Crossroads Cafe: For ESL adult students standing at the crossroads

Oct 18, 2000

No one says Educational videos have to be boring - case in point, Crossroads Café.

Crossroads Café is a series of 26 videos along with books to teach advanced beginners and middle-level learners of English as a Second Language.

My first introduction to Crossroads Café was a night that monkey girl had a stomach flu and was up all night revisiting dinner. About 5:30 a.m. we had PBS on and they ran this sit-com with a laugh track about a group of people working at a diner in a city. There were two breaks - one for a culture clip to learn more about American culture and another for a song emphasizing a grammar point. At the time I had no clue what this show was, I just knew it had an interesting plot and was actually very entertaining. The video quality was that of a sit-com and all the actors were believable.

Fast- forward a year and I've started to substitute teach for the local adult literacy department. The first day I teach I get to show a video and do some activities. The video: Crossroads Café. I later learned more about the program.

It was developed to introduce mainly oral English in an entertaining setting. The students can either use the books in the classroom, through distance learning, or independently. Independent students can watch or tape the programs off of their local PBS station (usually aired in the middle of the night) and then work alone with the workbooks. Distance learners watch the video at home, do the workbook, and have a teacher (like me) call them to discuss and correct their grammar and pronunciation.


Like I said there are 26 videos featuring the following characters:

Victor Brashov, a café owner from Hungary. He's a widower and speaks with a slight accent. In the series he gets reunited with his daughter and has a heart attack.

Jess Washington, a retired African-American gentleman, who is Victor's best customer and chess partner. We met his wife and he's always the voice of reason.

Jamal is an Egyptian engineer who can't find a job in his field so he works at the café as a handyman. His wife is a successful businesswoman and they have a small child.

Katherine Blake is an American in her thirties. She is divorced with two small children and works as a waitress. In the series we get to follow her meeting a man and getting married.

Rosa Rivera is from Mexico and works as the chef. She explores the area of racial discrimination in renting apartments and is best friends with Katherine (after a shaky start).

Henry Cho is a Chinese high school student and works at the café as a bus boy/delivery boy. He doesn't like school, dates a non-Chinese girl, and wants to be a rock musician.

The stories in the video cover many daily activities from the start of the café. In the first episode we see Mr. Bashov hire all his new employees. Many tough issues are discussed and even though America is shown as a good place to live, it's not perfect. There are episodes on racial profiling, racial discrimination, single parenting, death and funerals, hospital stays, culture shock, homeless people, and gangs.

But there is emphasis on the good as well: dating, weddings, promotions, communities working together, elections, and family reconciliation.

The stories are told in neat thirty-minute packages. Instead of commercials there are cultural breaks and grammar breaks. The cultural breaks show real life people dealing with the problems featured in each episode. The grammar breaks feature a grammar point in song. Even native English speakers will catch themselves singing along.

The Books

Photo Stories
There are a variety of books to go along with this series. For advanced beginners there is Photo Stories A (Tapes 1-13) and Photo Stories B (Tapes 14-26)

The formats for these are the same. Each story is introduced and with "Who's in the story?" and pictures and descriptions of the main characters in that video are shown. On the following pages, pictures from the video are set out in storyboard form. Dialogue is included like with comic books. Occasionally there are breaks to ask questions like:

1. Why is Mr. Bashov in the hospital?

a. He had a heart attack.
b. He had an accident

When the story is finished there are easy questions pages with the answers at the bottom of the page for self-checking. Usually the order is put some pictures from the story in the correct order.

There is a page introducing more vocabulary with items labeled and then the student must use the words to fill in the blanks of a sentence.

There is a picture dictionary page where students copy new words that match with the picture and then write the name of that item in their native language.

This book is usually too difficult for complete beginners and are better suited to advanced beginners. I've tried using it with complete beginners and they are completely overwhelmed. In my limited experience only beginning students should try this in the classroom and not attempt it distance learning.

Work Text

Like the photo stories books , there are two work texts. Students doing these are the most fun to work with on the phone. There are three levels in the work textbooks. Level one is marked with one red star. Levels two with two blue stars and level three with three green stars. Level two students get to do both Level one and Level two work. Level three get to do all the activities.

On the first page there is a list of goals for the students to learn from. First there are questions for students to answer before they watch discussing what they see in six photos from the story.

Then they are given easy questions (Who has a leaky pipe? Who suggests that Rosa have the tenants' meeting?) to think about while they watch the video.

After they watch there are some comprehension questions before they practice using your new language. This is done with fill in the blanks and matching. Up to this point, comprehension and pronunciation are the major skills practiced.

In your community pages emphasis documents ESL learners need exposure to like resumes, leases, and menus. Practice is given with the students providing short answers. This allows the teacher to start working on grammar.

Read and Write is the more practical practice. First the student reads a small written piece (diary, letter) and answer questions about comprehension and defining words. Then the students get to practice writing the same. Guiding questions are given to help the student.

What do you think? and Culture clips give the students the chance to answer based on their opinion (I almost typed epinion there) and cultural background. These are my favorite to grade - you get to learn more about the students when you ask these questions. Questions include "Do you think people should pretend to be something they are not? Tell why or why not." And "Frank has some problems caused by a lack of money. List some of these problems. Have you seen people like Frank on the street? What would you do if you were in that situation?"

Lastly there is a page to practice using their new vocabulary.

Partner Guide

Not all folks learn Crossroads Café with a teacher. Often a neighbor, friend, relative, child, or co-worker will step in to help the learner practice what they've learned from the video. There is a partner book available with suggested question a non-teacher can ask the learner to help them. There are enough questions to last 30-60 minutes for each video.

Where can I buy this?

For more information about the series, contact your local adult literacy or education office. Mine is associated with our local Even Start program. If you can't find any information, but want to help a friend you can make the following contacts:


Heinle and Heinle Publishers
ITP Distribution Center
7625 Empire Dr.
Florence, KY 41042


Plaza Centre
150 East Colorado Boulevard Suite 300
Pasadena, CA 91105-1937

So Bridgette, you've told us all about it, what do you think?

There is no magic pill or video that will make someone learn another language. Trust me, I still speak Chinese at a two-year-old level. But for a motivated learner, Crossroads Café makes the learning process fun. It's a fun TOOL.

Many ESL programs I've seen for adults have been dry, boring, poorly lit, and poorly acted. Crossroads Café is none of that. Hey, I'll pay attention to the stories when I work on it in the classroom just because they are so interesting.

So if you know someone who is struggling with English, don't just talk louder to them (that doesn't help - they can hear, just don't speak the language) help them locate these videos or the local adult literacy program at the local school. Volunteer to be a partner and help them. You'll laugh and cry at the videos. You'll feel good that you are helping someone else. And besides you'll learn more about another culture - and maybe yourself at the same time.

Can you tell that teaching English as a Second Language (ESL) is not just my job, but my hobby and my passion??

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Member: Bridgette
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About Me: Substitute Teacher, mom to a teen, dog, and cat and wife to wonderful hubby