The Multicultural Council of Windsor and Essex County – Karolina Gombos

Karolina Gombos, Adult Educator


The Importance of Functional Literacy for English Language Learners through Key Vocabulary Development


Karolina teaches lower intermediate adult learners at The Multicultural Council of Windsor and Essex County. When understanding language learning, the levels of language proficiency are dynamic, which means that they change as learners grow and learn. These levels are reflected in the Council’s usage of the Canadian Language Benchmarks. TESOL also provides descriptors of the levels of language proficiency that accounts for the changes that take place are organized into five levels: starting, emerging, developing, expanding, and bridging (Herrell & Jordan, 2019). Karolina teaches students who are typically in the emerging stages of learning. When Karolina has students that are more fluent than others, or moving through the stages of learning more quickly, she will ask them more questions than others in order to differentiate or tailor the teaching to their current level of their learning.

Classroom Excerpts

Modelling the Expectations for Presentations

Karolina Gombos engages adult English Language Learners (ELLs) in formal presentation techniques. Although at a low-intermediate Canadian Language Benchmark (CLB) level, learners in Karolina’s class are able to prepare and deliver a full presentation. Starting by allowing her learners to speak about a personal topic, like their families, eases anxiety and showcases learners’ knowledge of the English language and presentation techniques. Burgess draws upon a study conducted by Greif, Meyer, and Burgess (2007), who found that learners “valued confidence with writing and enhanced confidence and self-esteem more generally as outcomes of their courses” (2012, p. 91). Similarly, Karolina’s learners combined written and oral communication to present about their families, a topic that simultaneously enhances their confidence in written and verbal communication and celebrates their social identities. Serafini states, “Written language and visual images work individually (within modes) and in concert (across modes) to convey meaning, share information, order our worlds, and develop our identities, together as individuals and as a culture” (2014, p. 30).

First, Karolina models proper presentation techniques to her adult learners. She begins by displaying a family photo on the white screen and uses interrogative words such as who, what, where, when, and why to provide learners with the presentation structure. Note that Karolina has interrogative words displayed at the front of the classroom for learners’ convenience and continued review. Through her demonstration, Karolina also reviews using past tense when answering interrogative words. This particular presentation structure provides learners with a chance to practice asking and answering interrogative questions and using proper tenses in a real-life context. Karolina combines various modalities to enforce literacy skills. Alongside visual and oral modes of communication, Karolina’s allowed her adult learners to gain written skills by having them write out their responses to interrogative questions before their presentations.

Kudra’s Presentation about his Family Photo

Burgess (2012) notes that language and literacy learners are often placed in “subordinate roles” (p. 95) in that they lack particular language skills and abilities that must be gained through explicit instructions. Burgess (2012) argues against passive educational strategies and emphasizes learner engagement with language to actively advance language acquisition and promote learner autonomy (Cope & Kalantzis, 2002; Scarino & Liddicoat, 2009). In the following video, Kudra shares a photo of his children and follows a formal presentation structure modelled by Karolina to speak about the photograph. It is important to note that Karolina’s notes and interrogative words are listed clearly and serve as a reference point for the presenter.

Aneeta’s Presentation about her Family Photo

Aneeta was in Karin Falconer’s class before moving to Karolina’s class, a CLB level higher. In the following video, Aneeta presents her family photo. While Aneeta exhibits a few nervous emotions before her presentation, Karolina is quick to comfort, encourage, and reassure Aneeta about her presentation abilities. In conversation about the power of literacy and the role of literacy education, Crowther and Tett (2012) state that literacy education must “encourage [learners] to develop the skill, analysis and confidence to make their own voice heard and, where necessary, take action to assert it” (p. 119). Offering learners such an interactive activity, Karolina instils confidence in her learners to tell their own stories. At the end of the presentation, Karolina challenges Aneeta to answer impromptu questions that help Aneeta realize her full potential and capabilities.

Brikha’s Presentation about his Family Photo

During Brikha’s family photo presentation, Karolina corrects only his usage of “niece” and “nephew” when identifying his family members. According to Burgess (2012), literacy education should focus on the exploration of learners’ use of language in exploring identities and power “rather than focusing solely on surface features of language and judgements about ‘correctness’” (p. 94). Moreover, by engaging in conversation with her adult learners, Karolina knows Brikha and the backstory of his family’s connection to Australia. Using this knowledge, Karolina can further engage with Brikha during his presentation and help him articulate his story.

Guman’s Presentation about his Family Photo

Guman’s family photo presentation begins with laughter among the class. Humour emerging from a comment about the size of Guman’s family photo eases the nervous atmosphere that is usually brought on by the formality of presentations. Aboudan (2009) writes, “The use of “humour” in [English as a Second Language] ESL classrooms reduces tension, improves classroom climate, increases student-teacher rapport, and even facilitates learning” (p. 91). Humour eased the tension and anxiety associated with presentations and put Guman and his peers at ease.

Ahmad’s Presentation about his Family Photo

In the following video, Ahmad presents about this family photo. During the presentation, Karolina assists Ahmad in using the correct tense and guides him through answering interrogative questions. Ahmad reveals that his family photo was taken on his day of arrival to Canada. To Ahmad, like many of his peers, coming to Canada is a significant event.

Sabitra’s Presentation about her Family Photo

In the following video, Sabitra presents about her family photo. During Sabitra’s presentation, Karolina reinforces proper usage of sentence structure and conjugations. Learning and teaching grammar can sometimes feel rather mechanical; however, through the presentations, Karolina allows learners to engage with the language and the grammatical rules and mechanisms to help convey their ideas with greater clarity. Thus, “Grammar in this sense is more than a system of rules, it is also a set of possibilities and an active engagement with meaning in which every language user participates” (Street, 2012, p. 25).

Mayra’s Presentation about her Family Photo

Presentations such as these allow learners to test their language skills by using the target language (English) to communicate about parts of their social and personal identities. Karolina recognizes the importance of teaching language and grammar to incorporate the learners’ identities, personal writing, and speech production. Once language skills have been taught, it is essential for learners to “[decide] for themselves what is ‘really useful literacy’ and using it to act, individually and collectively” (Hamilton, Tett, & Crowther, 2012, p. 6). In the following video, Mayra presents about her family photo.

Khadija’s Presentation about her Family Photo

During her presentation, Khadija mentions that her family photo was taken during Eid. Such presentations not only allow learners to express themselves through multimodalities and use the language skills they have gained concretely, but they also allow learners to speak about their cultural values. Moreover, it enforces the importance and value of multiculturalism while also enforcing mutual cultural respect among learners. When it comes to meaning-making and self-expression, these presentations and the topics discussed during these presentations, like speaking about various and divergent cultural and religious values, are “particularly significant in contexts of increased migration leading to the creation of new diversities and hybrid cultures” (Hamilton, Tett, & Crowther, 2012, p. 4).


Document Analysis


“Collecting” words (Herrell & Jordan, 2001) is a strategy for helping learners develop better speaking and writing vocabularies. The development of an extensive vocabulary, and an understanding of word meanings, is ­essential to successful verbal interaction. The following documents showcase language learning with adult learners where they are connecting to the topic of “family” by learning and understanding new vocabulary using very simple sentences in the forms of writing, listening, and speaking. The first document has adult learners listen to a question to comprehend each family relationship with a prompt to choose an answer from three possible options.

The next document has adult learners write the correct family relationship for each expression, increasing the difficulty by forcing learners to use the memory of their newly learned vocabulary.

The final document has adult learners share information about their own family by responding orally to the following prompts. Later, these adult learners will bring in artifacts that represent aspects of their families that they will talk about with their peers. Karolina every day will ask them impromptu questions about their families to encourage practicing dialogue on this chosen topic. If there is a key vocabulary word the adult learners are unlikely to be familiar with, Karolina will quickly use Google Translate to translate the word into the 6-8 native tongue languages of the learners in her class to ensure everyone is understanding. 

These three documents show the progression of learners gradually increasing their language learning abilities on a certain topic by purposefully intersecting all dimensions of literacy through reading, writing, speaking, viewing, and representing. Each mode works in tandem with one another. Combining modes of literacy helps contribute to these adult learners building greater skill competencies and their own sense of confidence in expressing themselves in the target language, which in this case is English.

This type of language learning progression can be seen in different teaching unit examples. For instance, Karolina teaches her adult language learners about reading store receipts, which of course is a very important everyday skill. After learners acquire new vocabulary, these three documents below, along with their instructions, show the progression of learning new words, and then applying these new words in functional contexts to comprehend information. The first document has learners follow various prompts when reading a receipt. Learners are given straightforward questions as well as multiple choice and true and false. Thus, even though learners still may not be strong in writing in English, through the variety of types of responses, the learners can share their comprehension nevertheless. The second and third document are much more challenging, requiring learners to reproduce and comprehend instructions. Moreover, the choice of focusing on how to read and understand a receipt is an important aspect of functional literacy that will serve adult learners in managing their everyday lives.



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