Powers of observation


The level-five ESL class, meeting at a community college in northern Illinois – the most advanced English-as-a-second-language class in the institution’s free ESL program for residents in a four-county district, stretching to the Wisconsin line – convenes on the second floor of the campus media center, overlooking the aging wooden rafters of a neighboring classroom building. The class meets four days per week, Monday to Thursday, from 9 a.m. to 12 noon. Six students seat themselves on the left-hand side of a 20′-x-30′ classroom. The room has been hybridized to contain twenty small flat-screen computer monitors. Students position themselves behind four rows of long black tables, arranged like so:


The right side of the classroom, which closely mirrors the left, was dormant for the two classes observed in early October 2017. (Notes on the observations followed a protocol designed in 2009 in the Department of Education and Professional Studies, King’s College, London. See Day et al. 2009.) The community-college instructor says the students have sorted themselves this way since the start. Because of the computer equipment and the imposing, relatively fixed nature of the long tables, other classroom arrangements are hard to imagine.

The instructor has her own computer, as well as a document camera that projects to the front. Her seat, as reflected in the diagram above, faces the students, seated on the left side. Yet she ranges around the classroom and does not remain fixed to the spot. From some parts of the room, vision of the instructor, when seated, is obscured. The only open space in the room is the center aisle. Corners are occupied by an old overhead projector, surplus equipment, and a beige filing cabinet stacked with plastic containers.

As a whole, the space feels modern and fully wired, giving the impression perhaps that language learning is best mediated by technology. An interactive white board crowds the right front of the room; it sat unused during the two classes observed. The students’ personalities start to emerge from white poster paper adhering to the walls. These are left over from brainstorming activities. One is titled, “How Can You Improve Your Life?” The top three responses are: “1. good attitude. 2. take challenges. 3. do your best in everything.” Other sheets contain vocabulary lists from Level B of the Sadlier Vocabulary Workshop, a contextual vocabulary-learning supplement, and from the class’s extension reading, a young-readers version of I Am Malala, the autobiography of the Pakistani peace activist and Nobel Peace Prize recipient Malala Yousafzai.

Five of the six students speak Spanish as a first language. They come from México, Puerto Rico, and Cuba. One student is from the People’s Republic of China. The environment, four weeks into the semester, is relaxed and routinized. On both visits, the classroom is unlocked shortly before 9 a.m. Students instinctively collect a word game printed on sheets and left on one of the black tables. These sheets contain clues that lead to sets of minimal pairs in a word ladder – “radio” and “ratio,” “rat” and “hat,” and so on – that in turn lead to some pronunciation practice afterward as answers are reviewed. In the meantime, the instructor has written a class agenda on the whiteboard. At the first observation, the agenda reads:

Warm up – word ladder

Timed reading


Vocab – Review words – orally and kahoot

go over HW

online quiz – reverse def.

News for You – one article and ?’s / Discussion

Reading – introduce novel – KWL

PPT + Pics


Vocab – Quizlet / handout

read prologue + discuss


Listening / Speaking – speeches

TED Talk “Smile”

The rapidity and, again, the routine established early in the school term permit the first two agenda items to move quickly. The “word ladder” review begins at 9:07 a.m. – students calling out answers in quasi-unison, with the instructor emphasizing the phonetic contrasts between pairs – and, by 9:20, an additional five-paragraph timed reading, as well as a review of five comprehension questions, is also complete. These lesson components are paced briskly by the instructor, who says before the reading review, “Guys ready? Let’s get through it.” Students take turns reading aloud. The instructor makes small pronunciation corrections; such corrections, typically of pronunciation, feature throughout the class. In addition, after the students finish the first two activities on worksheets, the instructor begins to integrate technology by pulling down the projection screen, covering most of the whiteboard, and using the document cam to follow with a pen as students read orally the article on German astrophysicist Wernher von Braun.

At 9:20, the instructor affirms the crisp pace. “Okay,” she says. “Next up, announcements.” The structure of this class, in which announcements follow two low-stakes warm-up assessments, resembled a Sunday-morning church service in which two regularly recited prayers are followed by news about the life of the congregation, laughter, and perhaps hugs or handshakes. In this class, announcements appear to serve almost the same function. The students breathe and speak freely, in English, without instructor correction. For building a sense of community, the announcements time, which lasts until 9:27, seems like a vital segment. Classmates honor their routines together – in this case, the frequent use of Kahoot (kahoot.it), an interactive games platform – and refer in coded, shortcut terms to previous class events, such as a visit to a local outdoor garden and to multiple college fairs. The class discusses the plan for tomorrow’s session, when a level 4 class will join for thirty minutes to hear a guest speaker, and they will visit another college fair. The instructor notes that most of her students are not college-bound, but she tells them, “It’s still good to get information … and the free water bottles.” Students laugh and joke often, but especially in this portion. The instructor discusses the availability of a campus security report, which students do not seem to grasp. “How can we use this, for what?” asks a student from Cuba. The teacher explains more, which the student considers before saying, teasingly, “My teacher’s scared.”

Shortly before 9:30, the instructor pushes to the next segment by saying, “All right, let’s do some stuff.” The fast pace resumes. They commence a rapid-fire review of Sadlier words in which the instructor reads a short definition and students respond, in unison, with the target vocabulary. A game on Kahoot, which students play competitively on the desktop computers, serves as an in-class assessment of the same vocabulary unit. Again, this is a gentle, low-stakes assessment activity. At 9:36 a.m., the class goes over weekend homework from the next unit in the Sadlier book. (Students do not receive texts but take-home copies of individual pages. The exception is I Am Malala.) It’s clear by this point that the instructor has set the learning objective, at least for the first half of the lesson, as vocabulary reinforcement. Students encounter the target words – a list of twenty – in multiple contexts. The controlling curriculum comes from the advanced National Geographic / Cengage text Twenty-first Century Communication: Listening, Speaking, and Critical Thinking (Lee 2017), but much of the material is supplementary. Although pronunciation is not taught directly – at least in the classes observed – it is the subject of the most error correction. For example, during reading of the subsequent Sadlier unit, the instructor emphasizes the voiced and unvoiced variants of the English “th” phoneme, which has become an issue in the vocabulary word “unscathed” (she models the word “further” – “You’re gonna get the vibration”) and comments on a student who turns the “-ed” ending into an additional syllable in “turned” and “locked.” “Jordannnn!” yells the instructor, with a teasing tone. The student, from México, smiles and corrects himself. (All personal names have been changed.)

Though the pace is unrelenting before the break at 10:27 a.m., the instructor integrates queries about the students’ personal lives and goals. “Jorge, I forgot to ask, how did your interview go?” she says. The student is slow to respond, and she continues, “You didn’t go, did you? … Or is it this week?” On occasion, the teacher confesses her own problems with pronunciation, as in a News for You article on Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh. Students listen to a slow audio recording of the same article, then take a computer-based quiz on comprehension and spelling. The instructor accepts when students spontaneously start to engage in the content. The student from the PRC, who is the most vocal in the class, comments, “Even in China we have same problem. In the West … a lot of Muslims. Sometimes they do something really, really crazy … send in military.”

At 10:08, as the last event before break, the class turns to I Am Malala. The instructor follows the “Know, Want to Know, Learned” (KWL) model and collects the following information from her class, which she projects using the document camera: “Winner – NP Prize. Almost killed – Taliban. School bus. From Asia Pakistan. Fought for education. Father is a teacher. After shot – treated in England.” All these are knowledge-activation exercises, as the instructor tells her class, “We’re gonna start the novel. It’s very exciting. But we’re not gonna read the novel yet, we have a lot to do.” Indeed, before break, the class views an eight-minute slide presentation about Yousafzai, looks at other websites the teacher projects, and previews, in Quizlet, a list of vocabulary from the book’s prologue.

The break lasts sixteen minutes, during which there is much student interaction, driven by the PRC student, Ben. He initiates two dialogues with female Cuban and Puerto Rican students (Karla and Natalia):

Ben: [holding a bagel] So, in Cuba, you eat something like this?

Karla: No.

Ben: So, what’s a traditional food?

Karla: Rice and beans.

Ben: White rice?

Karla: White.

Ben: White? Not brown?

Karla: Sometimes white, sometimes brown.

Ben: [turning toward the back of the class] I saw news about Puerto Rico. It’s pretty bad there.

Natalia: Mhmm.

Ben: You still have family there? Are they OK?

Natalia: Mhmm.

Ben: You still have family there? Your parents?

Natalia: Yeah, my mother, father. My aunt.

At 10:46, the students take turns reading from the prologue, with the instructor interjecting comprehension questions: “Is [Malala] there [in Pakistan] right now, or is she remembering?” “What language does she speak?” “What does it mean, ‘founded’?” “She doesn’t care someone is living in her house. What does she care about?” “What do you think ‘leafy suburb’ means?” “Does [Malala’s father] wonder how school was, or something else?” There are other excursions to discuss new vocabulary words. The instructor does not fix all pronunciation errors, but she jumps in when a student pronounces a word with an implied question appended: “dyna?” “amuse?” “Haji”? “zigzagging”? The prologue to I Am Malala ends with Yousafzai being shot in the head, as a schoolchild, in a Pakistani school bus. As a student concludes with the prologue’s final sentence, “I am Malala, and this is my story,” the instructor notices that a female student from Mexico City is crying softly in the first row: “Oh, you are crying. Next time, I’ll pick a happier book … But it’s good.” She mentions to the students that normally she assigns three extension books per semester; this time, she will assign two.

At 11:17, students are paired for what is planned as the lesson’s concluding activity. They will prepare a one-minute speech based on a prompt from chapter 1, “Free Therapy,” in Lee 2017. The pair work is prefaced by the instructor’s quick public-speaking tips to make eye contact, not to fidget, not to eat bagels. Humor is frequently employed to frame and during higher-stress tasks. As the instructor notes, this is the first public-speaking assignment of the term. Students have ten minutes to prepare a speech about a familiar place, a good friend, or a television program; they will not use notes. The instructor does not circulate during this preparation period but remains mostly silent until she assigns roles to various students: taking pictures (for the class’s private Facebook page), making a video, timing. As time for speeches is nigh, some students groan. The teacher says, “I think it’ll be good for your English.” As the first chance for most of the students – especially the quieter ones – at free speech production, one notices less confidence regarding domain vocabularies and some structures. A student from Cuba, for example, speaks about a tourist spot on the island. “You can see from the height the brown of the plants,” she says. “It’s a tourist place. Very good, that’s it.” To conclude, the instructor allows time for student self-assessment. She sits at the back and guides the conversation from there:

T: What’d you think?

S1: About what?

T: What’d you think about how everybody did?

S1: A little nervous.

T: Did you notice anything people could’ve done a little better? Was it loud enough?

Ss: [Nods and general agreement]

T: What about speed … any mumbling? Could you understand everything? Eye contact?

S2: Not all of these.

S3: I think I was looking the wall.

T: It’s probably just nervousness. It’s like I wanna be invisible.

There is still time, at 11:46, to watch a TED talk (“The Hidden Power of Smiling“); the National Geographic text features one of the TED talks in each chapter. It is a challenging video to watch, from a fast-speaking French researcher on the importance of smiling. There are no subtitles. Periodically, students give signs of comprehension. When the speaker asks who smiles more than twenty times per day, one student raises their hand.

The second class observation, three days later, provides a counterpoint to this fast-paced lesson. In the latter, after the warm-up word ladder, students dive into small-group work preparing a Prezi about healthy habits. Here there are technical challenges. Some of the Prezi accounts do not work as they should. The instructor circulates and enlists one of the students to address these complications; ultimately, after twenty-five minutes of group work, the instructor announces, “We’re not going to be doing it for thirty minutes. We’re making it longer.” Then, after another twenty-five minutes, the instructor, having recognized that students will not be able to finish the presentations in a reasonable time, says, “We’re gonna switch topics. Stay with your partner but we’re gonna switch to another activity.”

They move to vocabulary review, a group of Sadlier words from the first class. But this activity, too, is not teacher-driven. Rather, students remain paired and write sentences that connect words from the two vocabulary units studied so far. They work for forty-five minutes, before break, consisting of coffee and eclairs, at computers and hunched over sheets of paper. The objective of this lesson, in contrast to the first, is on production and, because the pedagogy is less teacher-centered, the question of English-only language use, with a high percentage of Spanish-speakers, pushes itself forward. Students from Puerto Rico and México work quietly at the back, and one can hear them slip quietly into Spanish at times as they construct sentences. They do not hide this language use from the instructor, who leans in as a student talks quickly with her partner in Puerto Rican–accented Spanish. The teacher does not try to change the students’ conversation, but asks one of the students, who is getting the explanation from his Spanish-speaking peer, “Does it make sense now, though? Do you get it?” The explaining student expresses regret at having to use Spanish, to which the instructor replies, “Well, enjoy it now. When we get a mix of more students, that will change.” The college has periodic registration periods; thus, the class likely will add students toward the end of October. As the instructor leaves the group, she says, “All right … no more Spanish.” Later, she catches other students in violation, although there is no hard-and-fast monolingual policy. “In English,” she yells once from the front, then, again, “English, Jorge!”


Multiple themes for analysis emerge from the observations. The first is the instructor’s deliberate attempt to lower the students’ affective filter by building community. Over a few weeks, the class has formed a network of mutual concern. This stands out principally in conversations regarding one of the students, an older woman from Mexico who maintains a night-shift job, on the brakes assembly, at an area automotive plant. Early in the second class I observed, students raise the issue of her absence. The instructor, who has her students’ personal contacts, reports forty-five minutes into the class period that she has received a text from the student, who now is on her way. “It’s hard for her,” another student remarks. “She works all night. But she always has smile.” The instructor answers, “I don’t know how she does it. I’d be asleep in class.”

At 10:11 a.m., this student arrives. The instructor asks, “Have you slept?” The student replies, quietly, that she has had problems with an alarm: either it was not set properly or she did not hear it. “I wouldn’t listen to it, either,” the instructor says. “Just throw it.” This collegiality has been made possible, the instructor says later, due to the class’s small size. In lower-level cohorts or in the college’s “bridge” classes, which help students transition into high-demand service occupations such as health care, transportation, or manufacturing, the student enrollment is typically fifteen or more. In addition, the top-level class that I observed takes an academic focus, which, according to the instructor, is typically out of step with the language-acquisition goals of many students here. It is a non-credit, continuing-education course. There are high hurdles to entry in the form of placement tests. The instructor says that her students took at least four diagnostic exams to gain placement.

It’s clear the students maintain high levels of motivation. They ask questions frequently. Rather than objecting to a fast pace, they seem to relish the large amount of input. The fast pace, in a way, might help, depending on the student population, contribute to student confidence. If the material comes and goes rapidly, the unstated message is that the material is manageable and, further, that students can handle it. The instructor in this case offers a fusillade of resources that might seem overwhelming. The counterargument to such a high content load would be, given the structure of the first class observed, how possible is it to know if students, especially quieter students, who can merely assent to the answers from louder voices, are struggling?

Additional questions about the setting involve the use of technology, particularly whether students are continuing to access the technology at home and if they fully internalize how the technical tools might continue to enhance self-guided study. That error corrections, especially related to punctuation, come frequently in the class might be seen as an asset. But how are the corrections connected to intentional instruction in punctuation that regularizes, to the extent possible, the variants in certain English phonemes? In other words, are students corrected for something they might reasonably be expected to know? The instructor takes the view that as students at the highest level, they can take it. Her corrections are gentle, full of humor, and are doled out equally.


Day, Christopher, et al. 2009. “ECP Classroom Observation Protocol.” September. https://www.academia.edu/2198030/Classroom_Observation_Protocol_-_using_fieldnotes.

Lee, Christien. 2017. Twenty-first Century Communication: Listening, Speaking, and Critical Thinking. Level 4. Boston: National Geographic / Cengage.

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