Reflections on my practice in the PBLA Prescribed System

A circle with words related to the text - learning, students, PBLA, assessments, etc.In the LINC/ESL class,  instructors “cross barriers of understanding, aptitudes, behaviours, desires, and knowledge” (Rappel, 2013) in hopes of helping newcomers successfully adapt to life in a multicultural community. In this context, I think that Knowle’s five assumptions of andragogy are as useful as ever: clear learning intents and expectation, teacher-student collaboration, student-student collaboration, timely feedback, and engagement in self-reflection.

I believe these practices can be helpful in creating a learning environment in which students take ownership of learning through mutual respect and co-operation. While these principles are also supported by PBLA guidelines, the application of it brings some challenges as well.

A dissonance in values and practice? 

Some core values that I strive for are inclusive and shared learning, tolerance and respect, personal agency, and careful listening. Teaching a group of people from different cultures and ethnicities provides a joyful opportunity to discover our similarities and differences as we learn to appreciate each other through negotiation and dialogue. In my opinion, there is little room for prescribed curriculum and rigid evaluation practices. Instead, as McNiff stated in his book, Action Research: All You Need to Know, the goal of communicative language learning is achieved by sharing knowledge through close listening and clear dialogue that brings mutual understanding.  

It is unfortunate that too often, the classroom cycle of learning, practicing, and assessing has become more prescriptive since the start of PBLA. Rather than creating a learning process that engages the students to set language learning goals, demonstrate learning, and reflect on needs and ability, students chase after the next assessment and instructors scramble to teach everything that is required for them to be successful. In this way, the method of assessing becomes a barrier for students to find delight in the learning process.  

Finding New Perspectives on PBLA

Finding new and creative ways to teach and assess while using PBLA is a challenge. Often it will depend upon your personal teaching style as well as how the program is implemented at your place of work.   

Some exasperating issues that I hear discussed frequently

  • The program policy of continuous intake makes thematic teaching and participatory projects difficult to conduct due to student absence, attrition, and late joiners.  
  • Integrating self-reflective practice when so many students are in survival mode in a new country learning a new language and coming from vastly different situations.  

Also at issue, according to Brookfield in his book, Powerful Techniques for Teaching Adults, the constant promotion in western culture of the “self-directed learner” is a social construct that runs counter to the cultural identity of learners from group-identity cultures. 

Three questions that I ask myself often as I deliver lessons

  • How can I make connections between learners’ experience and the subject matter?  

This is fairly easy to do through a warm up question and discussion exercise with intermediate and high level leaners. With beginner and literacy students – it takes a lot of creativity – along with some artistic and acting talent. All levels can relate to a video or images to activate prior knowledge/experience. 

  • What instructional methods enable each learner to succeed personally and socially and how can I incorporate them?  

It takes a lot of time observing learners, talking with them, and seeing how they work through lessons and worksheets to gather this information. Unfortunately, if you have a revolving door of students or your own work placements, this becomes more difficult. 

  • How can I encourage learners to see the benefits of learning for the sake of learning rather than learning just to take an assessment and go to the next level?  

Here is the million-dollar question for all of us.  All that I can say here is that I try to help them understand that assessments are NOT tests – they are given to see how the learners are coming along in their understanding of English.  

If anyone has some thoughts on these questions – or has other questions to add, please add to the comments below.   


Knowles, M.S., Holton III, E.F., and Swanson, R.A. (1998) The Adult Learner. Butterworth:Heinemann. 

Rappel, L. (2013). Developing intercultural awareness in second language education: Teaching language through narrative. 

Check out earlier blogs on the topic of PBLA

Examining the 2019 PBLA Guidelines: The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly

PBLA Assessments in Remote ESL Classes

Summary of the #PBLA in the Virtual Classroom discussion with Rabia Rashid


PBLA: Can I See the Curriculum Please?

Who has the Final Say about Student Marks?

Reflections on the implementation of PBLA

Hello TESL O members. I'm Beth Beardall. I manage the TESL O Blog website working alongside an amazing team of editors and bloggers. I truly enjoy working with the TESL Ontario Blog Admin Team and have been volunteering with the TESL O Blog since 2016. I am OCELT certified and have a master's degree in Adult Education. I work in the LINC/ESL program with adult learners. I enjoy learning from others, teaching or tutoring ESL and getting to know people from around the world, and, of course, copy editing and proofreading.


4 thoughts on “Reflections on my practice in the PBLA Prescribed System”

  1. A timely blog post. In my literacy class, the attitude towards doing regular assessments is fairly relaxed. I’m not being pushed to do weekly tasks, fill students’ proficiency lists, and get 8 completed tasks for reading and writing. The pressure is coming from the students. I recently promoted one student to the next level, and now some of the other students want to also move up.

    In the higher level class I am also teaching, there is an expectation all round to give weekly assessments. I agree with the last point in spirit more than letter. I gave an assessment task to this class recently, and it was fairly difficult, though appropriate. However, the students see these tasks as tests, and while explaining to them that tasks are for seeing how they’re developing, the students see them differently – their ticket to moving up to the next level.

    We move on to another module. Even though we review the answers to the task, that’s it. Move on. Also, I find myself teaching to the test, or the task, as it were. I’m giving them skill building exercises so that they are prepared for the task at the end of the week. This approach comes at the cost of holistic language teaching and learning.

    The principle of learning for the sake of learning is a relatively hard sell in an environment that makes English functional, for specific purposes, and that influences a teaching to the test approach.

    I recently completed an online PBLA training course and one of my take-aways from this course is that PBLA is designed for tasks, and for teaching to them.

    Don’t know how to get around that. We teach functional English, not for the sake of learning a new language.

    1. I agree with you, Derek. The learners in the LINC/ESL program see these task assessments as their ticket to get to the next level – which completely misses the goal of simply learning to communicate and be able to extrapolate the strategies and language in one function to be used across all types of situations.
      LINC historically embraced thematic and task-based instruction, but my understanding is that it was more holistic and instructors worked with students to decide when they should progress to a new level. It is interesting that PBLA invokes “assessment for learning” but in practice it truly is assessment of learning.

  2. Kudos to you for initiating this open discussion.

    PBLA /CLBs is still contentious; still the jury is out as to efficacy, validity, practicality, worth, ROI, fairness of implementation, value to learners etc. Although the majority of participants chose to listen and not weigh in (and I am sure there are many understandable reasons for this) those who did brought different insights and suggestions.. People shared their experiences and I appreciated that. You could hear the passion for teaching and the love for our learners in their voices. It struck me as being especially useful for new teachers, and TESL trainees. Not so much as a “How to do PBLA “ (…lol..there’s no such one thing…In the words of Joanne Pettis – one of the two original designers: “Your PBLA is not my PBLA”. ) But just as in the past (2000 on…)when I attended Fran Marshall or Professor David Mendelsohn and other brilliant TESLer’s workshops at TESL Ontario Conferences
    , and got “the bug”, and was inspired and excited to begin my new profession, it seemed from the breakout room that listening to “veteran teachers” was useful and encouraging to newbies.

    I wonder if a linked Padlet where people can post answers, suggestions or questions of their own) might give people an additional chance to share not only during the webinar but before and/or after. (For e.g. the question “How do you keep learners engaged?”..or the breakout room questions.)

    I just registered for Part Two. Thank you again for your initiative. 🙂

  3. Hi Claudie,
    Thanks for the feedback here on the dialogue session and for your astute and thoughtful input. I appreciate your comments here too. I have sent you a message about the idea to continue the discussion after the session.

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