Improving Literacy of L1-Non-Literate and L1-Literate Adult English as a Second Language Learners

Resource URL:
J. Trupke-Bastidas
A. Poulos
Author(s) Organizational Affiliation: 
MinneWITESOL Journal
English as a second language (ESL), reading, non-literate, literate
Number of Pages: 

This small study examines and compares the impact of a whole-part-whole method on literate and non-literate non-native speakers of English learning to read.  The researchers focus on gains in phonemic awareness and decoding.  Their research questions were:

  1. How does the whole-part-whole reading instruction intervention over ten weeks impact phonemic awareness, word list decoding, and story text decoding for learners with and without L1 literacy?
  2. In which phonemic awareness skills (initial sound, same sound, rhyme, blending, segmenting) and letter-sounds do the learners show the most gains following ten weeks of whole-part-whole instruction?
  3. What qualitative differences exist between learners who improve most and least overall after using this instruction for ten weeks?

Researchers found that the whole-part-whole method was more effective with non-literate ESL learners or those that had more to gain from instruction (i.e., scored low on pre-test).  Learners showed the most gains in phonemic awareness in the following areas:  identifying initial sounds of words, identifying same letter sounds, and identifying words by sound blending.  As for decoding, learners showed gains in decoding clusters and short vowels.  Furthermore, they identified characteristics of learners (in addition to low literacy skills) who made the most gains; these learners had strong oral skills and were willing to communicate with others.  The researchers provide an extensive discussion and implications section which provides an in depth look at the specific components and learners of the study. (Note: The research process and methods is described below in section 10.)

The authors also include a good literature review, references, and information on further resources.

This study included only nine participants, therefore, it is difficult to extend results to the population at large.  However, this research can inform practitioner practice and support them in their attempts to understand differences in learner needs and differentiated instruction.

What the Experts Say: 

Summary of English Language Acquisition Review Comments: 

Although research has shown that adult learners must acquire specific lower-level decoding skills alongside higher-level comprehension and interpretation skills in order to read in a second language, most of this research has been done with learners already literate in the native language (Bigelow & Tarone, 2004; Tarone & Bigelow, 2005). Because this resource describes a study with both literate and nonliterate ESL learners—albeit a group of only nine learners—it is unique. It is highly valuable to practitioners who may adapt the instructional method to their own learners’ needs, and to researchers who may use the findings to justify study of the method on a larger scale.

The resource outlines the findings among a group of literate and nonliterate ESL learners on the efficacy of whole-part-whole reading instruction, a technique adapted from Moustafa (n.d.) and Strickland (1997). The authors present a strong research-based rationale for using this method, namely the findings that a combination of whole-language and phonics instruction facilitates literacy development among adult ESL learners (Wrigley & Guth, 1992), particularly when applied within familiar, relevant contexts (Condelli, 2002; Hood, 1990).

After presenting a convincing justification for using this method, the resource clearly outlines the instructional steps that constitute the “whole” and “part” phases of the method. It highlights the significant gains in phonemic awareness made by the nonliterate subjects and the word-decoding gains made by nonliterate and literate subjects alike. It presents a highly useful discussion of implications from the study, most notably an analysis of the techniques that yielded the most—and least—benefit to literacy learners, and possible reasons for this.

Most importantly, the study showed that all of the subjects—literate and nonliterate— demonstrated improved abilities in word decoding as an outcome of the instructional method, which points to the value of using this method in a classroom with both literate and nonliterate ESL learners. The method helped nonliterate learners in the study to acquire phonemic awareness, decode words, and read stories. Although the literate subjects did not show commensurate gains in phonemic awareness, the practitioner in the study noted that their writing and spelling abilities, as well as their overall reading comprehension skills, improved as a result of the instructional method. Therefore, the method outlined in this resource offers educators a promising means to differentiate reading instruction when both literate and nonliterate learners are grouped in the same class.

In sum, the product’s most useful features are the:

  • Presentation of findings from an original study on reading acquisition, conducted on both literate and nonliterate adult ESL learners.
  • Description of the rationale and process of the whole-part-whole instructional method.
  • Discussion of the gains in specific reading skills made by literate and nonliterate participants in the study.
  • Implications for practitioners of low-level ESL classes as to how to use the whole-part-whole method to differentiate instruction and enable nonliterate learners develop phonics awareness and decoding skills and literate learners to develop spelling and writing skills.

Further Recommended Reading:  Note: These resources have not been reviewed by LINCS Experts.

Tarone, E. (2010, Jan.). Second language acquisition by low-literate learners: An understudied population. Language Teaching, 43(1), 75-83.

Summary of Reading Review Comments: 

Readers may want to focus on the importance of the main research question (L1 literate versus L1 non-literate adults in using the whole-part-whole instructional method in learning to read in English).  The gains in specific skills seem to be due mostly to the instructional emphasis of the intervention rather than importance to learning to read.  Readers can also gain from reading the literature review. 

The research study is very limited by having only nine participants.  The study is both quantitative and descriptive in that the participants were observed during the intervention period and interviewed for their reactions to the treatment.  Variations in the subjects’ amounts of exposure to previous and current instruction were mentioned as a factor in using gain scores (between pre- and posttest scores) although largely ignored in presenting the results. It should be considered a small-scale action research study conducted in one classroom rather than a scientifically based research study.  The questions asked in the study, however, are worth pursuing in a large-scale research study.

Methods the resource used to collect and
analyze the data for the research:
 Research was conducted in an urban ABE/ESL beginning literacy evening class.  Participants consisted of nine females from East Africa with a range of literacy level and previous educational experience.

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