Exploring the Pedagogical Power of a Writing Workshop with Living Hyphen

Writing has become a hot topic for Ontario educators, with the new language curriculum emphasizing the importance of explicitly teaching specific language conventions to boost the written communication skills of students.

What I fear that has been lost in the race toward implementing structured literacy is the joy that comes with writing creatively. While it is undeniably important to know morphology, complex sentences, conjunctions, and all the different conventions of writing, what has always “hooked” me and many students I have taught is the ways in which we can use writing for artistic self expression.

The team of ESL/ELD educators I work with decided to plan a writing project that would explore the possibilities written expression across languages. Funded by the Council of Ontario Directors of Education (CODE), we selected several classes across the board to participate in a learning cycle that would culminate in an exhibition of student work. For the purpose of gauging impact and effect, we chose middle school classes from French Immersion, mainstream, and English language learner contexts. One group was exclusively students in English language development programs, meaning that they had significant interruptions to their formal schooling.

A group of students sculpt clay.
Students created sculptures to express ideas about identity.

Learning and Working with Living Hyphen

To lead the workshops, we brought in Living Hyphen, a Toronto-based arts organization dedicated to empowering the voices of diverse communities through writing. Living Hyphen’s website is an exciting place, filled with dates of upcoming sessions and opportunities to purchase their books and magazines.

I first learned about Living Hyphen with the provincial group of educators I work with in the field of language acquisition,  ESL/ELD Resource Group of Ontario (ERGO). At a meeting last year, Justine Abigail Yu, the founder, delivered a presentation and writing workshop on supporting multilingual students in sharing their own lived experiences through creative writing.

We invited her to lead workshops for a project we wanted to organize for several classes in my board. In her relaxed, engaging, and unique workshops, students explored multiple writing prompts that brought out the nuances of their home language, the complexity of their identities, and their personal connections with place.

Some of the writing prompts included:

Tell me where you’re from without telling me where you’re from.

What brings you comfort?

While these prompts seem simple, they were powerful ways to get kids writing. I was actually surprised how engaged kids could be with just a pen and a notebook – a radical shift from the world of technological tools, graphic organizers, and multi-step activities we often work so hard to plan for classes.

Perhaps most importantly, students were excited to write and engaged with the work. While it does always help to have someone new in your classroom, Justine brought her skills of relationship building and her unique perspective as a writer and activist to motivate students toward producing amazing ideas to build upon later.

And yes, every student in the class could participate and find their entry point into the writing. Of course, you may need to provide scaffolds for students – translators, scribing, and additional prompting – but by the end every student produced something new.

By the end of the workshop, students had a notebook full of brainstorms and ideas they could evolve into longer, polished pieces.

After the Workshop

When the workshops were finished, we were tasked with the very “teacherly” task of motivating students to develop their brainstorms into a polished piece of written work and a piece of art. To add a sense of purpose, we decided to create an anthology of student writing just as Living Hyphen had done with their writers.

We also teamed up with our Empowering Modern Learners team, who went to each class and provided a workshop on how to use different tech tools to create video and digital art to compliment their writing. Students were excited to learn about the features of Adobe Express: students can easily make narrated videos with their slides.

Finally, we brought in a variety of art supplies for students to experiment with. Students created paintings and sculptures to display alongside their poems.

The final and most exciting step is to take the students to the Peel Archive and Museum of Art to exhibit their work to their families. There is an existing exhibit that parallels the student’s work, done by adults, so we will be contributing art and work across generations.

Bringing Culturally Responsive Learning Outdoors: Part 2

In part one of my post, I talked about the importance of breaking from narratives about the outdoors that do not serve the communities we teach. What are some next steps we can take toward helping students feel a sense of belonging in the Canadian outdoors?

We can start by reimagining outdoor learning from a stance of cultural responsiveness.

In her book, Culturally Responsive Teaching and the Brain, Zaretta Hammond provides an anti-oppressive and anti-racist framework for teaching culturally and linguistically diverse learners. While I will even attempt to summarize her entire work, I want to draw your attention to a few key ideas that will help us make our final learning goal actionable.

Based on Hammond’s framework for culturally responsive teaching, here are 6 approaches we can use as outdoor educators to support student well being.

A graphic of a tree that explains different elements of culturally responsive approaches to outdoor learning, such as leveraging representation, recognizing the difference between individualism and collectivism, positionality, and creating supportive, trauma-informed learning spaces.
Culturally Responsive Approaches to Outdoor Learning, inspired by Zaretta Hammond’s Culturally Responsive Teaching and the Brain.

1. Know and Own your Privilege

To assume a culturally responsive stance, it is important to be aware of your own social position in the outdoors. Explore the following questions:

What is your relationship with the land you inhabit?

What is your proximity to power?

How might you use your understanding of your intersected identities to rethink the way you plan and program for learners?

You can use tools like the Wheel of Power and Privilege to reflect on your social position so you can be better prepared to practice compassion and listen openly to others, especially the students you work with.

2. Leverage Representation to reduce social and emotional stress

Studies over the last 20 years indicate that historically, racialized and marginalized groups are underrepresented in the outdoors. As a kid, I remember reading the popular story of outdoor survival, Hatchet, and then still seeing it taught in schools as a much older educator. Does anyone here know that book? It’s absolutely riveting – but there are lots of other great choices to offer students in today’s increasingly diverse publishing world.

Representation matters, and when students see and hear stories where they can see themselves and their community in an authentic way, the impact is powerful. And I want to take a moment to emphasize the importance of authenticity, because there are many books that will tell the same stories but simply change the colour of the character’s skin, especially in picture books.

The publishing industry, like many other media platforms, have started to diversify its cent. As someone who has rarely ever seen people that look like me show up in books and media, I can personally attest that the shift in representation has been exciting and identity affirming.

3. Recognize the difference between individualism & collectivism and how they show up in different activities.

Let’s move on to the next culturally responsive approach, which is to recognize the difference between individualism and collectivism, and how they show up in different activities.

Individualism is typically associated with Western societies that value traits like independence, competition, and achievement without any outside help. Many cultures outside of Canada are more oriented toward collectivism, which is associated with interdependence and community.

We don’t always realize it, but the games we play and the activities we plan often reflect deep cultural values. Many outdoor activities celebrate and explore individualism, conquest, aggression and competition – which may not be valued by all communities. As a result, some students may experience a lot of discomfort when engaging in such activities.

For a more culturally responsive approach, incorporate outdoor activities that encourage community building, self-reflection, and personal wellness. Providing different options for kids to choose from can go a long way in fostering a connection between your students and the natural world.

4. Broaden your understanding of how different communities interact with the outdoors.

This brings me to the next approach, which is to broaden your understanding of how different communities interact with outdoor spaces.

It is a powerful practice to honour the different ways students and their families already engage with the outdoors as a foundation for learning.

People from different cultures bring different knowledge about the outdoors and the environment. As an educator, it is totally worthwhile to talk with students about what they do with their families outside, what types of clothing they wear in different conditions, and how their communities connect with and interpret nature.

They may camp, play sports, visit the beach, picnic, play music, or gather in large groups. Some communities may cope with environmental challenges differently, especially if they have arrived from a climate that is significantly different from Canada’s.

It is important to understand these differences so we can better respond to student needs and help them to feel more confident in challenging physical environments. Talking about nature in this way also builds cultural competence, and positions students as partners in learning with educators.

5. Make instructions, activities, & information comprehensible and relevant to students and families.

Next, let’s talk about the importance of making instructions, activities, and information comprehensible and relevant to students and families. As a teacher of multilingual learners, I cannot stress enough how important it is to bridge communication gaps between the school and home. In an outdoor learning context, where there is often an element of risk, maintaining clear communication is critical.

In my school board, more than half the learners are multilingual and in the process of acquiring proficiency in English. They often have families that are also learning the dominant languages in Canada. It is becoming increasingly commonplace for students to arrive with limited and interrupted schooling due to environmental events and political crises.

When we are engaging in land based and outdoor activities, it is important to know linguistic variability among students so you can provide appropriate scaffolding to make the learning, information, and instructions comprehensible.

Create a supported environment by pairing or connecting same language speakers during lessons, adjusting the pace of your speaking, or by using physical gestures to help students understand whatever activity you are engaging in.

Communicating with families about outdoor learning in the school in the languages spoken throughout the community may also help families feel more secure and confident when field trips and offsite learning is being offered. They will also know more about the role of outdoor learning in their child’s education.

6. Create supportive, trauma-informed environments that cultivate a desire to explore, play, take risks, and experience awe.

Finally, I want to talk about the last approach: create supportive, trauma-informed environments that cultivate a desire to explore, take risks, and experience awe.

Newcomers to Canada and marginalized communities often experience economic and physical barriers to outdoor spaces and may not come with the same background experiences as their peers. Though outdoor learning challenges that involve risky play are excellent ways for students to build confidence and problem solving skills, it is important to understand that some students may approach the activity much differently based on their lived experience and background knowledge.  Challenge and support students based on their level of safety and comfort.

Take into consideration that some students may have complex relationships with recreation and play. This is something I struggle with personally as a child of immigrants. My parents worked a lot, especially during time of economic uncertainty, and play and relaxation was something I believed needed to be “earned” or “worked for”.

In her book “Permission to Come Home” – which I recommend for any of my East and Southeast Asian colleagues here today – Psychologist Dr. Jenny T. Wang writes about the difficulty many communities have accessing play as a result of learning in childhood that play must be postponed for survival. As educators we can use this awareness to support students in finding their way to play so they can experience its gifts: rest, joy, creativity, and the freedom to explore and experience awe in nature.

Finally, with any activity, know your learner, especially if they have experienced recent or significant trauma that may impact the way they show up in the outdoor learning environment. Leverage nature as a resource for practicing activities that reduce anxiety or provide an outlet for releasing difficult emotions, such as meditation or other sensory activities.

Experiencing Outdoor Learning at Take Me Outside 2024 Conference

Finding your place as an outdoor educator can be a challenge at first. You may not immediately see the connections between the outdoors and the subjects you teach. You may also be curious about which pedagogical frameworks and approaches will make sense for your classroom.

This is where an organization like Take Me Outside can make a critical difference. Take Me Outside (TMO) is a Canadian education organization dedicated to getting students and educators engaged with outdoor learning. What is wonderful about TMO is the various events, professional learning sessions, and materials it offers educators in a variety of contexts.

I highly recommend any and every educator to explore TMO’s website to see the full range of resources and activities they have organized for educators. The work is inspiring and fulsome.

I had the unique opportunity of joining TMO for their annual conference this year. Jade, a team member with boundless energy and passion for outdoor learning, invited me to present on the topic of student well-being at the conference months before the event took place. She had found a blog post that a colleague and I had co-authored about inclusion and belonging in the outdoors, and was interested in having us share our work.

To be honest, I was surprised and a little intimidated by the offer: as someone that doesn’t actually work in an outdoor education department or taken their outdoor education additional qualification course, I felt a bit underprepared. And against all of my rational thoughts – I agreed.

What I did not expect was the journey of learning I would undertake to write the presentation. And I certainly did not imagine how transformative a conference could be when I arrived.

The Journey

Presenting and facilitating professional learning isn’t something new for me, but researching and writing an entire presentation for hundreds – in an area I felt like I had very little expertise – is a whole new ballgame. I listened to countless audiobooks about the outdoors, read academic papers and reports, took a wellness course, and even signed up for an Outdoor Learning AQ (which I ended up dropping when I realized it was not actually meeting my needs). Imposter syndrome was in full effect, and I used every opportunity to connect my learning to this conference presentation.

One surprise I had along the way was how much I enjoyed the process of preparation. I learned things so seemingly unrelated from my regular sandbox of English literacy and language learning, which was motivating and exciting. The personal wellness course I took with an incredible Toronto studio, SAOR, introduced me to a whole body of knowledge. Eventually, all the learning and reading started to intersect with my day-to-day work.

I re-wrote and re-published our original blog, presented at my board’s early years conference, and continued experimenting with different ideas in my writing. What started as a gracious invitation to share ideas turned into a full blown passion project that changed the trajectory of my professional growth.

a clothesline contains clothespins with different letters that correspond to cards that are clipped to the clothesline.
So many amazing presenters sharing the way they take learning outdoors, especially in the area of literacy.

The Conference

The Take Me Outside Conference exceeded my expectations. The event took place at the spectacular Banff Centre in Alberta, nestled high in the mountains with unreal views, access to trails, and wonderful food. I took full advantage of my local’s professional learning pathways to get the release time for the event.

Outdoor educators are among the friendliest, open-minded, and joyful group of people you will meet. While I ended up attending the conference on my own, I had no problem making new friends and connecting with other educators across the country.

The learning was as inspiring as the scenery that surrounded the conference centre. Workshops on the pillars of well-being, the environment and climate change, and Indigenous learning took place outdoors in the forests and seemingly unrelenting sunshine we were met with that entire week.

I learned the story and thinking behind Elder Albert Marshall and Louise Zimanyi’s wondrous picture book, “Walking Together”. Dr. Chuk Odenigbe gave a deeply insightful and beautiful talk on the issues of environmental racism, and nature as place of therapy and despair.

As one of the final presenters, there was an element of excitement and anxiety that accompanied me over the days of the conference. I fussed over my presentation, rehearsed, and took long walks. By the time I was up – I realized I had absolutely nothing to worry about. I was in front of one of the most warm, welcoming, and supportive groups of professionals I think I will ever meet. I had so many kind words of encouragement from my new friends, and hundreds of smiles from my fellow educators. We talked about the importance of holding space for each other and the students we teach, and how cultural responsiveness can be a starting point for fostering connections between diverse students and the outdoors.

hundreds of people gather in a circle at the base of a mountain. The sky overhead is cloudy.
A glorious closing drum circle at the end of the conference.

The Aftermath

I left the conference with so many feelings of excitement, connectedness, and insights about learning from the land. I have new goals for my teaching practice, and a whole new perspective on what it takes to build educator capacity on critical topics related to land based learning and play. I feel like I am right at the beginning.

Bringing Culturally Responsive Learning Outdoors: Part 1

When we think of culturally responsive teaching, outdoor learning may not be the first area that comes to mind. How do you connect nature with culture and student identity? The answer is not straightforward. However, making nature relevant to students from culturally diverse communities is important, especially when we consider the importance of environmental stewardship and the historical underrepresentation of diverse communities in outdoor culture.

Spending time outdoors is one of the most high-impact, easy, and cost-efficient ways we can support the well being of all students. Outdoor play lowers anxiety, enables students to explore difficult emotions, experience awe and wonder, and disconnect from digital spaces.

It is important to keep in mind that culturally and linguistically diverse students may interpret and engage with the outdoors in ways that do not reflect what we see in dominant, Western representations of outdoor culture. One of the most interesting discrepancies I have noticed between typical Westernized representations of the outdoors and my own lived experiences is the ideal of the “empty wilderness”.


Many Canadians are fascinated with the idea of an empty, unexplored wilderness.

Many representations of the outdoors reflect an aesthetic of stillness and solitude: the empty dock, the barren mountainside, or the endless fields. Indeed, I have personally taken such photos, adjusting the camera so that I or the subject of my photos appear alone.

While I think this type of image taking is largely done to avoid having background distractions in the photo, I can’t help but connect it to the Canadian fascination with solitude in the outdoors, rooted in the romanticized concept of the explorer: Europeans who arrived in Canada and “discovered” a wealth of land and natural resources to exploit. Of course, we know that Turtle Island was far from being uninhabited – and we are just starting to see and hear Indigenous perspectives in our educational landscape – but I believe this reverence for emptied out natural spaces is tied to this piece of history.

Exploring Incongruent Experiences of the Outdoors

The dissonance between the way we idealize nature from a Western perspective and the ways different communities actually engage with nature becomes clear to me every spring when the trees start to blossom.

I’m very fortunate to live near High Park in Toronto, and I try to visit the park when its famous cherry blossoms are in full bloom. Droves of people across the city do as well, and as a result, the park is filled with crowds of people of all backgrounds taking photos and gazing into the beautiful pink canopy that forms in different areas throughout the park.

Nature is often filled with people and crowds – but we don’t often celebrate this when we think about how we experience the outdoors.

This year when I visited I noticed that the crowds were largely people of East, Southeast, and South Asian descent. I could hear so many different languages, but perhaps what was most amazing was the sound of joy and excitement at seeing the blossoms.

It occurred to me how amazing and wonderful it was to be in the masses of people enjoying something special in nature. I also wondered why we stay so fixated on this concept of nature as a lonely and empty place. I caught myself trying to capture photos of my family as though they were in an empty space, realizing how futile and pointless it was, and also questioning my own impulse to have a photo that did not reflect the environment I was actually in.

As wonderful as it is to see so many people outdoors enjoying the park, there always seems to be negative sentiments about the Cherry Blossom crowds. Perhaps unsurprisingly, complaints about traffic and the selfie-snapping crowds start to resound in online comments or conversations in the community. To be perfectly clear, I too have made some complaints as a resident who despises sitting in traffic while cars line up to get to the park. But I notice much darker sentiments of anger and irritation pervade comment threads about High Park and other popular places to visit, such as Niagara Falls or “cottage country” in the summer.

I remember reading a news post about Niagara Falls on social media a few years back and reading complaint after complaint in the comments about the high proportion of South Asian visitors who were picnicking instead of “supporting the local business.” Racism and xenophobia similarly echo in complaints about large, culturally and linguistically diverse groups that flock to beaches to enjoy the summer weather.

Why do so many people detest seeing others enjoy nature? Is it part of the collective fascination for an empty “wilderness”? Racism and xenophobia? A mix of both?

Connecting Back to Outdoor Learning

For me, outdoor time has always been strongly connected to being in large groups, being part of large potluck gatherings with family, sharing a cottage rental, or joining droves of tourists that gravitate toward an awe-inspiring sight like Cherry Blossoms. These are activities that, at least in my view, are rather broad in appeal to most people in Canada. I find it upsetting when certain groups are stigmatized for enjoying the outdoors in this way. And I can’t help but feel a tinge of shame and self-consciousness when I am part of a group of “too many” or “so many” Asians.

These feelings of being “othered” in outdoor spaces can be difficult to talk about, but I think it is important to name them because internalization of colonial values have such detrimental impacts on mental well-being, especially for those of us who grow up in Canada learning colonizer mythologies. As culturally responsive educators, we especially need to be mindful of when we may be sharing such narratives to students.

In part 2 of this blog, I will present a framework of cultural responsiveness we can use to start breaking away from harmful and inaccurate historical narratives.

Policy Based Program Adaptations for ELLs in FSL Programs

French programming for newcomer English language learners, or ELLs, is an area of professional learning that does not get as much attention as areas like mathematics or language arts. On the surface, it seems obvious – shouldn’t French language acquisition for newcomers be similar to that of their Canadian born peers?

The answer, of course, is far from simple. First of all, newcomer ELLs are not a monolithic group. Some ELLs will come with knowledge of the Latin alphabet, others will come with limited literacy skills in their home language, and others may be experiencing a silent phase as they adjust to learning two new languages. Many ELLs will adjust to French learning with little difficulty, and some may even pursue French learning for years to come.

Complicating the issue further are the different perspectives that educators have about teaching French to students who are also learning English. However, it is important to note that elementary ELLs should not be exempt from learning French from both a policy and equity perspective. French instruction is for all students, and if we exclude or discourage students from French learning we bar access to an important part of the curriculum.

In my last blog post on ELLs in FSL programs, I discussed the different perspectives that educators may have about students that are learning French at the same time as they are learning English. In this post, we will delve into the practical side of things. Exactly how can French teachers adapt programming for ELLs?

Get to Know Your Newcomer Students

To program effectively for ELLs it’s important to know what backgrounds they bring to the classroom. Here are a few questions you will want answered:

Is the student receiving ESL or ELD program adaptations? When a student is receiving English Literacy Development, or ELD programming, it means they have two or more years of interrupted formal schooling. Students in ELD programs will be building their foundational literacy and numeracy skills, and may require extensive scaffolding in language and literacy activities.

What is the student’s home language, or L1? This is an important question because the student may still be familiarizing themselves with the Latin alphabet, which is used in English and French.

What is the student’s position on the Steps to English Proficiency Continua (STEP)? STEP is the tool used by Ontario educators to understand the student’s language acquisition progress in English. Knowing exactly where the student is in their English language proficiency is important, especially if the educator is using English as a scaffold to teach French.

Modifying Learning Expectations from a Policy Perspective

When newcomer ELLs are in the early steps of language acquisition in English (ex. pre-STEP 1-STEP 2), they may receive modifications to the grade level curriculum to meet their needs. In French, modifications may also be made, particularly when students are in the intermediate grades.

As the Ontario Curriculum, French as a Second Language states:

“For students in the early stages of language acquisition, teachers may need to modify the curriculum expectations in some or all curriculum areas. For example, if an English language learner begins the study of French in Grade 7, it may be desirable to modify the expectations to meet the student’s level of readiness and needs. Most English language learners require accommodations for an extended period, long after they have achieved proficiency in everyday English.”

It is important to note that ESL/ELD curriculum modifications typically involve adjustments to the depth and breadth of the grade level curriculum expectation. To make French instruction equitable, and to set clear learning goals for newcomer multilingual students it is critical to understand and apply modifications when needed for the student to be successful.

Another great benefit to applying modifications properly is that it takes a lot of stress away from the workflow of the educator. All too often, I find that teachers are concerned and sometimes overwhelmed by the idea that they are tasked by teaching students with emerging language proficiency in English. Having clear goals for French language output and assessment brings clarity to how they can plan and program for the student.

How to Modify French Learning Expectations

So what exactly does a modified French learning expectation look for an emergent speaker of English?

There are a couple of tools French teachers can utilize to modify French learning goals. The first tool is the STEP Continua, which is used by educators of ELLs in Ontario to understand the student’s level of English language proficiency. Pre STEP 1 to STEP 3, or the early phase of language acquisition, is typically when students are acquiring everyday, interpersonal language skills. It is in this phase of language learning that curriculum modifications are most often made.

The second tool a French teacher might consider using is the CEFR, or the Common European Framework of Reference for Language. This tool is widely used by additional language educators in Ontario and around the world to understand the student’s level of target language proficiency. Pre A1-B1 are considered early levels of language acquisition.

Both tools are language acquisition continua that can be used as an assessment for learning tool to identify what entry points a student might have into the curriculum. Teachers can use the descriptors of language behaviours to adapt learning goals for the student to support accessible programming and equitable assessment.

Let’s explore how we can use the STEP Continua for a grade 7 emergent speaker of English (pre-STEP 1) in a core French program. We will just focus on the ESL STEP Continua to align practice with other subject areas in the Ontario curriculum. Let’s start by looking at the original curriculum expectation:

C1.1 Using Reading Comprehension Strategies: identify a variety of reading comprehension strategies and use them before, during, and after reading to understand texts in modelled, shared, guided, and independent reading contexts.

Next, let’s look at the STEP Continua. (STEP 1 grades 7-8, Reading)

Demonstrate understanding by responding to a highly visual text, using a combination of visuals, drawings, L1, pretaught vocabulary and gestures

Read and follow simply worded instructions with visual support

Use concepts of English print (e.g., directionality of print, English alphabet, sound/symbol patterns, and upper and lower case letters)

We can tell by this descriptor that the student would require a significant amount of scaffolds when reading at this very early step of language acquisition. This might include the option to use the home language to support comprehension, and simplified and highly visual texts.

A modification of the French expectation might be:

Identify and use reading comprehension strategies, such as translanguaging, visual cues, and using pretaught vocabulary to read teacher and student selected French language texts.

Assessment and Reporting

As per Growing Success and the Ontario FSL curriculum, when assessing ELLs in French, teachers should use the modified French curriculum expectations. When the student is being assessed according to modified learning expectations, the “ESL/ELD Box” would be checked on the provincial report card. As the Ontario FSL curriculum states,

When curriculum expectations are modified in order to meet the language-learning needs of English language learners, assessment and evaluation will be based on the documented modified expectations. Teachers will check the ESL/ELD box on the progress report card and the provincial report card only when modifications have been made to curriculum expectations to address the language needs of English language learners (the box should not be checked to indicate simply that they are participating in ESL/ELD programs or if they are only receiving accommodations).

Summing it Up

Part of making French language instruction equitable and inclusive is providing ELLs with an appropriately adapted program based on the curriculum and tools like the STEP continua. Knowing how to adapt program according to policy will ensure that the language instruction is intentional and grounded in learning expectations that provide an entry point into the French curriculum for the student.

Understanding Attitudes Toward English Language Learners in French Classrooms

As an specialist teacher English language learners (ELLs), I often hear a lot of comments and questions about newcomer students who are learning French for the first time – especially in grades 6-8.

Many teachers think that ELLs should be using that time to learn English, or that the students have already missed too much French instruction for them to be successful in their grade level. There also exists a belief that French learning for older elementary students is pointless, especially in grade 8: why should ELLs learn French if they can opt out of the course in grade 9?

Such comments and perspectives may negatively impact newcomer students on their French learning journeys. I remember arriving in a grade 8 classroom as a newcomer from the United States, and taking French for the first time.

While I wasn’t an English language learner, I found it nearly impossible to follow the class. Grade 9 French was so incomprehensible to me: I recall barely passing and doing the bare minimum to get the credit. While it’s hard to recall all the details of French class in grade 8, I do recall plunging into French work and lessons without any program adaptation different from my peers.

By contrast, welcoming newcomer students in French can lead to radically different outcomes, such as a deep and long-lasting interest in French language learning. I have a colleague who was a newcomer ELL to Canada in the intermediate grades, and she enjoyed French so much she went on to become a French teacher. I have also taught newcomer ELLs that excelled in French; one student even won a French language speaking competitions against his French Immersion peers.

Understanding why some newcomer ELLs excel in French and others do not can be complicated. Recently, I informally asked groups of multilingual learners how they felt about French class. Some students shared that they loved learning languages and trying out new French words, while others found French to be confusing and frustrating.

Let’s take a closer look at some research covering educator perspectives about French language learning. In part 2 of this blog, we will then consider how we can reframe French learning for ELLs to make it more inclusive and accessible.

Teacher Attitudes Toward ELLs in French Language Programs

A 2018 study on novice teacher attitudes toward exemption and exclusion from FSL programs in Canada provides interesting insight on why French teachers may think some students are better suited for French language instruction than others.

In this study, Katy Arnett and Callie Mady explore pervasive beliefs around FSL programs, including the perception that FSL study is for “academically elite” students in need of enrichment. Their research revealed an array of commonly held educator perspectives about ELLs: that French instruction was an “unnecessary burden” for ELLs who arrived in Canada at an advanced age, and that there was a need for ELLs to  “focus on English.”

Arnett and Mady’s research strongly indicate that FSL educators support the idea of exemption from French learning when there is a concern for the emotional well-being of the student, concern for grade-level achievement in English, and limited supports are offered. As one French Immersion teacher stated, “if it’s too much of a challenge and the student experiences a lack of self-confidence and it becomes to be like a barrier or like a psychological barrier for the student, then I think it will be better for him to go be in the English program. (Agnès, Year 3)” In the specific context of ELLs, the rationale for exemption typically centred on concerns about the student “navigating too much language learning, experiencing minimal success, and/or having additional challenges such as learning difficulties”.

What does Research and Policy say About ELLs in FSL Programs?

The Ministry of Education published a well-written (though often overlooked document) in 2016 called “Welcoming English Language Learners into French as a Second Language Programs. The document shares research about ELLs in FSL programs, pointing out how multilingual learners are uniquely positioned to be successful in French classrooms.

According to the document, “English language learners do as well as, or outperform, English-speaking students in FSL”, and are often more motivated to learn French than their English speaking Canadian born peers. And yet, studies in Ontario show that newcomers were often excluded from enrolling in FSL classes in secondary school.

The document also states that French educators are well suited to teach ELLs, since they are highly familiar with language acquisition processes. Language acquisition is a process that is relatively similar across different languages, with beginner learners typically starting their journey by acquiring vocabulary through oral communication practice. Because most students in English speaking schools would be relatively new to French, the pedagogy used in an FSL classroom is extremely adaptable for emergent English speakers.

Perhaps most importantly, the ministry document emphasizes that French instruction is for all students. When ELLs feel that they do not belong in a French classroom, or are excluded from French learning, a barrier is created between the student and what should be a highly accessible learning pathway. In other words, equity is at stake when ELLs are discouraged from French.

Reflecting on the Research

Having worked in ESL/ELD support for many years, these perspectives are rather familiar to me. I have no doubt that educators are trying to do what they feel is best for the student. It is also worth noting that in most schools French speaking or FSL qualified support teachers are the exception rather than the rule.

I think it is also worth noting that educators generally don’t consider exemptions from any other subject, which makes me wonder why we view French so differently from other subjects like Social Studies, Art, or Physical Education. As Arnett and Mady suggest, such perspectives may be grounded in a “monolingual bias supported by the English dominant Canadian context in which language learning apart from English is viewed as a luxury rather than commonplace”. In other words, it may be useful to challenge the assumption that French is learning pursuit designed solely for English speakers that already experience success in schools.

In my own conversations with other educators, I have found that what helps are practical strategies for teaching ELLs and examples of program modifications for emergent language speakers. In part 2 of this blog, we will take a deeper dive into what such program adaptations might look like.


Transforming FSL:



Using Foundational Literacy Resources with students in ELD Programs

It is no secret that the new Language curriculum in Ontario places a strong focus on the development of foundational literacy skills. In response to the new curriculum and the Right to Read report, elementary schools across Ontario have been engaged in utilizing resources, such as the University of Florida Literacy Institute (UFLI) Foundations, that focus on the explicit development of decoding skills. These resources work by teaching students the different letters and letter combinations that make different sounds in English. In most cases, they would be used from grades 1-3, when children are in the throes of learning how to read.

Given the effectiveness of such resources, many educators of multilingual learners have started to use the same strategies as part of ELD (English Literacy Development) programs. Students that receive ELD program adaptations have 2 or more years of interrupted schooling for reasons such as crisis or political conflict. Because many students in ELD programs have not had the opportunity to develop literacy skills in their home language, resources that teach decoding would seem to be ideal.

But are such resources appropriate for emergent speakers of English in ELD programs? Aren’t they primarily designed for students that already speak English?

Like so many other things in life, the only way to find the answer is to experiment, explore, and of course make mistakes along the way. I was pleased to discover with so many colleagues in different schools that teaching foundational decoding skills to students in ELD programs does work – but it is important to keep some important factors in mind.

Here are some key takeaways I have gathered from using foundational literacy resources to teach students in ELD programs.

Provide Opportunities for Newcomer Students to Build an Oral Foundation in English

If you are using decoding resources with newcomer students in ELD programs, be mindful of the cognitive load they have of learning to read in English while also learning the language. Decoding resources focus on sound and letter combinations, not communication and comprehension.  A lot of resources that teach decoding skills presume that the student is already familiar with the sounds and words of English.

Newcomer students are still in the process of building their speaking and listening skills in English, and need time to orient themselves in their new learning environment and develop social communication skills through play and interaction with other students. They should have exposure to the sounds of English and opportunities to build an oral foundation at the same time, if not before, they start learning English sounds and alphabetic code.

Adjust the Pace of Instruction as Needed

When working through a program like UFLI Foundations it can be tempting to move quickly to stay within the suggested time frames. With ELLs, you will want to be flexible and provide additional time for students to build vocabulary as they experiment with reading new words. Have a laptop or tablet with search engine at the ready for a quick visual dictionary. Ask students if there are words they do not know yet, and take the time to show them the meaning and practice using them in sentences. Again, be mindful of how different the cognitive load will be for early speakers of English, and stop the lesson early if it seems appropriate.

Use Decodables Strategically

When you use decodable books with ELLs, be sure to use ones that are illustrated for meaning-making. Some decodables on the internet are text only, which limits opportunities for vocabulary acquisition. The experience of reading even a decodable text can also be brought to life when the content reflects information or experiences that are familiar to newcomer students. I read a decodable with a newcomer student in an ELD program recently and she was excited to see pictures of seagulls. It turned out that when she first moved to Canada she went to Lake Simcoe with her family and watched seagulls at the beach. Connecting that experience to the book made the reading much more enjoyable and meaningful for her.

Leverage Your Students’ Oral Foundation in the First Language

Like any other language, English may have sounds that do not exist in others. English also has sounds that can be heard in other languages. For example, Spanish speakers have a rolling “r” sound that is not used in English, but both languages have a “d” sound. When practicing phonemes with newcomer multilingual learners, check to see if the same sound exists in their home language by asking the student or checking a resource like mylanguages.org. Some students may need additional practice saying sounds that are new to them.

Literacy is Empowering at Any Age

Many students in ELD programs tend to be older students (grade 3 and up). Students in the intermediate grades can feel self-conscious reading books that are designed for much younger learners, or learning concepts they perceive to be inappropriate for their age. A tutorial (one-to-one) or small group support model is much more conducive to teaching foundational literacy skills to older students. Furthermore, there are some publishers like Saddleback that have decodable texts that are designed for older learners. If you do not have these books at your school, consider using decodable texts with a non-fiction theme.

In my board we have many success stories of intermediate aged students in ELD programs learning decoding skills that have shared how impactful the instruction has been. These students similarly express the joy and excitement of being able to read a word “without looking at the pictures,” or feeling confident about spelling.

Summing it Up

Teaching English decoding skills through foundational literacy programs is a powerful way to accelerate learning for students in ELD programs. However, it is important to be flexible in your approach and to understand that their learning experience will be significantly different from their peers.

Finally, always keep in mind that students, particularly those in ELD programs, bring a variety of background experiences before entering the classroom. Newcomer students that have experienced separation, political conflict, extraordinary stress, and other traumatic situations may need to focus on other areas of orientation and development to be available for learning. Be in touch with settlement workers and staff that can help connect students to resources to support their social and emotional needs.

Exploring the Language Experience Approach with Sentence Strips

Program adaptation for emergent speakers of English in the elementary grades has a lot of challenges. Educators have to adapt their classroom programming to make content comprehensible, set appropriate goals for language output, while also providing opportunities for the student to learn English.

This is where the Language Experience Approach, or LEA, comes in. LEA will not be a new strategy to many experienced teachers – it has been practiced for years in classrooms. It is a fantastic strategy for teaching literacy skills to English language learners (ELLs). Though you can find explanations all over the internet, Denise Nessel and Carol Dixon’s 2008 book “Using the Language Experience Approach with English Language Learners” remains a quintessential resource on the subject.

LEA combines experiential learning, oral communication, writing, and reading skills in fairly straightforward and textbook-free lessons. While many iterations of LEA exist, the central principle, as the Nessel and Dixon state, is to use the “student’s own vocabulary, language patterns, and background of experiences to create reading texts”.

At the core of LEA is building English vocabulary (or any target language you are teaching) through experiential learning. Through experiences, students naturally start connecting the words they hear with meaning. The experience can be something as simple as a classroom activity; as an educator, your role is to enrich that experience by explicitly teaching related words and their meaning.

For example, you might label items in the classroom, while also making a point of referencing those words during the day. When giving instructions to to students, explain the meaning of the action words as much as possible through movement and facial expression. The early learners of English in the classroom might receive flashcards with frequently used nouns, and be provided with opportunities to say those words in simple statements with common word patterns that have been modelled by the teacher.

There are a number of ways you can utilize LEA, but in this blog, I will focus on using LEA using sentence strips. This would be a great way to provide focused instruction to ELLs while other students are engaged in their own writing or drawing.

The Process

Start using LEA by taking students through an experience – it can be a day outdoors, an afternoon of playing games, or even exploring a picture or video if that is what you have done. The activity that follows is best used with ELLs that have acquired a basic oral foundation and can communicate using simple sentences (Ex. STEP 2).

When the experience is over, there are a number of different starting points you can work from. For early learners of English or primary students, you can start by having the class illustrate what they have experienced, whether it was playing a game or visiting a zoo. Students that are already writing sentences may choose to write about their drawing if they feel comfortable doing so.

While the class is drawing, start with one student and ask them to say a sentence about the experience or what they have drawn. Scribe the sentence exactly as the student says it. It’s important to use the student’s exact language so they will recognize their words when they reread their own writing, and they will also feel encouraged in creating dictated accounts.

If you want to gently encourage a revision, you might ask questions to help the student adapt their statement on their own. But you will want to make sure that the student has stated the words you scribe – avoid changing the text or they may not recognize the vocabulary or language pattern.

For example:

Teacher: What happened during the basketball game? Tell me one thing.

Student: I got a basket and scored a point.

Teacher: Oh, so you shot the ball in the basket and scored a point?

Student: Yeah, I shot the ball in the basket and scored a point.

Teacher: How should I write that down?

Student: I shot the ball in the basket and scored a point.

Teacher: (writes the sentence exactly as the student has said it).

Once you have scribed the student’s sentence in their notebook or journal, take a long strip of paper and write the sentence on that strip using a marker. Cut each word on the strip.

Example of student work using sentence strips with LEA.

Then, ask the student to put the words back in the correct order using the sentence that has been scribed for them. Ask the student to read the sentence back to you. Repeat twice. Once the student has mastered the sentence, you can ask them to read the sentence to a friend or partner.

Then, you can move onto the next student! You might use sentence strips again, or provide more advanced feedback to students who are already independently writing.

On Supporting English Language Acquisition in the Mainstream Classroom: Part 2

How do you support and program for newcomer students in acquiring English in the mainstream classroom?

This is a question many educators have when they receive newcomer English language learners (ELLs) in the classroom. In my last blog post, I wrote about why questions like these are so common. Elementary ESL programming documents detail the important role of accommodations and modifications to curriculum when planning for ELLs, but do not outline a scope and sequence of English language acquisition. Classroom teachers – particularly when they are teaching the older elementary grades – often wonder how they will teaching foundational English to the ELLs at the same time they teach non-English learners. While many younger elementary ELLs in the primary years thrive alongside their peers who are also learning letter sounds and vocabulary, older students sometimes struggle without opportunities to build their English oral foundations, as well as the right adjustments to make learning accessible.

Here are some strategies for teaching English to ELLs in the junior and intermediate classroom.

Start With STEP

The Steps to English Language Proficiency (STEP) continua/framework often gets overlooked as a tool for planning instruction and creating appropriate learning expectations for English language learners. Make sure you have regular access to the STEP placement of the ELLs in your classroom, so you can adapt instruction and modify learning expectations accordingly. For example, if a student is approaching STEP 1 or is at STEP 1, you will know that they are in the emergent phases of acquiring English. When you plan a lesson in Social Studies, for example, you will want to use that knowledge to develop learning activities that enable that student to engage in the learning: introducing vocabulary at the start of a lesson, or  using visuals to illustrate content (we will talk more about creating entry points into curriculum next).

Most importantly, you can use STEP to modify learning expectations that you can use for assessment and reporting purposes. Record the specific learning expectations you establish for English language learners in a doc or a template so you are ready when assessment time comes. An example of an ESL modified learning expectation might be:

Grade 7 History Expectation:

(Student will) “analyse some of the main challenges facing various individuals, groups, and/or communities, including First Nations, Métis, and Inuit individuals and/or communities, in Canada between 1713 and 1800 and ways in which people responded to those challenges.”

Modified for a student in STEP 1:

Student will describe a series of images, using picture word induction model and translanguaging, to describe some of the main challenges facing different communities, including First Nations, Métis, and Inuit, in Canada between 1713 and 1800.

Create Entry Points for ELLs into Curriculum Content

Teaching content based subjects, especially to older ELLs can be a challenge when much of the content the class is developed for students with higher levels of language proficiency. This is particularly true in subject areas like science, history or geography. Provide your ELLs an access point into whole class instruction by offering text sets, or sets of texts that  offer the same information through a variety of formats (articles, leveled texts, charts, visuals, or media). Students can explore text sets and gather information from them for research or to complete learning tasks. Multimodal content offerings are also effective: “something to read, something to watch, and something to listen to” is a good mantra to keep in mind. Finally, encouraging students to translanguage or access multilingual texts is an excellent way to support them in using their primary language while also meeting the content goals of a subject.

Set Social Learning Goals for Your Class

I have many opportunities to collaborate with experienced ESL teachers, and one fantastic tip one teacher told me was to introduce social learning goals with the entire class. Setting social goals for the entire class not only gives English learners an opportunity to use essential questions like “how are you?” or “how was your day?” regularly, but creates an opportunity for them to engage in basic conversation with their peers on a regular basis. Social goals may also include making a point of helping others, including a student who may feel left out, practicing cooperation skills, or using positive body language. Social goals also help students to build healthy relationships with one another, while learning important social skills as well.

Incorporate Language Scaffolds into the Learning Environment

All students, especially ELLs, benefit from language scaffolds and reference charts. Hang charts and posters of sentence starters/models, transition words, vocabulary lists, verb charts, pronouns, and labels on classroom items wherever possible for easy, at a glance support for students. Change your word walls or charts to reflect content learning, and make a point of frequently using the words and phrases you want to emphasize. Having opportunities to hear and apply new words and phrases are essential for language learning, so make a point of using words and phrases you have featured on a regular basis.

Use English Learning Apps and Games (With Caution!)

English apps and games are a tricky topic. On one hand, we want to focus on building English communication skills through live conversation, listening activities, and social interactions; on the other hand, apps can do the powerful job of introducing key vocabulary and phrases in a fun and engaging way.

If you do use language learning apps like Duolingo or Mondly in the classroom, make sure that the time students spend on them is limited (ex. 15 minutes a day). School can be a critical time for interacting and practicing spontaneous communication skills, so apps are usually best used in limited timeframes or at home.

Understand how to Use English Learning Resources Effectively

There is no shortage of ESL resources out there, as millions of people around the world are learning English all the time. However, you will find that many of these resources are not designed for a single student in a mainstream English medium classroom, but for classes entirely composed of English language learners. If you do use an ESL focused workbook or resource, use it flexibly and in the context of the broader programming all students are learning. Such resources may be used if the ELL has the opportunity to receive higher tier instruction and support in an alternative space, or at home with their families.

Keep the Big Picture in Mind

Finally, it is important to practice big picture thinking and remember that the learning and instruction newcomer ELLs experience in your class is just the start of a much bigger journey for them in Ontario schools. Furthermore, the journey of every language learner will be different. Acquiring proficiency and fluency in any language takes years of learning, immersion and practice. Set high but realistic learning expectations for  English learners, keeping in mind that the time they spend in your classroom is a critical step in a much longer pathway toward mastering the language.

Read Part 1: Supporting English Language Learners in the Mainstream Classroom

Understanding the Student Behaviour and the Power of Play with Hannah Beach

As an ESL/ELD resource teacher in my board, some of the best professional learning I get to do involves collaborating with educators in similar roles across the province through the ESL/ELD Resource Group of Ontario (ERGO). Recently, one of our members generously organized a two after school sessions with Canadian educator and consultant, Hannah Beach. She provided two sessions titled “The Power of Play” and “What’s Behind the Behaviour?”, each with a focus on multilingual learners.

Being an educator with a primary focus on ESL/ELD programming, I was immediately intrigued. It is no secret that schools in Ontario schools today face unique mental health challenges that have developed from a confluence of factors: pandemic lockdowns, rapidly changing technology, social media, and a seemingly constant barrage of world events with significant impacts on local communities. A recent article from People for Education shared that an astounding 91% of schools across Ontario report needing student mental health supports for COVID-19 recovery. A 2023 survey from ETFO indicated that violence in schools has become pervasive, with 77% of teachers sharing they had personally experienced violence or had witnessed violence against another staff member.

When it came to addressing the issue of increasingly challenging student behaviour in school, Beach’s sessions did not disappoint. She spoke about the detrimental impact of technology on the students build relationships with peers and teachers. She addressed the increasing disconnection kids have with the adults in their lives. She pointed out how the lack of spontaneous play have taken away opportunities for children to “digest” and process the world around them. In such a world, it is not uncommon for students to “bottle up” their emotions, and may be disrespectful, disruptive, or act aggressively as a means of coping. Multilingual students may experience an additional layer of frustration, especially as they grapple to express themselves to their peers and teachers.

Beach’s presentations resonated with me so strongly I purchased her book, “Reclaiming Our Students”, immediately. Published in 2020 and co-authored with Tamara Neufeld Strijack, Hannah Beach’s book is incredibly insightful and relevant for educators and families. Focusing on emotional health, safety, and inclusion from an educator perspective, providing strategies and scenarios that many teachers will likely find familiar.

Book cover of “Reclaiming Our Students” (2020).

Though I probably cannot come even close to summarizing the learning that emerged from those sessions and her book, I think Beach’s writing and insights are so valuable and critical right now. In many of the experiences I have had supporting schools over the last year, I have been perplexed by so many troubling incidents involving students: aggression toward teachers, peers, and even administrators; preoccupation with social media apps on smartphones; groups of students frequently leaving their classrooms to wander hallways.

While there is likely no panacea for all the issues that educators face every day, thinking critically about modern culture and the mental health of students is an excellent place to start. I am grateful I had the opportunity to listen to Hannah Beach’s presentations, and explore her writing as a starting point for myself.

If you have an opportunity to hear her speak in your board, or can get her book into your school’s professional library, I highly recommend it.