Heritage Books

This family literacy class, sponsored by the School District for its very diverse immigrant community, is held at a community center near the elementary school. Usually, adult classes are held in the school at night, but by moving this class to another space, parents are able to meet from 12:00 - 2:30 so that class ends right when it's time for parents to pick up their children. Since the school is a partner in the family literacy program, the parents are often there doing projects with their children any way.

Although still considered English language beginners, most of the parents can carry on a basic English conversation and are focusing on their English literacy. The curriculum for the class is theme-based, with units on child development, the school system, family culture and heritage, etc. The specific topics, within those themes, are identified through discussion with the class.

Learning activities:
The teacher, Pat, started off a unit on "raising children in America" by using a catalyst material to generate discussion. She showed the class a photograph of small children playing at a nearby playground, with older kids hanging out in groups at the edge, and asked them to describe what they saw. Their comments focused first on the younger children and then shifted toward suspicions about the older ones. They said:
  • Many children play.
  • All kids play together.
  • Older sisters and brothers watch the children.
  • What they do there (the older kids)?
  • Older kids make trouble at playground.
  • Many kids, no adults to watch.

With very few words, the parents had expressed a lot about what they saw and what they thought it meant. They continued to discuss the varied interpretations of the picture, with some parents challenging the notion that “hanging out” meant that the kids were up to no good. They also compared the playground to where they played as children, talked about the worry they feel as parents here that they didn't back home, and made other observations about raising children in the United States.

Pat built on these conversations by making a class chart about the pros and cons of raising children here. Many of these items (pros: opportunities, good medicine, kids can have everything, good schools, etc. and cons: kids want too many things, don't give respect for mother and father, don't know grandparents and family, etc.) would be returned to in later lessons. For now, Pat focused on the item that generated most discussion – the loss of connection to culture and family of origin -- and had them work in groups to brainstorm ways that these connections could be fostered or maintained. Many of their ideas had to do with sending the children back to the home country for periods of time or teaching them traditional values. Before digging further into that topic, Pat drew their attention back to the Four Purposes for Learning that the class sometimes used to help them clarify the purpose of their lessons. They looked at the Purposes as they had reworded them:
  • Access (Get information and other things you need)
  • Independent action (Be able to do things yourself)
  • Voice (Speak up with confidence - in a group or yourself)
  • Bridge to the future (Be ready for anything; get an education)

She asked, “Which Purpose do you think this lesson is about?” At first, they tried to find a way to match the lesson to each one of the Purposes but, when Pat reminded them that they didn't need to do that - to just look for the best matches, most of the students settled on “bridge to the future.” They said (drawing on old proverbs that they knew), "If you don't know your past, you cannot find your future."

In their next class, Pat built on this by suggesting that the parents write something that would help their children better understand their cultural heritage or family history. What might this be? She gave them some possibilities: a folktale, a family history, a description of a game children in the home culture play, a description of an object that was brought from the home country; and the students added others: a story about the child's grandparents, a description of their home country, etc. They could choose to write about any of these options and, when done, they would prepare to read their “books” to their children.

Pat used the Convey Ideas in Writing standard to guide her discussion with the students about how they would approach and assess the writing :

Convey Ideas in Writing


Discussion about writing and assessment


Determine the purpose for communicating



Pat: Why do you want to write this?

The students talked about wanting to teach the children about their heritage. Some also connected this to the goal of helping their children read.

Pat: To evaluate, we will look to see if your book is on this important topic, so that it meets your purpose.


Organize and present information to serve the purpose, context, and audience


Pat: What can you do to make the book interesting for your children?

The students didn’t really see this as an issue (“these things they should know about”), but talked about including pictures or colorful illustrations, telling stories about people or things that the children were curious about, using a lot of description, and maybe including the child in the story.

Pat: So, to evaluate, we will look to see if your book has pictures and if your story is about something that is interesting to your child.

Pay attention to conventions of English language usage, including grammar, spelling, and sentence structure, to minimize barriers to reader’s comprehension

Pat: What can you do to make the book easy for your child to read?

At first, besides pictures, the students were stumped. Then, with prompting, they mentioned that they needed to use correct spelling, words (vocabulary) that the children would know, and pictures to help them understand.

Pat: So we will look to see if you have written the words and sentences correctly, used vocabulary correctly, and used pictures to support the story.


Seek feedback and revise to enhance the effectiveness of the communication


Pat: How can I and others in the class help you make a better book?

The students suggested that others could read the book and say if they liked it, and could help them correct their mistakes.

Pat: Okay, so we will look to see if you made any changes – if you thought about what others said.

They now had some basic, agreed-upon criteria for evaluating the writing. Pat checked the level descriptors for Level 2 of the Standard to make sure that the criteria were consistent with what could be expected for the approximate level of her students. The expectation that writers at this level can “produce a short but legible and comprehensible draft,” use “familiar vocabulary and simple sentence structure,” and “make simple edits of grammar” seemed to aptly describe what they were working towards.

Now they were ready to get started. They followed these steps :

  1. Students talked in small groups about what they wanted to write. Some used the groups to help decide which topic to choose; others used the groups to talk through their ideas (talking is an important writing strategy in ESL class!).
  2. Students worked on drafts of their pieces for an hour in each of three classes. As they worked, they focused on getting down their ideas and left blanks for vocabulary words they didn’t know. They made illustrations or brought in pictures and spent time sharing these.
  3. In each class, Pat did a lesson on a grammar point or spelling rule that she thought would be useful. For example, she reviewed the use of transition words (e.g. first, then, after that, finally, and in the end) that could be used to improve the coherence of their stories. Students also conferenced with peers regularly, getting help especially with vocabulary.
  4. When their drafts were done, there was a more structured process, in which peers (in small groups) listened to the authors read their pieces. If the piece was a story, they were to listen for a beginning, middle, and end; if the piece was a description of something, they were to listen to see if it was clear why that thing (object, place, game, etc.) was important to the author. They also talked about how the piece would help the child learn about his/her heritage and culture. Then there was some time for general feedback (providing support, noting grammar errors, etc.).
  5. To help them with editing, Pat invited the class to ask her questions and then the whole class discussed the answers. Out of this discussion they brainstormed a list of some key grammar, punctuation, and capitalization rules that they should pay attention to, and turned these into a checklist to use as they edited their work. They were also welcome to confer with peers at any point, and were encouraged to consult resources (dictionaries, their grammar text, etc.)
  6. Pat met with them for a final once-over before their texts were ready to be copied neatly onto fresh paper (these students were not yet comfortable with computers). At that time, they used the criteria generated together earlier to review and assess the work . Some of the assessment would have to wait until they met with the children to see how the books went over.

After the books were finished and decorated, the class started thinking about their next step – reading them to the children. They asked Pat to suggest to the Early Childhood teacher that this be the focus of their next visit and started to rehearse their reading. And, having discovered many cross-cultural similarities during their conversations (common folktales, for example), they were also excited about possibly putting their writings together into a collection, or maybe doing storytelling of their various versions of the same folktale for the children.