Philosophies and Approaches in Adult ESL Literacy
Instruction. ERIC Digest.
by Peyton, Joy - Crandall, JoAnn
Five approaches currently used in adult English-as-a-Second language
(ESL) literacy instruction include Freirean or participatory education,
whole language, language experience approach, learner writing and publishing,
and competency-based education. This digest gives an overview of these
approaches, which represent a range of practices used in native language
and biliteracy programs as well as in ESL classes, with learners whose
literacy ranges from limited to advanced.
Paulo Freire is an internationally known educator who has helped initiate,
develop, and implement national literacy campaigns in a number of developing
countries (see, for example, Freire, 1985). Freire began his work in the
late 1950s, working with a team of anthropologists, educators, and students
to develop a program of initial literacy instruction in Portuguese for
rural Brazilian peasants and villagers. Members of the literacy team spent
time in the communities developing lists of words and vocabulary that were
key to the life there. From these lists, they chose "generative words"
that became the basis for helping learners develop basic decoding and encoding
skills. Since then, his ideas have been adopted by government-sponsored
literacy programs and by nongovernmental organizations throughout the world.
Also called participatory, learner-centered, or liberatory education, Freirean
approaches revolve around the discussion of issues drawn from learners'
real-life experiences. The central tenet is that education and knowledge
have value only insofar as they help people liberate themselves from the
social conditions that oppress them. The following concepts are central:
1."Generative words and themes." These are the basis for conversation,
reading, and writing activities. Learners begin with encoding and decoding
exercises and move to more complex activities.
2. "Collaboration and dialogue among equals." A traditional lecture
format, where the teacher talks and the learners listen passively, is replaced
by a "culture circle", where teachers and learners face one another and
discuss issues of concern in their lives.
3. "Problem posing." Using objects, pictures, and written texts, teachers
and learners describe what they see, examine the relationships among the
objects and people represented, and talk about how they feel about what
they see. Ultimately, they articulate the problem illustrated and propose
Among adult educators in the United States, Freire's ideas have been
adapted to fit diverse learners and educational contexts. The primary revision
is the notion of "emergent curriculum" (Auerbach, 1992), where learners
identify their own problems and issues and seek their own solutions. Teachers,
freed from doing extensive research to identify problems for learners,
become facilitators of class discussions and activities, and learn along
with the class.
Like Freirean philosophy, whole language is not a specific method or
collection of strategies, techniques, or materials. Instead, it presents
a perspective on language learning and teaching (Edelsky, Altwerger, &
Flores, 1991). Whole language educators emphasize that language must be
kept whole when it is learned or it is no longer language, but rules, patterns,
and lists; that written language is as natural as spoken language and needs
to be integrated with it in learning; that language uses are diverse and
reflect different styles and voices; and that language is social and learned
in interaction with other speakers, readers, and writers.
Whole language classes consist of communities of learners who work together
to develop the curriculum, read and write for and with each other, and
evaluate products together. Classroom activities might include extended
reading and writing, with both sustained silent reading and oral reading
of a variety of published and student-written works; group development
of written texts that grow out of individual or group experiences (language
experience approach, described below); direct instruction in effective
reading and writing strategies; and ongoing student and teacher evaluation
of student work and class success.
Whole language approaches are used in a number of basic and family literacy
programs as well as in some workplace literacy programs (Pharness, 1991).
A well-known program is located at the Invergarry Learning Centre in Surrey,
British Columbia Canada (described in detail in "Sharing What Works," Center
for Applied Linguistics, 1993). Learners entering the program are given
a blank, lined notebook and asked to write whatever they want. As they
continue to write, their notebooks become reading texts and sources of
ideas for further writing. New learners, more experienced learners, and
tutors work together as they sit at round tables writing, reading, talking,
and conferring about their writing.
LANGUAGE EXPERIENCE APPROACH
The language experience approach (LEA)--really a teaching technique
or teaching strategy--is consistent with a whole language perspective.
Learners' experiences are dictated, then transcribed, either by the teacher
or other learners, and the transcription is used as reading material. Although
LEA originated with teachers of elementary school children (Stauffer, 1965),
it is used extensively in adult programs. It is ideal for ESL learners
with well-developed speaking skills and low-level literacy skills because
it capitalizes on their strengths and allows their reading and writing
to evolve naturally from their activities and spoken language. LEA also
addresses a common concern in adult ESL classes: the lack of appropriate
and interesting texts for beginning readers.
Language experience stories can grow out of individual or group experiences
that occur naturally or are staged for the class. Personal experiences
can be dictated by a learner to a teacher or an aide who transcribes them,
reads them back to the learner, and then helps the learner read them. For
group experiences, the class can choose an experience (such as making lunch
or taking a trip somewhere), develop a plan of action (such as assigning
ingredients or making schedules), and go through the experience. After
the experience, the learners discuss it orally, compose a narrative about
it, read the narrative, and participate in follow-up activities (such as
developing vocabulary lists and cloze passages, or writing related stories).
A teacher acts as the group's transcriber until learners become proficient
enough to transcribe for themselves.
LEARNER WRITING AND PUBLISHING
A major problem facing adult ESL literacy programs until recently has
been the lack of authentic reading materials of interest to adult learners
and appropriate for their various levels of English proficiency. Increasing
numbers of adult literacy instructors are encouraging adult learners to
write about their experiences, and programs internally publish these writings,
making them available for other learners to read. Some writing collections
have been commercially published and are available for program use throughout
the United States and Canada. Writing for publication and reading the writing
of peers provides learners many opportunities to reflect on what constitutes
good writing. As adult learners find that others are interested in and
can benefit from their thoughts and experiences, their experiences are
validated, and they are motivated to express themselves in more interesting,
worthwhile, and readable ways; as they work to produce a publishable piece
of writing, they manipulate language at all levels, from selecting effective
genres and discourse structures to correcting grammar and punctuation.
Most writing-based classrooms follow a writing process approach in which
learners and the teacher brainstorm writing topics, draft pieces, share
and confer about their writing, revise, edit, and publish in a workshop
atmosphere in which reading, writing, and talk are integrated and support
Competency-based education (CBE) has been widely used in adult ESL literacy
instruction since the mid-1970s. In 1975, the Adult Performance Level project
identified a set of competencies (knowledge and skills) viewed as basic
for adults to function in the United States (Adult Performance Level Project,
1975). CBE formed the basis for the language and orientation programs in
most refugee programs overseas in the 1970s and 80s and in many U.S. programs.
It also had an important influence on the development of adult language
training programs in the U.S. Peace Corps and is often used in academic
and workplace programs. A competency-based learner assessment system--the
Comprehensive Adult Student Assessment System (CASAS) (1982)--is frequently
used to satisfy funders' requirements for adult literacy program evaluation.
A competency is an instructional objective described in task-based terms
such as "Students will be able to ..." that include a verb describing a
demonstrable skill such as "answer," "interpret," or "request." Competencies
include basic survival skills such as answering personal information questions,
using public transportation, or obtaining food and shelter; or more academic
or work-related skills such as taking notes during an academic lecture,
following directions for a work-related task, explaining one's position
on an issue, or distinguishing between fact and opinion in a newspaper
article. Thus, a CBE approach can be used for learners with academic, employment,
and self-enrichment goals as well as for those with basic survival goals.
A CBE approach has four components--assessment of learner needs, selection
of competencies based on those needs, instruction targeted to those competencies,
and evaluation of learner performance in those competencies. Through the
initial needs assessment and ongoing evaluation of learner goals and progress,
competency-based programs are continually adapted and refined.
Although five approaches have been described separately in this digest,
in reality, there is considerable overlap among these approaches, and programs
often combine them. For example, programs that have adopted a competency-based
approach often incorporate language experience and process writing in their
classes; likewise, programs with a holistic or participatory focus may
incorporate task-based learning, a CBE practice, in their classes.
Adult Performance Level Project. (1975). "Adult functional competency:
A summary." Austin, TX: University of Texas, Division of Extension. ED
Auerbach, E. R. (1992). "Making meaning, making change: Participatory
curriculum development for adult ESL literacy." Washington, DC and McHenry,
IL: Center for Applied Linguistics and Delta Systems.
Center for Applied Linguistics. (1993). "Sharing what works: A series
of videos for staff development." Washington, DC: Author.
Comprehensive Adult Student Assessment System. (1982). "Life skills
survey achievement tests." San Diego: Author.
Edelsky, C., Altwerger, B., & Flores, B. (1991). "Whole language:
What's the difference?" Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann.
Freire, P. (1985). "The politics of education." New York: Bergin &
Pharness, G. (1991). "A learner-centered worker education program."
NCLE Digest. Washington, DC: National Clearinghouse for ESL Literacy Education.
ED 334 872
Stauffer, R. G. (1965). A language experience approach. In J.A. Kerfoot
(Ed.), "First grade reading programs: Perspectives in reading No. 5" (pp.
86-118). Newark, DE: International Reading Association.