Teaching Adult English Language Learners with Emerging Literacy Skills - Discussion Summary - English Language Acquisition - Discussion Lists

Teaching Adult English Language Learners with Emerging Literacy Skills
Discussion Summary

Discussion Announcement | Guests | Suggested Resources

Guest Discussion Leaders:

Patsy Vinogradov, Hamline University

Martha Bigelow, University of Minnesota


Miriam Burt, Center for Applied Linguistics


The goal of this discussion was to share participants’ successes and challenges in working with adolescent and adult English language learners who are beginning to attain literacy for the first time.

Prior to the discussion, moderator Miriam Burt circulated an abstract of the discussion where she posted the guest facilitators’ opening question on how to offer meaningful instruction that allows learners to be full participants in their new communities. Burt also included resources for participants to consider before the forum, and bios of the two discussion leaders.

During the discussion, which was scheduled for February 22- 26, but actually began on February 18 and went through March 1, over 230 posts were made by nearly 80 different participants. The summary/transcript below was prepared by Inge Siggelkow, a colleague of Burt at the Center for Applied Linguistics. It contains ten topics:

Topic 1: Promoting an integrated approach to top-down and bottom-up instruction

Raichle Farrelly started the discussion on this topic, explaining how she puts in practice a top-up and bottom down reading instruction:

My colleague Ellen Knell and I are doing a lot of trainings right now with teachers who work with pre- and low-literate adult ELLs. We promote an integrated approach to top-down and bottom-up reading instruction. We've adapted some top-down sequences into a sequence that we find works very well - which requires developing an oral base before bringing in print.

BUT - big BUT ... at the same time, we promote introducing alphabetics (reading/writing readiness - which includes shapes (in this order: Identifying/tracing/copying/creating) and then letters/numbers (ID/trace/copy/create) and of course then the foundations of bottom up skills - phonological awareness and phonics. It is the ideal that the top and the bottom be integrated, but teaching the bottom requires using a decodable text - and in the world of available decodable texts that we know of, that only includes Sam and Pat and Laubach readers - both of which have their drawbacks (topics, depth of vocabulary, etc.) but otherwise have a very systematic way of bringing in the phonics. So, the conundrum faced by teachers trying to integrate the top and the bottom is that on the one hand you are teaching life skills - greetings, personal information, everyday activities and on the other hand, you're supposed to bring in decodable texts ... possible? Not so much. Solution – integrate to the extent possible, as in within the same lesson or week but not necessarily to the extent that the topic is threaded in all top and bottom instruction.

Raichle offered an example on how to implement this approach:

You might be teaching clothing. You do a fairly extensive lesson based on oral language to introduce the vocabulary - TPR, gestures, realia, commands, followed by sequenced questions (y/n, either/or/, WH), then high use phrases, sentences and onto sequenced sentences (this of course happens over the course of many lessons, not all in one lesson and this is the TOP). You will also, in the TOP, bring in key sight words at this point - after the oral base has been established (SEQUENCE!). From here, you will inevitably have to jump away from clothing and do some work from Sam and Pat in order to reach 'the bottom'. If you can incorporate some Bottom Up activities that adhere to the phonemes that you are working with in Sam and Pat within the topic of clothing (Sam, Pat, *hat*) then great, but what about scarf, jacket, boots ... do we never teach them because they're not decodable yet for these learners?? Not a great idea, but we have to teach TOP and BOTTOM, so ... we accept there is no pretty package for integrating the top and the bottom within a given topic and we integrate the top and the bottom the best we know how - but we don't eliminate one or the other, lest we only teach phonics or only teach oral language and ignore the literacy foundational skills.

Raichle also commented on when and whether or not phonics should be introduced:

Absolutely teach the sound-symbol correspondences, but introduce them slowly and systematically. They must be able to identify the letters before they can match them to sound and and this must happen before they can decode a simple text (like Sam and Pat).

Phonics sequence: Consonants first, then short vowel rhyming word families, then short vowel words (with blends - cl, gr, etc.), then long vowel with silent 'e', walking vowels (boat, rain, day, meat) and on ... and in our experience, you won't even get past long vowels for months and months in terms of students' decoding abilities - if they are true pre-literate learners. So don't rush them.

Jane Miller added a resource where teachers can learn more about the top-down and bottom-up strategies

...some teachers do not know how to implement bottom-up strategies for literacy-level ESL learners. To address this concern, two of the specialists at our Northern CO PD Center recently developed an independent study course. See the course description below. Anyone may download the course from the NCPDC website, though PD Hours are available only to Colorado's AEFLA-funded adult education instructors.

ESL Literacy Instruction - Independent Study Course

Sentopietro Weddel, Kathleen, and Bradley-Bennett, Kathryn., Northern Colorado Professional Development Center, Longmont, CO (2010) http://ae.stvrain.k12.co.us/ncpdc.html (scroll down to find the ISCs)

This course compares bottom-up (phonics) and top-down (Whole Language) approaches to reading instruction and provides a rationale for the balanced use of both. Using many examples, the course demonstrates how current ESL literacy level core textbooks generally employ top-down approaches. Course participants learn how to develop extension activities that integrate any of eighteen bottom-up strategies into lessons based on the core textbook. Bottom-up strategies support consonant names and sounds, word patterns and vowel sounds, and sight words. All materials required to complete the course are downloadable from the website above. Illustrated worksheets for student use are available throughout the course.

Katharine Bennett added an additional author of this study

I wanted to add that Connie Davis, the director at the Northern Colorado Professional Development Center, is also a co-author of this independent study course

Topic 2: Integrating phonics and decoding into a meaningful curriculum

Participants were interested in finding out how others integrate phonics in their curricula.

Greg Boyd shared his experience with the program, and offered a brief description of how the Direct Instruction works:

In my program we use the reading mastery DI (direct Instruction) series. It is a reading program that is meant for kids. When I first started using it I didn't like it. I had never taught pre-literate students before and I thought the pacing of the program was too slow at first. After I got to know the need of my class I found the text to be very useful.

Each lesson starts with phonics. The book has its own phonetic alphabet (long vowels have a line over them, the letters connect in blended sounds). After going over a few phonetic letters, there is a series of words using those sounds (in the words silents letters are smaller so that the students don't say them). It starts with simple one syllable words but as the lessons progress irregular and multi syllable words are introduced. After the students read the words there is a story that uses the words. All the writing in the story is written phonetically. The stories are short, in the beginning they are only one sentence. Now I am on lesson 101 and the stories are about five or six sentences. The stories are kind of silly, but the repeat the target language several time and usually use rhyming words (Example, The story we read last night [" can kiss a cow. I can kiss a kitten. Can a cow kiss me? No. A cow cannot kiss me. A cow can lick me.") After the stories, the students usually complete a writing activity from a work book that came with the program, writing some of the words from the story. Each lesson takes about 45 minutes from start to finish.

Tanya Brinck made comments on the program methodology:

It really takes some getting used to the error correction procedures, and the signal for choral response. But I would bet that if you stick to the correction, the learners would make more gains. Those programs are designed so that the learner must really master a concept before they continue on. The signal is so that you can set the pace for the students answering as a group, and control how much 'think time' you give the group before they answer.

Corrective Reading is the designed for older students who have a little more knowledge, but uses the same general teaching method "This letter combination says /ou/. What sound?" etc. It also leaves out some of the material that older students may find off-putting: there are no pictures in the student texts, although the illustrations in the workbook are cartoon-ish. There are stories in the book to practice the sounds and words they have just learned.

Even if you don't stick to the correction procedure you are providing systematic practice in phonics and connected text, which is a good thing.

Tanya added the following on the benefits of the Direct Instruction approach:

I used Direct Instruction Corrective Reading series with adult learners that were native English speakers and those who were ESOL. I really liked this model of teaching; it is fast paced, and provides lots of practice, plus gives instant feedback to the students. My students really liked that I corrected every error they made, ensuring proper pronunciation. For example, saying "walked" instead of "walk-ed". You might find even greater results if you can locate someone to give you proper training in the program. Use of signals for the choral response can be tricky to master.

Topic 3: Placing learner’s lives and stories as central to lesson planning

Salvatore Liotta suggested using students’ own experiences as teaching material:

What about Freire's Problem Posing Method, whole language activities and the Language Experience approach? Skip a textbook. Use your students' life experience as the text and forget about a text which will be divorced from the reality of your students.

Patsy Vinogradov commented on the value of this approach:

I agree that the Language Experience Approach and other means of using student-generated texts are wonderful ways to build emerging literacy. There are lots of ways to incorporate phonics work, phonemic awareness, print awareness, and vocabulary building into such activities. One major benefit is that when using student-generated materials, all of the language is familiar and meaningful to the learners!

Suzanne Leibman explained how she has put this approach into practice:

Last year, I was able to look through (and edit) many pieces of ESL student writing at College of Lake County to find models and sources for all levels. We've found that students at all levels like reading contributions of students like themselves, and they are especially encouraging for beginning reader and writers. You can access the essays, together with teaching suggestions and lesson handouts, at http://clcpages.clcillinois.edu/divns/ace/essays2009.htm.

But we've also used them alone as a source for extensive reading. Students choose a story and tell partners about them or read them to their partners or fill out a brief summary graphic organizer (Something I remember, something I like, new words). Students gave their permission for their essays to be used for non-commercial teaching purposes. Better yet, they can be a start for your own collection at your own program. (We hold an essay contest for our students every year to encourage writing.)

Other sources of student writing include old copies of Voices magazine or Gail Weinstein's Stories to Tell Our Children.

Patsy Vinogradov shared her favorite resources on this topic:

I also want to echo Suzanne Leibman's mention of the work of Gail Weinstein in this area. Stories to Tell Our Children (Heinle & Heinle, 1992) and Collaborations (Heinle & Heinle, 1996) are two of my favorites! Teachers of low-level emergent readers teachers may need to adjust activities to meet their needs, but what a treasure chest of stories and ideas for making curricula meaningful. Want to know more? Gail Weinstein's 1999 book, Learners Lives as Curriculum (Delta Systems), is an excellent place to start.

Betsy Parish added:

As I read these posts, it makes me even more excited about the lesson in the upcoming video I mentioned the other day of Andrea Echelberger in St. Paul. The shared experience is a trip to the hardware store to buy pest control products. This comes from a directly expressed need by the students, and the lesson ends with practicing a conversation with the landlord about pests, broken toilets. etc. It's all based on REAL issues the students are facing.

Using photos from the trip to the hardware store, Andrea uses LEA to create the class text and in the lesson we taped, she takes students through a series of activities, including:

  • word families
  • ordering the words in the sentences (and stressing key words in these
  • sight words
  • sound-spelling relationships

all with language she knows the students understand.

She has really combined LEA with problem posing with these emergent readers, giving these adult learners the skills they need to ask for what they need. She even integrates higher-order skills; you'll see a pie chart on the wall with percentages of people who have different types of pests based on data they collected from one another in an earlier lesson.

While there are many commercial programs out there, none can be as real as this.

(See Topic 9: Resources to teach learners with emergent literacy skills for more details about this video)

Patsy added:

Another excellent resource is Heide Wrigley and Gloria Guth's Bringing Literacy to Life (Aguirre, 1992).

This ERIC digest offers a glimpse of their work:

Heide Wrigley

We keep getting requests for Bringing Literacy to Life so thanks for bringing it to the attention of the group. While the look and feel of the document is certainly dated (no pictures!), some teachers find the "Promising Practices" and "Cases in Points" quite helpful. The book was based on a two year study that looked at promising practices in programs serving low literate adults and refugees, so the examples we highlighted we used (including programs serving Hmong in Minnesota) came straight from the field. We had also asked teachers from each program to write Lesson Plans which are included in the book.

The research we based our conceptual framework on still largely stands, though a great deal of work has been done in the meantime on exploring ways of teaching the sub skills related to alphabetic and decoding for those who have never learned to read (it's a different story of you can bring some of the underlying literacy skills from L1 to bear on L2 reading)

The programs highlighted in the book for the most part used the whole - part - whole approach in their teaching and offered students an opportunity to "make meaning" from the start through the use of environmental print and then move to introducing some phonologically regular words to show English decoding patterns. It's tricky of course if students are both new to literacy AND new to ESL since many of the high frequency every day words in English are a bit complicated (head, bread) and some of the most common nouns don't follow the "long vowel" pattern (e.g., have, live, love, come, done).

Good teachers ended up combining language and literacy work by using personal information from the students (names, countries, likes and dislikes) as a starting point for writing and reading (we saw a number of examples of Language Experience). They used high impact sight words to get the point across that print has meaning and then moved to sub skills from there, making sure that they introduced common patterns in English over time, but not as a pre-requisite to doing any kind of literacy work.

Martha Bigelow added

I'd add that I routinely buy used Jane Kurtz books for adolescents and adults. The illustrations are appropriate and many people recognize the themes and stories. Having some background knowledge helps comprehension so much.

Topic 4: Connecting the real with the abstract

Lisa Gonzalves initiated this part of the discussion by asking how teachers can help pre-, non-, and low-literate learners begin to connect the 'real' with the 'abstract':

In my classes with such beginners, we spend a lot of time using their own experience to present, scaffold, re-scaffold, review, and scaffold again new with old material. I think we can all agree that the more pertinent and relevant the content the better the retention, despite the speed of success.

However, at some point the students have to make the 'jump' to begin working with the abstract - books, worksheets, standardized tests, forms, etc. And this is usually where my students start having serious problems.

I'll give an example to illustrate my point. Recently we were doing a unit on directions. Left, right, one block, two blocks, next to, across from, etc. This was mixed with vocab of 'places in the community' - coffee shop, restaurant, etc.

So for about two weeks we practiced saying who was sitting 'next to' whom or 'between' whom and where things were in our classroom, we physically stood up and used a 10 x 15 floor map of our neighborhood (our creation) to practice 'turning right' and 'turning left' to get from point A to point B, we walked around our neighborhood and pointed out who's house was 'across from' who's house, and so on. We made word cards and matched oral with written; we placed this word card 'next to' that word card. We made statements using prepositions and we created our own sentences, orally, with word cards and written. I felt my students were ready to make the next jump.

So I graphed out a one block grid of the main drag nearest our school, drawing the buildings out but not labeling them. The idea was that they would label them during a little outing. I made the grid into a worksheet, copied off a class set, and off we went to Webster St. to label our map. Once we got to the street, we orally talked about all the different businesses, reviewed our vocabulary, stated what was next to what. No problems.

Then I went to have them fill in the map (remember we had already practiced using our floor map). We did the first few labels together, starting at the corner and working inward. I figured they'd 'get it' after doing a few together, as all they had to do was label the one next to the last one. Nope. While they could physically see in front of them that the pizza place was next to the hotel, they could not transfer that onto the paper. I held the paper up, to show them where they had correctly labeled the hotel on their piece of paper, then pointed to the pizzeria which was physically to the left. "So, where would the pizzeria be on the paper?" I expected a somewhat correct response but instead there was absolutely no transfer, just confusion. Even though the content was of their own neighborhood, their own life (as opposed to a textbook) the paper version held no value, despite their accuracy with producing the vocabulary orally. While there were students who were successful, the amount of literacy a student had in their L1 correlated directly with whether or not they could perform the task.

This has happened time and again, this lack of transfer from real to unreal. I know there have been plenty of studies done on the cognitive effects of literacy and the lack thereof, but how to we interpret those findings into our lesson plans?

I know that micro-scaffolding and review are a key elements in this arena, but I'd also like to hear from you all as to how you tackle these issues.

Amanda Farrel responded:

This story and question is eye-opening to me, a complete newbie volunteer (of a year) with a BA in Psych and a background as an aide in elementary special education.

"Lack of transfer" describes exactly what I see with my four regular students when we work on the textbook examples and do substitution drills. For the longest time, I couldn't "get" why they couldn't "get it"...

All there is to be offered from our class is that Dry-Erase Board Examples coupled with the teacher filling in the first couple of spoken responses worked very quickly, even though a few months of verbal teaching had done no good.

Of course, what you have here is a very visual situation that is still not working...

Perhaps that one link is missing, of you demonstrating on a board? Of you filling in the first couple of answers? Have you done that? Maybe you've already repeatedly pointed to the floor, then to the paper, while using the same label (eg, pizzeria) as you do so?

Hopefully, this novice can help you, and in either case someone knows what your'e talking about at least!

Steve Kaufmann noted:

Different aspects of a new language simply take time and a lot of exposure before they sink in, and before a learner understands them, remembers them and is able to use them. Lots of things may help, but eventually each brain learns on its own timetable.

Migdalia Arthurton added:

Yes, Steve! That is why it is important to give them "an anchor". That is, they need something to "trigger" the reminder. That is also why we "scaffold" the learning and use all those strategies that we do in the classrooms or centers to help our students--all of them!

Steve Kaufmann noted that it may take time before seeing the results:

I am sure these anchors and triggers help. However, from my experience as a learner, it is not realistic to expect a 'cause and effect' relationship, much less test learners on what is taught. External anchors and triggers are easily forgotten, and need to be relearned, over and over. Each learner will have his or her own eureka moment for a broad range of words and concepts, and it is not possible to predict when that happens. The teachers efforts may not bear fruit until months after the learner has left the class.

Amanda Farrell made several points:

Our ESL class has focused some months ago on giving and receiving directions, which has translated very well when I have driven them home some nights! How quickly we learn en vivo! (And yes, I speak their native tongue, Spanish, enough to compensate and we're all women with children so we're safe, etc.).

We studied the effect of making people aware of their gender identity on the ability to use maps in various ways, and the language people use to give written directions to others.

Men tend to use mostly cardinal directions and street names, which is perfect for maps.

Women tend to use mostly landmarks. There was something else, but since I process this material more like a male I forget the other element...

The students with whom I work know their town much better than I do, since I commute from a rural area and they're in town.

We are planning to once again use empty Jello and tissue boxes for directions, this time labeling all of the stores we can think of, etc. This is the way that we once worked on directions, and now my original 1:1 student from a while back has come back to class has requested more such hands-on activity. With the previous activity, we had actually placed the boxes about the tables and walked through them, giving and receiving directions from each other to practice both expressive and receptive language.

Does the 3-D town layout add another dimension to the learning process? Could be...

Michael Gyori responded:

A 3-D layout renders physical space much more faithfully, and I fully expect learners who are challenged by maps to be more responsive to it, especially when they "label" it from their own experiences and knowledge.

Susan Perez suggested:

Has anyone used Google maps to help bridge the abstract aerial view of maps with a real image from the street view? Being able to pare down the location from a larger view to smaller and then back out again to the larger view might make help shed light.

Another suggestion came from Sandy Woodside:

There are some good pages in the Oxford Picture dictionary showing "in front of" "behind", etc.

I have also brought in a nice dollhouse with lots of furniture. That would be something that could see and experience as a lesson was taught.

Ann Macdonald explained how she integrates a Freirian ‘real to abstract’ approach in her instruction:

Just in terms the issue of moving from real to abstract, I use the visual tools from participatory rural appraisal which is a Freirian approach. In the UK we have a package created by Action Aid called Reflect for ESOL, which is available on the internet if you google it.

To demonstrate in terms of neighborhood, we started with a walk in the neighborhood taking a few photos and reading and looking at stuff, and I then got students to build a map themselves after giving them one or two landmarks. They used photographs we had taken plus others I have taken of the neighborhood over the years and supplemented these with symbols I'd been teaching them for pharmacies, the hospital, police stations etc. and realia (bits of leaf, 'trash' etc.). Students put their own homes onto the map too with the cups (see attachment). This activity formed the base for loads of language and literacy (including map reading, bus timetable stuff) and also reflection on socio economic issues like anti social behavior and noise etc.

I've used the same approach in other topics e.g food and healthy eating and shopping, where the visual tool was a large healthy eating plate. I'll attach a pic or two of that too and there I have a photo of the move to the abstract. I take this further where student have to try to write the words in a co-operative writing activity. They also see the eatwell plate from the uk eatwell website.

Julie Mckinney offered ideas of how to implement this concept in the classroom:

Understanding how to read a map, a table and other visual representations of information are critical health literacy skills that are lacking in many of us, and are important things to address in ESL! And if you think about it, using the pill packets as a vehicle for teaching calendar skills would be great!

Here's an idea:

  • Have each student create their own calendar and put pictures on the days, representing what they do on that day. (For example, put a picture of a blackboard-or the teacher- on the day they have ESL class, etc.)
  • Review the completed calendars: Talk through what they do throughout the week as they locate each day on the calendar.
  • Make mock pill packets using M&M's, and divide them out onto the calendar boxes as you practice counting days.
  • Then put the M&M's back in the packets, and go through each day on the calendar eating the M&M from the packet as you go ("Ok, I get up on Monday, take my pill, and that's the day I have ESL class...etc.

I'm sure there are tons of activities you could build around this!

Topic 5: How long does it take to learn English?

Steve Kauffman commented:

I have seen the reference from research that it takes 5 to 7 years to learn another language.

I have seen many people who are willing to put a lot of time with the target language, mixing in with the locals or doing a lot of reading and listening, and are essentially comfortable after a year for related languages, and after 2-3 years for more difficult languages. I think the 5-7 years must refer to people who only study in the classroom.

People with low literacy and who stay in their own language community have a tougher time. I think that whatever the teacher can do to encourage and provide anchors and triggers will prove helpful but the results will not be immediate.

Michael Gyori responded:

The 5-7 year period for English L2 learners to "catch up" (presumably to the level of 50th percentile of an English L1 norming population) - based on Virginia Collier's much-touted studies - refers mainly to newcomer immigrant children entering the public K-12 system. Steve is correct. "Street language" (BICS) and academic language (CALP) increasingly diverge as one moves through the educational system (check out http://www.eric.ed.gov/ERICDocs/data/ericdocs2sql/content_storage_01/0000019b/80/16/12/10.pdf if you are interested).

Statistically, students who enter an English language medium school from the 7th grade onward without knowing English are unlikely to graduate, even if they learn conversational English to suit their needs within months to a couple of years, provided they immerse in English-speaking communities.

Many schools continue to be fooled by incoming learners' conversational skills. In fact, they are hardly predictive of success in mainstream classes!

Terry Pruett-Said added:

In fact, it not only refers to children, but the specifics of the study was that it took L2 children 5-7 years to be at the same levels across the same continuum as L1 children on a standardized benchmark exam.

Glenda Lynn Rose echoed these findings, and commented on her own experience:

This difference also becomes evident in my adult ESL classroom. I have students who went to middle or high school in the US when their parents immigrated, but then dropped out because they couldn't keep up once they transitioned out of ESL. Speaking with them, they sound like any other young adult here in Texas (with a Tex-Mex background / accent), but when given the BEST Literacy test, they cannot be passed into ABE. An additional problem is their academic Spanish (and even, to some extent, their street Spanish) is not to the level of their counterparts in Mexico.

Steve Kaufmann noted:

Of course there is a difference between street language and literacy. The same is true in English. However, if a person is motivated and enjoys reading, then I do not think that 5-7 years is representative. I have seen too many examples of the opposite. It all depends on the motivation of the learner and the amount of time they are prepared to put into the language, and especially for literacy, into reading.

Michael Gyori commented on the issue of meaningful connection and learning:

Any correspondences between what is taught and what is learned can indeed be very elusive. I view learning as an occurrence wherein personal meaningfulness is created. We cannot create it for our students. In my own experience, I can see this especially with my graduate studies, which were relevant to begin with because I pursued them when I had developed a sense of having dead-ended in my own teaching. Quite a bit of what was taught became personally meaningful ten or more years after I had completed my studies. Today, I embrace much of what I have learned, while I am inclined to dismiss some other ideas that were espoused. The key point, again, is the (eventual) personal meaningfulness of the educational experiences.

I rely on maps to find the most obscure places, but am often unable to replicate locations in physical space without resorting to maps once again. The so-called "abstract" simply makes more sense to me.

I would not be too concerned about the desired effects not resulting from teaching events, because at times that can create anxiety with affective backlashes. Just keep experimenting with different approaches, and if there's no light at the end of the tunnel, it might be better let go for a while. That's easier said than done when there are all kinds of "accountability" pressures being placed on programs. Regardless, we have to always keep in mind that we cannot impose understanding and when it may occur.

Migdalia Cruz offered a different perspective on the relationship between academic success and of age of arrival:

Michael is correct in saying "students who enter an English language medium school from the 7th grade onward without knowing English are unlikely to graduate, even if they learn conversational English to suit their needs within months to a couple of years, provided they immerse in English-speaking communities". In my 20 years as the District Coordinator for the St. Thomas/St. John School District in the US Virgin Islands, my experience has been the opposite. The students who come to us at the 7th grade and up, have a strong foundation and language development in their L1 which helps us to provide a strong support in L2 development through our ESL Programs at the junior high school, middle school and high school. By the time our students get to the 11th grade they are proficient in English and perform academically well in the content areas to graduate and continue to the university. In case you are wondering where our students come from let me clarify that for you--Dominican Republic, Haiti, India, the Philippines, Thailand, Jordan, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Argentina, Honduras, Venezuela, and South Africa.

On how long it takes to learn English, Isabel Arnold added the following reference:

There is an interesting reference to some Australian data about the length of time taken to learn English in a report by Dr Philida Schellekens (2001) English Language as a Barrier to Employment, Training and Education: DfEE:UK. Canberra TAFE 'forecast 1756 hours of teaching to get from no English to to the level of competence required for further study or a job.' (p46) The author then breaks down these hours into possible projections: full time 16-19yr old students @450 hrs a yr - 4years; adult students @10 hrs a week @300 hrs a yr - 5yrs 7mnths;adults attending 4hrs a week @ 120 hrs a yr - 14yrs 6mnths.Anecdotally, I once came across a learner who fitted the latter category exactly!

Topic 6: Policy and limited formal schooling

Martha Bigelow opened the invitation to the participants to talk about policies that affect English language learners with limited formal schooling (LFS):

I'd like to invite you to share on a new topic too. What policies in your state, school or program help or hinder opportunities for adult English learners with limited/interrupted formal schooling? What initiatives are underway in your state or country to make policy changes? Are there policies that schools or teachers have found a good way to work around? Please share any experiences you have related to policies and this very particular population of language learners. I think this is an advocacy area we can all work more on and sharing is essential.

Patsy Vinogradov responded to Martha’s questions:

In Minnesota, teachers in state-funded programs are limited to English-only instruction. While this may not have much of an impact for some settings or teachers, it does mean that state-funded programs are discouraged from teaching native-language literacy. Research on the relationship between L1 literacy and L2 is clear: literacy in the first language leads to more efficient second language acquisition. But current policy prevents a program from forming a class to teach Spanish speakers literacy skills in Spanish, for example.

I should add that there is a waiver available, but no program has pursued it.

Michael Gyori added:

As for English-only education policies in Minnesota, it's yet another "Unz-type initiative" (see http://www.catesol.org/unz3.html) and regrettable (to put it mildly) instance of the corporate mold dictating what should happen in our classrooms. I must wonder whether the (public) teaching profession has perhaps become the most disenfranchised of all.

Regarding the differences in educational policies relative to k-12 and adult learners, Miriam Kroeger noted:

We may have to be a little careful - some states have policies relative to K-12 education and what types of instruction can be provided. As for adults - there are also states that have laws pertaining to who is eligible for services using state funds, and if not eligible, how those students can still be served. We also have to look at the AEFLA legislation and the guidelines from OVAE regarding how AE funds can be used. I know we can't use those funds to provide instruction in Spanish or French for the purpose of a student passing the GED in one of those languages.

In Arizona, we do have a law that requires adult learners to show proof of legal presence in the US. This has had some interesting effects - The first year of implementation, the number of English learners in our programs declined. They are rising again though. At the same time, the number of ABE and ASE learners increased. Last year ( 3rd year of the law) we had about double the number of ABE/ASE learners as ESOL. AND - (this is a big one) - we still have waiting lists for all our classes (ABE/ASE and ESOL!), and all the people on our waiting lists are eligible for services.

We all know our $$ are limited; how do we make those hard decisions on services? We have to take a look at the reality of where our funding is coming from and will that funding continue?

Patsy Vinogradov responded:

Excellent point. The MN policy I was referring to was specific to adults-- Adult Basic Education (ABE) services. I am not as familiar with the K-12 policies in this area. And thank you for sharing your comments about AZ's other policies and implications!

I understand that adult students can take the GED in Spanish, for example, but they are not able to receive state-funded instruction in Spanish.

Speaking of policy, I wonder if people on the list have ideas about how the proposed legislation (Adult Education and Economic Growth Act of 2009 (HR 3238), and perhaps the most relevant piece to this discussion is Title II, Adult Education, Literacy, and Workplace Skills) might impact programming for our lowest level, low-literacy learners?

Larry Rudell explained his strategy to cope with limiting federal regulations, and how these strategies have derived good results:

MN may have a state law to this effect but there are also federal regulations that prohibit the use of federal ABE dollars for teaching literacy in the first language. In Washington this has been interpreted to mean that any state money used to match federal dollars are also under this ban.

However, we have addressed this restriction by combining first language literacy with ESL instruction. We run the class as an ESL class. One half of instruction is committed to ESL and the other to first language literacy. In our particular situation 99% of our ESL students speak Spanish. So we use CONEVyT for Spanish language literacy. We have been doing this for three years in one of our outlying locations. The results have been impressive.

  • Attendance improved
  • Retention improved
  • Completions and skill gains improved
  • We now have several mid-level ESL students who are ready to begin taking their GED tests in Spanish. It is likely they will have their GED by the time they have sufficient English skills to transfer to college.

It was feared by some that reducing the hours of English instruction would result in a decline in skill gains. This has not been the case. Our results support the research listed below: improved first language literacy results in improved English language skill gains.

Patsy Vinogradov added:

Larry, I'm not at all surprised that your results have been positive! This is great to hear, and it gives yet another example of how creative, resourceful ESL teachers can put research and professional wisdom together for great programming, even when policies are challenging to navigate.

MN's policy is specific to Adult Ed, and it was created to reflect the federal laws in this regard. But the MN policy is quite strict and prevents the type of programming you describe. Who knows, maybe this will change one day, as more and more programs like yours find innovative ways to best serve their students, including the opportunity to try L1 literacy instruction.

One factor that is quite different in many of our Adult Ed contexts is that MN ESL classes are often QUITE diverse, with no one language group being dominantly served. This complicates any plans for L1 instruction, of course.

Topic 7: Emerging Literacy, sharing experiences with different groups of LSF learners

Phillip Anderson commented on his experience of building literacy with a group of orange pickers in Florida:

I want to express my appreciation for all those who have posted information and questions this week. I am fascinated by the topic, having my first experience with "emerging literacy" adult ESOL students since 1995 in Central Florida.

I had a large number of orange pickers who came from Haiti, Guatemala, Mexico, and even Laos (Hmong). Out of the 25-30 students enrolled in my classes at any given time, there were about 10 or so who were not able to read a single word or letter in any language, much less write letters.

A few of them had practiced with their children or others in their community to write from memory the letters of their name in order to sign documents that someone else filled out for them. They would bring notebooks to class that were full of their name, which they had copied under the tutelage of their friend or family member. But when presented with the letters of their name separately they could neither name nor identify them.

They had difficulty shaping the letters and numbers correctly. At times they made the S backward, they made the small r like a tightened up v, they could not close the letter o, and they made the letter e in the shape of a cursive l. They made the letters in different size, often starting with very big to end with very tiny letters.

Their hands were calloused and wiry from their work in the orange groves, and a pencil was hard for them to control. It seemed as if their gross motor muscles were over-developed and their fine motor muscles had not had the practice they needed to manipulate a small object like a pencil.

I had students who spoke indigenous languages from the southern parts of Mexico and Central America. Some of them spoke Spanish with a strong accent, and could not roll the r in the same way as the students whose first language was Spanish.

The Hmong couple usually came with their high school age daughter, who helped them in class.

We have always had a large number of Haitians (and we are seeing a new influx arriving as we speak) who never learned to read and write their home language. The Haitians spoke Kreyòl, a language that was not officially recognized by the government of Haiti until 1987. French was the one and only official language up until that year. They still kept French, however, by declaring that both French and Kreyòl would be the two official languages of Haiti. They had a constitutional revision that year, and it was done in Kreyòl along with French.

In the 1940s a group of religious persons began to put Kreyòl in a written form in order to publish the Bible in that language. Initially, they used spelling conventions from French, but around the early 1970s, the current spelling form appeared, which has each letter make only one sound, and very few instances in which two letters make one sound. The alphabet has no c, for instance, and uses k and s when writing words that would use c in French or English.

Even those who write Kreyòl write it in a way that seems as if the writer were talking out loud to the reader. Often, in order to get the real sense of what someone has written, my wife reads it out loud to herself. It is not easy to write "pure" Kreyòl. Most persons who write Kreyòl make spelling mistakes and use at least one French word or spelling form of a word.

There is a publisher of books in Kreyòl: Educa Vision. http://www.educavision.com/. Fequière Vilsaint and Maude Hertélou are the owners of this publishing company which is based in Florida. They have a Kreyòl spellchecker and a picture dictionary of Kreyòl - English that I have used with non-literate Haitians. The Oxford Picture Dictionary and the Word by Word Picture Dictionary also have Kreyòl versions.

I liked very much the idea that an extra step was needed, which was to identify. The environmental print and images that enveloped these students became the focal point for us to start as teacher and student. Until we found that point together, I had not felt like I was really in sync with them. I felt very much like I was the one who had to learn more than they, or at least, unlearn some preconceived ideas until I knew where they were at and start at that point.

I did not see real progress until I started to use actual objects they knew well and begin to try to help them link the object to letters. They loved letters and always asked me to put letters on the board to copy as soon as they arrived. They would even become upset with other students who tried to talk to them while they were concentrating on their copying letters. But it was only when I began to use real life objects that they moved from copying to identifying, and from there to naming, and eventually being able to write a grocery list on their own.

I want to share a curriculum that we have developed in Florida for emerging literacy students. On the Florida Department of Education website, the Adult Education web page has this course along with 5 other ESOL-related courses that have been written by Florida adult ESOL practitioners. The link to the FL DOE web page is http://www.fldoe.org/workforce/dwdframe/rtf/32010303.rtf.

The link to the curriculum is http://www.fldoe.org/workforce/dwdframe/rtf/32010303.rtf

This version has a typo or two that I have corrected, but have not been able to change on the FLDOE website yet. If you want a copy of it, I would be happy to send it as an attachment to an email.

We are working with CASAS to develop a standardized assessment process for this level of student, which it should be completed by June 30 of this year.

If anyone is interested in the assessment, please go to www.casas.org.

Ellen Knell highlighted the need of standardized assessments:

We have been hoping that someone would develop a standardized assessment instrument for pre-literate or low-literate students. It is so needed and the teachers in my program will be very excited when it is released.

Phillip Anderson offered some background information on the Florida standards for emerging literacy students:

In 1998-1999, a state-funded Adult ESOL Practitioner Task Force comprised of instructors, administrators and researchers began to work on developing curriculum for students who needed literacy instruction before they could handle the first level of the NRS ESOL course. The experiences of instructors and programs that had emerging literacy students went into writing the standards.

The main impetus behind trying to create this new course was the difficulty teachers were having with trying to teach the first level of ESOL to a class that had students with emerging literacy skills (pre-literate, non-literate, semi-literate) and others who had literacy skills in their first language.

The task force felt there were three levels of emerging literacy, those who needed to learn more pre-writing and pre-reading skills, those who were ready to engage in simple writing and reading, and others who were ready to begin making words and written statements on their own

In 2008, the state task force completed a review of the standards in preparation for developing an assessment that would correlate to the standards. We divided the standards into these parts:

1. Basic Literacy Skills Anchors

  • Sound Discrimination
  • Reading
  • Writing

2. Communication

  • Personal Information
  • Social and Classroom Language
  • Time

3. Employment

4. Consumer and Community

5. Health and Nutrition

6. Transportation and Travel

The link to the FL DOE Adult Education page for curriculum and standards is http://www.fldoe.org/workforce/dwdframe/ad_frame.asp.

The URL for the standards is http://www.fldoe.org/workforce/dwdframe/rtf/32010303.rtf. As I mentioned in my post yesterday, the version on the web has a few typos. In the meantime that it gets replaced, if anyone is interested in a corrected version, I would be happy to send it as an attachment.

Sarah Young commented on Best Literacy and Best Plus, and how these assessments can be used with low-literacy English language learners:

My colleagues and I at CAL have been following the discussion on low literacy English language learners with great interest. As the developer and publisher of BEST Literacy (and the oral proficiency assessment BEST Plus), CAL recognizes the limitations that BEST Literacy has in measuring the progress of reading and writing development for adults with emerging literacy skills. The BEST Literacy Test Manual (2008) states: "BEST Literacy is a competency-based assessment that uses a variety of functional literacy tasks to measure adult English language learners' ability to read and write in English... Some adult learners may have limited knowledge of written English and struggle with or be unable to complete a reading and writing assessment such as BEST Literacy. It is also possible that a learner's primary educational objective is to develop oral communication skills. In these cases an assessment of English listening and speaking skills, such as BEST Plus, may be more appropriate" (pp. 2, 5). These tasks on BEST Literacy include working with a calendar, a train schedule, a phone book, classified ads, and other print materials; as Lisa Gonzalves shared with the list on Wednesday, it takes a lot of targeted work before these learners can begin to connect this type of abstract information on a piece of paper with real life experiences and concepts.

The test manual touches briefly on the connection between literacy skills and oral skills, and we certainly hope to learn more from Martha, Patsy, and others on this topic. As it has been mentioned during the discussions, in some instances it may be more appropriate to focus initially on developing oral skills to better support literacy development. Many of our users use BEST Plus when low literacy students enter the program, but then switch to BEST Literacy when they have reached an appropriate level (i.e., reaching beyond the mechanics of holding a pencil, forming a letter, exhibiting print awareness, etc.).

To answer your query about test development at CAL, we are always interested in hearing from the field about specific needs for specific populations of adult English language learners. Over the past year, we've been looking at the other end of the learner spectrum by exploring the development of a higher level reading and writing assessment for learners who want to transition to postsecondary education and vocational training. We hosted a webinar to collect feedback from the field in this area and we could certainly do something similar to address the national needs for this emerging literacy population as well.

Thanks for the discussion and the sharing of such rich resources and personal stories so far - it's really fascinating. We're looking forward to learning more about this population, as well as the instruction, assessment, and professional development needs of the field.

Helanie Marshall shared her experience with the Hmong community:

I have included certain relevant portions of your post below so that mine makes sense in context. Namely, I am addressing the issue of students from multiple backgrounds and what they all share; the issue of using objects as a transitional stage to get to print; and the overall issue of moving students into abstract or academic thinking.

As we have noted in this discussion, certain commonalities have emerged in working with this population, regardless of their specific cultural background. In my original work with the Hmong in Green Bay, I developed a framework for instruction that was mutually adaptive pedagogically and when I presented this framework, my colleagues would chime in that it applies not only to the Hmong but other groups who share their cultural orientations, if not their specific culture.

The three main factors we have found them to share are: collectivism (vs. individualism), pragmatic ways of thinking (vs. academic ways), and oral transmission (vs. literacy). Taking these three characteristics into account, in collaboration with my colleague, Andrea DeCapua, I have continued to explore the instructional model, called MALP - Mutually Adaptive Learning Paradigm. The paradigm consists, briefly, of six elements that when implemented together, assist the Hmong and other groups in their effort to learn in a new setting, a formal learning environment. It calls upon the teacher to change and adapt, not only the learner.

Because they are collectivist, they learn best when strong interconnectedness exists and when they can share responsibility for learning - our system fosters more independence and individual accountability. As members of oral cultures, or as non-participants in the literate world of their cultural group, they seek redundancy and memorable bits of information rather than a linear presentation of content and skills common to our system of education. As pragmatic thinkers, they seek immediate relevance and opportunities to practice rather than analytical tasks that ask them to isolate critical features and perform little academic "tricks" like true/false, multiple choice, etc.

So to move them gradually to our system, using the real world, like objects, works well. We have a project called "collections," in which students explore a group of objects to discover ways they are the same and different, leading to categorization, defining, and other abstract notions. As you note, the familiar objects with meaning for the students in their lives, create the basis for learning their printed versions.

To read about the model and how we used it for a project with Hmong in Green Bay, a student-created Newcomer Booklet, here is an article that just came out in English Language Teaching Journal. It talks about 2nd grade and high school, as well as an adult class, to show how the model applies to emergent literacy learners at all ages. The newcomer booklet: A project for limited formally schooled students. ELT Journal 2009; Doi: 10.1093/elt/ccp100. With A. DeCapua. http://tinyurl.com/malp-newcomer-booklet

We have an article coming out in the new electronic TESOL Journal in March and we are currently working on a book about the model, focused on high school students in the US, with sample projects and ideas for working with emergent literacy groups.

Topic 8: Questions to Martha on her oracy and literacy skills research

Miriam Burt asked Martha Bigelow:

James Simpson from Leeds University in England mentions research Martha Bigelow and her colleagues have done on the intersection of oral and literacy skills for English language learners with emerging literacy.

Martha - would you be willing to speak a little about this intersection?

  • What findings do you have on this intersection of oracy and literacy?
  • What implications might there be for instruction?

I realize those are big questions - so any piece you would like to bite

off would be great, and useful to the discussion, I think.

Martha Bigelow responded by describing her work:

Sure - I'd be glad to give a few highlights of my work in Minnesota with Somali adolescents and young adults before we close the discussion on this topic. First of all, I just want to say that the time I spend with Somali youth is and has been absolutely marvelous, instructive and downright fun. I feel so lucky to have gotten to know so many remarkable young people, families and community leaders. Through lots of research and work in the community (tutoring, boards, community organizations etc.), I've grown so much as a scholar and a human being. I'm truly so grateful for the doors they've opened to me on many levels.

My work with the Somali communities here is ongoing, but has resulted in two major projects - one focusing on the links between alphabetic print literacy and the processing of oral language (with Elaine Tarone and Kit Hansen), and the other focusing on schooling, advocacy and racialized identity. Here is where you can read about this work:

Tarone, E., Bigelow, M. & Hansen, K. (2009). Literacy and oracy in second

language acquisition.
Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Bigelow, M. (in press, 2010). Mogadishu on the Mississippi: Language, racialized identity, and education in a new land. New York: Wiley-Blackwell.

To be brief, some of the things we found in the first set of studies are as follows:

  1. Participants with lower levels of print literacy seemed to perceive corrective feedback via recasts differently than those with higher levels of literacy. Those with higher levels of literacy could repeat a recast correctly significantly better than those with lower levels of literacy. Possible reasons for this: the more literate learners can use their literacy skills to help them "hear" and manipulate their oral language according to the feedback. Possible implications: it will likely be necessary to use visual teaching strategies which are (at first) not based on text to help learners attend to harder to perceive morphemes they may not have acquired yet.
  2. All of our participants were able to recall recasts of sentences which were quite long. They didn't seem bothered by length - any of them. Maybe the ability to hold long utterances in short term memory is a strength that can help them learn things in school.
  3. When the recasts included two or more changes to the initial learner utterance, those with lower levels of print literacy couldn't recall them as easily as those with higher levels of print literacy. This finding, like the finding in #1, may relate to how print literacy can help learners process oral language.
  4. In an interlanguage analysis of oral narratives, we found that the participants with higher levels of literacy marked verbs, and nouns with redundant morphemes more than the participants with lower levels of literacy. They are all acquiring language largely through oral modes, yet those with some literacy have better accuracy on certain forms than those with less.

The main conclusion we'd offer, however, is that more research with emergent readers is needed.

The book that will be out soon focuses on my own ethnographic research spanning many years of work. I show how the experiences that Somali youth have in schools, with the police and in the courts are important to literacy and language learning. I also try to make a strong case for advocacy in the book. I think that researchers should be involved in the communities they work in and that their research should be relevant to the individuals studied. This is the table of contents:

  • Chapter One - Engaged Scholarship in the Somali Communities of Minnesota
  • Chapter Two - Orality and Literacy within the Somali Diaspora
  • Chapter Three - Multilingualism and Multiliteracy among Somali Adolescent Girls
  • Chapter Four - The Co-Construction of Racialized Identity among Somali Youth
  • Chapter Five -The Policies and Politics of Educating Refugee Adolescents
  • Chapter Six - Researching and Educating Somali Immigrant and Refugee Youth

If you are interested in issues related to doing research in immigrant communities, you might like to come to Minnesota to attend this small but focused conference in the spring:

The Ethics and Politics of Research with Immigrant Communities http://www.cehd.umn.edu/Immigrant-Research/ June 4-5, 2010

Finally, I want to make you aware of the Somali Documentary Project. http://www.somaliproject.org/index.elements/bios_abdi_p01.html

This book that is one outcome of this amazing project is a wonderful curriculum tool for teachers who work with East African refugees. It could be at the heart of a curriculum which is based on culturally responsive teaching. Here's the reference:

Roble, A., & Rutledge, D. (2008). The Somali Diaspora: A journey away. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

If you'd like to delve into the topics I've mentioned here, I'd be glad to share some "top 10" sorts of reading lists and, of course, discuss more!

Miriam Burt

Martha, Thanks so much for your thoughtful, informative post about your work with Somali adolescents and young adults. I have a couple of questions for you before you and Patsy sign off tomorrow.

1. You say that "Those with higher levels of literacy could repeat a recast correctly significantly better than those with lower levels of literacy. Possible reasons for this: the more literate learners can use their literacy skills to help them "hear" and manipulate their oral language according to the feedback. Possible implications: it will likely be necessary to use visual teaching strategies which are (at first) not based on text to help learners attend to harder to perceive morphemes they may not have acquired yet."

Could you say what some of those visual teaching strategies might be?

2. You said that even those with minimal literacy skills could hold the long recasts in their short term memories. Is this a factor of their not being able to rely on the written word, so they have trained themselves to remember things orally? It does seem to be a strength they could bring to acquisition of a new language. Has this memory strength been noted by other researchers with other similar learners? Would it be the case for older adults do you think as well as for the adolescent and young adult Somali learners?

Ted Klein added:

I recall a situation in the 1970's when there was a military training program in English for the Saudi Arabian National Guard. Most of the personnel were Bedouins who were illiterate in written Arabic. They were not doing well learning to read English, even basic and critical words on their equipment and in simple manuals. Somebody got the idea to start with Arabic first. They were taught to read Arabic in less than a month. This was something they could relate to. As soon as they accomplished some comfort with their own written language, a transition was made to written English. This worked and the program was successful.

Martha responded:

Hi Miriam, thanks for the clarification. Teachers have been telling me that they can make different components of speech more salient to the emergent reader by doing things with colored pieces of paper or Cuisenaire colored rods. This technique is visual, rather than print-based and can help students with word boundaries, word order and hard to hear morphemes. Other teachers I know have been bringing kinesthetics in to their teaching. Using full body and/or hand movements to learn and practice language as well as call attention to hard to acquire components.

Topic 9: Resources to teach learners with emergent literacy skills

Patsy Vinogradov offered two resources that use the learners as central to lesson planning:

Making it Real, by Alysan Croydon

Taylor, M. (1992). The language experience approach and adult learners.

Center of Adult English Language Acquisition. Available:

Betsy Parish talked about a series of teacher training videos that show adult ESL teachers in action:

I want to share a new resource that demonstrates an emergent literacy class in action. MaryAnn Florez and I have been working with Barbara Allaire of New American Horizons Foundation to develop a series of teacher training videos of adult ESL teachers in action.

Patsy provided feedback and her professional insights as we worked on the video here in St. Paul. In this Building Literary video, Andrea Echelberger works with a group of primarily Karen refugees, many of whom have interrupted schooling and minimal L1 literacy. I think you'll find that Andrea's lesson addresses many of the questions that have been raised already. In particular it addresses the question Martha and Patsy pose: "...how can such direct instruction happen via meaningful content, content that helps them to become full participants in their new communities?"

Each video runs about 30 minutes. Our two pilot videos in the series are:

"Building Literacy with Adult Emergent Readers," with Andrea Echelberger of Saint Paul, Minnesota, who works with a Whole-Part-Whole approach to teaching literacy, using a learner-generated story of a shared experience and demonstrating activities to develop beginning literacy skills.

"Lesson Planning for Life Skills," with Betsy Lindeman Wong of Alexandria, Virginia, who guides beginning level learners through highly structured to open-ended activities, showing the progression of a life-skills lesson in talking on the telephone.

The first two videos from new American Horizons are now ready for viewing at www.newamericanhorizons.org. We hope you find them useful. They are intended for personal use, volunteer training, as supplements in workshops, in person or online teacher education courses. Look for more to come and please let us know how they work for you at the blog: eslvideoproject.org. "Building Literacy with Adult Emergent Readers"focuses specifically on the whole-part-whole approach discussed this week, and "Lesson Planning for Life Skills" provides an overview of lesson planning principles that will apply to many lessons, and it is with a group of beginning adult ESL learners.

Jill Watson’s recommended this resource for high school ELL teachers with LFS students:

I have had good experiences with materials from Linmore Publishing-- clearly presented, age-appropriate, context-based, written by ESL teachers, and not expensive compared to materials from the big publishing houses.


Sandy Woodside added another resource for teaching in a church setting:

I have worked as the literacy coordinator for a large cluster of churches in my area. The teaching is done on site in the local churches. One resource that I liked was a series of notebooks with lessons and cassette tapes called Passport to the World of English by Martha A. Lane, Curriculum Developer. It is published by Literacy & Evangelism International, 1800 S. Jackson Avenue, Tulsa, Oklahoma, 78107-1897.

The lessons have conversations to practice, pronunciation practices from the tape, stories, poems, excerpts from world and American history, and from the Bible. For someone wanting to teach in a church setting that only meets a few times a week, it is easy to use because the lessons are somewhat lengthy and even when supplemented could be the material for an entire evening.

Gretchen Bitterlin commented on a book for working with pre-literate students that are in a mixed class:

Teaching to the pre-literate or non-literate students in a class with other students with a literate background in a beginning level class is one of the most challenging assignments. One of the new core Adult level texts, Ventures, published by Cambridge University Press, tries to address this issue by having two workbooks to accompany the lowest level, Ventures Basic. There is a regular workbook and then a literacy workbook that provides practice at the lowest level of literacy, e.g. tracing individual letters, but the practices are in context of the theme of each lesson in the student book and regular workbook. You may want to review these materials.

Deedee Ade added a resource to work with low level-students:

Another resource that I have found very useful with my literacy level students is Longman ESL Literacy by Yvonne Wong Nishio. It is basic enough to provide gradual practice with vocabulary, literacy skills, phonics, grammar, and general competencies which correlate to CASAS (Comprehensive Adult Student Assessment System), LAUSD (Los Angeles Unified School District ESL Beginning Literacy content standards), and LCPs (Literacy Completion Points- Florida Pre-Literacy Points Level B).

Patsy Vinogradov commented on a source of literacy-level textbooks:

Another list of literacy-level textbooks is the CAELA Resource Collection: "Working with Literacy-Level Adult English Language Learners. "www.cal.org/caela/esl_resources/collections/literacy.html

One of the most discussed online resources was Starfall.com. The discussion focused on its applications and effectiveness

Greg Boyd initiated this discussion inquiring about other participant’s experiences with online sites:

I found a website called starfall.com. Has anybody used it? The site is developed for kids but it seemed like I it could be pretty useful. I only had a couple of minutes to looking at the site and I will spend more time checking it out before using it with some of my students. I went to the first lesson learn the ABCs and selected A. It said the letter and then gave a phonetic for A then there was several different pictures of nouns than began with A (Apple, Alligator, Astronaut), for each noun it first gave the phonetic. Then there was a tree with capital and lowercase A's and the students had to sort them.

I saw there was also several other sites. Does anybody know if there is a site specifically for adults? Has anyone used any of these sites? What were the results. Seems life it could be useful because the students could work at their own pace and also learn to use the computer too. The only thing that they would need to use is the mouse to go to the next page.

Susan Fontenot commented on how she uses the site with her students with developmental disabilities:

I have used Starfall.com with children (6-8 year olds) with developmental disabilities. It has an online component and also a hard-copy book component. When I was teaching, we first made the students read the book on paper. All of the books online are printed on paper and come in a packet so each student has his/her own packet. Once they read the book, it was a "reward" for them to read the book on the computer. The site does a great job of teaching phonics and breaking down each word into its components. Every book has a theme, for instance, the silent "e" is the focus of one book. Also online are games associated with the theme of the book.

The content of the books and online games are geared toward young learners. It is a great resource for teaching how to "sound out" words. The stories are great for learning comprehension, as they have a clear beginning, middle, and end, and the vocabulary is not difficult. As an added bonus, students learn computer skills and how to navigate a simple website.

I would imagine Starfall being a great resource in family literacy programs, for parents helping their children learners.

Marte Mirman talked about using the program with pre-literate refugees:

We have used Starfall.com very successfully for our adult pre-literate refugees. We have found that some of our students that were struggling prior to using the computer soared ahead once they understood how the program worked.

I was not aware that there is a hard-copy book component. I will have to check that out. Thanks for the information.

Amanda Potter shared her experience with low level learners:

I use Starfall all the time with my lowest level learners, and let all my students know about it as an example of a "good" website to let their kids visit. I know that the teachers in another big organization in town that teaches EL (Lutheran Social Services) also use it quite a bit.

Tom Zurinskas commented on the "Learn to Read" section of the program

Starfall.com looks like a great site. One interesting item in the "learn to read" section http://www.starfall.com/n/level-a/learn-to-read/play.htm?f lists several phonemes. Number 7 makes me smile because it puts "we" and "ink" on the same line as the same sound. I would agree and believe its obvious. When you click to hear pronunciation, you can hear that it's the same sound. Yet every dictionary says the "i" in "ink" is short I as in win. I think this must be legacy pronunciation that may have been correct, but not today as these sound files indicate.

Amanda Farrell explained how she uses Starfall in her classroom:

Starfall is great; we have used it extensively for 15 minute "centers" in the classroom where I was an aide until inclusion forced us to drop any special ed classroom time... Anyway, the children in the class last year showed marked progress in reading levels, except for those with the most obvious and significant biological delays.

Most children (of 12) advanced at least five levels by the LLI standards (a program by nationally renowned program innovators Fountas and Pinnell).

Teresa Wall recounted her experience using Starfall with young adults, and also with another online resource:

I use www.starfall.com with a number of learners in my class. There are some nice Greek Myths and Chinese Fables that learners use, along an interesting series on famous musicians and artists. I work with young adults, and wondered whether they might think the stories were to childish, but they seemed to really enjoy them. I don't know if you noticed this, but if you click on the pictures, the characters move around and do the same thing described in the text. This supports the text really well, so that even when learners don't understand all of the words, they're often able to guess the meaning (we've been practicing this strategy together).

www.mcedservices.com is another website I like to use. Their phonics stories are geared at adult learners and have a listening component to them. English Express (www.englishexpress.ca) is also written for adults. Stories are written at three different levels and there are new stories issued every month. I use these quite a lot. Many of the stories, but not all, have a listening component as well.

Deedee Ade commented on her students’ need of user support:

I have used starfall.com various times with my literacy level students. Many of them needed coaching on how to use a mouse and cursor first. They did seem to enjoy going at their own pace and repeating the sounds by clicking the letter, picture, or word. It starts out basic with each letter introduced with an animated picture and the identifying label for the picture. It can progress to poems and short stories.(http://larryferlazzo.edublogs.org/2008/01/26/the-best-websites-for-intermediate-readers/)

Julie Mckinney suggested several resources on the topic of health and literacy:

…my first thought is to look at the materials from the Hesperian Foundation. They develop the books Where There is No Doctor, and there is a version called "here Women Have No Doctor, which contains sections on family planning. These books are developed for people who do not necessarily use traditional calendars, and may have some good ideas on how to approach this. Here's the link: http://www.hesperian.org/publications_download_wwhnd.php

Another thought is to work on creating Pill Cards with students. This is slightly different than what you need in terms of a calendar, but you may be able to adapt it to a calendar concept. The nice thing about this is that it's participatory and the planning sheet is developed with the students or patients themselves. Check this link: http://www.ahrq.gov/qual/pillcard/pillcard.htm

Here are some more resources for teaching health in literacy classes. It's from Family Health and Literacy. Try the Women's Health topic for more ideas: http://www.healthliteracy.worlded.org/docs/family/easy.html#teaching

Other online reading resources for adults that participants found useful:

Julia Reimer offered a resource to use a whole-part-whole instruction with LFS students:

Onset and Rime Instruction in a Low Level ABE ESOL Reading Classroom (Erin Evans). http://hamline.edu/education/academics/resources_advising/pdf/ESLcapstone_eevans.pdf

Patsy Vinogradov provided suggestions for materials to use training volunteers:

Thank you to Rachel Fuchs for bringing up the important point of using volunteers. So many adult education programs depend on the time and talents of generous volunteers to provide ESL services!

It's hard enough to find paid staff with experience and expertise in teaching low-literacy learners, and finding volunteers can be a real challenge. And what training can they receive, if needed? In response to this need, the Minnesota Literacy Council (thanks in large part to Burgen Young) has created an online training course for volunteers who are new to working with this level of ESL. It's available at http://online.themlc.org, (that link wasn't very happy just now, but you can try: http://www.themlc.org/trainingregistration.html then click on Online Training Offered by MLC at the bottom.) Another great online training resource was created by Nancy Faux at the Virginia Adult Learning Resource Center:

Topic 10: Finding suitable reading materials for low-literacy adults

Many participants agreed that it was challenging to find appropriate low-level reading materials for their adult learners.

Martha Young-Scholten explained how she is starting a project to create her own reading materials for these students:

At my School of English Literature, Language and Linguistics in Newcastle, England, we've just started embarked on a pilot project to create a library of accessible fiction (more about this below) for the lowest literate immigrant adults. Our goal is to enable the establishment of extensive reading programs at local ESOL providers. We thought, wouldn't it be great if those adults without native language schooling had a wide choice of short fiction books at their level which they could take home with them for pleasure reading? Here I agree with Krashen; we become readers by reading.

So we have paired eight creative writing students (mostly MA or PhD students) with pairs of (mostly undergraduate) students taking my L2 acquisition of literacy by immigrant adults course. We are now awaiting the fruits of their labors. As the project proceeds, offers for writing stories are coming in. Undergraduates linguistics students want to write stories themselves, and the creative writers have offered to provide some guidance on their creative writing. The unit that offers intensive ESL at Newcastle wants to engage their (highly educated and young) overseas students in writing stories for low-literate immigrants.

It's going to be a great challenge to make sure the stories are engaging yet linguistically accessible, and we have to carefully consider all levels, from segment to syllable to word to sentence to discourse along with literary devices. For creative writers used to searching for the best rather than the most accessible turn of phrase, this is difficult - but we hope it's doable. We will soon be setting up a website to allow those interested to track our progress.

Kit Hansen talked about her past experience finding reading materials for her Somali students:

Your effort reminded me a bit of a reading/writing project I tried when I was teaching low literacy young adults and adults at the Somali Education Center in Minneapolis, Minnesota. Like many of us writing on this ListServ, I was frustrated by the lack of suitable reading material -- choices seemed either too juvenile or too culturally laden. I found a simplified version of "Amistad" that really held the group's attention. In each class session, students and I took turns reading aloud. We then talked about the story, after which we collaboratively wrote our own version of the chapter. I used prompts like "So what should we put first?" and "What happens next?" The students called out answers and I wrote the sentence on the board; others then hollered out updates, some grammar corrections, or argued that no, this should come before that, etc. They copied the finished sentences into their notebooks. Our goal was to have a simpler version that others at the Center could use. Needless to say, progress with the story was slow, but the level of engagement and the way writing was being used was pleasing.

What I liked about the activity was that the decoding and comprehension was collaborative and vocal. I felt that context was being built not only by the printed page, but in the classroom. To me, this seems more akin to natural language/communication use, and perhaps it allowed them to draw on strengths they already possess. The collaborative nature of the writing had advantages, too. Students were drawing on their just-built communal understanding of the story and were not "married" to the printed page. I think this promotes use of and cementing of the emerging speaking skills and sets up a nice relationship with writing as something you "do" -- not some formalized, abstracted academic exercise that can be so intimidating.

Had the class continued long enough, we would have been able to move on to review and further edit our output, making the grammar more perfect, adding details where the story line was jumpy, and so on. As happens in so many of this type of education center, though, the students move on to other things, and so do teachers.

Given that finding suitable books is so hard (soon to be resolved by Martha's project!), I think this activity could be adapted to use film. Of course, it would not have the initial reading input, but the collaborative writing would still be there, and also, reading of what the students write.

Theresa Wall solved the problem by writing her own reading series:

We've just written a series of stories for ESL Literacy learners at Bow Valley College, as well. They are written to roughly align with the Canadian Language Benchmarks ESL Literacy document's Phase I through Phase III. A number of ESL Literacy instructors collaborated to develop the stories -- we're currently piloting them with learners and hope to have these files available online by fall. We're always looking for more books to send home with learners. I'd love to hear about other work in this area!

Val Yule noted:

Many adults prefer non-fiction. There used to be Macdonal Educational well illustrated with different levels of difficulty of the same text on the one page. I gather Simon & Schuster took over the imprint.

Katharine Bennett suggested the Penguin Readers series:

We have invested in many of the Penguin Readers series for our adult students. Not all of the Penguin books are appropriate for adults, of course, but we have found that our ESL students really enjoy the celebrity biographies (Michael Jordan, Julia Roberts, Cesar Chavez, Martin Luther King, Jr., etc..), non-fiction (a favorite is one about the Titanic) and graded-reader novels, such as White Fang and The Scarlet Letter.

Some of the Penguin Books are also available with a cassette. Listening while reading is a best practice supported by research in language acquisition and reading development.

Val Yule added:

Penguin Australia have given me permission to adapt the autobiography of an Australian bushboy on his own since he was eight, who taught himself to read and write and had many adventures including in the army and afterwards, Bert Facey's A Fortunate Life, which many people struggling with literacy can identify with. He wrote it when he was eighty. I plan to put three levels of difficulty on the same page.

The book as it is has one edition suitable for the better readers.

Raichle Farrell suggested another resource:

The Laubach series has a number of books that accompany each level. You can get a Skill book, a workbook, teacher's manual and then smaller books with additional stories which continually build upon the sounds/vocabulary the students have already learned. The stories aren't always great - like the one on duck hunting, for example - because it's adhering to a sequence and a limited, controlled vocabulary. In the additional, supplemental readers that go with the skillbook and workbook, there are some non-fiction stories - ex: about MLK Jr. and Helen Keller.


Very Easy True Stories and Easy True Stories are good easy readers, but they are well above the level of our pre- and low-literate learners. I mention them and the Laubach additional readers because it seems that some of you may be working with learners who are reading at a level above Sam and Pat. In that case, these might be good. They are for students who have been working with the code long enough to be able to decode many of the words they come across, yet they are still easy and have pictures with each story.

Very Easy True Stories on Amazon: http://www.amazon.com/Very-Easy-True-Stories-Picture-Based/dp/0131345567/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&s=books&qid=1267043943&sr=8-1

Deedee Ade echoed the previous posting and added:

I agree with the assessment of Very Easy True Stories. I have used this resource with my students in the past. It is good for the low-beginning level to start with.

However, the picture sequencing is a good activity for them to process the story. You could copy the picture sequences and have them arrange the pictures in order. It would take some scaffolding with regards to pointing out vocabulary in the pictures. Using TPR (total physical response) and acting out the story would also be beneficial.

Excellent resources and ideas are buzzing regarding appropriate reading materials! Certainly, there is NOT a lot to choose from as far as published reading texts for our lowest level emergent readers (but it sounds like there will be more soon thanks to Martha Young-Scholten in the UK!). Many low-literacy teachers (including me) advocate 'extensive reading' (or sometimes termed 'sustained silent reading') as a useful practice in the adult ESL classroom, even at this lowest beginning level. Finding good things to read can be a challenge, however! My colleagues Andrea Poulos and Astrid Liden and I have found some gems, though, and I'd like to share those with you.

Again, I urge you to be picky about what you use-it should be appropriate for adults and interesting, preferably with grown-ups in the photos (I tell new teachers to make sure the book passes the "no talking bunnies" test. : )

Maybe others have suggestions, too? OR ideas on how to incorporate extensive reading into your emergent literacy curriculum?

Mary Brunelle talked about her experience creating every day, reading opportunities:

... if instructors use the Language Experience approach, reading materials can be "instantly" created right on the spot in the beginning level classroom. For example, it was a young lady's 22nd birthday in class today. We sang "Happy Birthday" and someone purchased a muffin in the coffee bar around the corner (before class) and put it right in front of her as we were singing. I veered from the lesson I had planned, and with the students calling out the words as I took the dictation on the blackboard, we "wrote" the story of "Martha's Birthday". This will now become one (more) story in the collection of reading materials that I am using for the quarter in the beginning group. We read and re-read these stories in class (sustained reading, oral reading) every week.

Isabel Arnold added:

I would like to suggest a UK company, Gatehouse Books, www.gatehousebooks.co.uk who specialize in adult beginner literacy and in particular books which have been written by adults who are themselves developing their literacy skills.

Ellen Knell highlighted the role of practice, repetition, and the use of sight words for teaching reading:

I feel like I'm experiencing a revival of the whole-language/phonics discussions that took place when I began teaching 20 years ago as an elementary school learning disabilities specialist. It's great to see this discussion finally coming to our field - and it's an important one - especially for our pre-lit adults who have no literacy base in their L1 that can help them learn in the L2.

It's all in the balance of the top-down and bottom-up. LEA is a top-down approach that I use often in my classes. You can do the whole-part-whole instruction where you integrate phonics and sounds - but it's not enough of the bottom for pre-literates. They also need considerable experience with a direct, systematic phonics program that is sequential. Without this, they will not be able to gain any real independence in decoding. They can read the LEA vocabulary in the context rich environment of the classroom, but without extensive practice with word patterns this knowledge will not generalize.

When we use decodable texts that also have controlled vocabularies our students are working with frequent, common word patterns and common sight words (less regular) and they get the words over and over again in each new story context. Each story builds on the one before. They see the words again and again in slightly different ways. When they finish, they have a bank of words they can read and a knowledge about word patterns. I have seen students gain such confidence in their ability to read with these texts.

Yes, I know that there are problems. Sometimes the language isn't as natural as it could be, but the new books are so much better now than the old boring stilted books of the past. I mean after all, Sam loses his job because he sleeps in, and his wife, Pat, won't give him the car - sounds pretty real to me! It's not the mad fat cat sat on the flat mat - if you know what I mean.

We need to continue teaching sight words from the top after we do TPR and LEA. We can't wait a year to teach "coat" because the students haven't leaned the "oa" vowel pattern. But at the same time we need to provide direct, systematic, instruction in phonics so that they can gain the necessary 'alphabetics' to help them succeed. We do our students a tremendous disservice if we don't do this.

Sorry. I'm on my soap box. I've seen too many good results with these books and too many excited students.

Tom Zurinskas responded:

Finnish is a transparent orthography, meaning that it's spelled as it sounds. There are no spelling bees in Finnish because spelling is easy, and thus kids can learn to read easily. Thus dyslexia there is not a function of inconsistent spelling. Here is an interesting article on Finnish dyslexia, early identification, and games to help remedy. (Note that dyslexia for English readers is twice as high as for a phonetically consistent language - Paulesu. He feels that non-phonetic spelling is the cause)

From the article on Finnish dyslexia: "In-depth analyses of the JLD-data confirm that the ultimate problem for severely dyslexic children seems to be poor speech perception. These results (Pennala et al., in press) show that perception accuracy of phonemes (more specifically, of phonemic length which is a highly distinctive feature in Finnish) still explains reading skills even after controlling for all other best known predictors, including phonological skills. Thus, preventive training should address this problem in helping the child to differentiate the relevant phonemic space represented in the language."


Another interesting article.


Sharon Hillestad commented:

How about non-phonetic teaching being the cause? I see first graders having to memorize a list of "sight" words that have consistent spelling patterns. They are not taught the many other words that have the same pattern at the same time. Dyslexia is a taught disability in many cases.

Val Yule added:

Teachers need to have a much better knowledge of spelling than many do, who just see teaching spelling as teaching lists.

See pages at http://home.vicnet.net.au/ozideas/spelling.htm and http://home.vicnet.net.au/ozideas/literacy.htm,

while for other languages which give another perspective on our own, see http://home.vicnet.net.au/ozideas/writsys.htm

I agree with Sharon about the non-phonetic teaching you describe!

Heidi Hayte responded to Ellen Knell’s comments:

Thanks for this great summary, Ellen, and for sharing information about the work you do with your pre-lit students and the materials you use to instruct them. I, too, believe in an interactive approach, utilizing both top-down and bottom-up strategies. However, I've noticed that the bottom-up (phonics) strategies are often neglected or at least overshadowed by the top-down ones, perhaps partially due to the fact that teachers do not know how to instruct using these types of strategies themselves. This is why I have integrated bottom-up strategies instruction in my literacy development teacher-training courses.

I agree with the need to sufficiently expose students to explicit, systematic phonics instruction to provide the necessary foundation. Since others have been listing resources they've used, I thought I'd add one to the list. A supplementary resource I've used for bottom-up strategy instruction is Reading Horizons, which is an explicit, systematic phonics program. It's created for adults (so it's not condescending) and has been used effectively in adult ed. settings. My ESL students have really enjoyed learning new strategies to help them decode, spell, and pronounce English better. They feel empowered!

I have simple versions of the half hour online resource www.ozreadandspell.com.au, which has too many fancy bits to it for many students to find their way around. Can send free copies of a CD to anyone interested who has a mac. The only trouble is the audio is too fast, and could do with re-editing, which you may be able to do with a non-Aussie accent. . But some students like it, and I've more copies than I can use myself. It is bottom-up ending top-down. I am trying to put it online as well as the ultra-decorated. For the CD, just send me your address.

On fiction and non-fiction books, Tanya Brinck commented:

I've had good experiences with the hi-lo books offered by Saddleback publishing and Townsend Press. Just recently I went through a special education catalog placed in my box at school and saw many books, fiction and non-fiction, that would probably interest adult readers. The ESL students in my extensive reading classes really gravitated towards biographies and non-fiction, but some did pick up a novel.

Lisa Gonzalves added:

I wanted to put out one more resource: Peppercorn Books has got some great short "books" for emerging adult readers, with super applicable content: http://www.peppercornbooks.com/

I have used quite a few of these in my classes.


On the final day, Patsy and Martha sent the following message:

What a wonderful week of discussion this has been! Thank you to all of you who contributed to this week's topic on working with low-literacy adult emerging readers.

[We] look forward to seeing many of you in Boston at TESO 2010, and are

especially glad to hear about some of the low-literacy presentations that are being offered (see below). We encourage you to keep the lines of communication open with those you found shared interests. We hope you'll continue to share and learn about how to teach emergent readers.

  • "Addressing the Cultural Dissonance of ELLs with Limited Formal Education,"

    "ELLs with Limited Formal Education: Six Criteria for Success," Helaine Marshall
  • "Building Phonemic Awareness in Pre- and Low-Literate Adults"

    "Adult Literacy: Learning from our Early Childhood Colleagues"

    Patsy Vinogradov, Andrea Poulos, Astrid Liden
  • "Strategies for Teaching Reading/Writing to Preliterate/Beginning Adult


    Kathleen Olson and Lynn Savage.
  • " Re-imagining Low Literate Adult ESOL Assessment Using Touch Screens "


Patsy and Martha