PBLA: Can I See the Curriculum Please?

image source: https://www.flickr.com/photos/free_for_commercial_use/31307877416/

I get asked this question a few times every year. My answer is always the same, “We don’t have one”. It’s true, we don’t have one. We have the Curriculum Guidelines, a badly named book that provides class activities of varying quality for different CLB levels. We also have CLB criteria for assessments, and, of course, PBLA, another assessment tool, but nothing to tell us how to achieve these outcomes such as what grammar to teach or what pronunciation to focus on at specific levels. That would be really helpful, especially if you are a new teacher or switching levels.

Even more annoying is that the Center for Canadian Language Benchmarks says, “Portfolio-Based Language Assessment (PBLA) is a teaching and assessment model designed to enhance nationwide consistency and standards of quality in English as a Second Language…” How can a series of tests that we are all creating individually standardize the material being taught? It is the role of a curriculum to provide a systematic structure. It would mean that Susan in BC is introducing gerunds in Level 3 and so is Mahdi in Ontario. Talk about the tail wagging the dog.

Why didn’t the government spend money on a curriculum first rather than PBLA? We could implement the ‘how’, then later follow up with tests to see how effective it was.  Does it make sense to start at the finish line and work your way back?

In order to create a curriculum, they would have had to hire a few professors, knowledgeable in communicative theory, and invite some teachers and students to participate. It would have been something that really added value to our classrooms and established a degree of standardization that the government says it wants.  I can’t say for sure, but I also suspect it would have been a lot cheaper than PBLA, not to mention gratefully received.

It’s all very mysterious. How can people involved in education miss the curriculum? It’s like when my mother stopped to ask for directions. The man she spoke to offered to show her the way as he was going there himself. He turned left and then right, weaving in and out of the numerous side streets with my mother’s car following closely behind. Finally, about ten minutes in, he stopped his vehicle and got out. She rolled down her window and he said to her curtly, “I don’t know where it is!” He marched back to his car without so much as an “I’m sorry”, and drove away.

We are like my mother, stuck in the neighbourhood, without a GPS, and only a blurry photograph of where we are supposed to go. No wonder so many of us are upset.


Center for Canadian Language Benchmarks. (2019). Retrieved from on PBLA: https://www.language.ca/resourcesexpertise/on-pbla/

I was born in Scarborough General Hospital, so working in Scarborough is perfect for me because my students think I am 100% Canadian if there is such a thing. I have worked as a LINC teacher since 2008. First, as a supply teacher then later I found a job at Polycultural Immigrant Community Services. I like working with newcomers, and I love the English language so its been a pleasant journey. I hope it continues for many years to come.


18 thoughts on “PBLA: Can I See the Curriculum Please?”

  1. ESL/EAL in Canada is lost, meandering drunkenly. I doubt that those who have been leading us up the garden path with false claims of the wonders of “PBLA” will apologise either. They will not say sorry for the wild goose chase that resulted in the disastrous Portfolio BIASED approach to SLA. Here’s hoping that TESL in Canada finds the appropriate way again to help newcomers on the path to successful integration into Canadian life (Hint: that road is not paved with a collection of cumbersome, invalid, unreliable, inconsistent, 32-artefact binders. Nor is it based on the exploitation of vulnerable teachers through the demands for umpteen unpaid work hours. Nor is it based on hostility, humiliation, unkindness and abuse directed at those who question the efficacy.)
    I want to add that for me the prePBLA LINC 5-7 Activities binders are a great resource, a wonderful guide. Given our non-traditional class setups (continuous intake) they are easy to adapt to the needs of my class. They are intelligent, demonstrate a high standard of professionalism, show respect to teachers and learners. Well done TCDSB. (Only problem – amount of shrink, cut and pasting to make photocopying for classes reasonable).

    1. Claindie, would you be interested in participating in a research that is investigating the impact of PBLA initiative on LINC teachers? It will only be an hour long interview discussing your perspective and providing rich comments like the one you gave above .

  2. Excellent article! PBLA remains a great mystery to me, and I’ve been teaching for nearly 15 years! It is nothing more than a fancy term meaning “You should check on how well your students perform tasks that you’ve taught them.” Don’t we all do thst already?

  3. I love your wording, “Portfolio BIASED”… and ‘exploitation’ as you say seems to be the cornerstone of the PBLA program… Thanks for your comments!

    1. Hello Stacey
      Thank you for the GREAT article. My co-researcher and I are currently conducting a PBLA research titled “Portfolio Based Language Assessment (PBLA) in Language Instruction for Newcomers to Canada (LINC) Programs: Taking stock of teachers’ experience.” I would like to invite you and all the teachers who have participated in this blog with their insightful comments to participate in our research. If you or any other LINC/ESL teacher are interested, please contact me at NwaraAbdulhamid@Cunet.Carleton.Ca

      Thank you

      1. Very pleased to see someone else doing research into this. I’ve posted your contact on my JOY of ESL FB and Twitter. I’ll mention it on the blog, too.

  4. We absolutely do Peter. It suggest the funders have little knowledge or respect for what we do. It’s a shame because most ESL teachers do excellent work that surpasses the boundaries of teaching.

    1. At risk of blowing our own horns, Stacey, your comment is right on. I not only work very diligently when preparing and teaching lessons, I voluntarily “follow” ESL students who provide me with their contact information as they “graduate” to help ensure they are successful in their pursuits (e.g., preparing resumes, job applications, college/university applications, etc.). Bureaucratic nonsense.

  5. Totally agree! Curriculum is needed and much of it that I use is out of date i.e. LINC 5-7 Activities, Citizenship Resource binder, and the Financial Literacy Vol. 2 binders. LINC 5-7 Activities have stats from the 2006 census. I wish Ottawa would put its money into curriculum activities instead of expensive PBLA binders. My students have no connection to them…sad.

  6. Thank you for this post. I hope the government will one day listen. Yes, it’s embarrassing to admit a mistake, especially after so much money has been sunk into it. But I believe IRCC should cut its losses and reverse course.

  7. “How can a series of tests that we are all creating individually standardize the material being taught?”
    It can’t. It hasn’t. It should have been provided, and because it wasn’t, students and teachers are left burning in this dumpster fire. People need to keep speaking out against the tax-funded mistake that is PBLA.

    1. That’s exactly how we feel at our school. Tax payers, students and teachers are being abused by IRCC!

  8. Love the comments made by fellow readers. Would love to show this to our funder. Can’t help but think that they have little to no clue of teaching. My colleagues feel that PBLA was just a ‘make work’ project for some ‘CLB assessors’. I say ‘assessors’ in quotes because our team lead for PBLA training made a lot of grammar mistakes in their feedback to us. Don’t know anyone who loves PBLA. Would have been better to update and revise the existing LINC binders. I hope that one day PBLA will just fizzle out and go away forever…Let’s keep fighting this and ask for better resources for teachers and students!

  9. Thanks for taking the time to share with us such a great article. I really appreciate your work. It’s difficult to find excellent writing like yours nowadays. Usually I visit your blogs and get updated through the information you include.

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