On January 26-30, 2009, Dr. Martha Bigelow of the University of Minnesota facilitated Working with Learners with Limited Literacy, a focused discussion on the NIFL Adult English Language Learners Discussion List. The original announcement of the discussion, including brief biographies of the facilitators, can be found at the following URL: http://lincs.ed.gov/lincs/discussions/englishlanguage/09limited.html
The individual postings can be found in the online archives at http://lincs.ed.gov/pipermail/englishlanguage/2009/thread.html
The discussion focused on working with learners who have very low levels of print literacy usually due to no or few opportunities to attend school. The many practitioners who shared their experiences listed challenges inherent to working with this population, including learners' different relationship to written texts, difficulty absorbing and retaining new things learned in the classroom, different learning styles, and often low self-confidence as learners. Ways of teaching that work in other contexts do not always seem to work with these students. Other participants mentioned that the lives of under-schooled immigrants are often packed with work and responsibilities, so that holding class regularly - and holding students' attention - can be challenging. Still others pointed out that teachers themselves can have trouble comprehending their learners' difficulties, given that the gap between the teacher's and students' educational experience and literacy levels is so large.
The difficulties are many, and while the consensus was that there is no "magic bullet" to address them, readers shared a number of promising practices. Participants suggested keeping new information to a minimum, using hands-on activities and exercises grounded in the immediate surroundings and in students' lives. The necessity to teach students to move their eyes from left to right was described. Readers also focused on how to build students' oral language strengths, discussing the use of technology such as MP3 players to provide aural input in the classroom and creating activities that utilize students' oral memory. Many participants pointed out the existence of multilingual societies where non-literate people speak two or more languages, and that literacy is a requirement for success in our society, but not in many others.