. In addition, the report offers several practical examples of how CIRLI-based materials can easily and effectively be infused into TESOL courses elsewhere.
It should be noted that we implemented the CIRLI Model in some of our NEIU TESOL courses by maintaining the integrity of the program and course objectives. Incorporating CIRLI into the TESOL courses was beneficial for a number of reasons. First, the preservice and inservice teachers are now aware of real-life issues that their students may constantly encounter. Under the supervision of the course instructor, the teachers have carefully reviewed authentic articles and video-audio materials on a selected CIRLI topic (e.g., the refugee crisis; substance abuse; undocumented students). Some preservice/inservice teachers were able to relate to the readings and could reflect on how they would treat their students who may have been affected by a real-life issue. For example, one teacher in the TESOL assessment course noted “... this kind of text inspired me and will be a helpful background for my knowledge on the topic of drugs that I will convey to my students.”
Second, the preservice/inservice teachers not only gained information about real-life issues, they also continued learning TESOL-specific skills and expertise. One student in the TESOL assessment course stated, “This task was a chance for me to transfer the information I learned throughout the course. … There is a huge impact on the way I will teach this topic .... I can post more critical questions and have higher level thinking conversations around the topic ….” Students in the introductory course, TESL 109, shared that they felt they had learned about something they had never been exposed to. As future teachers, they reported that the refugee mental health unit would be very useful. In general, students said that they felt invested in this issue because the teaching approach for this unit involved many empathy-related activities.
In sum, our real-life infused course projects were beneficial for our novice and in-service TESOL students who work with students with diverse backgrounds in urban-rural and suburban school settings in Illinois. We would encourage our colleagues in other TESOL programs to view the recommendations above as ‘food-for-thought’ ideas and replicate them in their teaching contexts or adopt them to meet the needs of their respective TESOL programs.
1. Developing (In)Formal Tests Using CIRLI by Bek Nurmukhamedov
Most TESOL programs in the USA offer a second language (L2) assessment course that primarily introduces future and in-service teachers to the fundamental concepts and principles of language assessment. During our informal interaction with colleagues who teach an L2 assessment course in different universities in Illinois, we have come to know that L2 assessment courses primarily aim to train TESOL students in developing a formal or informal test to assess one of the four skills: reading, writing, listening, and speaking (including vocabulary and grammar). As a major course project, TESOL students are typically asked to design a test that assesses a certain skill (e.g., reading or listening) for a ‘hypothetical’ group of students who they either are teaching or would like to teach in the future. Before the students create a test, first they must find a level-appropriate content—either a listening/video passage or a reading text— on which to build. Instead of choosing random content, TESL assessment students can be advised to design a mock test that involves a real-life issue. For instance, the course instructor of TESL468: Principles of Language Assessmentoffered pre-selected audio files (with transcripts) and reading passages to TESL468 students on the topic of substance abuse. The audio and reading resources were carefully selected from authentic resources, provided by such sources as National Public Radio (NPR) or The New York Times. Using a collection of instructor-selected audio and reading passages, the TESL468 students were asked to develop a one-skill mock test either for a reading or a writing skill for their current or future students. To design the course project, the TESL468 students had to review the CIRLI-oriented passages and review previously learned materials from their language assessment course.
Upon completing their course project, the TESL468 students were asked to write a short reflection to share their overall impressions about CIRLI and what they had learned during the project. Throughout the students’ reflections, several themes emerged. First, the students demonstrated a positive attitude about the CIRLI-driven final project because working on the project raised their awareness of real-life issues with regard to the detrimental effects of drug overdose on society, especially schoolchildren. One of the students who plans to teach ESL/EFL to adult learners noted: “I will certainly be more empathetic, loving and caring towards children who come from challenging backgrounds. I will also educate my young as well as adult learners to be more informed about the topic and how to make these children more comfortable and acceptable in their surroundings.” Second, the students engaged in a hands-on activity that enabled them to apply concepts from the TESL468 course readings and classroom exercises to successfully complete their mock test project. One of the participants noted in her response: “A great project because it not only focused on how you create assignments [a language test], … but also, I got to learn about a topic that I was not rather familiar with originally.”
2. Real Issues in Sociocultural-Focused TESOL Courses by Courtney Frances (firstname.lastname@example.org)
Courses that speak to the cultural components of language and society are vital to the TESOL experience because this content helps future and current teachers to understand the social and emotional aspects of their students’ language use. Typically, courses that focus on language, education, and society center on the foundational and contemporary literature in language variation and change. Courses usually examine the impact of social structures and how they shape diverse social identities. Students make sense of societal landscapes by studying language in these ways.
Real societal issues fit extremely well into sociocultural TESOL courses. However, it is crucial that such teaching be done with firm evidence-based practice. Some evidence-based approaches that align well with culture- or language-related courses include applied cultural competence in the classroom. Students can learn about the various levels of cultural competency: cultural destructiveness, cultural incapacity, cultural blindness, cultural pre-competence, and cultural proficiency, all in the context of personal language/dialect prejudice. Mastering an understanding of these various levels of competency situates cultural competence and proficiency in alignment with a student-focused classroom.
Jennifer Abe, in her 2020 article, “Beyond Cultural Competence, Toward Social Transformation: Liberation Psychologies and the Practice of Cultural Humility,” discusses Engebretson and Mahoney’s research on cultural humility, which can be applied to the study of language prejudice and discrimination in the classroom. “A liberation psychologies orientation toward issues of oppression and social justice is proposed as consistent with a multilevel approach to defining cultural humility, especially at a collective level” (p. 696). This approach extends to many real-life issues that impact English language learners, that is, the students of future teachers. This approach can include addressing issues of drug use, mental illness, bullying, and social problems that might be a function of immigration status.
As Bandy, Harbin and Thurber (2021) discuss, Bhattacharya and Kim (2020) assert that teaching with the use of vignettes, “situate(s) prejudice as a reminder to engage in expansive knowledge-making moves. De/colonial scholars add arguments about positionality and the need to engage with one’s own stuck places, places of contradictions and tensions, and conditions that cultivate deep introspection” (p. 117). This process will help teachers and future teachers to better understand their students’ experiences and apply this new knowledge to the planning of relevant lessons.
In planning to integrate real-life issues into the ELL classroom, it is wise to capitalize on Bandy, Harbin and Thurber’s (2021) conclusion that more holistic teaching approaches are necessary to develop students' cognitive and affective abilities to navigate [real-life issues] inside and outside of the classroom. While these authors primarily examine race issues, they also tackle the topic of environmental justice, among other real-life issues.
Because our goals are twofold—content and language—when we teach ELLs, it is notable that content can include many areas. Whether we teach ELLs or their teachers, we need not be confined to a standard traditional curriculum. To increase the likelihood of teachers understanding the lives of their students and students understanding the world in which they live, a holistic approach is in order.
A focus of real issues in a graduate TESOL course of this kind successfully explores the constant sense of erasure, exclusion, discomfort, and white supremacy BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, and People of Color) encounter in the systems that govern their lives. White-identifying students understand and take accountability for their collective role in upholding systems of white supremacy that have been in place for far too long and contribute to some of the labor needed to address these issues. Additionally, they examine the ways that language in society affects the maintenance of power dynamics and social structures. The real-life issues that students face are related to their individual circumstances and experiences in the world. Language is a part of who they are, and it can be a source of discrimination, which is a life-issue that many of our students face every day.
Some topics, easily infused into course content, are appropriate and recommended for a socio-cultural focused TESOL courses:
3. Introductory TESOL Courses for First-Year Students: Effective Evidence-Based Practice “ by Courtney Frances
Introductory TESOL classes for first-year students are vital to the TESOL academic experience because students are introduced to foundational concepts. If the introductory course is an official FYE (First Year Experience) course, then students are also learning about skills and resources that will be vital to their success in college. These first-year students, all typically future teachers, often have never thought deeply about language, language learning, and facts, history, and experiences of English language learners in this country. For them, there is a great teacher in their K-12 past who stands out as a role model, and quite often the student has decided to be a teacher to have a similar impact on young people. An introductory FYE class at Northeastern Illinois University is entitled, “Chicago Speaks!” and includes the following topics:
Instructors of such an introductory course expect outcomes that include the identification of speech and sentence functions, the identification of how English sounds are produced, the ability to discuss immigration, demonstrating knowledge of ELL teaching techniques, and a sharpening of critical thinking skills. An additional outcome is demonstrating comfort with and involvement in the university community and the greater local community.
There are some evidence-based approaches that align well with introductory courses for first-year college students. We know that it is effective to pose complex real-life problems, such as refugee mental health, which happens to be the topic chosen for the CIRLI pilot in the TESOL introductory course at NEIU. Refugee mental health was an important topic because of the large numbers of refugee students at public schools who resided near the university, with attendant challenges that they faced.
This strategy of infusing real-life issues “helps students move out of the dualism and multiplicity phases of William Perry’s scheme of intellectual development to help students encounter complex, real-life problems where right-or-wrong and ‘it’s all just opinion’ thinking does not suffice. Helping students progress past these phases is challenging, but they won’t progress if they’re not given the opportunity to do so” (cf. Teaching First-Year Students in the Vanderbilt University Center for Teaching).
Throughout the “Chicago Speaks!” course, the instructor successfully infuses real-life problems. For instance, at the culmination of their unit on refugee mental health, students take part in an empathy-focused writing activity. Students put themselves in the shoes of a refugee from one of five countries of their choice (e.g., Venezuela, Syria, Sudan, or Iraq). They then write a letter to a loved one in their “home country.” In the letter, the student is expected to explain why and how they left, how they feel, what they think, and what they are experiencing now that they are in Chicago. Letters must sound authentic and must be factually accurate. This in-class assignment marks the culmination of several activities that pose refugee-related, real-life problems. “Without exception, students were rigorous in researching their respective refugee groups and ‘country of origin,’ demonstrated empathy in the feeling and facts of their letters and produced letters that sounded incredibly authentic. This unit was a success!” Below is a brief video of three of the eighteen students reading their letters: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VHsPTJ5q7As
Another evidence-based approach that fits well into an introductory course such as “Chicago Speaks!” is the application of a high level of rigor while simultaneously providing opportunities for individualization of materials and assessments. This emphasis on individualization and rigor is especially important when working with future teachers because of the impact of such modeling for their future practices. Students appreciate rigor because it typically represents a contrast to high school. “Self-Determination Theory”, proposed by Edward L. Deci and Richard M. Ryan (2002) suggests that people are motivated to grow and change by three innate and universal psychological needs: competence, connection, and autonomy. “Mattering vs. Marginality Theory” (Nancy Schlossberg) helps us to understand the importance of providing ways for students to understand that they are supported and valued. There are varied ways that introductory courses can promote individuality and rigor. In “Chicago Speaks,” as part of the refugee unit, students routinely took part in solving unique problems, as each student had a different “teaching-of-refugees” problem to solve. Similarly, a different activity required students to work through a decision tree that put them “in the shoes” of a Syrian refugee. Each student journey is different, and students are “the experts” of their own journey, about which they eventually make presentations in class.
While introductory courses can be challenging for instructors to plan, especially when most students are first-year, first-generation college students, there are clearly ways that evidence-based practice can easily be infused into these courses. Educators in the higher education arena are fortunate in 2022, as we are able to readily source successful, interesting, and rigorous practice based in research.
In addition to assessment and instruction, in-service and practicing TESOLers are encouraged to engage in professional and leadership development opportunities because during their careers they are asked to “demonstrate professionalism and leadership by collaborating with other educators, knowing policies and legislation and the rights of ELLs, advocating for ELLs and their families, engaging in self-assessment and reflection, pursuing continuous professional development, and honing their teaching practice through supervised teaching” (cf. TESOL Standards, 2019, p. 16).
In the upcoming sections of the report, we will describe how CIRLI was implemented in two TESL courses that pertain to the professionalism and leadership domains.
4. The CIRLI model in the Second Language Acquisition Course by Bek Nurmukhamedov
The incorporation of CIRLI in TESL460: Second Language Acquisition (SLA) is discussed in this section. The goal of TESL460 is to provide TESOL students (preservice teachers) with a broad overview of the history of the field and to help students attain foundational SLA literacy. The preservice teachers read research-based articles and SLA theories to develop an understanding of linguistic, social and cognitive influences on second language learning. In the SLA literature, there is a unit on individual differences; the unit primarily focuses on learning strategies, style, personality, as well as students’ overall attitude toward L2 learning and the community that uses the target language. CIRLI was used to help preservice and in-service teachers develop empathy for English language learners (ELLs), particularly refugee students. To raise the teachers’ awareness of refugee students’ needs and empower teachers to promote a broader refugee-friendly school environment in their respective teaching contexts, they were asked to conduct a small-scale, informal action research project by collecting a life story from an ELL in their community (either from their school or neighborhood). In this task, the teachers interviewed an ELL using interview guidelines recommended by Lydia Breiseth (cf references). Next, they were asked to analyze the interview transcripts from the following perspectives: personal (e.g., survival techniques, problem-solving strategies), cultural (e.g., surface and deep elements of culture), academic (e.g., literacy level), and community (e.g., community ties, support). For each of these perspectives, the teachers had to write a reflective journal and explain their observations by using evidence as well as examples from the assigned readings for TESL 460. The teachers shared their reflections with the rest of the class.
5. TESL 471: The Evolution of Laws and Policies in Language Instruction by Gina Wells ( G-Wells@neiu.edu)
In the elective course, TESL 471: The Evolution of Laws and Policies in Language Instruction, students learn about the laws and policies that have guided, and in some cases, hindered, language instruction, language access, and language acquisition in the United States and other countries selected by the students. Additionally, students explored the motivations that have facilitated the creation of language laws and policies. The content taught in this course provides students with the knowledge and tools to become strong advocates for their English Language Learners, their students’ families, their profession, and much more. As laws and policies of language instruction regulate how language—in this case, the English language—is taught and learned, the nature of TESL 471 lends itself to the implementation of the CIRLI Model into the curriculum. The specific focus for this course was the rights of immigrants to learn English and to maintain their home languages. According to the Migration Policy Institute (2019) 10 percent of the ELLs in the US K-12 schools are immigrants; and Jaros-White (2017) noted that approximately nine percent of all immigrants to the United States, ages five and up, are ELLs. Language laws and policies governing language learning and teaching greatly impact these students. Therefore, the content of this course was especially relevant and applicable to real-life issues for the preservice and in-service teachers who were the students enrolled in this course.
Throughout the semester, students studied the multilingual beginnings of the United States, researched the creation of laws and policies related to teaching English to speakers of other languages and bilingual education, and explored the ideas and ideologies that led to the creation of language laws and policies. They also analyzed these laws and policies to determine who benefited from and who was disadvantaged because of their creation and implementation. Students discussed who benefited from and who was disadvantaged by these laws and policies, with a focus on how schools, communities, and states have implemented them.
The assignments in this course were redesigned so that each completed project became part of a larger final project that students could use when working with language learners. Students were encouraged to collaborate with one another as they completed their assignments. The final project, designed and created by the students, is a Google site that consolidates links to a plethora of information and resources through which teachers, students, and community members can access answers to issues that are meaningful to ELLs, particularly ELLs who are immigrants. Moreover, the final project can be used by teachers to advocate for their students and their profession.
Lastly, comments from students who participated in this course included
The implementation of the CIRLI Model into this course allows the students to become well-informed, compassionate English Language Teachers (ELTs) that are equipped with the necessary knowledge, insights, and tools to effectively advocate for their students and their profession.
Abe, J. (2020) Beyond Cultural Competence, Toward Social Transformation: Liberation Psychologies and the Practice of Cultural Humility. Journal of Social Work Education, 56(4), 696-707, DOI: 10.1080/10437797.2019.1661911
Bandy, J. Harbin, B., & Thurber, A. (2021). Teaching race and racial justice: A case study of one university. Teaching & Learning Inquiry, 9(1), 117-137. DOI: https://doi.org/10.20343/teachlearninqu.9.1.10
Breiseth, L. (n.d.). Getting to know your ELLs: Six steps for success. Colorín Colorado.https://www.colorincolorado.org/article/getting-know-your-ells-six-steps-success
Colecooldude. (2022, February 20). Courtney Small Francis - Refugee mental health empathy [Video]. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VHsPTJ5q7As
Deci, E. L., & Ryan, R. M. (Eds.). (2002). Handbook of self-determination research. University of Rochester Press.
Teaching First Year Students (n.d.). Vanderbilt University Center for Teaching. Retrieved from https://cft.vanderbilt.edu/guides-sub-pages/firstyears/
Glick, Ron, with Joleaud, Bruce & Messerer, Jeff (2012) Curriculum Infusion of Real Life Issues Handbook. http://www.cirli.org/cirli-handbook.html
TESOL International Association. (2019). Standards for Initial TESOL Pre-K-12 Teacher Preparation Programs. Retrieved from https://tinyurl.com/tesol-prep-standards