The Literacy Development of ESL Beginners: Discussion Summary - English Language Acquisition

The Literacy Development of ESL Beginners: Observations and Analyses from the NCSALL/ESL Laboratory Classrooms

Discussion Summary

Discussion Description | Guest Participants | Suggested Readings

Guest Discussion Leaders:

Kathy Harris, Portland State University

Dominique Brillanceau, Portland Community College


Miriam Burt, Center for Applied Linguistics


One week prior to the start of the discussion, moderator Miriam Burt circulated the abstract of the upcoming discussion that included brief biographies of the two discussion leaders, a description of the multi-year research at the National Center for the Study of Adult Learning and Literacy (NCSALL) ESL Laboratory Classrooms at Portland State University, suggested background readings, and a link to several video clips of adult learners in the Lab. 

Over the five days from April 12 to 16, the discussion included over 100 posts by more than 40 different participants.  Some participants had trouble viewing the video clips because of local firewalls and other technical problems, for which Harris and Brillanceau were able to provide some assistance.  Unfortunately, however, the videos were only compatible with PCs but not with MACs. 

On behalf of the ASRP Website, John Strucker organized the discussion into seven topics and prepared this summary. Miriam Burt archived the summary on the ELA List.

Topic 1: The challenge of "doing school" for ESL adults with little or no formal education 

Kathy Harris kicked off the discussion on April 12, referring to the video clips of "Li", a native speaker of Chinese with no previous education: the clip called "Li day 5 interaction (October 2002)" you see Li in her 5th day of ESOL class. She struggles to participate in the activity. When she speaks in Chinese it is translated in the transcript (right window). Li struggles with more than the language—in Chinese she shows us that she understands the English, but not the activity.

Now look at the clip called "Li term 4 What time do you get up." This was recorded 7 months later. Notice that Li is using mostly the same language, but now she knows how to do the activity. We think that learning how to do classroom activities is part of what learners without educational experience have to learn, in addition to English and interacting with print.

What has your experience been? Have you seen learners struggle to participate in a classroom activity when you think that they have the language skills?

Later Harris added these observations:

...literacy isn’t the whole story. Learning to do activities that are part of the school experience in order to learn from participating in a classroom setting is also part of what students need to learn when they don’t have educational experience. It seems to me that another option is to have classes that are more like learning in other kinds of ways (apprenticeship models, mentor models, etc.) for learners who don’t have educational experience.

Referring to the video clip of Li, moderator Miriam Burt agreed, noting:

I looked at the video clips Kathy Harris pointed us to and was struck by the difference in Li’s classroom behavior from the first clip to the second. As Kathy said – the biggest difference between the two clips was not so much Li’s language acquisition but rather her ease in the classroom with school activities and behaviors.  This clip resonates with my experiences teaching English oral and print skills to Hmong refugees in MN in the early 1980s.

Burt then asked Harris and Brillanceau:

...what happened in the ESOL Lab school to help Li become comfortable with classroom activities? Was it mere repetition? Was there specific modeling done by the teacher?  By other students?  Something else?

To which Harris and Brillanceau responded:

To start us off, we see that Li has no hesitation about starting the activity with her partner. She jumps right in and starts to ask him "what time do you get up?" We think that this shows that Li has learned how to do classroom work. It is not necessarily that the teacher has modeled the activity just right, but that over the past 7 months, Li has learned to do the kinds of things that are only asked for in classrooms. We know that she is really sick and tired of talking about what time she gets up in the morning! But with the common elements of repeated activity type, the students working together in a strong community and known language, Li has learned how to do this kind of activity.

A participant raised the importance of classroom routines in helping learners to "do school," writing in part, "...routines [enable] learners to know what to expect...The more that learners get used to the basic routines, the easier that the classroom experience becomes – and the more self-directed the learners become."

Brillanceau agreed with this observation, but noted the additional important contributions made by the classroom community and by interactions with peers:

...routines are important for learners without educational experience, but even more important is creating a community of learners so while the teacher may introduce the routines, they get "picked up" by the students, and peer teaching and modeling is equally important. Li's transformation from the first clip to the last can be attributed to the interactions she had with her peers in pair activity as much as to how the teacher introduced the activity. It is going from a novice role (first clip) to an expert role (last clip: she tells her partner that it is his turn).

Even though the quality of instruction is important, (scaffolding, simple language, modeling, etc...), I was reminded, after viewing the video for the first time in a few years, of the importance of peers and that the teacher is really more of a mediator.

Topic 2: Should native language literacy come first?

Several participants argued that it was preferable to teach illiterate adults to read in their native language first before teaching them to read in English. Others countered that this wasn’t always possible because local programs usually lack the capacity to teach reading in the many languages (other than Spanish) that are spoken by their learners.  And, others responded that because many learners have very limited time available to attend school, they often prefer to spend that time learning English, which they regard as more urgent than acquiring native language literacy. 

Harris echoed some of those thoughts:

I agree that native language literacy is a great idea. But it isn’t always possible and students don’t always find that literacy in a native language serves their interests. Literacy in the target language may be more functional for many learners.

A participant who now works in Texas added these observations about teaching native language literacy in different social and linguistic contexts:

...when I was in Norfolk, Virginia (a NATO town) and had classes with almost as many languages as people, I, of course, used an English-only approach, and it was...very effective.

[But] in Texas...[our more bilingual approach to ESL]...has to do with retention and student expectations. Students here EXPECT the teacher to speak Spanish, and many will leave a class if the teacher does not...I'm not saying that their attitude is a good one, but it is something we have to deal with here in Texas.

Many of the books in our class library are bilingual, from very simple children's books to great readers (Stories from Mexico is one of the most frequently checked out books at all levels), and we have a few Spanish-only texts in addition to the local Spanish newspaper, magazines, and books from the local library.

Topic 3: Describing the ESL Lab classrooms – teaching approaches, student composition, etc.

Many participants wanted more details about the Lab classrooms at Portland State.  Harris responded with this description:

Our classes are multi-level... In the classes where the clips came from, Li was one of three low education students out of 18 students. She was often paired with students who had a higher level of education and sometimes with the other students with low education, especially if the teacher planned to do work with those students while the rest of the class worked on something else. 

In our classes the teachers always start with what the students already know.  They use the life experiences that the students bring to class as a starting point.  In that sense instruction is geared toward bringing experience to light.  The teachers also scaffold pretty much everything they do, most especially in beginning level classes such as this one.

Harris and Brillanceau also described what the teacher was doing in the clips of Li and José:

As with all beginning classes, it is essentially a multilevel class. In this specific group of students, several have college degrees in their native countries and three have no or very little education in their native countries. The rest of the students are in the middle somewhere.

The teacher spent about 30-40 minutes scaffolding the pair activity that is in the first clip. The scaffolding included: oral presentation of the questions (What time do you get up? What do you do in the morning? What do you do in the afternoon?) as well as the concepts of AM and PM.  The teacher practices the questions with each student individually, she elicits daily activities from the students, and writes the activities on the board (e.g., watch TV, get up, cook, etc.). She does a dictation of the three questions above for the students to write themselves, giving instructions to the low-education students not to write.  The teacher picks out literate students to write the questions on the board, and then there is more oral practice. Then the teacher asks the students to choose one person [with whom] to practice [orally] the three questions in a pair activity...

There is lots of scaffolding for the pair activity that [appears] in the clip. For most of the students in the class, this prepares them well for the pair activities that follow. However, for Li and the other low-education students, good scaffolding isn’t enough. In our research, we see that low-education students have to learn how to do classroom activities. Good teaching isn’t enough, it also takes interaction with and modeling from the other students and lots of time, as well.

Brillanceau offered this description of the Lab classroom students and how they reacted to being videotaped:

By the time I...[joined]...the Lab school, I had taught at Portland Community College  for 15 years, and I can venture to say that the learners were representative of adult beginning level students classes in most urban areas that are not close to the southern border: an array of multiple L1s which have different written systems, multilevel literacy because the intake placement was based on oral proficiency. The population was typical of a morning program, which is slightly different from evening programs.

At the time, there were no literacy classes at our community college which is a multi-campus serving a several thousands of students each year. The attempts at offering low level literacy have been very few and far between for the reasons some of you have already stated: soft money or no money and the [student] progress is so slow that administrators have a difficult time justifying the allocation of funds. Nowadays, the non-literate or low literate students have the option to go to a volunteer tutor group, though they still opt for our large classes.

I don't think our students were more or less motivated than other students: the location was appealing, morning hours worked for night time workers or mothers with school age children, or retired students. The orientation process to the Lab school classes was such that students knew about the recording process and that they would have to wear a microphone several times during the term. To say that having a microphone for 3 hours had no impact would be incorrect, but we think it was minimal based on instances where obviously they had forgotten they were wearing it.  As you know, adult learners wanting to go to school will do anything to be there.

Brillanceau added these reflections on what her students learn and why:

Why did Li register for classes after 70 years of no school? What did she want to learn? Did she want to come home and show her family that she too could write? Did she want to tell her friends she was going to school? Did she want to be able to write her name? Was it her son's idea that his mother should go to school? In her case, as an elderly person, we know it wasn't for employment.

...[W[e bring to the...[process]...our own philosophy and strengths. The "what" becomes messy when the state testing is only distantly related to the curriculum. [S]ince it is a multi-level classroom, with the intake and subsequent sorting of students solely based on oral proficiency..., there are also all the different reasons why the other students are there. "[W]hat" have they learned, that is what we can see that they have learned, might only be the tip of the iceberg. They might have learned that when partnered with someone so completely different from themselves or the people they usually interact with (not only language but culture, education, culture, gender in some cases), their world opened up a little bit, and they learned something which cannot be linguistically defined.

I have learned to accept over the years that the "what" that I teach is not necessarily the "what" they learn.

Topic 4: Curricula for non-literate adult ELLs

Brillanceau asked, "What kind of curriculum is usually used with the non-literate adults in your programs?"

Response 1:

We currently use a standards based textbook series, Stand Out (Heinle- Cengage). The basic book is a very good book and the accompanying power point cd, video learning cd, and audio program are also very good.

Response 2:

We especially like the Longman ESL book, Literacy Plus A and B, and other "literacy" texts. In addition, we have found that Cielito Brekke's Tutor Curriculum Guide for Adult ESL Preliterate Learners has been very helpful. You can download this curriculum from the web , and it is great because it combines many of the other curriculums. If you go to numeracy, for example, you will find the citation of many other texts (including page numbers) that you can use along with other games, and activities.

Response 3:

[My students] are mainly women who have lived in the UK for several years who have school age or older children. I do not choose between numbers, letter sounds, whole words, etc., I do a little of a range of things every lesson... [With regard to numbers]... we look at the prices on supermarket advertisement sheets and we get a lot of language from trying to talk about special offers!  We read/match/sort number words one to ten and adverbs of frequency (e.g., once, twice daily) in the context of medicine labels, and work on dates and times for appointments.

I know they want to learn the alphabet, but that is homework; it is up to them.  We practice writing name, address, postcode and other personal information in the context of filling in simple forms, and letter formation according to individual needs; practice at home....However, the most important element of language for my learners is speaking and listening, often responding to questions for information about themselves or their families. We have visited the local library, filled in forms and joined. We talk about picture books for children (as parents and as learners). We visit the new school library and listen to Big Book traditional stories that their children will know.

Response 4:

I teach at an ABE program in MN, and we had VHS videos for quite a few years that students could borrow. We had three levels..."Learning English" for the first level and "Putting English to Work" for levels 2 and 3. We're wondering if anyone out there has any recommendations of DVD programs that would work well for this purpose, especially for intermediate and above.

Response 5:

It saves class time if the letter sounds, alphabet, and the links with words can also be learned by students online or self-help DVD, e.g.,

Topic 5: Math as a bridge to literacy for low-literacy learners?

Brillanceau initiated this discussion by asking:

After 24 years in the classroom and more questions than answers to the issue of literacy, here are some questions:

My question to teachers of non-literate adults:
Do you use numbers as the common denominator when teaching non- literate adults? Does that precede sound letter correspondence and teaching of letters and basic sight words?

My question to curriculum developers:
How does basic numeracy play into your literacy classes?

And a question to neuroscientists out there ( why not...): do we know whether the part of the brain that deals with basic numeracy, number symbols and their concepts, is the same for non-literate adults and literate adults and whether that could be a point of departure to teach literacy?

A participant responded:

I teach sound-letter correspondence before I teach numeracy. I scatter the letters of the alphabet on a table. I have the students pick out the letters that correspond to their first name, middle name, and last name(s). This is a fun way to learn who knows which letters...and provides an enjoyable way of learning everyone's name. I teach basic sight words in a similar way. I like a kinesthetic approach to language learning with low literacy adult students. (I'm the lady that brings in matchbox cars, so that we can take turns learning how to give directions.) As my students evolve, we use total physical response (TPR) to create an environment in the classroom where [learners] can demonstrate what [they] know how to do.

Another participant offered these thoughts on numeracy, literacy, and employment:

It is indeed the case that many non-literate adults have some degree of numeric literacy. Numbers can be more universal (not across the board, but across many languages) and are used in daily interactions, for phone numbers, prices, etc. Using numbers is one of the first things new immigrants encounter when working with forms, addresses, etc. I don’t believe this necessarily precedes sound-letter correspondences; it’s just a question of experience, so drawing on number sense as a way to connect a symbolic representation to an idea can be a great place to start with some adult learners.

This is somewhat unrelated to your question, but I recall a...colleague using manipulatives and grids to work on pre-literacy/pre-employment skills with pre-literate East African students in...Minneapolis. [O]rdering objects in a grid from left to right, ...was a precursor to seeing words on a page from left to write.  Manipulating small objects was a precursor to manipulating a writing implement on a page, [and] as a pre-employment [activity], it worked on skills [that were] transferable to jobs in manufacturing.

So any work with symbolic representations, especially those that draw on life experiences, can act as pre-literacy skills development.

...many adult learners without formal education have plenty of informal education: they have owned stores, as farmers [they have] traded, sold and bargained with merchants, etc. ...[W]e can draw on those experiences to work on numeracy.  Even if someone can’t do computations on paper, they may very well be able to make exact change in their heads. 

A third participant offered this opinion:

Boiled down to its most basic sense, reading is understanding that print carries meaning, that the squiggles on the page represent something real and important. Whether it’s numbers or letters or symbols, this basic concept comes early in the process. Whatever "hook" we can use to help students make this BIG cognitive leap is excellent, be it numbers or letters or both... If the curriculum is thematic, basic numeracy can be intertwined with basic literacy. It is easy to imagine content that would focus on, for example, number of children, their birth order, writing their names, telling their stories. Other content that deals with numbers such as telling time and measuring things could also be integrated into thematic and very relevant/interesting curricula for adult ELLs new to formal schooling.

Topic 6: Class placement and class size for low-literacy/low-education ESL learners

Harris initiated this topic:

[We know that]...low-education learners start in beginning classes with lower skill levels than learners with more educational experience. Over the same period of time [in the Lab.], both groups have improved, but low-education learners end up at about where the high-education learners start. This means that low-education learners have a longer way to go.

What do we do with this information in classes and in programs? Do we change classes and programs to meet the low-education learners where they are? Do we keep classes and programs the same but expect the low-education learners to take longer?

One program that I’ve heard of, REEP in Arlington, Virginia, has success with giving low-education students an extra class at each level. In their program, low-education learners take 2 classes (or more) at each level, whereas high-education learners take one class per level. For more information on progress through the levels based on educational background, see their website at

What has your experience been with the pace of progress for low-education learners? Have you had experience that helps these learners?

Strucker responded:

We've known for a long time that non-literate and low-literate adult ELLs take longer to master English oral and written skills than learners with higher levels of native language literacy. The key thing is to recognize this and plan for it, rather than tossing them in with already literate ESL 1 learners.

...[they] need separate classes from regular literate ESL 1s for some of the reasons that Kathy and Dominique have mentioned - e.g., their need to learn to "do school" and their need to be taught basic alphabetic skills at a pace they can follow.  [In addition] they really need smaller classes. In Massachusetts, the maximum permissible size for ESL Basic Literacy classes is 10. And, like the REEP program in Arlington, my Massachusetts colleagues who are specialists in working with low-literacy students report that most need at least two years of specialized instruction before they can move into the regular ESL sequence of classes.

A participant agreed and added some instructional suggestions and materials for low literacy learners:

There is no doubt that learners with no previous educational background or literacy skills need a different type of classroom. In our program, we have set up two tracks of classes – literate and less literate for the first 3 levels – through the beginning high level. This means we have a literate level 1 class and less literate level 1 class going on at the same time. After the learners complete the less literate level 3 class, they are able to transition into the literate level 2 class and proceed from there in the regular track of classes. As mentioned previously, the instructors in the less literate track spend a lot of time teaching the learning skills along with the language skills. They also go at a slower pace and use different materials in the classroom. Language experience is used a lot to generate language the students know orally and which provides the content for teaching them to read and write.

As far as materials for the less literate students, you may want to review Ventures Basic by Cambridge. It has two workbooks, one for the literate and one for the less literate. The material is all focused on the same content so it lends itself well to being used in a multi-level class.

A community college-based instructor added these thoughts and concerns:

The dilemma at my college is whether or not we should add a "lowest-level of ESL" course to our existing program. (We have a low-level class and then a series of courses from level 1 ESL to level 5 ESL.) John posted this observation: "In MA, the maximum permissible size for ESL Basic Literacy classes is 10." [But] at our college, we allow as few as 7 participants in ESL literacy; our maximum is 25. (Ouch!)

Another teacher raised these questions:

Regarding the issue of whether to separate students with no or little literacy in L1, I am always torn between whether this is a good idea or not. I have often thought that the best learning situation would be to sometimes have low literacy students work separately from students who have had formal education in L1... If students are separated, they don’t have the benefit of peers to teach them to "do" school, and we can see in the clip how much Li has learned in that area. However, I also find that both groups of students (low literacy in L1 and formally educated in L1) can become frustrated with the pace of the class when they are together. Low literacy students definitely need more time and more practice, especially with writing tasks. Probably, anyone who teaches multi-level classes has done small groupings within a class. Other than ...placing students with low literacy in separate classes until they reach a certain level, has anyone tried a more formal process for giving low literacy students the opportunity to work with formally educated students, but not all the time?

An additional participant felt there is, intrinsic need to separate more literate (cognitively developed) learners from the less literate. It all comes down to how class is orchestrated and the roles we assign to our students or they assign to themselves. The only caveat is that some learners may have goals and be targeting life outcomes they wish or need to realize as rapidly as possible, in which case, regardless of their current skill sets, they may need individualized attention.

A high-school practitioner expressed these thoughts about whether low-literate and literate ELLs should receive separate instruction:

I’m sorry to say that what I have seen in the high school setting is that newcomers (ages 16 – 25 and up) with limited prior schooling and literacy are typically placed with literate beginner level ESL students, without regard for their differential needs in instruction, pacing, and a whole host of issues related to the schooling process which teaches a person that what is written on a page somehow has as much or more validity than experience. I have come to think of this as a particular heinous form of discrimination— [which amounts to] just perching these students in level 1 classrooms where they repeat and languish until they age out of the high school system, or drop out. School switching, credit laundering, massive faking—these are all part of the fate we consign preliterate LFS students to when we treat them in the same way as previously schooled, literate newcomers whose only real issue is learning English. To be clear: I don’t think they should be segregated out, deprived of interaction with other students. However, they need and deserve customized, targeted instructional models and activities that will not always be appropriate for previously schooled older students. The point of this post is to share my observation that the posture of organizations, exemplified in the policies of schools and districts and state departments of education, is a sort of willful obliviousness, characterized by a failure to face and to respond creatively and appropriately to the particular learning needs of older students with limited or no prior schooling. We simply must understand the needs of these students better, and we must be much more deliberate about building programs and practices that meet these needs.

A Canadian high school educator strongly agreed with the above thoughts:

[The previous poster] has identified a HUGE challenge that those of us who work with and in high schools in Canada and the U.S. face. How do we convince those in charge of resources, staffing, timetabling, etc., that our older newcomer youth, who through no fault of their own had limited or no previous schooling, will need time and opportunity to develop school skills, literacy, and academic foundations in order to "have a chance for their chance", as one of our teachers put it? In some places, I hear administrators refuse to provide specialized, intensive programming because of a stated policy of "inclusion" (we can all thrive together, whatever our needs); in other places, these students may be allowed a year or two of programming but then are expected to succeed in regular programming, with very little "sheltering."

In my Canadian city, several schools are now running intensive programs for high school ESL literacy students (as distinct from beginning ESL, which presupposes literacy and schooling in some previous language). Their programs combine intensive literacy, language, and academics with some integration into more hands-on classes with other students to promote interaction. The affective side of learning is addressed through relationship building and a host of other strategies. We have seen convincing anecdotal evidence that most students are engaged in learning and gain skills, strategies and confidence in these programs. However, the difficulty usually comes when students have to transition out into "regular" classes taught by teachers who are perhaps not prepared to work with students who still need significant support and who teach "one size fits all," or think that all students will achieve standards in the same way.

To me this is an equity issue. In the words of Enid Lee, an anti-racist educator, "Equity does not mean treating everyone in the same way. It consists of using extra and different measures to bring about...the state of equality."

Topic 7: What did the Lab teachers learn about teaching and themselves?

Moderator Burt posed this question, to which Brillanceau replied:

Both my colleague and I had been selected as experienced teachers, though we had different styles and different strengths. Because we were being recorded, we might have been more careful in the beginning about our teaching but after a while, that [caution] dissipated. When we had a bad day, as it happens to all of us, we knew that it was representative of all teachers' experience, and we knew we had the choice to say "no" to the use of the video.

The first two years we recorded our reflections on the class every day after class. So there is an audio journal of our experiences. We had to be reflective and that in turn did change our teaching. We learned to deal with the fact that we are not perfect teachers or human beings, something which we were confronted with daily, [but] a wearing experience.

I think that perhaps the most powerful finding for the two of us teachers was that the teacher and the teaching matters, but the students are as much part of the teaching as we are. We both learned about important aspects of teaching and learning which are not measurable, such as community building and students' "moxie," the unquantifiable desire to learn, interact with others and [become] a full partner in a learning community.

I still find myself reflecting on my teaching at the Lab. school and on the research we did which will affect my teaching for the duration of my career.

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