Promising Practices: A Peer-led English Conversation Program that Works


by Natalia Balyasnikova

[This article was first printed in the Summer 2017 issue of TEAL News.]

I came to Canada in 2013 as a PhD student at the University of British Columbia; however, my most influential and transformative learning occurred when I started volunteering as an English language facilitator at the UBC Learning Exchange, located in the Downtown Eastside. I was so enraptured by the program and the way it was set up, that in 2015 I proposed to interview other facilitators in the English Conversation program in order to find out what encourages them to volunteer. I was hired by the UBC Learning Exchange to conduct this study and single out promising practices from the perspective of the volunteers, who facilitate English language conversation groups. In this article, I would like to share some of these practices in the hope that other community-based practitioners would find them useful for their work.

A historical sketch

The UBC Learning Exchange is a community-engagement initiative of the University of British Columbia. Founded with a goal to find ways to link the University of British Columbia to Downtown Eastside community groups, to this day the Learning Exchange continues to bring together people from different walks of life and experiences. Over the years, building on multiple strengths of a vibrant Downtown Eastside community, the Learning Exchange has grown from a drop-in computer workshop to a well-known presence in the community, offering a range of workshops, public talks, and educational and arts-based programs.

One of the programs at the Learning Exchange is English Conversation. This program aims not only to develop the conversational proficiency of language learners but also to provide them with opportunities to gain confidence and leadership skills. The program is divided into four levels of English language proficiency and is led by community and university volunteers.

The learners are typically allowed to take one English language class per week during a 10-week session. English as an Additional Language (EAL) conversation groups meet for 75-minute sessions once a week for ten weeks to discuss a range of topics chosen by the program coordinator and student staff. These topics include cultural holidays, Canadian traditions and customs, popular culture, famous people, internationally famous places, etc. Additionally, there is free reading material that could be interesting for adult EAL learners, such as the West Coast Reader and Canadian Immigrant available for all learners of the program to read at the centre or take home. During each session, learners use various worksheets with a short text and follow-up questions that guide their conversations. The role of the facilitator in the class is to use the worksheet as a starting point for their class and to encourage learners to speak as much as they can. Facilitators are encouraged to choose topics that they think could be interesting to learners in their group; some of the more experienced facilitators bring their own worksheets or use the reading material provided by the centre in their classes.

All learners are free to use Learning Exchange resources such as free access to computers and Wi-Fi or attend free workshops for learning computer skills. They can also spend time at the centre having coffee or tea, reading, or socializing with other language learners and other patrons of the centre.

Volunteer community

The facilitator community is quite diverse; there are both native and non-native speakers of English who lead the classes. However, similar to the learners, many of the facilitators are either retired or currently not employed and are residents of the area where the Learning Exchange is located. Moreover, many of the facilitators are non-native speakers who have previously attended the program and advanced to higher levels of proficiency. One of the salient characteristics of this community is the peer-to-peer nature of interaction in and outside the classroom.

Most facilitators in the Learning Exchange do not have substantial pedagogical training. In order to make their transition into a facilitator role an easier one, the incoming volunteers are required to participate in a series of training workshops delivered by the coordinator of the English Conversation Program. (Currently the facilitator training program is being restructured to offer more holistic and diverse training for incoming facilitators.) During the course of these workshops, the incoming volunteers are presented with the goals of the EAL program, the philosophy behind the Learning Exchange, class management techniques, foundations of intercultural communication, and other topics that are relevant for the context they are entering as facilitators. The training workshops run in tandem with facilitators’ first classes. This gives the novice facilitators an opportunity to put the workshop materials into practice. Upon the completion of the workshop series, the new facilitators are assigned a group of learners and begin their volunteering with the Learning Exchange. At times, these facilitators are given an opportunity to team-teach the first sessions and to collaborate with more experienced facilitators. In addition to facilitating, some volunteers are allowed to take other classes offered by the Learning Exchange. For example, at the time of this study, some EAL facilitators were enrolled in the Spanish language classes offered by volunteers.

Promising practices

I must acknowledge that adult language and literacy programs are diverse and pursue different goals. For this reason, it is hard to give clear best practices that will undoubtedly work in any context. Nevertheless, there are promising practices that I have noticed at the English Conversation program. I believe they could be applied across various contexts. The three promising practices that I have observed in the Learning Exchange are 1) development of the English Conversation program as a community of practice 2) sustaining of an informal context of learning and interaction and 3) recognition of experiences shared by learners and facilitators and building upon them.

The English conversation program as a community of practice

The first promising practice is sustaining the English Conversation program as a community of practice. It’s a model of volunteer/learner support that can enhance many programs that rely on volunteers in their work.

A community of practice is an organizational model that was developed by Etienne Wenger. A community of practice is first and foremost a joint enterprise, whose members share a repertoire, activities, and mutually support each other. Through their participation in shared activities, the members of a community of practice move from novice to expert status simultaneously drawing upon and contributing to the strengths of the community. While communities of practice can be quite diverse, they have specific characteristics that distinguish them from formal professional groups. The main difference is that the purpose of a community of practice is to develop individual potential by encouraging knowledge exchange among members who select themselves.

The volunteers at the Learning Exchange are participating in a community of practice and thrive through doing so. First, they are engaged in a joint enterprise of facilitating English language conversational groups, and, due to a pre-established curriculum, share a repertoire, both pedagogical and conceptual. Second, they participate in shared activities, such as facilitator training workshops, and feel the necessity to continue doing so. Third, as facilitators move from the novice status to a more experienced one, they grow in confidence to add their knowledge to enrich the practices at the centre, while still relying on those who are located in the centre of the community—the core staff and student staff—for support in some cases. These changes inform the growth of the program and add to the reasons why facilitators continue to stay active with the program. As communities of practice, adult EAL programs can be maintained through the commitment of individuals and their interest in sustaining their group.

Informal context of learning and interaction

The second promising practice that I observed in the Learning Exchange is the informal context that shapes the interaction between the learners and the facilitators. Facilitators and learners are engaged in a collaborative learning practice that benefits both learners and volunteer facilitators and constructs this learning community of practice. In the Learning Exchange, facilitator/learner roles are multilayered and fluid in nature. Some of the facilitators are non-native speakers of English, others are not experienced teachers of English. Despite this, they bring strengths to the community. For example, the non-native speakers of English bring an understanding of the challenges that learners face. At the same time, they are increasing their language proficiency through leading the classes. More importantly, facilitators maintain their roles as learners, albeit more experienced ones, in their interaction with novice learners. Native English speaking facilitators bring knowledge about life in Canada and some culturally-specific aspects of language use. At the same time, they develop awareness about challenges that newcomers to Canada face in their everyday interactions with native speakers of English. The Learning Exchange has created a system of informal interactions between people, which supports both learners and facilitators and ensures their persistence in the educational setting.

Recognition of experiences shared by learners and facilitators

The third promising practice at the Learning Exchange is that the program takes individual lives into account and draws upon members’ shared life experiences. Because of this, volunteers at the Learning Exchange have deep altruistic motives for volunteering and they appreciate feeling needed and being in demand. They share the experience of trying to learn a new language, learning at a mature age, or understanding the importance of access to education. This attests to the power of altruism and community-building in adult learning contexts where learners might struggle due to their socio-economic status, level of education, or language proficiency.


In this short article, I wanted to introduce the UBC Learning Exchange that grew from one program into a multifaceted community-engagement initiative that is trusted and respected by many members of the community. Moreover, I wanted to highlight three promising practices elaborated in the English Conversation program. These practices stood out for me during a small-scale study conducted in 2015. These three practices are: 1) development of the English Conversation program as a community of practice 2) sustaining of an informal context of learning and interaction, and 3) recognition of experiences shared by learners and facilitators and building upon them. The English Conversation at the Learning Exchange is driven and sustained by volunteers, some of whom are former learners—and that is perhaps the greatest strength of this program. If you would like to learn more about UBC Learning Exchange and work done there, please visit their website.


I would like to thank Spring Gillard, UBC Learning Exchange English Conversation Coordinator, and Angela Towle, UBC Learning Exchange Academic Director, for their support and feedback on this article.

Biographical Information

From the Summer 2017 issue of the BC TEAL newsletter:  Natalia Balyasnikova has collaborated on a range of research and outreach projects with community-based initiatives in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside. Her research explores English language education in community-based settings, and through this work Natalia aims to support older adults learning English as an additional language.


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Original reference information:

Balyasnikova, N. (2017, Summer). Promising practices: A peer-led English conversation program that works. TEAL News. Retrieved from