ERIC Identifier: ED379965 Publication Date: 1995-01-00
Author: Holt, Grace Massey Source: Adjunct ERIC
Clearinghouse for ESL Literacy Education Washington DC., National Clearinghouse
for ESL Literacy Education Washington DC.
Teaching Low-Level Adult ESL Learners. ERIC Digest.
Prior to the late 1970's, instructional methods and materials for adults
learning English as a second language (ESL) assumed the presence of literacy in
a first language (Wrigley & Guth, 1992). After 1975 the United States
experienced an influx of refugees from Southeast Asia. Many had minimal or no
experience in reading and writing in their native languages and, as the learners
joined ESL classes, educators saw that existing methods and materials were not
appropriate for these learners. Ten years later, during the implementation of
the Immigration Reform and Control Act (IRCA), educators were again faced with
teaching adult learners who have little or no schooling in their native
What has the field learned about offering instruction to literacy level (low
or beginning) adult ESL learners? This digest provides information on how to
identify and assess the instructional needs of adults learning to become
literate in a second language; it discusses general techniques that facilitate
instruction for these learners; it provides a sample procedure for combining
some of these techniques; and it describes classroom materials appropriate for
low-level adult ESL learners.
There are several categories of adult
ESL learners who can benefit from the approaches and techniques used in
instruction for low-level learners (Crystal, 1982; California Department of
Education, 1992; Savage, 1993). These categories include the following:
learners who are nonliterate and have had little or no prior schooling in their
learners, such as speakers of Chinese, Arabic, or Khmer, who may not be familiar
with the Roman alphabet;
learners who may have learning disabilities; and
learners who are literate in their native language but who may want (for various
reasons such as age, health, family situation) to participate in a slower-paced
class and who would benefit from classroom activities that characterize a
ASSESSING THE NEEDS OF LOW-LEVEL LEARNERS
needs of learners who may not speak even minimal English and may not read or
write in any language can be difficult. Holt (1994), Crystal (1982), and Bell
(1988) offer suggestions, recommending a variety of ways to assess learners
orally, through reading and writing, and through classroom observation.
Educators who speak the native language of the adult learners should ask them
about their educational backgrounds. Persons with three or fewer years of formal
education will probably be nonliterate.
Reading readiness tasks can be used for literacy screening. For example,
learners can be asked to complete the following tasks. (The literacy skills
being assessed appear in parentheses.)
Complete an alphabet cloze (for example, A B ...D ...F G H ... J), supplying the
missing letters. (familiarity with Roman alphabet)
Copy a sentence. (speed and ease in forming words)
Read two simple sentences. (basic sight vocabulary in context)
Point to letters corresponding to the sounds made by the teacher. (simple
consonant sounds not easily confused)
Read several unfamiliar or nonsense words. (blending sounds)
A learner who can recognize basic sight words or use a knowledge of phonics
to approximate the sounds of unfamiliar words probably does not need basic
The completion of a simple application form on which learners are asked to
fill in basic information such as name, address, phone number, date, social
security number, birth date, birthplace, age, and gender is a quick way to
determine reading and writing ability, especially when a large number of
learners have to be assessed in a short period of time. Someone who has
difficulty filling out the form could probably benefit from basic literacy
A writing sample in the learner's first language is useful in determining the
literacy level of the learner in his or her native language.
A writing sample in English, done at intake, can be used to compare later
writing samples and to monitor the progress of each learner's writing.
Through Classroom Observation."
Informal assessment through classroom observation can continue to assist the
teacher in determining an individual learner's needs. Attention should be paid
to how learners hold their pencils (awkwardly? too tightly?) and their books
(upside down?), how they move their eyes (Do the eyes move to follow words?),
how quickly they write (Do they hesitate? take time? labor over each letter?),
and how they interact in large and small groups (Do they offer to help each
other? Are they comfortable in groups?).
TECHNIQUES FOR WORKING WITH ADULTS
Knowles and other
educators maintain that adult education is most effective when it is "experience
centered, related to learners' real needs, and directed by learners themselves" (Auerbach, 1992, p. 14). Bell and Burnaby (1984), Holt (1988), Holt and Gaer
(1993), and Wrigley and Guth (1992) list techniques that involve beginning level
learners as active participants in selecting topics, language, and materials.
Build on the experiences and language of learners. Invite them to discuss their
experiences and provide activities that will allow them to generate language
they have already developed.
Use learners as resources. Ask them to share their knowledge and expertise with
others in the class.
Sequence activities in an order that moves from less challenging to more
challenging, such as progressing from listening to speaking, reading, and
writing skills. Move from language experience activities to picture-word
connections to all-print exercises.
Build redundancy into curriculum content, providing repetition of topics. This
will help overcome problems related to irregular attendance common in adult
Combine enabling skills (visual discrimination of letters and words, auditory
discrimination of sounds and words, spacing between letters and words,
letter-sound correspondences, blending letters to sound out words, sight
vocabulary) with language experience and whole language approaches.
Combine life-skill reading competencies (reading medicine labels, writing notes
to the children's teachers, filling out forms) with phonics, word recognition,
word order, spacing words in a sentence, reading words in context, and reading
Use cooperative learning activities that encourage interaction by providing
learners with situations in which they must negotiate language with partners or
group members to complete a task (See Bell, 1988).
Include a variety of techniques to appeal to diverse learning styles. For
example, merge holistic reading approaches such as language experience with
discrete approaches such as phonics.
AN INTEGRATED APPROACH TO LITERACY INSTRUCTION
experience approach (LEA)--which uses learner experiences as lesson content--is
a way to introduce multiple activities that appeal to learners' diverse
backgrounds and preferred learning styles while offering instruction in language
that is both comprehensible and interesting (Taylor, 1992). The following is an
example of a modified LEA lesson that could be used with low-level learners.
A shared experience, such as a field trip, a common situation, or a meaningful
picture is a stimulus for class discussion.
Learners volunteer sentences about the experience and the teacher writes the
sentences on the chalkboard.
The teacher reads each sentence aloud, running her finger under words as each is
pronounced, verifying that she has written what the student has said.
When the story is completed, the teacher reads it aloud.
Learners are encouraged to join in a second and third reading of the story.
A number of activities can follow at this point:
Learners copy the story;
Learners underline all the parts they can read;
Learners circle specific words (e.g., words that begin with a designated sound,
common sight words such as "the");
Choral cloze: The teacher erases some words, reads the story, and asks learners
to supply the missing words;
Writing cloze: The teacher types the story, leaving out every fifth word. During
the next class the teacher passes out the cloze and asks learners to fill in the
Scrambled sentences: The teacher types the story. During the next class the
teacher distributes copies of the story to the class. Each learner cuts the
story into strips so that there is one sentence on each strip of paper. Learners
scramble the sentences and rearrange them in the proper sequence;
Scrambled words: More advanced learners can cut sentences into words, scramble
the words, and rearrange them in order.
SELECTING APPROPRIATE CLASSROOM MATERIALS
but age-appropriate materials with adult learners enhances instruction by
providing a context for language and literacy development. A basic kit of
materials might consist of the following objects, games, and materials.
Realia: clocks, food items, calendars, plastic fruits and vegetables, maps,
household objects, real and play money, food containers, abacus, manual for
learning to drive, and classroom objects;
Flash cards: pictures, words, and signs;
Pictures or photographs: personal, magazine, and others;
Tape recorder and cassette tapes, including music for imagery and relaxation;
Overhead projector, transparencies, and pens; video player and videos;
Pocket chart for numbers, letters, and pictures;
Camera for language experience stories--to create biographies and
Games such as bingo and concentration: commercial or teacher-made;
Colored index cards to teach word order in sentences, to show when speakers
change in dialogue, to illustrate question/answer format, and to use as cues for
a concentration game;
Cuisenaire rods to teach word order in sentences, to use as manipulatives in
dyad activities, and to teach adjectives;
Colored chalk to teach word order, to differentiate between speakers in a
dialogue, and to illustrate question and answer format;
Poster, butcher, and construction paper;
Felt-tipped pens, colored pencils, and crayons;
Scissors, glue, and masking tape; and
Children's literature: for learning techniques for reading or telling stories to
children (See Smallwood, 1992, for ideas on using children's literature with
Providing instruction to adults acquiring ESL
literacy is a challenge. When approaches, techniques, and materials are suitable
for adults, are related to their real needs, and promote involvement in their
own learning, there is a greater chance of success.
Auerbach, E. (1992). "Making meaning, making
change: Participatory curriculum development for adult ESL literacy." Washington, DC and McHenry, IL: Center for Applied Linguistics and Delta
Bell, J. (1988). "Teaching multi-level classes in ESL." San Diego, CA:
Bell, J. & Burnaby, B. (1984). "A handbook for ESL literacy." Toronto,
Canada: Ontario Institute for Studies in Education/Hodder and Stoughton.
California Department of Education. "English-as-a-second-language model
standards for adult education programs." (1992). Sacramento, CA: Author.
Crystal, C. (Ed.). (1982). "Perspectives in ESL literacy: The neighborhood
centers experience." Oakland, CA: Neighborhood Centers Adult Education Program.
(ED 244 133)
Holt, D. (Ed.). (1994). "Assessing success in family literacy projects:
Alternative approaches to assessment and evaluation." Washington, DC and
McHenry, IL: Center for Applied Linguistics and Delta Systems.
Holt, G. (1988). "Parenting curriculum for language minority parents:
Teacher's activities guide." Sacramento, CA: California State University. (ED
Holt, G. & Gaer, S. (1993). "English for success: Bridge to literacy,
Teacher's edition, Book 1." San Diego, CA: Dominie Press.
Savage, K.L. (1993). Literacy through a competency-based educational program.
In J. Crandall & J.K. Peyton (Eds.), "Approaches to adult ESL literacy
instruction" (pp. 15-33). Washington, DC and McHenry, IL: Center for Applied
Linguistics and Delta Systems.
Smallwood, B.A. (1992). "Children's literature for adult ESL literacy." ERIC
Digest. Washington, DC: National Clearinghouse for ESL Literacy Education. (ED
Taylor, M. (1992). "The language experience approach and adult learners."
ERIC Digest. Washington, DC: National Clearinghouse for ESL Literacy Education.
(ED 350 887)
Wrigley, H.S. & Guth, G.J.A. (1992). "Bringing literacy to life: Issues
and options in adult ESL literacy." San Mateo, CA: Aguirre International. (ED
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