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Online Course: Teaching Adult ELLs who are Emergent Readers

Use this discussion thread to post your response to the question below from the ELL-U online course, Teaching Adult ELLs who are Emergent Readers. Please share your comments and feedback on the course.

  • Print literacy can be very abstract to adult English learners new to school.  What are some teaching techniques that you have used to contextualize basic skills, make them less abstract and have meaning to the students?  What stories can you tell that show they work?


Dr. Robin's picture
One hundred

Hi--regarding techniques that can help the non- literate contextualize basic skills: A couple techniques I have tried and others, too, have worked pretty well.

One, learned from a study done in Tasmania published in one of the early proceedings booklets of LESLLA, involves using pictures of real places and real people in the community.  A teacher in Lewiston, Maine uses this approach with her non-literate Somali and Ethiopian students.  She takes pictures of buildings and other elements of the local neighborhood and also of people the students know,  and blows up the pictures and then laminates them.  Then she affixes little magnets to the back ( two-sided magnetic tape works wonderfully) and uses the pictures for basic vocabulary building, question asking and answering etc.  Among many activities, she employs the famous "fly swatter game" where students vie to hit the named picture first with a fly swatter.  This teacher has a large collection of these pictures, and once students are able to readily name and do things with the pictures (i.e. answer questions, make simple oral sentences) then she begins basic phonics/ phonological awareness, asking them to recognize two that start with the same sound, or beginning to tap out syllables.   

Though I firmly advocate for holding off on phonics and phonemic awareness with these students for quite a while, when it IS time to do so, the following technique has helped a lot.  Teachers often struggle with helping students understand the very abstract concepts of "beginning" " middle" and "final" sounds in words.   It is really useful to begin that process using concrete objects-- a cup, a pen, a book--they must be things whose names the students know well.  Students must face the objects all from the same side so the objects can be described left to right.   First students are asked to name the objects.  Then the teachers says "the cup is at the beginning.  The pen is in the middle.  The book is at the end."  Then the teacher begins asking students to name the object in a given position: What is at the beginning?  What is at the end? (some prefer to say What is the final object?-- it is important, however, to be consistent!)  Then the teacher moves an object-- the pen to the left end-- and asks, Now what is at the beginning?  What is in the middle?  Where is the pen (at the beginning) Where is the cup? ( in the middle) .  etc.   Once all students can name those positions and objects, then the teacher has a student go up and manipulate the object:  Move the pen to the end.  Where is the pen ?  ("at the end")  and so on.   Then that student can begin to ask the questions of classmates, and can direct a classmate to move the objects, too.

This concept could be reviewed using the pictures from the activity described earlier, and students can name the positions of three pictures stuck on the white board. 

When all can do that readily, and it has been reviewed a few times, the same process can happen with nice, easy to hold 3-D letters of the alphabet-- with no word outcome expected yet.   Naming letters and their position in the line is the object.   Then students and/or teacher can make three letter words that they know--cup, pen,  box,  bag, hat, -- and put the letters in the correct position.  (These should be concrete words whose spelling can be mastered. ) 

Teachers report that this approach works very well in helping these learners make that all important leap to the concept of order of phonemes. 

Robin Lovrien (Schwarz)

Milbridge, ME