Vol. 1. No. 3 R-8 March 1995
Return to Table of Contents Return to Main Page

Making Meaning, Making Change: Participatory Curriculum Development or Adult ESL Literacy

Elsa Roberts Auerbach (1992)
Washington DC: Center for Applied Linguistics
Pp. 140. ISBN 0-93-735479-1 (paper)
US $15.95

While many aspects of the ESL profession have acquired a certain glamour, or even panache, with their foreign travel and university affiliations, the same cannot be said for adult ESL literacy. Dependent on external funding sources, such as "soft money" grants by government agencies, and thus condemned to uncertain long-range prospects, adult ESL programs have acquired in many places an unsavory reputation of being the bailiwick of political "educators" (i.e. bureaucrats). Salaries are seldom high enough to attract teachers to make a professional commitment to the program; instead, full-time professionals tend to congregate in the materials development and assessment end of the field. Thus, on the instructional side, turnover is high, reliance on adjuncts excessive and morale low.

Nonetheless, it is precisely in the adult ESL sector of the profession that demand for trained teachers can be expected to grow the fastest. With the increased emphasis on workplace literacy, and local demands for greater English proficiency (often accompanied by xenophobic attacks on native language use among immigrants), enhancement of the professional status of non-academic adult ESL educators is urgent. Furthermore, it is precisely in the adult education ESL sector that the nostalgic ideal of English instruction as a vehicle for acculturating immigrants into the democratic values of the United States finds the strongest resonance.

Elsa Auerbach has made a major contribution to this cause in her book, Making Meaning, Making Change. Based on the experiences of the University of Massachusetts Family Literacy Project, of which she was the coordinator, the book is at once an authoritative and persuasive polemic for what she calls the "participatory" vs. the more traditional "ends-means" approach to curriculum design and a practical manual for carrying out this participatory adult literacy curriculum.

Auerbach begins with an overview in which she establishes the theoretical foundations of the practice of the Family Literacy Project. In the ends-means model, curriculum development is driven at all stages by experts who are external to the process of educating the target population. Competencies, skills and information are defined by independent research; materials are written (at great cost to the taxpayer, I might add) by developers who are in touch with the experts; assessment guidelines and measurable outcomes flow naturally from this deductive corpus. At the tail end of this process, the teacher is handed a syllabus and a [-1-] set of materials and instructed to impart this knowledge to the eagerly-awaiting students. That any learning at all occurs in this process is a tribute to the motivation and creativity of the teachers and students who, in Auerbach's view, are actually battling great odds to produce any real results.

In the participatory model, the teacher and students collaborate to produce a context-specific curriculum based on the needs and desires that the students themselves experience. This is emphatically not to say that the teacher simply abdicates the leadership role in the classroom; rather she becomes a completely different kind of leader, finding ways to induce the students to identify their own needs and interests, introducing topics and activities in the class which allow students to use language to further their needs and interests, and marshalling educational resources to deepen students' knowledge of the language as a result of their use of it.

Two features of Auerbach's method are central to this approach: a) strategies for turning students into the most vital resources for language learning, and b) action as the practical outcome of language learning activities.

Rather than presenting the students with synthetic materials developed outside the classroom, Auerbach advocates that teachers combine "conscious listening," namely a sympathetic awareness of what students' real concerns are, with "catalyst" activities, i.e. language activities that get students to open up and express their real thoughts and feelings. Making Meaning contains an impressive inventory of such activities, which can include what are often called "icebreakers" to get students talking, class newspapers, picture albums, class rituals, or student-produced graphics.

Once the teacher has identified major themes in students' lives with these "ways in," she can use a variety of ready-to-hand "tools" to draw students into the deliberate use of language to address the issues they see as important. These tools can include fables, proverbs, published works of fiction, even childrens' books. One of the most powerful tools is what she calls "codes," carefully scripted dialogues in which characters reveal very controversial attitudes towards pressing social questions, such as racism, crime, or sexual harassment. By involving students in discussion about these codes, they not only acquire the language to address these issues, but they also begin to learn how to take positions on these issues themselves.

The concept of action in Auerbach's program is no less central, although somewhat more problematic. As she herself admits, the expectations of the founders of the Family Literacy Project underwent some evolution during the life of the project. At the beginning, the organizers tended to view organized social action as [-2-] the most relevant evidence of success in teaching practical literacy to their students. However, as she puts it, "Measuring our practice by this narrow standard, it seemed that instances of action were few and far between" (p. 101). At the same time, she notes that their program's definition of action gradually eased to include more personal participation in activities which linked students to the society at large, and thereby changed the students' lives. Thus, "Rosa went to a community college; Hilda became more active in her school's PTA; Angel had many of his writings published..." (p. 101).

One of the most significant chapters in Making Meaning is the chapter on assessment. In my opinion, assessment is one of the weakest links in the rusty chain of mainstream adult ESL education. Due to the seemingly unassailable claim that funding authorities have a right to expect quantifiable results in return for their money, the language testing industry has come into its own as an independent force which in many ways dominates the education profession. Auerbach subjects this fetishism of "objective" test instruments to a withering critique, based on well-documented pedagogical reasoning. In place of objective, machine-scored tests, she proposes a battery of "alternative" testing methods, including interviews, reading and writing samples, teacher conferences, and peer evaluation. Most importantly, teachers are encouraged to make the evaluation ongoing throughout the course, abandoning the impersonal psychometric pre- and post-test model which dominates so-called "scientific" assessment today.

Making Meaning, Making Change is written for the committed teacher, but Auerbach's conception of the teacher differs sharply from that of the typical "soft-money" administrator in today's adult education program. Her book is not simply a "cookbook" of helpful classroom hints, patched together by comforting Freirian truisms (a reference to the revolutionary Brazilian educator who is the inspiration of much that goes on in adult literacy education). Auerbach devotes an entire chapter to analyzing the major policies that shape a program before the first teacher ever steps into the classroom. Hers is one of the few books to recognize the integral role that the institutional setting of a program plays in the effectiveness of its instruction. Decisions regarding teacher workload, qualifications, staff development, course length, location, recruitment, support services, intake procedures, and orientation are all described in detail, along with the implications of each decision on the future shape of classroom interactions. For me, this chapter is one of the most fascinating, and Auerbach is sending a clear message to administrators and teachers alike that major program policies that affect instruction should not be made in isolation from teachers; and, conversely, that teachers should make an effort to inform themselves of the administrative factors that influence their professional lives. [-3-]

In a sense, though, there is a sad irony in Auerbach's vision of the adult ESL teacher. So many of the techniques described as "ways in" or "tools" require considerable outside preparation-- transcribing oral speech into stories, drawing graphics to illustrate student narratives, gathering realia from the local media, and, most delicately, crafting "codes" for stimulating language-rich social discussion--all of these things require considerable time out of class, to say nothing of the time and effort needed to guide a participatory curriculum from beginning to end without allowing the class to degenerate into pure spontaneity. Yet how many teachers are willing to exert that much effort in return for the paltry salaries that most adult education teachers are paid nowadays?

Therefore, perhaps the most important lesson which Making Meaning, Making Change can teach us is the necessity of rethinking the professional status of the adult education ESL teacher and her role in the entire curriculum development process. Whatever the lesson, however, all teachers will benefit from reading this excellent and invigorating book.

David A. Ross
Houston Community College


Return to Table of Contents Return to Top Return to Main Page
© Copyright rests with authors. Please cite TESL-EJ appropriately.

Editor's Note: Dashed numbers in square brackets indicate the end of each page in the paginated ASCII version of this article, which is the definitive edition. Please use these page numbers when citing this work.