Teaching basic literacy
by Chloe Hynes
In recent years we have become increasingly more concerned with social practice approaches to ELT (English Language Teaching) pedagogy as opposed to a focus on skills (a bottom up approach encouraged by Skills for Life strategy). In her workshop: ‘Teaching Basic Literacy Skills’, Anne-Margaret Smith (ELT Well) suggested we shouldn’t necessarily favour either of these attitudes but instead combine the top down and bottom up models to form a complimentary teaching and learning experience.
Begin with the spoken word
Anne-Margaret explained that once we become competent in literacy, it’s hard to remember what the difficulties may be. Particularly for learners who are building upon the foundation of another language. These foundations may be solid but they may also be rather rocky, if existent at all. Anyone who has learned a foreign language (or attended the foreign language lesson in a CELTA course) may remember some of these difficulties: A new script, new sounds, discovering patterns, needing to break habits, forgetting, lack of confidence…
It’s ideal if we can begin with the spoken word because “nobody is born with a pen in their hand” but also – and more specifically for our adults – because this will give learners the confidence and empowerment to use language, play with it and make mistakes.
Next, lay the foundations
The social practice point of view suggests we should begin by asking our learners what motivates them and what interactions are most important to them. From here you can build something to work towards. Anne-Margaret suggests asking your learners to bring in a text that they want to be able to read and keep it in their file or book. This then acts as a physical reminder of their goal and something to work towards. It also helps you to make your planning more personalised.
To combine with skills practice: it’s integral we start at the beginning and that means starting with the alphabet. Teach both names and sounds (all of them!) and focus on 1 (or a handful) each lesson, preferably vowels first and progressing to variations a little later e.g. teach f first then later teach the ph blend.
Then, move on
Smith implored that recognition should come before production. This recognition can help with decoding skills. To illustrate, we were tasked with decoding a little Korean!
Flashcards are a staple in the ESOL classroom but Anne-Margaret suggested asking your students to make their own so they can choose words that are most relevant to them and their lives (with some suggestion from yourself, ofcourse!).
At this point the learners may start to notice patterns, but due to the complexity of the English language these patterns and rules are rarely steadfast. In fact, the top 100 most used words are mostly irregular!
Anne-Margaret finished with a particularly interesting activity for teaching context. Using the Jabberworky as a colourful lead in, use nonesense words within a piece of text and invite learners to guess their meaning from reading the rest of the sentence (or paragraph). Most importantly – follow up by asking questions so they can share why they came to their conclusions.
- In your first lesson explore what learners are comfortable with: different pens, pencils and paper (or whiteboards). Bear in mind that some learners may have never held a pen before or have negative associations attached to writing materials from school experiences.
- Be considerate of fonts used in printed materials. Some letters look different in font form than written which can cause confusion eg. many fonts use the hooded ‘a’ and circular ‘g’. A Sans Serif font is always recommended as the rounded letters are easier to read for many learners. Sassoon, Tahoma and Century Gothic are good options.
- Some languages are pictorial, communicating through concepts and ideas which ‘build’ visually rather than individual written words e.g. Chinese.
- Don’t make assumptions on prior knowledge of script. Not every language which uses the Roman alphabet uses all the letters we use in English. Additionally – some languages use more letters than the 26 letters used in English!
Anne-Margaret’s workshops are always an absolute pleasure to attend. She does so much more for inclusion, SpLD support and ELT via her company, ELTWell. For more information on all the work ELTWell does go to: http://eltwell.com/
ELT Acronyms FYI (For Your Information):
ELT – English Language Teaching
ESOL – English for Speakers of Other Languages
EAL – English as an Additional Language
EfL – English as a Foreign Language
EAP – English for Academic Purposes.