“MAESTRA! The Letters Speak.” Adult ESL Students Learning to Read for the First Time

This report outlines five principles for teaching adult emergent readers.

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

Young adult and adult students with little or no literacy in their first languages are tackling a double challenge: acquiring English while learning to read for the first time later in life. There is a considerable lack of research in this area of ESL, but the available research and professional wisdom can guide teaching practice. Five general principles help create vibrant, successful classrooms for low-literacy students: keep lessons contextualized, combine bottom-up and top-down approaches, cater to a variety of learning preferences, tap into students’ strengths, and nurture their confidence. This report outlines these five principles and connects them specifically to serving adult emergent readers.

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

Many teachers, especially new instructors, struggle to find appropriate ways to teach ELLs who do not have literacy skills in any language. In this article, the author describes five guiding principles to guide instruction for literacy learners. Each principle has supporting research and is followed by several examples of classroom practices. The principles cover learners’ experience with schooling, oral skills, print skills, and learning strategies. In general, the article is a thorough introduction to working with adult ELLs who are new to literacy.

Teachers will find that the article is written in a very accessible, welcoming tone. The author’s presentation of multiple examples helps illustrate the broad guiding principles. The presentation of information in five principles also makes it easy for teachers to experiment with just one of the principles and not feel compelled to change all aspects of their practice at once, as they work to adapt instruction to literacy learners.

The article is useful for preservice, novice, and experienced teachers who are interested in improving their skill in working with new readers. Preservice teachers will get a broad overview of the issues involved in working with literacy learners. Novice teachers will find concrete strategies to use and a way to think about organizing instruction for literacy learners. Experienced teachers will benefit from the framework provided by the five principles working in concert as well as from new ideas for expanding their repertoire of effective instructional strategies.

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