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Working With Literacy-Level Adult English Language Learners
Some teachers—especially those new to teaching adult English language learners—express concern about teaching learners who aren’t literate in their native language or never went to school. In many ways, this concern is unwarranted. Having or not having had access to formal education does not correlate to cognitive functioning, interest, and energy. Most literacy-level learners will need explicit instruction in basic literacy skills (e.g., phonological processing, vocabulary development, syntactical processing). However, these learners bring an array of lifeskills knowledge (often including some oral proficiency and knowledge of American culture) problem-solving skills, and enthusiasm to the process. Some confusion also lies with deciding who the literacy-level learners are. Some educators and texts talk about low-level literacy students or use the term illiterates when talking about adult immigrants who can not read or write. The first term, while descriptive, has a mildly negative connotation. The second term has an even stronger negative connotation.
Description of literacy-level adult English language learners
Literacy-level learners are generally those with 6 or fewer years of education in their native countries who need focused instruction on learning to read and write English. The population participating in literacy-level classes is diverse: These classes may include men and women with different native languages, ages, length of time in country, life and language learning goals, and access to previous education (Centre for Canadian Language Benchmarks, 2000; Shank & Terrill, 1997). Literacy learners also have a wide range of oral skills in English. (For a more detailed description of the varieties of first language literacy and effects on second language literacy, see Burt, Peyton, & Adams, 2003.) The learners are further differentiated by their experiences. Many have experienced trauma related to events in their native countries and to resettlement in the United States, and this trauma may affect the speed and facility with which they learn English (Adkins, Sample, & Birman, 1999).
The following learners might attend the same literacy class:
The list below offers many kinds of resources that can help teachers who are working with beginning- or literacy-level adult English language learners or in multilevel classes. This list was compiled by Lynda Terrill (firstname.lastname@example.org). If you have any additional resources or materials that you have developed or that you know and have used successfully, please contact her.
Several other digests and Q & As offer background information, approaches, and techniques that are relevant to teachers working with literacy-level learners:
To view the complete list of digests, click here.
Other resources on the CAELA Web site related to teaching literacy-level adult English language learners include:
Adult ESL Resource Database (search using "literacy-level")
Project Based Learning and Assessment: A Resource Manual for Teachers Arlington Education and Employment Program. 1997. ERIC No. 442 306
Summary of Online Discussion on Working with Literacy-Level Adult English Language Learners This page summarizes an electronic discussion that took place on the Adult English Language discussion list, August 7-11, 2006. The discussion list is part of the National Institute for Literacy's Literacy Information and Communication System (LINCS) and is moderated by staff at the Center for Adult English Language Acquisition. For brief biographies of ESL content experts who were part of this event, click here.
What Beginning Teachers and Tutors of Adult English Language Learners Need to Know (Online resource collection)
You may find additional information, in the form of bibliographic references and citations, in the ERIC database. For access, go to: www.eric.ed.gov
Alcala, A.L. (2000). The pre-literate student: A framework for developing an effective instructional program. ERIC Digest. College Park, MD: ERIC Clearinghouse on Assessment and Evaluation. (ERIC No. ED 447 148)
Brod, S. (1999). What non-readers or beginning readers need to know: Performance-based ESL adult literacy. Denver: Spring Institute for International Studies. (ERIC ED No. 433 730)
This guide provides adult literacy teachers with background information and resources in adult learning and performance-based approach to literacy education. Adult ESL literacy students need to learn quickly, see frequent proof of their progress, and have input into what is being taught. The guide is divided into two sections: The first section is a review of the theory and research on adult learning, including factors that affect learning, such as language background, expectation, gender, learning styles and modes, age and health, and education background; the characteristics and needs of literate and nonliterate learners; the differences between teaching reading to adult ESL learners and native English speakers; motivation and retention activities; creating a learning-centered classroom; and using multiple learning modes to match the varied learning styles of students. The second section describes performance-based instruction; its rationale; and its components, which include whole language, document literacy, numeracy, and employment related content.
Condelli, L. Effective instruction for adult ESL literacy students: Findings from the What Works Study. (Retrieved September 1, 2006 from www.nrdc.org.uk/uploads/documents/doc_54.pdf)
Larry Condelli and Heide Wrigley were principal researchers on a literacy study concerning adult ESL literacy students. This detailed report is located on the National Research and Development for Adult Literacy and Numeracy Web site from the United Kingdom at www.nrdc.org.uk. Although the study was not a quantitative one, it is one of the few studies to date on the adult ESL literacy population, and as such, is of interest to the field. The report includes an overview of the study’s design and procedures and the instructional framework and observation guide. It explains the analytic approach used in looking at data, summarizes the study’s main findings, and offers suggestions for further research. Because the paper includes an extensive bibliography focused on research and analysis, it may be of special interest to researchers or practitioners who want to investigate how data relate to their own professional wisdom. This article and Wrigley’s (below) provide suggestions to teachers on what works with literacy-level adult English language learners.
Many ESL programs are staffed by volunteers, and classes are held once or twice a week. English language learners come with a variety of educational and linguistic backgrounds and represent a wide age span. Administrators of these programs need to be efficient and responsive in order to meet the diverse needs of their students and to provide the proper staff development. This article focuses on an important component in meeting these needs—the necessity to structure a program in response to what the students want from their learning experience. Included are activities on self-assessment and ideas for eliciting learner feedback.
Geronimo, J., Folinsbee, S., & Goveas, J. (May 2001). A Research Project Into The Settlement Needs of Adult Immigrants with Limited Literacy Skills in their First Language Who Have Settled in the Greater Toronto Area. Canadian Multilingual Literacy Centre.
The title of this paper describes the subject of the research conducted. According to the paper, “The purpose of the research project is to improve access to settlement information and services for adult immigrants with low literacy skills in their own language in the Greater Toronto Area. It came to the attention of the Canadian Multilingual Literacy Centre that the target population--those with low literacy skills in their first language--were having difficulty accessing settlement services The Centre felt that research was need to document the particular settlement and integration needs of these newcomers.” (p. 18) The researchers conducted focus groups with members of the target population and interviews with service providers as well as a literature review and environmental scan of relevant information. While the data gathered applies specifically to adult immigrants in the Toronto area, the research methodology, project limitations, findings and conclusions, and recommendations may well be helpful to other locales as they work to serve the needs of adult immigrants.
Concern about the "performance chasm" in reading achievement between language-minority learners and students whose first language is English is an important topic, especially given continuing growth in the population of language-minority students and expectations of higher levels of literacy for all students. Two barriers to literacy are the failure of teacher-education programs to adequately prepare reading specialists to work with language-minority learners and the failure of education researchers to engage in more substantive research on English reading development for such students. The authors point out barriers within the literacy education profession that may slow or even prevent language-minority learners from becoming fully literate in English. They use the term "full literacy" to stress not just English proficiency, but levels of achievement, especially in reading and writing, that help English language learners to meet native-speaker norms across the curriculum.
Some learners have minimal experience of literacy, whether in the first or native language or in any other language. These learners' needs often include introduction and access to truly basic reading and writing skills, bilingual support, and teacher acknowledgment that this is likely to be their first experience of formal education. This paper describes the outcomes of an action research project. During 2001-2, the Adult Migrant English Program [AMEP, Australia] Research Centre funded an action research project with a class of preliterate women from Ethiopia, Eritrea, and southern Sudan. The project class focused mainly on reading and writing. The author reports on her journal entries and organizational and pedagogical issues arising in the class and discusses definitions, teacher assumptions and expectations, and syllabus construction. Changes occurred in three major areas–in teacher attitudes and approaches, in the school’s relationships with the learners’ communities, and in the general curriculum and the learning environment.
This digest explains how to identify and assess the instructional needs of adults learning to read in a second language; it discusses techniques that facilitate instruction; and it describes appropriate classroom materials. Learners who can benefit from the approaches and techniques used in instruction for literacy-level learners are those who are nonliterate and have little or no schooling in their native language; those unfamiliar with the Roman alphabet, such as speakers of Chinese, Arabic, or Khmer; or those who, although literate in a native language such as Croatian or Spanish that does use the Roman alphabet, want to participate in a slower paced class. Techniques in working with literacy-level adult English language learners include building on the experiences and native languages of the learners; sequencing activities from less challenging to more challenging; and combining lifeskills reading competencies with phonics, word recognition, word order, and reading comprehension.
This handbook is intended for teachers of adult ESL learners who are not functionally literate in their own language for a variety reasons, such as that the native language is not written (for example, Bantu), the native language uses a non-alphabetic system or a non-Roman alphabet, or the learner has had little or sporadic previous education. The benchmarks in this book lay out the progression of reading, writing, and numeracy skills. These benchmarks are intended to inform the teacher about what students are able to do at various stages of their development. The introduction gives a brief explanation of how people learn to read. The characteristics of a good reader, various methodologies and suggestions for ESL literacy methodology, and the need for clarity of language and format in choosing or developing materials are described.
Nichols, P., & Sangster, S. (1996). An investigation into the reasons for the literacy difficulties experienced by female ESL students from Ethiopia and Eritrea in Perth, WA. Sydney, Australia: National Centre for English Language Teaching and Research (NCELTR), Macquarie University.
Data gathered about Ethiopian and Eritrean female students attending courses at AMES (Adult Migrant Education Service, in Perth, Australia) came from open-ended questions during semi-structured interviews, allowing comparison with similar groups of non-Ethiopian students. The interviews and research, funded by ALNARC [Adult Literacy and Numeracy Australian Research Consortium] focused on ascertaining learners' backgrounds, education, and attitudes. Interviewers also obtained data from teachers involved with the students. Analysis yielded recommendations about class placement, successful teaching strategies, and cultural considerations.
In this article, Wrigley describes a study carried out by American Institutes for Research (AIR) that focused on how literacy-level learners in adult ESL classes develop reading and communicative skills in English. According to Wrigley, “One of the key findings for reading development was that students learned more, as measured in movement on standardized tests, in classes where the teacher made the connection between life outside the classroom and what was learned in the classroom than in classes that did not” (page 15). In this interview with Focus on Basics editor Barbara Garner, Wrigley notes that one unexpected finding was that the “judicious use of the native language made a difference in both reading and oral language skills acquisition as shown by results in standardized tests” (page 16). This article can give teachers pertinent advice on what works with literacy-level adult English language learners. To obtain a report of the study, contact AIR through their Web site at www.air.org
Auerbach, E. (1992). Making meaning, making change: Participatory curriculum development for adult ESL literacy. McHenry, IL and Washington, DC: Delta Systems and Center for Applied Linguistics. (ERIC No ED 321 593) This book describes the University of Massachusetts Family Literacy Project, a participatory adult ESL civics project, and offers insights for teachers who want to undertake a similar project. Examples are given of how the project sought to use literacy to make changes in the community.
Croydon, A. (2005). Making it real: Teaching pre-literate adult refugee students. Tacoma, WA: Tacoma Community House Training Project (now part of Literacy Network of Washington) (available from www.tchtrainingproject.com/pdf/prelit.pdf)
This free resource is of interest not only because it address the complexities of working with pre-literate adults learning English, but also because it focuses specifically on teaching refugees. This guide focuses on teaching adults from cultures that do not have a written language such as the Somali Bantu, but its approaches, techniques, and activities described are useful for teaching other learners as well. Making it Real includes sections on teaching speaking and listening and teaching reading and writing. Within the first section, specific techniques such as grids, information gap, and dialogs and role plays are described. The section on reading and writing explores approaches to teaching reading and includes descriptions of literacy-level learners and a discussion of “Literacy Basics” (p. 53) such as helping pre-literate learners become familiar with the left-to-right and top-to-bottom directionality of English reading and writing.
Spiegel, M., & Sunderland, H. (2006). A Teachers’ guide: Teaching basic literacy to ESOL learners. London, England: LLU+ and London South Bank University. (Available in the United States from Peppercorn Books at www.peppercornbooks.com/catalog/)
This teachers’ guide outlines models for teaching reading and writing to basic literacy learners. The guide has ideas for beginning and experienced instructors, and it traces several approaches to literacy from a historic perspective. There is a practitioner’s chart for working one on one that outlines stage and purpose, activity and material needed as well as a sample curriculum. The guide treats a broad range of topics including learning styles, dyslexia, assessment, materials, planning, and managing courses and classrooms. Resources for teachers include materials, a glossary, and an extensive bibliography. The book is recommended by the authors to ESL teachers who are new to literacy levels, working on their ESL certifications, teaching EFL or changing to a career in ESL. The book evolved from a need for theoretical and practical ESL background. LLU+ (formerly the London Language and Literacy Unit) and the authors discovered the gap in materials when they were developing ESL teacher training courses to be used throughout the United Kingdom.
Cambridge University Press
Taking Off: Beginning English. Ancillary materials with this book include a Workbook for those learners who have some reading and writing proficiency in their native languages and a Literacy Workbook for those who are new to reading and writing in any language.
New Readers Press
Oxford University Press
The Oxford picture dictionaries are great resources to have available for learners. These include the Basic Oxford Picture Dictionary and the Oxford Picture Dictionary and companion software.
Access. Literacy level text. Very basic. Focus on forming and recognizing letters, some basic words.
English for Adult Competencies 1. Targets adults. Black-and-white drawings. Thematically based, but not a wide range of topics (personal info and introductions, feelings, family, telling time, telephone communication). The limited scope could make it appealing if you're working with short course lengths. More text than pictures. Some variety in activities.
Expressways 1. Beginning level. Very active text--lots of pictures, activities, very busy pages. Focus on speaking and interacting orally. Many dialogue and speaking activities. Lifeskills topics and language functions. Variety of ideas for activities like role-plays, group discussions, pair work, etc. Some grammar.
Literacy Plus: Language, Lifeskills, Civics
Longman ESL Literacy. If you are working with learners who need to develop their literacy skills, the Longman book is an option. Focus on writing skills developments (writing the alphabet, numbers, etc.) Some conversation activities. Not glossy or colorful.
Navigator 1. Many different types of activities here. A balance between oral and literacy work (filling out forms, recording information in grids, etc). Lifeskills themes and functions. Some project-type activities. Lots of opportunities for learners to do things with language, not just learn about language. A lot of pictures and print on each page, so learners should have some comfort level with English.
Photo Dictionary of American English and Workbook.The 2006 version of this dictionary includes audio CDs that pronounce every word and word lists in Spanish, Korean, and Vietnamese.
Side by Side 1, Like Expressways , this one focuses largely on speaking, listening, and interacting. Again, it's thematically arranged and focuses on skills and language for everyday life. Lots of patterned dialogues that introduce and reinforce grammar and common structures.
Literacy Assistance Center (LAC) of New York City produces Literacy Harvest, a yearly journal, and Literacy Update, published five times a year. While not focused solely on adult ESL, these publications provide practitioners with a view of the topics, issues, and strategies in one of the most lingisitcally and culturally diverse cities in the United States.
National Center for the Study of Adult Learning and Literacy (NCSALL) Focus on Basics. This quarterly publication presents best practices, current research on adult learning and literacy, and how research is used by adult basic education and adult English as a second language teachers, counselors, program administrators, and policy makers. Of particular note to practitioners working with beginning- and literacy-level learners are the issues on ESOL Research, First-Level Learners, and Multilevel Classrooms.
Silliman, A., Ed. Hands-On English is published six times a year. Information about subscribing is available by phone at 1-800-ESL-HAND or at www.handsonenglish.com/ This newsletter focuses on practical advice and activities for practitioners. Each issue contains multilevel activity and hints. The content of activities often deals with cultural and topical issues from understanding American football to income tax and New Year's resolutions.
System for Adult Basic Education Support(SABES). Field Notes (formerly Bright Ideas). While this newsletter contains articles about many parts of adult Education such as BAE, GED, and adult numeracy, there articles and issues that are relevant to teaching beginning-and literacy-level adult ESL (e.g., the article What if my Students are Very Low Level? (Vol. 14, no. 2) the issue Teaching Without Textbooks (Vol. 14, no. 3).
National Center for ESL Literacy Education. (1998). Research agenda for adult ESL. Washington, DC: Author.
Teachers of English to Speakers of Other Languages. (2001). Adult ESL language and literacy instruction: A vision and action agenda for the 21st century. Alexandria, VA: Author.
Teachers of English to Speakers of Other Languages, Inc.(2000). Program Standards for Adult Education ESOL Programs. Alexandria, VA: Author.
AAACE-National Literacy Advocacy (NLA) online discussion is sponsored by the American Association for Adult and Continuing Education. The list's goal is to provide subscribers with information about issues that affect policy, legislation and funding. While this list's scope is much broader than just literacy-level adult ESL teachers and learners, the broad range of topics means that many concerns intersect.
Coalition of Limited English Speaking Elderly (CLESE). This Chicago-based coalition of agencies representing immigrants and seniors developed the ESL-Civics Curriculum as part of the English Literacy and Civics Education Demonstration Grant. The 15 units in the curriculum focus on oral communication skills for seniors as well as giving them opportunities to use English outside the classroom. Each downloadable unit includes instructions for teachers, lesson plans for learners, and support materials. Units include topics such as "Introductions and Greetings," "People and Places," "Coming to America,", and "Colors, Feelings, and Art."
Outreach and Technical Assistance Network (OTAN). This Web site is managed by the California Adult Education Office and can be accessed after completing a free registration form. The site includes resources on civics education, such as lesson plans, classroom activities, graphics for downloading, project-based learning ideas, and software recommendations.
REEP ESL Curriculum for Adults.This is the latest edition of the REEP Curriculum from the Arlington Education and Employment Program (REEP) in Arlington, Virginia. This curriculum includes information any serious ESL teacher—whether just beginning to teach, or a veteran of many years in the classroom—would need to know about providing instruction to adult English language learners. The REEPworld Web site offers practice for beginning-level adult English language learners on a variety of health and family topics.
Virginia Adult Learning Resource Center. Virginia Adult Education Health Literacy Toolkit.