ERIC Identifier: ED358748
Publication Date: 1993-02-00
Author: Wrigley, Heide Spruck
Clearinghouse on Literacy Education Washington DC., Adjunct ERIC Clearinghouse
on Literacy Education for Limited-English-Proficient Adults Washington DC.
Innovative Programs and Promising Practices in Adult ESL
Literacy. ERIC Digest.
Adult ESL literacy is a relatively new field that holds great promise for
language and literacy teaching. Combining ideas from applied linguistics,
anthropology, and cognitive science, the field reflects many of the recent
shifts that have taken place in second language teaching and adult literacy
education. These shifts include a greater emphasis on communication and "meaning
making," consideration of the ways language and literacy are used in various
social contexts, and greater use of the learners' native language in teaching
These are some of the findings of a national study funded under the National
English Literacy Demonstration Program for Adults of Limited English
Proficiency. Conducted by Aguirre International, the study involved an extensive
review of the literature, an examination of 123 descriptions of ESL literacy
programs, and site visits to 9 project sites (Guth & Wrigley, 1992). This
digest describes some of the promising practices in the ESL literacy field that
were observed at the sites visited by the researchers. There are a great many
other programs that also serve ESL literacy students in innovative ways.
Innovative adult ESL literacy programs serve nontraditional students in
nontraditional ways. Using practices supported by cognitive theory and research
in second language acquisition, they promote second language acquisition as a
process of meaning making that links the experience of the learner to culture,
language, literacy, and learning. These programs are still the exception. In
many programs, literacy is taught as a set of skills, isolated from the personal
experience of the learners and the social issues that inform their lives.
Learners are expected to start with the letters of the alphabet, progress to
syllables, then to words, and then create sentences made up of those words.
Innovative programs, in keeping with a communicative and social/contextual
approach (see Street, 1984 and Auerbach, 1992), tend to follow another path:
They adapt approaches that introduce print in meaningful units (such as the
names of the learners, their children, and their countries) and invite learners
to tell about their lives. To help contextualize ideas, initial print is
supported by pictures from magazines, family photographs, and pictures drawn by
learners. By starting with the images, concepts, words, and expressions that are
familiar to the learners, rather than with the alphabet, innovative programs
provide opportunities for "meaning making" from the first day of literacy
education. The following sections describe ways that ESL literacy programs bring
literacy to life.
PROVIDING A SOCIAL CONTEXT FOR LITERACY
Practitioners in innovative adult ESL programs realize that
literacy education is most effective if it is tied to the lives of the learners
and reflects their experiences as community members, parents, and participants
in the workforce. To show how literacy can help adults understand and deal with
social issues, some programs have set up community research projects that
involve learners in collecting and analyzing data and interpreting their
findings. At El Barrio Popular Education Program in New York, a bilingual
program, Spanish-English participants canvassed several streets in their
neighborhood, counted the number of stores displaying bilingual signs, and
interviewed the merchants to find out what language was used in their
interactions with customers. Back in the classrooms, learners developed charts
based on the information gathered. Their findings show how English and Spanish
are used in commercial interactions in their East Harlem neighborhood. By using
the community as a context for literacy, the program shows learners how to
access, interpret, analyze, and synthesize information in ways that connect
school-based learning with personal knowledge and community experience.
LEARNING THROUGH HANDS-ON EXPERIENCE
ESL teachers have long
known that linking verbal and non-verbal communication is an effective way of
introducing English to non-literate adults. To that end, many innovative
teachers provide learners with the opportunity to participate in hands-on
learning tasks that initially do not require literacy. For example, in many
competency-based programs, such literacy activities may involve food. A group of
learners might make fruit salad, using bananas, mangos, and papayas. Later, they
might "write up" the recipe, using drawings to illustrate the process. As
learners get more proficient at forming letters, they add the names of the
fruits they used to the visual description. At the Arlington Education and
Employment Program (REEP) in Virginia, learners interview each other about their
favorite foods, fill out grids that show the results of these in-class surveys,
and report results back to the group. As they become more proficient at reading
and writing, participants might make instant pudding, following instructions
written on large signs, and conduct taste tests where they rate flavors and fill
out food preference charts.
In the Illinois Workplace Literacy Project, learners use work-related
pictures, Total Physical Response activities, and flash cards to develop the
vocabulary and sentence structures needed on the job. The women in the program
are garment workers who speak very little English but have some literacy skills
in their mother tongue. By participating in tasks that are not dependent on
print, adults with few literacy skills can learn job-related competencies.
USING LEARNER-GENERATED MATERIALS
Creating a community of
learners where all individuals are respected and all voices are heard is often
difficult in multi-level classrooms in which some learners read and write while
others do not. Many teachers have found that stories written by other students
can bring learners together around the shared opportunities of reading, talking,
and writing about personal experiences or community concerns. A learner-centered
approach to reading and writing has also been used successfully in programs
where native speakers learn side by side with immigrants, as is the case at the
UAW/Chrysler workplace program in Ypsilanti, Michigan.
The Refugee Women's Alliance in Seattle publishes learner stories that
contain the women's remembrances of family celebrations, childhood memories,
special events, and special places. Illustrated by the women, these stories are
bound together with a bright cover, and shared with the community.
Learner-generated stories have the ring of authenticity and the strong sense of
voice that textbook stories often lack. Using learner-generated themes as a
basis for discussion and literacy development also helps beginners to see that
their ideas count as much as the ideas of those who are more proficient. (See
Peyton, 1991, for discussion.)
USING THE NATIVE LANGUAGE AS A BRIDGE TO ENGLISH
practitioners have found that introducing literacy in the native language can
serve as a bridge to ESL literacy. Native language literacy approaches have been
used successfully in regions where non-literate learners share a common
language, including Massachusetts (where the Haitian Multi-Service Center
teaches literacy in Haitian Creole), Minnesota (the Lao Family Community uses
Hmong), California (City College of San Francisco uses Spanish), and New York
(El Barrio Popular uses Spanish). In many cases, native language literacy is the
best approach for non-literate learners who have had few years of education, are
unsure about their own ability to learn in a school setting, and speak little
English (see Rivera, 1990; Spener, in press).
The Lao Family Community of Minnesota uses English and Hmong to link the home
culture of the learners with the mainstream community. In the family literacy
component, both languages are used in the beginning classes to strengthen the
role of the Hmong parents and increase their understanding of the local school
system. Stories from Hmong culture and materials from the schools the children
attend are used to build literacy in the two languages. To build background
knowledge of U.S. laws and conventions in a way that is culturally congruent
with Hmong values and traditions, speakers from community agencies work together
with program staff to develop presentations on sensitive subjects such as child
immunization, state marriage laws, and hunting laws.
LINKING COMMUNICATIVE COMPETENCE AND LANGUAGE AWARENESS
achieve a balance between language fluency and accuracy, most innovative
programs put a primary focus on communication and a secondary focus on error
correction. Many try to set aside time for discussion of language issues,
including explanations of the patterns and structure of English. Yet they are
careful not to let discussions of phonics, spelling, or grammar interfere with
communication and the exchange of ideas. (See Wrigley & Guth, 1992, for
discussion.) One promising approach for linking language awareness with
meaning-based literacy is a process approach in which learners focus on meaning
during the "creative stages" of writing (brainstorming ideas, class discussions,
developing drafts) and on form during the revising and editing stages.
At the International Institute of Rhode Island, learners work in small groups
to develop stories based on sets of pictures distributed by the teacher. As a
group develops ideas, one member takes notes. The group then composes the story
on newsprint. One learner acts as a scribe and checks spelling and word choices
with the group before committing them to paper. Another group member then reads
the story aloud in front of the class, using the pictures to illustrate points.
After discussions about the story have been completed, participants respond to
the language used in the piece, asking questions to clarify meaning or making
suggestions for improvement.
Video applications show great promise in
literacy education. By providing a visual context for ideas, video communicates
ideas independent of print. As learners progress, videos can be used to show the
connection between visual and printed information. El Paso Community College, in
partnership with Levi Strauss, has developed a workplace literacy program
centered around videos shot at local garment manufacturing plants. The videos
provide learners with a visual context for workplace themes (worker safety or
the impact of new technology) and provide significant oral language input.
Interspersed throughout are interviews with actual garment workers. After
watching the video, learners read a short piece, discuss the topic from their
own perspectives, and write a passage about their personal experience.
Although they differ in their specific
approaches to language teaching and literacy development, innovative programs
have one thing in common: Practitioners have found ways of helping learners to
access literacy and use it in ways that are meaningful to them. Focusing on
meaning and communication and using grammar and phonics as tools, not as ends in
themselves, learners and teachers are leading the way toward learner-focused
teaching for adults who are new to literacy and new to English.
Auerbach, E.R. (1992). "Making meaning, making
change: Participatory curriculum development for adult ESL literacy." McHenry,
IL and Washington, DC: Delta Systems & Center for Applied Linguistics.
Guth, G.J.A., & Wrigley, H.S. (1992). "Adult ESL literacy programs and
practices: A report on a national research study." San Mateo, CA: Aguirre
Peyton, J.K. (1991). "Listening to students' voices: Educational materials
written by and for adults learning English." Washington, DC: National
Clearinghouse on Literacy Education. (ERIC Document Reproduction Service No. ED
Rivera, K.M. (1990). "Developing native language literacy in language
minority adults." Washington, DC: National Clearinghouse on Literacy Education.
Spener, D. (in press). "Adult Biliteracy in the United States." McHenry, IL
and Washington, DC: Delta Systems & Center for Applied Linguistics.
Street, B.V. (1984). "Literacy in theory and practice." Cambridge: Cambridge
Wrigley, H.S. (1992). "Learner assessment in adult ESL literacy." Washington,
DC: National Clearinghouse on Literacy Education.
Wrigley, H.S., & Guth, G.J.A. (1992). "Bringing literacy to life: Issues
and options in adult ESL literacy." San Mateo, CA: Aguirre International.