Talking to Co-workers

The students in this class are all Spanish-speakers from Central America and Mexico. They are all employed in low-wage jobs – housekeepers, janitors, security guards, etc. The teacher (Clare) is bilingual. During the intake process, students are asked about what they want to learn and to think about what they want to be able to do in their lives. Their individual goals are documented and passed to the teacher.

Lesson: Clare continued to learn about her students by talking to them before and after class, and by doing activities that invited students to express their ideas to the greatest extent possible. Through before-class conversations, she learned about some of their language frustrations at work. Although they could converse simply with English-speaking co-workers about personal information such as where they live, how many kids they have, where they are from, etc., they also wanted to express something about who they were before they came here. Their co-workers only knew them by their nationalities and their jobs - jobs with which the students didn’t readily identify. They wanted to communicate the work they did in their own countries. Clare gathered their ideas into a class goal that she wrote in their own words, and prompted them to talk about why it was important to them.

Our class goal and why it is important

Our goal:
Tell co-workers about our work in our countries.

This goal is important because . . .
“I am proud of my work.”
“In my country, have important job.”
“I know many things before.”
“Tell what we do before.”
“For them to know me.”
“Show life in my country.”

Primary standard:
Speak so Others can Understand

She noticed that this collective “goal” was reflected in the EFF Common Activity “Develop and Express Sense of Self,” and in the underlying learning purpose of expressing Voice.

Clare used a variation of the Learning List to make notes about what the students already knew about speaking English to their co-workers.

What students already know What students need to know
What they want to say Strategies for starting the conversation
Which co-workers they want to talk to New vocabulary
When people are likely to chat at work Past tense of “to be”
Some key vocabulary Strategies for monitoring whether or not they are being understood
Basic present tense  

She used this information, and the standard “Speak So Others Can Understand” to inform her planning.

Speak So Others Can Understand We will:
Determine the purpose for communicating; Keep in mind our intentions (to build relationships and express important aspects of our identity).
Organize and relay information to effectively serve the purpose, context, and listener; Develop strategies for starting these conversations with our co-workers; practice conveying the information effectively; anticipate responses.
Pay attention to conventions of oral English communication, including grammar, word choice, register, pace, and gesture in order to minimize barriers to listener's comprehension; Use past tense of “to be” and relevant vocabulary to express thoughts; consider when is best time to have this conversation (so that the listener is not distracted).
Use multiple strategies to monitor the effectiveness of the communication. Identify what we will look for to know if we have been understood.

Class activities:

  1. First, the class drew pictures of the work they did in their own countries and described them, as best they could, in English.

  2. With support from the teacher, they captioned the pictures, labeled the objects in the pictures, and completed the sentence “In my country, I was a __________.” For example, one student drew a picture of a fisherman on a boat, learning both of these words through this activity. Although it is unconventional to teach past tense irregular verbs to beginners, this is what the students wanted to express and these meaningful words were not forgotten.

  3. They practiced their new vocabulary:
    •  matching vocabulary cards to objects in the pictures
    •  learning about the relationship between words that describe work and words that describe the people who do it (verbs and nouns): teach/teacher, work/worker, farm/farmer, bake/baker, etc.

  4. They practiced grammar:
    •  comparing past and present tenses (Before, I was a _____. Now, I am a _______.)
    •  making a chart of students’ jobs (past and present), and making first person and third person sentences with this information.

  5. They imagined and role-played the conversations with co-workers.
    How would they start? When? Where?

  6. Ways to start When Where

    “I want to tell you about my work in my country.”

    “I was not a ___ in my country.”



    At lunch.

    On break.

    While we work.


    In the cafeteria.


    In the lounge.


  7. Clare tried to have them think about how they would know they were communicating effectively, but they had trouble understanding what she wanted. Instead, she walked them through a rubric she put together, paraphrasing so they could understand. She knew that, with enough modeling and more English, they would be able to participate in these conversations in the future.
    Clare used this rubric to evaluate their ability to “Speak so Others can Understand” as they did their roleplays. Students who actually had conversations at work also self-evaluated (orally) their experience when they returned to class.
  8. Clare and the class reflected on the learning together, and she scribed their thoughts on the board and on a reflection form. She asked them, “Where else do you want to tell people about yourself?
    What else about yourself do you want to communicate? Clare used their many responses to plan a new learning activity.