Teaching ESL Literacy

Many ESL teachers assume that the students they will be working with, though they may be low-level in English, will be literate in their first language. In many teaching situations this is not always the case.

What is ESL Literacy?

Students in ESL literacy classes are not functionally literate in their first language. This means they are not able to read or write in their first language. This poses challenges for the teachers, as they cannot assume that students are familiar with the conventions of texts or classrooms. One teacher, for example, handed out binders to her ESL literacy students, as she did with all her classes, and was unprepared for the fact that several of the students had no idea how to use a binder. While this is a small example, it does highlight how easy it is to assume things about our students’ experience.

Many students have experienced disruption in their educations as the result of political unrest in their countries, or because of economic hardship. Some students may have spent years in refugee camps. Others might have had learning challenges in their first language that were never addressed.

Whatever the reason, there are many things teachers can do to help their ESL literacy students learn English literacy skills effectively.

Tips for Teaching ESL Literacy

Get to know your students

Find out about your students and their lives. What circumstances are they in? Do they have family? Are they working? Knowing about your students’ lives can help you choose and develop appropriate and meaningful materials for use in your classroom.

It’s also important to try to discover your students’ strengths: what are they good at? What do they enjoy? What roles do they play in their communities? Adult learners come to the classroom with a wealth of world experience that they can bring to their learning.

Create a safe learning environment

It is important for all students to have a safe and supportive learning environment, but this can take on additional importance when working with some ESL literacy students. Students who have experienced trauma (during war, for example) require understanding and a flexible teacher who is alert to signs that a particular topic, teaching method or classroom situation may be triggering an unexpected reaction in a student.

Minimize the cognitive load

  • Don’t introduce too much new material at once.
  • Let students know what they are going to be doing class so that they are not wasting mental energy trying to figure out how the lesson pieces fit together.
  • Provide visual support to help students remember new information.
  • Review and recycle material regularly.
  • It can help to work with theme-based units to help create contexts for new language.

Connect to the real world

Use opportunities to connect classroom activities to the world outside the classroom. Use forms and information that you find in government offices, school notice boards, shopping flyers… Make sure that what students are learning in the classroom is directly applicable to their needs outside the classroom.

Celebrate success

Help students see the progress they are making, and find opportunities for sharing that success with the  class and other students. Publish student work to create reading materials for other students, or hold a regular achievement day in class to share student successes.

Take an accredited TESOL course online and learn to create professional lesson plans.

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