Keep it R.E.A.L.! Relevant, Engaging, and Affirming Literacy for Adolescent English Learners by Mary Amanda (Mandy) Stewart

As a twenty-two-year-old, I completed my student teaching in an 8th grade Reading class for students new to the country. My cooperating teacher told me, “It’s just like teaching Pre-K to teenagers!”

Even my much younger self knew something was not quite right about that statement. Did these adolescents with nearly adult bodies and often very adult experiences, need to sit crisscross apple sauce on the floor to go over the alphabet? Or, was there perhaps another way to engage them in reading and other literacy activities?

I began my teaching career in that same middle school and I kept pondering who my students were and what they really needed. They were indeed in the dynamic process of English acquisition, not to mention beginning a new life in a new country, making new friends, adjusting to a different climate, and discovering the highly processed food of the school cafeteria. (Fish sticks?) They were also exploring who they were while experiencing new freedoms and falling in and out of love.

My 6th grade class in 2004

As I continued my professional education, I kept studying these amazing people that inhabit our middle and high schools in growing numbers. I began to appreciate how adolescents we often call English learners are a very, very diverse group!

Considering the complexity and variety of these students’ educational backgrounds, literate lives, multilingualism, and lived experiences, why did it seem like most of the professional resources on teaching them had cute little kids on the cover? As I became a teacher educator at a university, my office became full of books on teaching literacy to Emergent Bilinguals, English Language Leaners, Multilingual Students, Second Language Learners, and Immigrant Youth. The kids on the covers of these books are indeed adorable—pig tails, toothless smiles, pinchable cheeks, and just overall cuteness!

But these weren’t “my kids.”

These weren’t my middle schoolers who cried in my classroom from unrequited love and wanted to practice asking someone out on a date. They weren’t the high school kids I was working with who had facial hair, after school jobs, a coyote “human smuggler” to pay back, a family across the border to send money orders, or a keen sense of the sacrifices it would require to make it in a new country.

Through fifteen years of narrowly focusing on this population of extraordinary young people, I determined “best practices” espoused in the ESL books, might not be appropriate for these mature learners with life experiences that went untapped. I also decided that some “best practices” regarding adolescent literacy need modification based on these students’ unique linguistic demands. Through trial and lots of error, I discovered teachers could effectively address the (bi)literacy development of multilingual adolescents by leveraging their strengths through engagement in some really, really great literature.

High school students respond to a self-selected book they read in two languages: The Fault in Our Stars/Bajo la Misma Estrella (Green, 2014)

Merging reader response, second language acquisition, and biliteracy theories, I settled on an ever-evolving approach for teaching secondary students acquiring English—an approach that requires no costly curriculum (Put the textbook down!), no baby books (If Lay Su Aung has to read If You Give a Cat a Cupcake one more time, she might call you a bad name in all four of her languages!), no leveled readers (Unleash the power of unleveled books!), and no endless checklists of everything you should be doing in every lesson (I was SIOPed to death as a new teacher, but still appreciate the strategies in moderation.)

The administrators at the schools where I’d work with their English learners kept asking me the name of my “curriculum”. I’d stammer, “uhhhh, we read these great books students can connect to, then we, like, respond in all these ways and then we become this close community as we share our lived experiences…” As I babbled on, I realized I needed a quick name to assure these principals that my “curriculum” was legit. I came up with the four components I thought were the most important, Relevant, Engaging, & Affirming Literacy—R.E.A.L. Instruction.

A student from the Congo writes about her country and her migration journey as inspired by Inside Out & Back Again (Lai, 2011) and The Arrival (Tan, 2006)

This approach has four criteria as teachers engage in reading and responding to literature with their multilingual adolescent students. Every text and response activity is evaluated with these standards:

  1. Is it relevant to students’ lives?
  2. To what degree does it engage students’ interests within a community?
  3. How does it affirm students’ cultural and language identities?
  4. Does it lend itself to asset-oriented literacy instruction?

Teacher, Tricia Flint Keeps it REAL with her summer book club for newcomers by using an app to engage with texts

Keep it R.E.A.L.! is a compilation of my experiences with other teachers on how you transform your classroom by reading multicultural and even multilingual books with adolescent learners—how to use everything from wordless books, to picture books with mature themes, to poetry, to novels, and even to bilingual books in order to facilitate second language literacy and biliteracy development with the young people who are the next generation of global citizens.

After reading about their countries and cultures, Burmese students write acrostic poems to describe their distinct people groups: Karen, Chin, and Zoe. As always in REAL instruction, the teacher writes, too!

Keep it R.E.A.L! is for the ESL, ELA, or reading teacher of adolescents anywhere from beginning to very advanced in their second language acquisition in English. It’s for the teacher who is ready for authentic learning, and not just from the students. The most authentic learning might come from the teachers as their lives are transformed by knowing, really knowing, their students as they engage with literature together. At least that’s my experience…


Mary Amanda (Mandy) Stewart is assistant professor in the Department of Reading at Texas Woman’s University in Denton, Texas and a member of the North Star of Texas Writing Project, a local affiliate of the National Writing Project. Her research focuses on the biliteracy and second language development of middle and high school students who are learning English as an additional language. She is the “biblioburra”, the book donkey, who loves to bring new books to multilingual adolescents for them to read and share their responses with her. She currently is learning with newcomer high school students and teachers as the Director of the ELLevate! grant from the U.S. Department of Education.

Her research with adolescents learning English has appeared in various journals including Journal of Adolescent & Adult LiteracyThe English Journal,Research in the Teaching of EnglishLiteracy Research & Instruction, and TESOL Journal. She is also the author of Understanding Adolescent Immigrants: Moving Toward and Extraordinary Discourse for Extraordinary Youth published with Lexington Books. Find her on Twitter, Amazon, or her website: @drmandystewartAmazon Author Contact her at