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The Elder Literacy Initiative: Pre-literacy curriculum

The Elder Literacy Initiative


Hello everyone! I have just completed a curriculum development project for low-literate elders, and I'm very interested in sharing this resource with as many organizations and educators as possible.

I coordinate Adult ELL Programs for CommonBond Communities, an affordable housing nonprofit in St Paul, Minnesota. When I began my position, I found that although we were not a traditional location for a school, we were reaching an underserved population of learners: elder refugees. Oftentimes, elders face the greatest challenges in attending schools off-site due to limited mobility, lack of transportation, or health issues. As a housing organization, we were in an ideal position to serve elders as our programs operate in the buildings where students live, but we simply did not have the right resources to deliver quality literacy instruction to elders who are pre-literate.

I collaborated with the Minnesota Literacy Council to develop curriculum guidelines for volunteers working 1:1 with low-literate elders. We went on to develop activities which practice the skills outlined in these guidelines-- activities which first focus on building students' vocabulary orally, then teach students to read those words they already know how to say.

This curriculum includes:

  • 13 instructional themes that are relevant and authentic to adults of any age, with a special focus on learners who are 65+
  • Guidelines informed by Massachusetts ABE Basic Literacy Standards, training materials from the Minnesota Literacy Council, and Transitions Integration Framework
  • Materials that are easy to use with pre-literate learners 1:1, in small groups, or classroom settings
  • Leveled activities with detailed instructions that are easy to follow


To request a free digital copy of the curriculum, please visit You can also preview curriculum materials on the 'Resources' page: 


Thank you! 
Lisa Vogl




Glenda Rose's picture
One hundred

Thanks for sharing!

Susan Finn Miller's picture
One hundred

Lisa, Thank you for sharing your work with the field. This is going to help so many teachers and learners. Much appreciated!

Best, Susan Finn Miller

Moderator, Assessment CoP

KarenWright's picture

Thank you for sharing this site.  I've requested a copy and can't wait to dive in.

nmpettitt's picture

Thank you, Lisa!  I'd love to include these resources in an undergrad service-learning course I developed at Georgia State on Teaching Adult ESL in Community-Based Programs -- including several weeks on the topic of working with immigrants/refugees with interrupted formal education.  Thank you so much for sharing these!!! -Nicole Pettitt  (P.S. I'm doing graduate work at Georgia State now, after several years in Minneapolis ABE/ESL. We were neighbors and probably know some of the same people!)

voglx010's picture

Hi Nicole--  Yes, I think we were neighbors! This is a great place to be for ABE/ESL. 

I'm excited to hear that you will be including it in your course! I've found that it is very common for elders to access ESL programs in seemingly random places in the community. I even heard of elders taking a class at the police department across the street-- the nearest school is much farther away.

What I find most exciting about the curriculum is that anybody can use it, because everything you need is already included. It can work anywhere there is even just one student and one volunteer, thereby sidestepping the common barrier of not having a teacher or a classroom full of materials. Plus, many of the activities can be customized for students according to where they live, making it even more relevant and user-friendly.  Maybe some of your students will be inspired to use it too!

Paul Rogers's picture
One hundred

I would like to add that bilingual instruction in adult ESL classes with pre and low literate adults has proven to be more effective than an English Only approach.  

I have developed my own program and have seen that a bilingual method of instruction works as an effective transition to English only based classes, increasing student interest and reducing the drop out rate.

Actually, native language literacy for pre-literate students should also be offered in ESL programs.


1. Elsa Auerbach, Reexamining English Only in the ESL Classroom 




Written and Compiled by Cielito Brekke Revised Spring 2009


COMMUNITY COLLEGES OF SPOKANEC. Brekke ESL IEL Tutor Curriculum Guide for Adult ESL Preliterate Learners Spring 2009 2


 Preliterate – learners who have had no contact with print in their native languages; they come from societies which are oral: the language is not written, has only recently been written, or is being developed. For example, most Bantu people of Somalia; the Dinka people from Sudan; many Australian indigenous groups; some Pacific Island language groups; the Hmong people from Southeast Asia.

 Non-literate - learners who have no education at all, have no access to literacy instruction but the native language has written form and literacy is available. For example, many adult learners from Central and South America may not be literate in their native Spanish because of disrupted schooling due to war and poverty.

C. Brekke ESL IEL Tutor Curriculum Guide for Adult ESL Preliterate Learners Spring 2009 6

 Semi-literate – learners from literate societies who usually have had access to literacy in their native culture, but due to socioeconomic status or educational circumstances, they have not acquired a high level of literacy in L1; they may have left school at a young age for economic or political reasons.

 Literate – learners who are comfortable in reading and writing in their native language. They often have educational training or academic degrees in their native countries. 


voglx010's picture

Hi Paul,

I completely agree, and I would love to see more support for bilingual instruction. What we do have a lot of support for are volunteer programs, mostly because they increase the capacity of organizations to provide services at less cost to both the organization and participants. In several cases I did have bilingual volunteers (invaluable to the program), but most often our volunteers were monolingual. Fortunately, volunteer programs can encourage very positive relationships between communities, and this shouldn't be overlooked.

Although it would certainly be easier and more effective for students to learn to read in their first language, I think it's still important to provide appropriate resources for volunteers to use-- even if they are English-only. This at least decreases the chance that volunteers would try to teach adults using children's books or tedious alphabet drills. The reality of the situation is that adult education programs are underfunded, and well-supported and properly trained volunteers can be a solution.

Paul Rogers's picture
One hundred

Hi, Lisa,

Your program is an excellent model and I agree with the importance of providing classes to seniors, who are often under-served. In this way it becomes possible to provide literacy instruction to entire families.

And I wholeheartedly agree with developing a program utilizing volunteers. The problem of providing bilingual volunteers could be solved by recruiting from the various diverse communities that you serve.

One way to look at the issue of bilingual instruction for pre-literate adults (or pre-ESL) is to examine some model programs. I have seen two that I would like to mention.

Many years ago I visited an African refugee center that was located in a community church. Volunteers gave classes in Swahili literacy, mainly to elders, and ESL. Their ESL texts and instruction were bilingual. It was a very dynamic program.

The other program is called Centro Latino for Literacy and provides Spanish literacy to Spanish speaking adult immigrants, along with ESL and Citizenship. The pre-literate students can first learn Spanish literacy and then continue to ESL classes.

Regarding texts – I agree with you that it is important to provide resources suited for adults so that children’s’ books are not used in the class. I have written my own bilingual texts for adult English learners, and you can find many others online. At this time, computer literacy should also be included in the classes.

You also mentioned the lack of funding, a chronic problem for literacy programs. Fortunately there are many foundations that can provide grants. Local fundraising projects can be very beneficial also.

Below is a list of some examples of resources which can be very helpful for all adult literacy programs.

1. Larry Ferlazzo

2. Florida Literacy Coalition

Welcome to Florida's Adult and Family Literacy Resource Center.

3. Centro Latino for Literacy

Centro Latino for Literacy creates innovative solutions that transform lives through literacy.

4. Computers for Literacy

TechSoup - The Place for Nonprofits and Libraries

5. Volunteerism in Adult Literacy Programs

For more on Paid Bilingual Community Assistants in Adult ESL Literacy Read "Language Education Policy Profile,"  City of Sheffield Published by the  Language Policy Division, Strasbourg,  2009

6. Adult Biliteracy

7. Grants – Google: Grants for adult literacy programs

Adult Education and Literacy Homepage

The Division of Adult Education and Literacy (DAEL) promotes programs that help ... for more information on how to obtain funding for adult education programs.

Miriamb3's picture
One hundred

Thank you for sharing this, Lisa. This is a useful and generous contribution to the field.. Other resources for this group, anyone?

Miriam Burt

Patsy Egan's picture

Hi Miriam and all,

I humbly offer a very brief article I wrote for the newly revamped MinneTESOL Journal on the topic of low-literacy adult ESL. Scroll down after clicking the link below to find it. It's entitled: Adult ESL and Kindergarten: An Unlikely Meeting to Improve Literacy Instruction. Happy reading!

Minnesota TESOL journal:


Patsy Vinogradov

Hamline University, St. Paul, MN


Edna Hoover's picture

The best training I ever had was working alongside experienced teachers in a daycare-afterschool program.

It's becomes very challenging, however, when you try to set up activity centers in a community-based program

with no dedicated classroom & irregular attendance patterns.


Miriamb3's picture
One hundred

Thanks, Patsy, for posting the link  to your article on what was learned from the kindergarten classes. My favorite is your number 7:

"Explain WHY you are doing what you are doing in the classroom. Leave no mysteries in the classroom; regard your learners as partners in the process and let them in on your thinking."

If there was only one piece of advice for all teachers, for me that would be it. Learners need to be partners in the process. Why you are practicing the content, structure, vocabulary, etc., is not a secret for you alone.  If you can't explain to them why you are doing an activity, maybe you need to rethink the activity. Do you know why you are doing something? Can you explain how this activity will help them achieve their goals for the workplace, community, family, or  further education? .

I realize, of course, that this harder to do with learners with emergent literacy and limited speaking and listening skills.

Everyone: How do you encourage  emergent reading/writing/listening/speaking learners become partners in the learning process? How do ou share objectives with them? How do you find out what their objectives are?

And I am curious, Patsy, how did the kindergarten teachers encourage their students to become partners in the learning process? How did she learn their objectives and talk about her objectives for their learning?






Anges's picture

Lisa, thanks for sharing these super useful resources! I can't wait to try them with my pre-literate elder ESL students.

Edna Hoover's picture

For more on Paid Bilingual Community Assistants in Adult ESL Literacy

Read "Language Education Policy Profile,"  City of Sheffield

Published by the  Language Policy Division, Strasbourg,  2009










Paul Rogers's picture
One hundred


I just started to look over this document and it is a great resource, but I was unable to find the site with information on paid volunteers that you mentioned.

Could you perhaps copy it and paste the information?


Paul Rogers


voglx010's picture

You can now access the Elder Literacy Initiative's free low-literacy curriculum through OER Commons:

Has anyone else accessed resources for low-literate adults on OER Commons?