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Adult ESOL Learners with Emerging Literacy. Robin Lovrien Schwarz, M. Sp.Ed: LD; Ph.D. Consultant in Adult ESOL and Learning Difficulties. Introduction .

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adult esol learners with emerging literacy

Adult ESOL Learners with Emerging Literacy

Robin Lovrien Schwarz,

M. Sp.Ed: LD; Ph.D.

Consultant in Adult ESOL

and Learning Difficulties


Learners with little or no literacy and who are attempting to gain literacy in a new language present a special challenge to teachers.

In this webinar, you will learnwhat research tells us

  • About adults who have never been to school
  • How acquiring literacy changes the brain
  • What this all means in thinking about how to teach these learners to read.
who are these learners
Who are These Learners?

Persons with NO prior formal education in ANY language

They are NOT persons

  • Who are literate in a non-Roman alphabet (e.g. Thai, Chinese, Arabic)
  • With limited or interrupted education in another language
  • Who went to school but did not succeed in becoming literate
they are similar to literate learners in many ways
They are Similar to Literate Learners in Many Ways:
        • From many different culture and language backgrounds
        • All ages --young adult to elderly
        • May already be bi/multilingual
  • Survivors/strong/lots of life experiences
  • Often successful workers/community members/parents
  • Have similar goals-- learn English to integrate better, keep or get better jobs, education
differences are significant
Differences are Significant

“Learning to read and write is a revolution in the brain.”

Castro-Caldas & Reis, 2003

when we learn a writing system
When We Learn a Writing System….

We learn…

  • Visual images of letters
  • Visual sequences of letters and words
  • To recognize individual sounds in words
  • To associate letters with sounds, words with pictures
  • About grouping, finding similarities (e.g. all things that begin with the letter….)
  • To think of words as “things” that can be manipulated for more meaning
  • To use both sides of the brain to understand
  • And generally to organize incoming information
literacy organizes the brain
Literacy Organizes the Brain:
  • “…Schooling and in particular the knowledge of orthography introduces in the brain new strategies for information processing…”(Castro-Caldas & Reis, 2003)
  • “…Learning to read and write during childhood influences the functional organization of the adult human brain.”(Castro-Caldas, Petersson, Reis, Stone-Elander & Ingvar,1998)
  • “…Brains of illiterate subjects show patterns of activation that are different from those of literate subjects, thus reflecting that environmental conditions can influence brain organization.” (Ostroski-Solis, Garcia & Perez, 2004)
in other words
In Other Words…

According to researchers, the brain learns not only the elements of the written system…

but it also learns to organize incoming information according to the writing system being learned: For example, readers of English learn to scan visual fields from upper left corner; readers of Arabic scan visual fields from upper right.

Information is no longer random in the brain

adult non literates have not developed most school skills
Adult Non-literates Have Not Developed Most School Skills
  • Awareness of individual sounds in words; a sense of language associated with print
  • Visual processing and discrimination skills (e.g. seeing what is important in pictures, seeing differences in letters and words)
  • Fine motor skills (for holding writing utensils, writing on lines, in boxes,)
  • Thinking and processing skills which are learned in school
school is difficult
School is Difficult

Some observed behaviors in non/low literate learners:

  • Not knowing how to hold a book
  • Difficulty finding where to look on a page
  • Confusion about seeing patterns in workbooks, spelling; not understanding that pages are in sequence
  • Slowness or difficulty in writing, copying
  • Extreme difficulty in retaining information
    • Alphabet/sounds of letters
    • Names of things--colors, body parts,
  • Slowness or difficulty in generalizing/applying learning
and then there is adult learning language learning
And Then There is Adult Learning/ Language Learning….
  • Neuroscience tells us clearly:
    • Adult brain processes more slowly
    • Adult brain has much harder time perceiving and processing new speech sounds: Language acquisition is often very slow and difficult for adults.
    • Adults attempting literacy in a new language must also contend with new sounds, unfamiliar vocabulary, etc.
another language complication
Another Language Complication

Adult NL/LLs:

No concept of grammar, organization of language

  • No language of language (how to talk about parts, elements of language)
  • No knowledge of terms for anything ABOUT language (grammar terms, writing conventions)
  • If L1 is unwritten, these terms do not even exist in those languages
think about how ll learners are usually taught
Think About How LL Learners are Usually Taught…..
  • Alphabet--often both cases at once (about 44 different symbols if using print)
  • Pictures, drawings
  • Copying letters, writing personal information
    • Using lines
    • Using specific spaces on paper
  • Oral skills ( new words, speech sounds)
  • Concept of correctness of language, spelling
  • Literacy, language terms: Capitals, punctuation, grammar terms etc.
yet we know that
Yet We Know That….
  • A non-literate person’s brain is not ready for all of that…..
  • So where to start??


we are not refreshing or extending skills
We Are NOT Refreshing or Extending Skills!
  • Must start at very beginning in terms of pre-literacy skills
  • Do it in a way that honors adults
  • No rushing or skipping over things
  • Older brain can learn BUT difficult to create new neural pathways
  • No benchmarks for rate of learning--individual progress is measured
think about how children learn to read and write
Think about How Children Learn to Read and Write:
  • Spend a long time learning, using, playing with language
    • Songs, rhymes, games, talking to family & peers
  • Learn to interpret pictures from young age
  • Learn early to identify and associate individual sounds with letters (alphabet books)
  • Many activities to build fine motor skills so can hold, manipulate pencils, pens, markers
children learning to read english
Children Learning to Read English…
  • Do not begin focusing on middle and final sounds until pre-school or kindergarten
  • Read and write ONLY words they know well
  • Use many media to learn letters, sequences, visual discrimination: clay, wooden alphabets, paint, sand for tactile input to learn letters
multiple ways of learning better learning
Multiple Ways of Learning= Better Learning
  • Try this: Have someone “write” an alphabet letter on your back without telling you what it is.
  • Can you identify it??
  • This is because you have more than visual memory of letters--tactile, big muscle, kinesthetic memory,too
  • Your learners need this input, too!!
four important areas to address
Four Important Areas to Address:
oral skills

Keep it REAL:

REAL Items in THEIR environment

Experiences (visit a grocery store, a health center, a clothing store, a pharmacy)

Situations: THEIR jobs, transportation,

People: family (REAL family!!) classmates, teachers, members of their community

Build receptive skills: Total Physical Response (TPR)

visual skills
Visual Skills:
  • Use colored photographs (use the internet for these!! (like previous slide!))
  • Take pictures of people, places learners know
  • Avoid using pictures that are NOT about them or people, places they can identify
  • Play visual bingo: students place markers on items named in a picture
  • Match pictures to real items, then to drawings of same item to help understand drawings,pictures
  • Introduce letters by just finding one that is different in size, then different letter --LOTS
fine motor skills
Fine Motor Skills
  • Need to strengthen muscles in hand to hold and manipulate writing utensils
    • Start with “fat” chalk, markers, pencils, pencil grips
    • Use newsprint and encourage large motor movements--big circles, parallel lines, etc.
    • Use kindergarten lined paper--BIG lines to begin copying one or two letters at a time.
    • Have learners copy MANY times until more automatic; back up to review every day before adding new (They won’t be bored…..)
    • Use children’s activity books: mazes, follow-the-dot etc. to build strength and skill
auditory discrimination skills
Auditory Discrimination Skills
  • Start with hearing “same” or “different” when listening to words --very easy, gradually harder (first letter different)
  • Have learners count words in EVERYTHING you say to them, every response they must say to you ---count on fingers
  • Speak SLOWLY!! Enunciate!!
  • Stress phonological skills: first sounds, syllables (of words they are learning); final sounds, rhyme (be CAREFUL of term)
auditory discrimination in grammar
Auditory Discrimination in Grammar
  • Do not teach grammar directly (remember, they have NO idea what grammar IS as a language concept--We do not study it until we can speak, read and write the language….)
  • Instead, focus on the minimal-pair aspect of grammar: hearing the small difference that changes meaning: read/reads; his/he’s; man/men; eat/ate; talk/talked
    • Do same/different until they can do it WELL--will increase their comprehension enormously, and production will be more accurate.
always move from concrete to abstract
Always Move from Concrete to Abstract:
  • Use objects to teach first sound concept;
  • Then use objects to teach concept of “middle” and “final” sounds:

Use three objects students know

Line them up. Indicate the “beginning” (left end)

Then show beginning, middle final, using objects

Ask students to change them around :Put cup in the middle; put pencil at the end.

Keep directions simple, consistent.

Switch to alphabet letters when the concept seems clear.

some more tips
Some More Tips:
  • Very gradually have students build up sight word knowledge:
    • Survival words, family names, words they see in their environment (Street names, name of the school, names of stores)
    • These are learned like pictures. Students learn to pronounce by listening to you, NOT by sounding out.
    • As motor skills develop, they can add to learning by copying these words.
more on sight words
More on Sight Words
  • Sight words are IN ADDITION TO all the other skills they are learning.
  • As they gain mastery of beginning sounds, sight words can be sorted that way;
  • Sight words can be part of the auditory discrimination practice--same/different
  • Help student make visual record of sight words learned: stickers, bar graph (concept, not whole graph), words on a ring, etc.
here s an idea
Here’s an Idea:
  • Non-literate persons are mostly unaware of print in their environment. As your learners master some sight words in the classroom, create a scavenger hunt for them outside of the classroom:

Make sure you have words that are easily found: Exit, Men, Women, Stop, Street, One Way, Hours, etc.

Students have words on a list and cross them off or put a sticker next to each one they find outside the classroom.

Be sure to teach them how to do this. Do it in the classroom with them, and then outside the classroom with them until they catch on.

acquiring skills is not boring
Acquiring Skills is NOT Boring!
  • Don’t be afraid to have learners practice skills in many ways!
    • For example: sort pictures by beginning sound (and learn the items in the pictures); play bingo with beginning sounds/pictures; make collages of pictures beginning with one sound
  • They will be motivated by their improvement and by increasing understanding of what they are doing.
  • All these activities involve school skills,too
moving into real reading
Moving into “Real” Reading
  • Without automaticity in these basic skills, reading and writing will remain difficult!!
  • Use sight words to make simple sentences.
  • Keep reading highly personal, relevant, concrete until you sense that the concept that reading conveys a message is being understood.
  • Calling words is NOT reading!!
  • Sounding out words is NOT reading!!
  • Using text to get information IS reading.
thank you
Thank you!
  • This has been a quick overview of a VERY complex issue.
  • I hope you have gotten enough information to know that you need to
    • Start at the VERY beginning
    • Move slowly
    • Address all learning channels
    • Enjoy watching adults begin to move into literacy!!
bibliography resources

Building Phonological Awareness

(These are not specifically for non/preliterate adult ESOL, but have excellent ideas--even pictures, to show how phonological skill building is done.--Just avoid using ideas needing TEXT.)

  • Tolman, C. (2005). "Working Smarter, Not Harder: What Teachers of Reading Need to Know and Be Able to Teach." Perspectives31(4): 15-23.
  • Edelen-Smith, P. (1997). "How Now Brown Cow: Phoneme Awareness Activities for Collaborative Classrooms." Intervention in School and Clinic33(2): 103-111.
resources cont
Resources, Cont.
  • Adult English Language Learners with Limited Literacy. Martha Bigelow and Robin Lovrien Schwarz.
  • Reading and Adult English Language Learners: The Role of the First Language:

  • Teaching Low Level Adult ESL Learners: la/esl_resources/digests/HOLT.html

  • What Non Readers or Beginning Readers Need to Know:

resources cont1
Resources, cont.
  • American Handwriting Slow and Easy, Janette Haynes (out of print--locate at
  • Making It Real: Teaching Pre-Literate Adult Refugee Students, Croyden, Treat & Bell--Tacoma Community House Training Project