The Outrageous Refuse of PBLA

image source: Stacey Vandenberg

If you work with PBLA, what does your program site do with the leftover Language Companion Binders?  What you are looking at in the picture are leftover PBLA binders at our location. Most are full of the quintessential “artifacts.”  We have tried to encourage students to take the binders with them when they leave the program, but the fact is that they are not wanted. Management and staff have discussed different strategies to facilitate binder departures, but so far most of our students just smile politely and say “no thank you” before exiting as fast as possible, lest we try to put it into their hands. Can you blame them? Who wants this huge awkward emblem of the past century filling shelf space at home, not to mention the weight when it is fully loaded?

What should we do with this precious plastic? We thought it would be best to take out the old artifacts and recycle the binders back into the classroom to be reused. This seems like a good idea but who is going to do this time-consuming job? Who will do the cleanup? Should the administrators or settlement workers be responsible? Perhaps those supposed volunteers that were frequently referred to but who never materialized will do the work.  As it is, teachers are still not being fully compensated for the time we spend on PBLA, so not us.

What about the ton of paper inside the binders? Those have to go into the recycling bin. The levity with which IRCC considers the environment is astonishing. In a time when many countries are banning plastic and using technology to reduce paper consumption, we are finding ways to increase its use.

The implementation of PBLA has been poorly thought out from the start. There is no fiscal plan for fair compensation, no environmental conscience, and no evidence that it is enhancing learners’ experience. Why are we still using it?

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.


17 thoughts on “The Outrageous Refuse of PBLA”

  1. I think every teacher using PBLA asks the same questions. I think the last paragraph is right on point. I’ve been teaching before PBLA was invented and I think it’s been a mistake. It’s caused more issues than the old system and there are NO answers to make it better. I was a huge supporter of it in the beginning but not so much, anymore. Now with the waste question, it burns me even more. I said from the beginning it would run a 10 year course. I still hold to that prediction.

  2. At my LINC institution, we do not have leftover binders. Students are required to bring their binders to school each day and take them home each night. Students with medical reasons which make them unable to carry heavy things leave their binders at home. We work in a shared space at a smaller institution and do not have space to keep student’s binders at the school. We check daily to make sure students bring their binders on a regular basis.

    Students should not be given a choice to leave their binders at school ever, but especially not when they leave the program. Binder artefacts are official documents that can be used by students to obtain official reports of English ability, which they need to get citizenship, apply for various continuing education programs, and sometimes to get jobs. They should always be the student’s responsibility, not the school’s. Regardless of teachers’ and administrators’ attitudes to PBLA, it is the current necessary reality, and the system through which our students receive their vitally important language credentials. It is our responsibility to make sure students do not think their binders are useless pieces of trash, and if they cannot understand that, present them with rules to ensure they at least are the ones responsible for removing their binders from schools and having them available in the future.

    To help students understand why their binders are important, teachers can take the time to incorporate both artefacts and the language companion in every day classroom activities. At higher levels, having students use completed artefacts for reflection or peer review helps students understand their progress and set goals. Using the language companion for reading practice, listening practice, research practice, and vocabulary gathering on a regular basis will help students to feel it is not a useless hunk of paper they are carrying around. For Literacy and lower levels, perhaps personalizing the outside of their binder with pictures, art, or their first attempts at writing their names/personal information/the name of their school would help them feel a sense of ownership (though I fully recognize the difficulty that Literacy teachers face with incorporating PBLA and binder use). If there are any available translators, lower level students can have the importance of their binders explained to them in their first languages. There could even be collaborations between higher and lower level classes, so higher students could help explain binders to lower students. All of these activities are part of reflection requirements for PBLA practice, and while they do take class time, are important to include in students’ learning journeys.

    With regards to the point about the environment, I personally think that the best way to save trees would be for someone to create a standarized PBLA curricumlum and textbooks. This would save us all the hundreds of pages of photocopying a day we do to provide handouts to our students!

    For any other course, students would be required to bring and use textbooks, course packets, and their own notebooks. Binders are no different from a college textbook or a high school resource book. It is the responsibility of teachers, administrators, and institutions to help students navigate the current system of instruction, no matter what our opinions are about it. No matter how flawed, it is vital that our students understand it and are able to use it to their advantage. This means using, keeping, and removing their binders from their LINC schools, whether they want to or not.

    1. ARW’s defence of the garbage LC “binders” is hard to understand. .

      LC “Binders” ARE very different from “a college textbook or a high school resource book”. College textbooks and high school resource books are created by experts in their fields, based on solid research, with field tested material, hopefully inter-tester reliable and consistent. Mastery of their formal curricula content leads to credits that are generally recognized by established educational institutions.

      Not so IRCC’s and CCLB’s “Peanut Butter and Lettuce Assessment”.

      Our learners are not idiots – although the whole approach of PBLA is to treat them as such. Reading the comment I felt a terrible sadness for the learners at ARW’s institution. Such disrespect, such disdain for learner voice and autonomy – well, it is a hallmark of the PBLA Establishment this perpetuation of colonial mentality, the defence of the amateur and fake SLA construct to please “the funders”.

      Those abandoned binders and the waste in taxdollars and teacher and learner effort they represent is not the crime. The crime is the lie that PBLA is valid, evidence based, and that it is a fair and ethical criterion for “Canadian citizenship”. What has happened to us that we swallow the lie, perpetuate the harm, compromise our own integrity, force it on unsuspecting newcomers?
      Reading ARW’s comments I am struck by how conflicted they are. There’s recognition of the waste, the inappropriateness for beginner language learners, the lack of standardisation and validity, the frustration and flaws.

      “Binder artefacts are official documents that can be used by the students to obtain official reports of their English language ability, which they need to get citizenship, etc”. Nope. Sorry. Not true.

      You mean APPLY for citizenship..but it is the same stupid discriminatory “judgement” of who is worthy to be Canadian based on trashy pieces of gobbledegook passing as “tests”. SHAME on us!

      It is my responsibility to teach learners we value democracy and critical analysis and telling truth to power in Canada and to protect them from harm. Convenient though this trashy flawed experiment/protocol is for IRCC the fact that it is false turns all of us into liars. And Canada into a dishonest country. That’s the horror.
      ARW – treat the learners with truth and respect. Would YOU like to learn a language in this way? Would you like have your Canadian citizenship be dependent on a crappy , invalid “artefact”? I bet not.

      Sent from my iPad

      1. Hi Claudie,

        You are a skilled wordsmith! The binders are not textbooks in any sense of the word. Forcing newcomers to deal with PBLA in addition to all their other struggles is unfair. We don’t even ask native students to participate in such arduous tasks. It’s time for it to end,


    2. Thank you ARW for a well thought out response. We may not agree on everything but we both understand that what is urgently needed now is a curriculum and a textbook. This would be of huge benefit to everyone, especially the students.


      1. This! Yes!

        Do you think if we throw all of our used and unused binders into the PBLA volcano, that the gods will throw back at us a curriculum?

    3. Sorry ARW, you sound like you’ve never seen either ESL/LINC students or schools in Real World Life.

  3. I am a full time PBLA Lead. I have cleared out abandoned binders. They are then given to new students. The recycling of binders cuts down on waste. There are relatively few abandoned binders in our program.

    1. Hi Stephanie,

      I’m curious – what are tge responsibilities of a full time Lead? Are you paid by your SPO/Board? Did your SPO create this position? Is it part of the union CA? Governed by seniority?

      Do you teach a class as well as “provide support” for teachers that ask for it
      (as I understand the CCLB definition to be)? Or is your site so large it needs a separate functionary to orient new intakes to PBLA, and manage binders.


      (Can I book you to come and clean out the orphan binders in my class? When I call learners they promise to come but mostly no show. Some binders I keep intact as I think the learners might be back when their kids are old enough to attend childminding. Occasionally I’ll grab a binder and junk the contents to give to another student who abandoned their binder at another location… if it is not too scuzzy).

    2. Hi Stephanie,

      It sounds like you have got a good system to keep the waste under control. It’s unfortunate that the underlying assumption made by PBLA in the first place, namely that all students would want their binders, turned out to be incorrect.


  4. Frankly, I’m not a huge fan of PBLA, but I did an informal survey of my upper intermediate class about a month ago. I disclosed my feelings, but asked them to honestly tell me what they thought of PBLA – the binders and assessments.

    Out of about 12 students only 2 or 3 absolutely disliked it. They thought it was too much extra work to keep organized and it was too bulky. Among the other students about 6 said they liked the binder, thought there was good information in the LC orange section and felt that the assessments helped them gauge their language ability. They did concede that it was a lot of work to organize it all, but once started, they kept on top of it. The rest didn’t really comment on the binder and PBLA, but more on the class. In my class students take their binder home and only bring it to class when we plan to work on it – that is every Wednesday for my a.m. class and once or twice a month in my 2 nights a week class. Admittedly, this is more difficult to manage in the night class because students forget or don’t want to bring it.

    Well, for what it’s worth, I agree that PBLA isn’t great, but it is what we have to deal with for now. Personally, I actually believe in the effectiveness of AfL and portfolio assessment – but PBLA is not really that, though it touts that it is.

  5. We live in a digital age where these binders are obsolete. It is a huge waste of tax payer money and time taken away from teaching to keep up with all the pieces of paper. The students are not ignorant but quite the opposite. They see the mayhem of this (PBLA) system no matter what we do to convince them. Of course they don’t want them! Would you? There is no value in them. A better option would be to keep digital records.

    Our students are tech savvy (for the most part). Since the virus outbreak, we have had to scramble to deliver our classes online and as far as I have seen in the last ten days or so, the students are all engaged, do their assignments as well as assessments, online. Not a single sheet of paper! Not that this is a better substitute to teaching face to face.

    We meet daily as a group and go over what is happening. They have a lot of questions and fears for their jobs, family, and health. I think it is important to reassure them and point them to the appropriate government resources for assistance. But before they can do that, we have to teach them how because they are more lost than we are.

    At this unprecedented time we’re quickly learning the value of what was truly necessary and what wasn’t. The same goes for the way and what we teach. It is unreasonable for the “funders” to insist on this narrow minded, unproven and unsound pedagogy that puts ELL and the students last in favour of a complexity of bureaucratic spread sheets of meaningless data, no resources, no curriculum, too much photo copying, on and on.

    We have no time (as we did before) to really get to know our students and engage with them to find out about their lives and what they truly need to learn and address it in a meaningful and relevant manner. Instead, teacher’s are trying to outdo each other by spending hours on creating the best looking assessment, 32 times or more per term to appease the “funders” while in fact, students lose out from time that could have been spent addressing the most important issues facing new immigrants. We are teachers and our job is to teach effectively and efficiently with a positive impact and real results.
    I don’t disagree with assessing student’s progress. What I disagree with is this unprofessional approach where the “assessment” is the be all and end all of the learning process. PBLA, with over 30 assessments per term does NOT work with new immigrants. It may work in first language classes, I don’ t know but, what I do know, after teaching for almost thirty years, is that new immigrants who have left so much behind and often have fled difficult circumstances, often “shell shocked”, do not find comfort, peace nor confidence in learning English as well and as quickly as they had before PBLA.

    Thank you for allowing me to vent my concerns. All the best to everyone, stay safe and healthy!

    1. Joanna,
      Thank you for sharing. Stay strong.
      Many vented the same concerns over past years and begged for evidence that the approach was valid, reliable, consistent, practical, fair, and led to faster, deeper, better English acquisition and integration into the work, academic and social life of Canada. NO evidence came. The observations of many were that they saw the opposite.
      Right now I am mourning the loss of time, personal time, family time, effort, energy, mental health that we spent trying to make pbla work. (In spite of my cynicism, and maybe because of it I was an UBER complier.) We can’t get those lost moments and composure back.
      It is sad that so much money went into this project and not into projects like LIT2T or the PTCT ACE Language Learning &Technology course or other programs for computer competence and online teaching that would have readied us for now. Well, now maybe it will. I think it would be hard to justify the “graded portfolio” approach (and the heavy binders) that is PBLA.
      Thank you for sharing. Stay safe and healthy (all).

  6. I read this story and all responses with great interest. I think the bottom line is the Gov’t messed up on this and will never admit it. The botched initial “study” (and I use that word very loosely) has been buried in the Library and Archives of Canada. It can only be retrieved through a freedom of information request. That is how badly the gov’t wants to hide this mistake.

    Then the introduction of this and consequent implementation was also badly done. We were given an idea that was not fully formed and told to figure it out. So every province, every city, every school and every instructor made a different interpretation and put it in play.

    This in turn has led to so much confusion, frustration, anxiety and resentment that both students and instructors are dizzy!!! Unfortunately it is not going away any time soon. So we all need to do what we can and for each of us that will be different.

    At our institution we have worked out most of the kinks and are doing fairly well. Time will tell and what happens next is anybody’s guess.

    1. I peddled blog and form-based ePBLA when I was in the LINC program and tried to proliferate the paperless.
      Even proposed adapting it for preimmigration language training and assessment.
      Guess I failed, haha.
      What’s new ??

  7. Lol Stacey you were referenced in a TESLOntario blogpost from SEPT 2020 (which I have just seen. )

    Apparently you should be happy we have migrated to paperless eportfolios through Avenue.
    Are you?

    And what about when we return to in person? Certainly the remote experience showed us the breadth of the digital divide….especially the difficulties for lower levels and literacy….

    Meanwhile in June 2021 the results of the GOVERNMENT
    Of CANADA ‘s study were circulated through emails and TWITTER by some of the ESL/LINC community

    The government’s own study, their independent experts, concluded that the “LA” in “PBLA” ( language assessments) are NOT Valid assessments and should not be used as such.
    They are “subjective” .
    yup, 5,000 x (32 x?) artefacts were “Subjective” .. just as we said..

    ( It also saidc PBLA is inappropriate fir literacy and lower levels).

    The grapevine tells us that organizations are being approached to develop valid testing instruments …


    We continue collecting and tracking online “artefacts” for promotion…same old, same old.

    The online IRCC portal AVENUE is the new “ PBLA” tool/eportfolio.

    (Having a MOODLE available for ESL/LINC is not a bad thing although the MOODLE LMS is notoriously overloaded with features – more than ESL TEACHERS IN NONCREDIT, CONTINUOUS INTAKE PROGRAMS NEED.
    Some may enjoy becoming “editing “ experts. Others – no time, no extra remuneration…we just want to teach and make a difference in newcomers ‘ lives. Sigh. Oh well – “Avenue” is “glitchy”, but we can excuse that by saying it is still being built.

    BUT the “language assessments” are just as invalid as before, just as subjective…and newcomers’ lives are just as adversely impacted by the reliance on the collection of dodgy artefacts to get the “Linc certificate” for application for citizenship.

    I’m tired of banging my head against closed doors.

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