My Journey of Teaching Illiterare and Low Literacy Adult ESOL Pre-Entry Learners

My Journey of Teaching Illiterate and Low Literacy Adult ESOL Pre-Entry Learners:

I have been teaching Pre-Entry (Absolute Beginner) adult learners for the last 3 years and have to say it is one of my favourite ESOL levels [1]. This is because you see students make an incredible amount of progress in a short time, and because you are helping students to make their first steps in understanding English.

This year, in my low Pre-Entry class I was presented with a new challenge of teaching students with zero or very low literacy in their first languages as well as in English. These students had never been to school before or had little or no access to education in their home countries. Some of them could read a little Arabic or Farsi, but really struggled understanding the English alphabet, as it is in a completely different script. I also taught a student from Guinea whose first language had no written form and was only spoken.

This wasn't on my Cert-TESOL course!!

“Where to start?”, “How do I teach literacy?”, “This wasn’t on my Cert-TESOL course!” were some of the first thoughts floating around in my head. Alongside the fact that I only have 6 hours a week to teaching basic reading and writing, along with simple English vocabulary, speaking and listening and basic grammar as well!

Fortunately, I had a few incredible class volunteers and support from my colleagues. I also had a great opportunity to go on a course for ‘Teaching Basic Literacy to ESOL learners’ by English Unlimited [2] which gave me some great ideas and advice and also connected me to other local Pre-Entry/ low literacy ESOL teachers.

One of the first challenges was deciding what to teach and where to start. Do I just start with the alphabet (small and capital letters) and throw in some phonics? Do I teach normal phonics or Jolly Phonics? What about whole word recognition? Do I start by focusing on basic vocabulary or CVC and CCVC words [3]? Or do I concentrate on mainly spoken communication and hope my students pick up reading and writing along the way?

The first thing I needed to do was establish whether my students’ had any literacy and just how much they did have, as even at low Pre-Entry their English levels and skills could vary a lot. Some of my students had good spoken English, but could not read at all; some of them could recognise the English alphabet letters, but not the sounds. Other students could write their names and read simple words from memory, but not distinguish between long and short vowel sounds. There was also the fact that a few students had lived in the UK for several years and others had just been here for a few weeks.

Once I was able to understand my students’ English and literacy abilities (often with the aid of an Arabic or Farsi translator), I was able to focus on helping them with basic communication skills and how to share information about themselves (e.g. my name is… I come from… etc.) For this I made basic question and answer flash cards [4], helped them to write their names and address and showed them how to fill in forms.

A few of my students struggled with knowing how to how a pen and with simple skills like copying and tracing. Therefore, I used a lot of Primary School KS1 materials and tracing websites [5] to help my students develop these skills. I also tried out fun ways of helping my students with letter formation such as using play dough and making letters out of string. It could be argued that this isn’t so appropriate for an adult class, but my students’ loved it and found it more tactile then just copying letters onto paper.

I also started introducing my students to the English alphabet and initial phonics sounds alongside simple English vocabulary. I taught words that would be most appropriate for my students such as ‘P is for Plymouth’, ‘S is for School’, ‘D is for Doctor’ etc. I used a range of picture dictionary flash cards and introduced my students to simple games like hangman [6] and I-spy. I also found that it can be really hard to find adult ESOL appropriate phonics material, as a lot of resources are aimed at children (after all my student’s don’t need to know the ‘i’ is for igloo and ‘j’ is for jelly!). Fortunately, I was able to find some great materials [7] (see footnotes) and adapt them for my learners.  

Once my students had grasped the basics of initial phonic sounds, I was them able to introduce them to CVC words. CVC words (consonant vowel consonant) are 3 letter words in English such as ‘cat’, ‘dog’ and ‘pen’. These proved to be quite challenging for my students, as it involved separating the letters and reading them from left to right (as opposed to right to left in Arabic). Many of my completely illiterate learners struggled with this concept, as they have spent their lives guessing words and relying on the memory of what they have been told. Therefore, this skill of decoding and learning to associate sounds with letters was of great importance[8], as they would struggle to progress without it.

Once my learners had grasped CVC words, we were then able to progress to longer CCVC words (e.g. ‘ship’), CVCC words (e.g. ‘milk’) word blends (e.g. ‘bl’ for black) and short and long vowel sounds. I used a lot of activities from the website which great reading activities and a good syllabus for ESOL students. I used the primary school website Twinkle, which has some good phonics activity packs. I also found some cheap Whiteboard Wipe ABC books, which enabled my students to practise reading and writing at home [9].

As well as learning basic words, I also felt it was really important for my students to not learn words in isolation, but understand how to read words in sentences and in the right context. My students read short stories chorally and individually and learnt to recognise capital letters and punctuation marks. The Basic ESOL Literacy Resource Pack [10] has some great short stories which students can read and so does the new Excellence Gateway ‘New to ESOL’ material [11]. In addition the Teach ABC English website also has some great E-reader story books, which my students love.  

Since lockdown started (March 2020), my class moved online and my students continued learning via Zoom on their mobile phones or tablets. This gave me the opportunity to introduce to my students to more vocabulary and gave them a chance to practise words online via different ESL websites. It also gave them a chance to watch different phonics videos on YouTube and practise reading basic E-reader books. One of the positives about online classes was that it gave my learners knowledge of how they could learn English by themselves (and not just in class for 6 hours). Another positive was that it has enabled them to learn English alongside their children, many of whom joined in the class as well.

Overall, I would say my experience of teaching zero/ low literacy adult ESOL learners has been a lot of fun and really enjoyable. Although, I would say it hasn’t been without its challenges, I would say I have learnt a lot and I really hope my students have too!

If you’d like to know more about teaching zero / low literacy students I’d love to hear from you. Please put a message in the comments box below.

Here are my recommended websites if you are interested in teaching resources:

[1] For information about ESOL Levels see this page
[6] For ESOL students, I would avoid drawing an actual hangman, but use a more appropriate picture like a flower.


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