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Serving Refugees Professional Learning Community (PLC)

by Hali Massey

 Adult education has an important role to play in the process of refugee resettlement in America as we are able to provide English language classes, employment training, and a sense of community to those who are new to our country and to Virginia.

Virginia has historically been a state that serves refugees resettling in the United States. However, after the U.S. withdrew from Afghanistan in the summer of 2021, our state saw another increase in the number of refugees temporarily and permanently resettling here. Adult education has an important role to play in the process of refugee resettlement in America as we are able to provide English language classes, employment training, and a sense of community to those who are new to our country and to Virginia. As many programs across the state have started to receive student referrals and requests for educational services from their local refugee resettlement agencies, we at VALRC wanted to provide a space for programs to share how they were working with partner agencies, preparing for an increase in beginning literacy learners, and providing culturally responsive education in order to effectively serve this increased population of refugees in Virginia. To this aim, we began offering the Serving Refugees PLC in Spring 2022.

The goals of this professional learning community included:

  • providing technical assistance to programs who are already or expect to serve refugees in their adult education programs;
  • connecting those who may be new to serving refugees to practitioners experienced in serving this student population in order to share promising instructional (in-person and virtual) and outreach strategies; and
  • providing resources and support related to teaching emerging English language learners including asset-based approach strategies and culturally responsive practices.

Throughout our five-month PLC, we had guest speakers from across the country who presented on the following topics: 

  • Connecting with the refugee resettlement agencies and community liaisons for recruitment and engagement of participants
  • Utilizing an asset-based approach strategies for working with emerging English language learners
  • Training ESOL or ABE teachers in low-literacy, virtual, and in-person instruction
  • Utilizing culturally responsive practices to support instructing refugees

Over the course of the PLC, we were able to collect and share resources related to serving refugees, both from Afghanistan and in general. We provided effective beginning literacy instruction and utilized culturally responsive and asset-based approach strategies to create a safe learning environment for our refugee learners. These resources can be found on the PLC Padlet, which is an open resource for any adult educator working with refugees. In addition to accessing this resource, practitioners are able to add resources and share the Padlet with others. 

Two important components of this PLC were asset-based approach and beginning literacy instruction strategies. 

Asset-Based Approach Strategies

The following instructional strategies present English language instructors with the opportunity to bring learners’ assets to the forefront of the classroom and the language learning journey as a starting point for further developing proficiency in English. 

  1. Assess assets

In adult education, there tends to be a focus on pre- and post-testing learners and on how learners can increase their proficiency levels for reporting purposes. While understanding where our learners are on the spectrum of English language proficiency is vital to delivering effective instruction, understanding how learners are already engaging with English in their everyday lives can also have a significant impact on instruction. 

Asset Assessment: Instructors can administer an asset assessment, which is similar to a needs assessment, but instead, it allows learners the opportunity to share their experiences and strengths when it comes to engaging with the English language. Instructors can then use “I can” statements from learners to include familiar content and linguistic features in the classroom in order to build learner confidence before moving onto more challenging content. 

  1. Incorporate learner voice into the classroom

Instructors can provide opportunities for learners to share their voice, stories, and narratives in the classroom. This allows learners to feel validated in their life experiences and creates opportunities for learners to be the subject matter experts in the classroom.

The Language Experience Approach: Using the Language Experience Approach (LEA) is a very effective activity for giving voice to learners at all proficiency levels. This is an activity where instructors ask learners to share a story verbally while the instructor or a peer writes the story down. This activity results in student-generated texts that can be used for further learning activities. The benefits of this activity include the fact that the student-generated text includes vocabulary and grammatical structures that are familiar to learners and that can be used as a place from which to grow that language knowledge.

Response prompts: Another strategy for incorporating learner voice and experience into the classroom is to use problem-solution, growth-mindset, and suggestion prompts that allow learners to share their thoughts, opinions, and experiences on a focused theme. Instructors need to ensure that these prompts are relevant to the current topic of the classroom content and to adult life in general. In addition, instructors can scaffold these prompts with images or videos.

This compilation of resources provides examples of incorporating learner voice into the adult ESOL classroom.

  1. Provide the opportunity for learner self-assessment 

Another strategy for highlighting and leveraging student assets is to provide opportunities for learners to self-assess their own progress.

Exit Tickets: Instructors can provide exit tickets after lessons for learners to indicate what they understood and what they would like to explore more. Using positive and asset-based language is key so that learners do not feel demotivated by this reflection. For example, instructors can ask learners for a “glow”, something that is going well and a strength, and for a “grow”, an area that they want to keep improving and focusing on. These activities also lend themselves well to visual representations which help to scaffold these more abstract ideas. 

K-W-L Chart: Instructors can also use a K-W-L chart for self-assessment which asks learners to indicate what they know (K) and what they want to learn or wonder (W) about a topic, and then reflect on the topic after a lesson or series of lessons by indicating what they learned (L).

Goal-Setting Activities: Integrating goal-setting activities into the classroom provides learners with an opportunity to reflect on where they are and where they would like to go. In adult education, we place a lot of emphasis on college and career readiness and ensuring that our learners continue their education past English language classes, but it is important to understand what language goals the learners themselves have and how those goals can be used to provide support in pursuing larger life goals. These goal setting lesson plans provide some strategies and tools for teaching goal setting with adult English language learners. 

These activities and strategies also help learners shift from dependent to independent learners which aligns with the aim of delivering culturally responsive education.

  1. Utilize learner heritage language in the classroom

One asset that all of our English learners bring into the classroom is that they already speak a different language. Whether they are literate or not in their heritage language is a consideration, but even if they are not literate, they are fluent in at least one other language. English language instructors can leverage our learners’ language abilities for developing proficiency in English. 

This webinar on Translanguaging as an Antiracist Practice presents additional opportunities for using heritage languages in the classroom. 

Beginning Literacy Instructional Strategies

  1. Leverage student strengths 

One aspect of life experience that adult literacy learners bring into the classroom is their personal accounts of situations regarding language use. Literacy learners typically have strong verbal language skills that can be advantageous in the literacy classroom. They also have experience with language acquisition by living and navigating life in a new country. In addition, these learners are bringing their own funds of knowledge into the classroom. It is important to focus on what students have and build from there instead of only focusing on what is lacking. Using these experiences and funds of knowledge also allow learners to build confidence while participating in literacy instruction.

  1. Connect instruction to real world application 

Literacy instruction for adults can be challenging for a lot of reasons but one main challenge is that most literacy learning materials and activities are geared towards children and not adult learners. Not having adult-relevant materials, activities, and instruction can significantly affect learners’ motivation, persistence, and confidence. The instructional practice of connecting literacy instruction with real-world application is vital for establishing relevance for literacy instruction, creating a learning environment that feels appropriate and comfortable for the adult learner, and providing opportunities for immediate application of learned material. 

Strategies for connecting instruction to real world application include:

    • Contextualize literacy skill instruction and practice: Use vocabulary applicable to real-world scenarios and situations and focus on readily needed literacy skills. 
    • Integrate authentic materials into the classroom: Utilize written materials that learners encounter in their everyday lives and ask learners to bring in written materials that are applicable to their lives. 
  1. Provide explicit literacy instruction

Depending on literacy learners’ prior educational experiences, the classroom may be a new environment for them. Additionally, our education system in the U.S. uses a teaching style and has a culture that may be different from that of our learners. For these reasons, using explicit instruction ensures that we are not making assumptions about what learners understand about or are able to do in our classrooms. Explicit instruction means that instructors are using direct and clear instructions, models, and examples so that learners understand what is expected of them and how to engage with learning activities in the classroom. 

Strategies for providing explicit instruction include:

    • Provide models and scaffolds: Use “show and tell” for all learning activities, providing explanations and instructions in a variety of ways (using written and spoken language and images), 
    • Chunk materials: Break class content and activities into smaller more manageable chunks so that learners can focus on one concept or task at a time and avoid feeling overwhelmed by what is happening in the classroom.
  1. Utilize a balanced approach 

While literacy instruction is essential to the language development of our literacy learners, this does not mean that literacy instructors should take focus off of language learning. Balanced instruction refers to including within literacy instruction both meaning-based instruction that is focused on comprehension as well as phonics-based instruction that is focused on decoding. The benefits of using this approach include that it develops relevance and context for classroom materials and allows learners to stay focused on the goal of comprehension. 

Strategies for utilizing a balanced approach include:

    • Use a meaning-based approach: This approach is focused on having students learn whole words. Students need to develop a sight word bank and then work on using those words in sentences and stories. This sight word bank then serves as a basis for phonics instruction. It is important for instructors to start with words that are verbally known to students and that are commonly seen in public such as words on signs and on forms.
    • Use a whole-part-whole approach: This approach starts with a whole text, and then instructors pull out specific parts to analyze for phonics/phonemic awareness skills and then go back to the whole text. This approach also acknowledges the need to contextualize phonics instruction. 


Bigelow, M. & Schwarz, R. L. (2010). Adult English language learners with limited literacy. The National Institute for Literacy. https://lincs.ed.gov/publications/pdf/ELLpaper2010.pdf

Burt, M., Peyton, J. K., & Schaetzel, K. (2008). Working with adult English language learners with limited literacy: Research, practice, and professional development. Center for Adult English Language Acquisition. http://www.cal.org/caelanetwork/resources/limitedliteracy.html

Croydon, A. (2005). Making it real: Teaching pre-literate adult refugee students. Tacoma Community House Training Project. https://valrc.org/wp-content/uploads/2022/07/prelitbook.pdf

Frank, M. & Perry, K. (2015). Beginning Alphabetics Tests & Tools. ATLAS (ABE Teaching & Learning Advancement System). http://atlasabe.org/resources /ebri/ ebri-alphabetics 

Vinogradov, P. (2009). Balancing top and bottom: Learner-generated texts for teaching phonics. LESLLA 2009. http://ccsfintervention.pbworks.com/f/ Vinogradov-balancing%20top%20%26%20bottom.pdf 

Wrigley, H. S. (2003). A conversation with FOB…What works for adult ESL students. Focus on Basics, 6(c). http://www.ncsall.net/index.php@id=189.html

Hali MasseyHali Massey, M.A. TESOL, is the English for Speakers of Other Languages (ESOL) Specialist at the Virginia Adult Learning Resource Center (VALRC). In this role, she coordinates teacher professional development that aligns with state and federal initiatives, as well as local interests and needs. This work includes the design and delivery of online courses, face-to-face workshops, and virtual meetings, all with a focus on the practice of teaching English to adult learners.


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