Using Oral Language Skills to Build on the Emerging Literacy of Adult English Learners

This resource is a research brief written for teachers, program administrators, and teacher trainers seeking ways to work effectively with adult and adolescent English language learners (ELLs) with emerging literacy skills.  

Martha Bigelow
Patsy Vinogradov
Author(s) Organizational Affiliation
University of Minnesota
Publication Year
Resource Type
Informational Material
Number of Pages
Product Type

This resource is a research brief written for teachers, program administrators, and teacher trainers seeking ways to work effectively with adult and adolescent English language learners (ELLs) with emerging literacy skills. 

The authors describe research demonstrating that strong oral skills pave the way for the development of literacy in a second language and that literacy skills enhance oral language development. Learners who do not have literacy skills in any language are also likely to have stronger oral skills as well as limited experience with formal education. In classroom learning that assumes print literacy, ELLs with limited literacy may respond differently than adults with well-established literacy skills to daily routines and classroom practices. Classroom techniques that use learners’ oral English skills and that make strong connections between learners’ experiences, social interaction, and content can be especially effective. Based on the research presented, the authors describe two principles that should guide instruction for adult learners with limited literacy:

  • Balance meaning-focused and form-focused instruction
  • Connect instruction to learners’ lives

This resource describes a variety of instructional activities that demonstrate ways that teachers can put research findings on oral language proficiency and literacy development into practice by bringing the content from the lives of the students into the classroom, capitalizing on oral language skills, and creating balanced literacy lessons that draw on the interests and abilities of adults with emerging literacy while also focusing on the components of language. One technique described is whole-part-whole, in which top-down, meaning-focused activities are balanced with bottom-up, form-focused activities. A complementary technique described uses learner-generated texts produced through language experience approach activities or stories from learners’ lives. The learner-generated texts provide the basis for both meaning-focused and form-focused activities. The authors conclude by calling for more research in classroom settings.

Required Training

None, but as with all descriptions of research and practice, it is best to read and discuss this resource with professional colleagues.

What the experts say

Teachers, program administrators, and professional developers struggle to provide effective and appropriate instructional strategies for adult ELLs who do not have literacy skills in any language and who may have had limited or interrupted formal education. Instructional strategies that are effective for other low-level adult ELLs may be ineffective for emerging readers. Research on practices that are effective for adult ELLs without literacy is growing, but is still limited.

In this literature review, the authors describe important recent research on the relationship between orality and literacy, as well as ways that learners with limited literacy engage in and learn from meaningful social and interactive learning activities. They use transcript excerpts effectively to bring their points to life and describe instructional approaches for working with adult ELLs with limited literacy; these approaches are grounded in the oral strengths and skills that the learners bring to the classroom. 

For teachers, the most valuable part of this literature review is the application of research to instruction section. In this section, the authors describe two research-based principles to guide instruction for adult learners with limited literacy. Importantly, this resource does not provide a step-by-step guide—it provides two guiding principles that teachers can use to design or adapt instruction to meet the needs of the learners in their classrooms. The principles are followed by examples of many different instructional strategies. Many teachers will find familiar approaches among the list, including the language experience approach, learners’ lives as curriculum, and instructional strategies that experienced teachers have found to be effective with emergent readers.

To see some of these techniques in use, teachers can visit the New American Horizons Web site ( and watch the video called Building literacy with emergent readers. In this classroom video, the teacher demonstrates techniques that reflect the two principles described in this literature review.

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